Which Butterfly? Looking Ahead on Your Paths

This got long, so settle in...

If you're going to do magic, practicing some kind of divination is important for getting good results. Divination isn't a simple topic. There are many techniques and many different things it can be used for. So, let's take a step back and think about what divination is and how it works.

I need to get me one of these signs

First of all, and just as an arbitrary distinction that I've long used, the difference between divination and augury:

Divination is the act of tapping into occult (hidden) currents in order to discover information that you can't access through normal channels. It's an active practice.

Augury is the reading of omens -- signs that the universe sends in order to provide you with additional data you can use. It involves awareness and receptivity.

I don't want to diminish the importance of augury. Being able to read the subtle signs and extract useful information is an extremely valuable life skill. And it's irrelevant whether the source is "supernatural" or not. In truth, we have an amazing ability to record and synthesize tons of subtle data, in real-time, that never hits our conscious awareness. So when the elevator opens and you see that guy standing there, listen to the voice that says "don't get in the little metal box!" Whether it's a message from your spirit guide or your subconscious noticing his half-hidden prison tattoos could not be more irrelevant.

Our modern world has done a spectacular job of blunting our senses, compared to our survival-minded ancestors. But our instincts are still there, operating mostly outside our awareness. For more details, I recommend Blink and (particularly) The Gift of Fear.

But back to divination. Unlike reading the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) signs that the universe shows you, divination is an active practice. Something that you set out to do.

In the past, divination was more strictly considered 'communing with the divine' -- it's right there in the name. But just as the demons and spirits of magic now have to share the stage with ideas about probability distortions and quantum entanglement, divination has also expanded beyond just talking with god. Divination is what pierces the curtain between onstage knowledge and backstage knowledge -- and it's useful in both domains.

Psychology -- the most mundane, in terms of requiring belief in anything past the scientific-skeptical worldview that our culture seems to exclusively embrace. Basically, figuring out what's going on in your own subconscious. This can actually be really useful, considering that a) we don't do a very good job of tapping into our own instincts, b) our conscious drives are often in complete conflict with our subconscious desires (AKA why your love spells never work), and c) our own emotional and mental states are frequently surprisingly opaque. You won't find out anything that's not already in your own brain of course.

Data Gathering -- getting information about the present or the past. This includes lots of mind-reading and remote-viewing kinds of data: stuff you technically can't know through the normal channels but that divination can help you glimpse. Still, the answers you get will be technically knowable in the present time. The information must be accessible, even if it's not accessible to you through normal channels. I have to say that in a world where ground truth has become the most occult data of all, I don't think this kind of divination gets enough traction. Figuring out what's really going on can be extremely useful.

Spirit communication -- putting the "divine" back in divination. Messages from the dead, advice from your spirits, dictates from your gods. A lot of us have a really hard time with direct communication with the folks who live backstage and divination is one way to help with that process. All the usual advice and cautions still apply of course (entities are not always what they appear, just because someone's dead doesn't mean they're not a asshole, and your Catholic grandma may not actually appreciate your pagan ways). They can tell you stuff that you don't know and can also tell you stuff that isn't technically knowable (at least not onstage). They can make stuff happen by telling you (if your grandma says she wants you to be settled already, expect to meet a nice Catholic boy in short order).

Fortunetelling -- telling the future. This is the point where we pierce the curtain and get a peek backstage. There are basically two variants: What's gonna happen? (which is classic fortunetelling) and, more interestingly, what can I do now to make something happen? (probability manipulation). The second is where we get into the meat of using divination for magic. Because if you want to affect probabilities, you need to know where and how best to do that.

My focus here is going to be on the second kind of fortunetelling: what can I do now to make something different happen in the future? After all, what's going to happen to me is way less useful and interesting than what I can change about what's going to happen. This is odds prediction and the best way of thinking about it is, in my opinion, Everett's many worlds interpretation (MWI) of the multiverse hypothesis.

As an aside: there's a risk here of misusing physics in order to explain magical phenomenon and I admit to being no expert in physics. However I do think there's an argument to be made that all phenomena must be explainable, we simply haven't found a way of explaining it yet. Much quantum phenomena is explicitly magical by the classical definition... perhaps some effects do scale, but only under certain currently unknown conditions. And the idea of multiple universes could be leveraged to explain all kinds of "mysical" stuff from ghost sightings to precognition to spirits. But to be clear here, I don't claim that fortunetelling is explained by the Everett interpretation -- I do however think that concept is an extremely useful tool for thinking about and practicing divination. And usefulness is my primary metric here.

So, imagine there are infinite multiple realities moving through time, and every probability is another branch to a new universe. Your decisions, your actions, even random occurrences dictate the universe you end up in. Or as Wikipedia puts it: "one aspect of quantum mechanics is that certain observations cannot be predicted absolutely. Instead, there is a range of possible observations, each with a different probability. According to the MWI, each of these possible observations corresponds to a different universe."

The interesting thing about this model is that it means that you can only find out things that are knowable by your future selves. That is, you can get data from the future, but only the futures you are most likely to end up in at the point at which you are reading. Do something different and you end up in a whole different universe. So you know how the further away you get in time, the less accurate the weather forecast? Same thing, only it's not just distance in time, but distance in universe. The universe where I get up tomorrow and go to work may be quite accessible (and probably not that interesting). The universe where I get up and find a bag of gold on my way to work (it could happen) not so much.
From Superflux -- a place I think I want to go work

When you ask "what's going to happen to me in the future?" you're asking about the most probable future. When you ask "what can I do to get to the future I want?" -- well, that's where things get really interesting.

Ever read The Dead Zone*? The premise is that this guy can tell the future through touch. Toward the end of the book, he shakes an aspiring politician's hand and realizes that this man will end up as president and will start a nuclear war. He decides to assassinate the man... but the assassination fails and our main character is fatally shot. Still, as he is dying, he manages to touch the politician again and realizes that somehow everything has changed. In fact, during the assassination attempt, the politician uses a young boy as a human shield, and a bystander gets photos of the cowardly act. This ruins the guy's political career and he never goes on to destroy civilization.
* Published in 1979, this book has exceeded the spoiler alert statute of limitations.

Fictional segue aside, this is what really interests me. Because if you want a hurricane, you have to figure out what butterfly to startle. If you want to use magic to shift the odds, you need to know exactly what to focus on for maximum impact for minimal effort. And this ties into Taleb's theories on the Black Swan as well. Normally unpredictable events with out-sized impacts can happen (and are indeed prone to happening in our "extremistan" society). Therefore trying to predict them in order to:
  1. avoid them (it's only a Black Swan if you don't see it coming) 
  2. be anti-fragile toward them, or 
  3. take advantage of them (in the case of positive Black Swans) 
is just a good survival tactic.

Comments

  1. "Fictional segue aside, this is what really interests me. Because if you want a hurricane, you have to figure out what butterfly to startle."

    Brilliant line, totally accurate. Also, "what can I do to get the future that I want?" Looking at divination in that way allows you to think about short- and intermediate-term goals in a quite different way. You're divining objectives to achieve, on your way toward long-term goals.

    Elegant... putting this into practice immediately.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks! I'd love to hear more on how it works for you. I've been working on a series of layouts (tarot is my thing) based on these ideas. Decision-point trees, barbell strategies, etc.

    ReplyDelete

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