Future Imperfect

I took additional science classes at school. I worked in law and IT for many years. I have spent many years seeking to be more logical. However I also sometimes seek out omens.

Some supporters of logic and reason greet omens with derision, suggesting that relying on divination to guide behaviour is a sign of mental and ethical weakness; a need to place responsibility in the hands of a non-existent higher power rather than accept responsibility for our actions. Others advance the less extreme view that diviners choose the meaning of the symbols to fit their own unconscious biases.

The picking of meaning seems a reasonable theory. Consider these events from my day: occasionally after walking to the supermarket I stop for coffee before I walk home; this morning I passed a group of workmen repointing a wall, with a line of coffee mugs balanced along the top and a woman walking with an insulated mug of coffee. There are many mugs of coffee, so I could think that it was an omen that I should stop for coffee today; or I could view the workmen as working not drinking and the woman as walking not standing and think it was an omen to not stop my tasks to have coffee. Which I choose to believe could as easily be based more on excusing what I want to do than an actual message.

Cup of Coffee
I see a cup of coffee in your future… or maybe tea.
Johanna MacDonaldCC BY NC 2.0)

Initially this dilemma seems susceptible to setting the meanings before we encounter the event. Instead of looking at the coffee mugs and deciding, I could decide to stop for coffee if the first person I saw when leaving the supermarket was wearing a skirt. However, while this does prevent me from interpreting the omen based on my desires, the process of choosing an omen is still mine: I might not consciously have been counting people with skirts but unconsciously I am aware of who I have passed already, and of past trips, when I pick; for example, that it is a warm day, that women are more likely to be shopping mid-morning than men. The pre-chosen omen would seem to be equally open to excusing self-interest.

It is in fact this potential openness to unconscious bias that I think makes divination a useful tool even for those seeking to be entirely rational:

  • Conciousness is overrated: studies have shown we overestimate some risks and underestimate others, and cannot accurately judge how much a future benefit will feel compared to an immediate benefit, so a method that uses both the conscious and unconscious brain might be more likely to produce a strong answer than our attempt to only use rational criteria.
  • Ease of use: it is possible to logically determine and analyse all the factors in a decision, but it can be time-consuming. If there is no immediately clear answer to the question of whether or not to have coffee now then it is better to use a method that provides an answer quickly than spend any time saved not having the coffee now on determining it is 53/47 in favour of not having the coffee.
  • Knowing the answer and feeling the answer are different: The inner critic often decries certain choices not because they are a bad choice but because they are not perfect in all aspects when measured against conflicting standards of perfection, so the pretence of not making the decision ourselves involves less mental trauma than dealing with the feelings of guilt.

Opponents of my thesis might point out that using divination distracts from seeking to overcome these obstacles. However, as the continued teaching of Newtonian Physics in schools demonstrates, the use of a flawed method to obtain a reasonable answer can be better than trying to use a more accurate model from the beginning.

Another benefit of omens is of course creativity: I was inspired to write this post when I read Eileen Myles’ William Dawes (which ends with “now in history it’s true/is not a fake.”) on the same day I was involved in a discussion about whether an inspirational story was still a useful tool if it had not actually happened: the universe wanted me to write this post.

But you knew I was going to say all of that.

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