And If the Future Is Set in Stone?

“The future isn’t set in stone. The cards provide a projection for the way you’re heading right now, but your actions can change the outcome.” I don’t think I’ve ever run across an experienced Tarot reader (in the real world or online) who didn’t agree with the above statement or some variation thereof. But personally, I’m not so sure about it.

Gird up your loins, boys and girls. We’re about to dig into one of the most contentious philosophical debates ever, and I’m going to take the less popular stance.

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From All About Eve, in case you didn’t recognize the line.

The question of whether the future is predetermined touches on a philosophical stance known as determinism. A lot of people think of determinism as a recent invention of the damned physicists and atheists (damn them all), but it’s an old, old view, going back to pre-Socratic thinkers.* Determinism, in brief, is the belief that every event is determined by a prior (often mechanical) cause. The state of the world as it is now follows necessarily from the previous state of the world, and things could not have been any different than they are in reality. In non-academic circles, you will hear this talked about as the conflict between fate and free will.

Now, unsurprisingly, people don’t like determinism. If I make a terrible, terrible mistake, I like to believe that I could have acted differently. I like to think I had a choice in the way things turn out. Turning towards the future, I like to believe that the things I think and do will somehow affect the shape of things to come, and that I am in control of my own life. Determinism (at least at first glance) doesn’t allow this. (It also has some really messy implications as far as ethics and personal liability go.)

In Tarot, it makes perfect sense that people so consistently reject determinism. Not only is it an unappealing and uninspiring philosophy, it is also terrible for business. If you draw the Five of Cups as an outcome card in a relationship reading, you don’t want to have to tell someone that they’ll end up bitter and alone and there’s nothing they can do about it. A customer who hears that will likely not return for future readings.

But just because something is bad for business doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The question of whether the future is determined is unanswerable, but everyone has their own personal (and nigh unchangeable) intuitions about it. For myself, I’m inclined to say that it is.

I’ve never been good at playing counterfactual games along the lines of “What would my life be like if I hadn’t accepted such-and-such job?” or “How would the world look today if Germany had won the First World War?” The big reason for that is that I have a lot of difficulty conceiving of any way that I wouldn’t have accepted such-and-such job, or that Germany wouldn’t have lost the war. In order for me not to have accepted the job, I would have needed to have a better job offer on the table at the time;in order for me to have a better job offer on the table, I would need to have applied for that other job; in order to have applied for that job, I would have needed to meet the hiring manager at a cocktail party in the Bahamas; and in order to meet the hiring manager at a cocktail party in the Bahamas… You get the idea.

The choices that I made in the past, and the events that happened to me, were all caused by the things that came before them. In order for any one of those choices or events to have been different, its causes would have to have been different, but for the causes to differ, the causes’ causes would have to have been different. And so on and so forth, all the way back to the beginning of time. I can’t realistically imagine a world in which Germany won the First World War unless the entire universe was fundamentally different from the moment of the Big Bang. I don’t have the mental flexibility to imagine a possible world that’s exactly the same as this one up to a certain point in time, and that then deviates.

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Great movie franchise, but totally unrealistic picture of our relationship to the future.

Think of it another way: The decisions I made in the past were the only decisions I could possibly have made, based on the information available to me at the time. In retrospect, having seen how terribly those decisions turned out (of course I’d like to buy  a Sham-Wow, strange man on the television!), I may wish that I had made another decision. But even if I rewind time somehow and go back to the point where I made that ill-advised toll-free call, the me of the past will still end up making the same decision, because he/I still has/have exactly the same information at his/my disposal. I can replay that moment over and over and over again, but unless something in the buildup to it changes (e.g. the BBC releases a special report on what a waste of money the Sham-Wow is), the outcome is always, inevitably, the same.

The same is true when we talk about the future. I may not know what’s going to happen, but with the state of the world as it is, there is only one possible course that the future can take. Future me will look back at the decisions that I make right now (in my present and his past) and will replay them the same way that I currently replay my past decision to buy the Sham-Wow; but just as my infomercial purchase could not have happened any other way without the circumstances in which I was living being fundamentally different, the future outcome of my current decisions cannot be any other way.

This is a tricksome concept, and I’m probably not expressing it very clearly. And I know even as I write it that many readers will rebel against it. Proposing determinism to Tarot readers is like advocating for the legality of same-sex marriage at an NRA convention.***

If I were to try to sum it up neatly: The relationship between the present and the future is the same as the relationship between the past and the present. There is no way that the past could have led to something other than the present unless the past were different, and there is no way the past could have been different without the anterior past also being different, creating an infinite regress of changes in our universe all the way back to the moment of creation.**** Thus, I personally am inclined to conclude that the future is as clearly determined as is the present. You may now throw your stones at me.

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Yadda yadda disclaimer yadda I’ll take this picture down if someone complains about copyright.

The reason that people get so upset about the idea of determinism is that it makes us feel like we have no agency in our lives. The future is determined! There’s nothing we can do to change it! Abandon all hope–oh, wait, except that it’s already predetermined whether or not you’ll have hope, so you don’t even get to decide whether to abandon it. (Tricky, eh?)

But here’s the thing, and I say this with the utmost sincerity: Just because the future is already written does not mean you did not have a hand in its writing. The future is determined, but its determined outcome is the result of decisions that you will make.

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Think about the movies. Take the tragic moment when Humphrey Bogart lets Ingrid Bergman go at the end of Casablanca. What a tear-jerker.

The thing about this story is that the movie is old. And even if you’re watching it for the first time, the ending is already written. It’s predetermined. There’s no possible way that the two of them are going to end up together, now matter how many times you (I) rewatch it and bawl. But the ending is not some doom-and-gloom foretold event that the characters are destined to undergo regardless of how they act or what they feel. Rather, the ending is the inevitable outcome of their actions and the way they respond to the world around them. The movie cannot end any other way than it does, but the ending is very much dependent on the characters. It is the result of who they are; it’s not something imposed on them from the outside.

The same is true of our future. Whatever is coming our way, it’s (in my estimation) inevitable, but it’s not the machination of capital-F Fate. It comes from us.

Now, there’s a second major problem with determinism when we talk about Tarot (he says as he’s already 1600 words into a blog post that was intended to be less than 1000). That is, quite simply, the fact that sometimes Tarot readings are wrong. Sometimes readers (even the best ones) say that X is the most likely outcome, but then when the time rolls around, Y happens instead. If the future is already written and is not subject to change, how can this happen?

My personal answer is that I don’t think Tarot does look into the future. There’s a reason I don’t offer predictive readings; I personally think that even the best Tarot reading can only provide insight into the present, and never into the past or future. (Check out my code of ethics and the How I Use Tarot tag for further thoughts on this.) For Tarot readers who do provide predictive readings, though, unless they have 100% success rates (in which case I would very much like to meet them), their practice will probably be incompatible with a deterministic view of the future.

Talking about determinism is really a futile conversation to have. Everyone has a deep, near-primordial intuition about this issue, and I have never once seen someone change their view. Nevertheless, I thought it would be interesting to add a voice into the mix, from a Tarot reader who is a hardcore determinist. I’d welcome your thoughts in the comments below.

The blog has been inactive for a couple of weeks, I know. I seriously apologize for that. I’m going to try to get back on track with the once-a-week posts, but I’ve been working crazy hours of late and simply haven’t had time to sit down in front of a computer. And then I started working on this post, and it just sort of exploded. Regardless, I’ll try to up the consistency in posts to come. Ciao for now.


*So, incidentally, is materialism–the belief that immaterial things (e.g. minds, spirits, deities) don’t exist. Once again, spiritual types like to chalk this belief up to dogmatic and cant-ridden “scientism”**, but it goes back at least as far as Democritus.

**Footnote within a footnote: as someone who values scientific experimentation as a means of discovering truth about the world, I’m really pissed off when people seek to discredit it by calling it “scientism”, although the term does have its place in certain well-aimed critiques.

***For the love of God, this is a joke. Please don’t take it the wrong way.

****So perhaps not so infinite.

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13 thoughts on “And If the Future Is Set in Stone?

  1. Devil’s advocate, here, as I don’t even believe in higher powers or supernatural prediction, etc. (my position with respect to tarot is pretty similar to yours, from what I’ve gathered), but this is an interesting and often mind-bending subject. Perhaps seeing that negative outcome in tarot pushes a querent into actively taking steps that end up averting that negative outcome. As long as you’re still saying most likely, and not 100% chance, that reading could still be right, regardless of actual outcome. After all, even if a jar has 99 red marbles and 1 blue, you can still randomly pull the blue one out. Hell, one might even say that the negative outcome showing up was more correct than having the real, positive outcome, having been “chosen” (by some deity/the universe/whatever) specifically to cause that effect.

    That said (sorry if I lost the plot somewhere up there), yeah, I don’t personally think tarot predicts things.

    I go back and forth on the determinism issue. I usually end up on that side, but honestly don’t care for the idea of “the future” as generally posited. Of course things are always going to happen the way they end up happening, because… that’s what happened. It’s like a tautology. Talking about the future outside of likelihoods and forecasts and possibilities makes no sense from the perspective of the present, but we just can’t be outside of time in order to talk about it. But that’s just my stance on it.

    Thought-provoking post, as always.

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  2. Oh yes, and “scientism” is one of those words that instantly has me side-eyeing the speaker. Of course I won’t instantly discredit them, but…. It’s like taking literature recommendations from someone who enjoys Dan Brown. They might have read some great stuff, but you just disrespect them that tiny bit. (Partly kidding.)

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      1. Hahaha, I’m glad. I mean, yes, everyone probably has a few things they enjoy that are verging on objectively terrible. I can look at my shelf right now and see some fairly lowbrow stuff. But… of all the authors…. (I have a family member who got me to read two of his books.)

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  3. What a delightful discussion you started. Have you ever read Frank Herbert’s Dune? The core series that he wrote – mostly through the end of God Emperor Dune, it drops of quickly after that – included very heavy ponderings on the metaphysics of precognition. TL/DR, but Frank Herbert says as much in the books that divination doesn’t *predict* the future, but *causes* the future. He asserts that the future is chaos and is totally unwritten, but the moment you divine the future, you immediately lock it into the vision you saw. So in the example you provided of a relationship reading that pulls a deeply unfavorable card, perhaps the relationship was fine but – because you attempted to divine the nature of it – the occult forces pulled into action pushed the relationship into the direction of the unfavorable card. Make sense? It’s not prediction, but causation, and thus is frequently preferable to not use divination unless it can be absolutely avoided. In other words, divination will show a way forward, but it then becomes the only way forward, and there’s not even a guarantee that you’ll like the path given to you. Tread carefully, eh?

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  4. I love this quote: “Just because the future is already written does not mean you did not have a hand in its writing.” I completely agree! A caveat, though: As practical as I want to be, a fanciful part of me sometimes wonders at what would happen if I could change the future or go back and change an element of the past and find out what happens next. But I usually leave that to the realm of fiction; I love reading or watching stories that play with this concept.
    I’ve done a predictive Tarot reading once, for myself, and in retrospect it was more of a list of suggested ideas to think about at those particular points in time. And after the reading, I forgot about it until I revisited my notes on the reading and noticed what bits helped and what didn’t. In terms of its usefulness, I think I much prefer using Tarot as a guiding bit advice for Present Me, not Future Me.

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  5. Determinism doesn’t allow for random chaos, the great leaping-off to tangential creative bliss. That would be pretty dull. It’s a bit like people who say every piece of music has already been written before, or every piece of art has been created before. Dullsville Jack the Lad. Snore-o-vision.

    I think somewhere in the intelligence of the Universe, in the malleability of numbers, in the randomness of discovery, determinism is a child’s toy that was all the rage one Christmas but has twisted out of shape like an old slinky toy.

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    1. Hrm. I think I have to disagree with you here. Yes, it’s true that there’s nothing random in a deterministic universe, but I don’t think that necessarily leads to dullness or a lack of creativity. Creation still happens, it’s just that it must happen where it does. We can still feel that sense of wonder when we’re struck by creative inspiration, even if somehow it was predetermined that we would be struck in such a way; this is particularly true because epistemically, we don’t have access to the determined shape of things (and likely never will). It may be predetermined that inspiration will hit me, but when it does, I still experience it as something new and powerful. Recognizing that it likely wasn’t random doesn’t make that any less the case.

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