Determinism Revisited

A while back, I wrote a post arguing that philosophical determinism is compatible with Tarot reading. You’re welcome to go read the original post yourself, if you haven’t already, but the general gist of the argument was this: I think that a lot of Tarot readers rely too heavily on the idea that “the future is never set in stone”. Readers like to fall back on this idea, so that when a reading comes up bad (Outcome card: Three of Swords), their clients don’t leave feeling completely devastated.

Personally, I don’t truck much with this view. My philosophical stance varies from time to time, but most often, I have a hardcore determinist stance. In short: What is, must be. I think (most of the time) that it’s impossible for the universe to be any other way than it actually is, and moreover, that the future is fixed.

Think of the present as a dot on a line. (Helpful visual aid provided below.) All of the points to its left are the past, and all the points to its right are the future. We mere humans, in our limited mortal perception of the universe, are fixed in a one-directional flow of time. We start on the left, and progress inexorably to the right. We are only capable of perceiving time sequentially.* Because of this imposed order, we tend to think of the past as determined (it’s already happened) and the future as indeterminate (it has yet to take place, and is therefore subject to change).


But just because this is the way we perceive time does not mean that’s the way time actually is. If we try to disentangle ourselves from our subjective perspective on the universe, we can imagine time as the whole number line, seen from an outsider’s perspective the way you can see the entirety of the number line pictured above. In this view, it’s not just that the past has happened and the future hasn’t; rather, all of time has (in effect) already happened, but we only have access to a certain part of it, and we order that part of it into a sequence that our minds can comprehend. Under this view,** the future is just as determined as the past; it’s simply the case that we don’t have access to it so we assume it’s somehow variable. But saying that the future is subject to change just because I don’t know what’s coming is (under this view of time) as silly as saying that yesterday’s news is subject to change just because I didn’t read yesterday’s copy of the New York Times. In more esoteric philosophical terms, epistemic indeterminacy (“I don’t know the future”) is not the same as ontic indeterminacy (“The future is subject to change”).


This is a controversial view, and of course you’re well within your rights to disagree with me. Many people (in both the philosophical and scientific communities) do disagree with me. But until the question of determinism is definitively settled one way or another (and I sincerely doubt that will ever happen), the two views have equal footing, and I think this one is sorely underrepresented in the broader Tarot community.

My goal, with this post as with the previous one, is to show that Tarot reading doesn’t have to be incompatible with philosophical determinism. And of course, the biggest and ugliest problem that arises when anyone expounds a determinist point of view is the question of free will.

I’ll take the image down if there are copyright issues.

If the future is determined, how is free will possible? The easy answer to this (and the one that I, personally, most subscribe to) is that free will is not possible; it’s just a pretty lie we tell ourselves. However–shockingly–most people don’t like that view. So here’s a second, more palatable way to think about the question.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle talks about the question of freedom relative to the praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of one’s actions. His ideas are really interesting (more so than I have room to discuss in this post), but the key one I want to get at here is how he redefines freedom. In our culture, we tend to think that someone does something freely if and only if they could have acted differently. In other words, my choices are free because I deliberated between multiple options and settled on the one I thought was best; in this framework, any situation where I didn’t have an alternative, my actions would not be considered free.

This is a very intuitive understanding of freedom, and I think most people would agree with it. It’s even present in our legal system; there’s a reason that we consider contracts invalid when they’re signed under duress.

Copyright, &c. I don’t pretend to understand this image, but it amuses me.

But Aristotle provides us with a different picture. I’m going to oversimplify his argument (such is the nature of a blog post), but one of the aspects of freedom (“voluntary action”) as Aristotle describes it is that actions are free when they are rationally in accord with virtue.*** In other, REALLY OVERSIMPLIFIED terms, an action is free if it is what a virtuous, right-thinking person would have chosen, regardless of whether that person was presented with other options.

There are some complicated ideas behind this involving Aristotle’s picture of human reason as it intersects with virtue, but the core idea that I want you to get out of this post is that you don’t have to have a choice in order to have free will. Rather, under Aristotle’s picture, you can be considered free if the things you do (even when forced by someone else, or when nasty philosophical determinists claim you had no choice in the matter) are the things you would have done even if you had been presented with the opportunity to behave differently.

Imagine a complicated scenario in which I am somehow coerced into saving another person’s life (at no cost to myself). Under our former, intuitive definition of free will, we’d say that this action isn’t free. But (simplified) Aristotle would probably still say that it is free, because even if I’d been presented with the option of save-or-don’t-save, I still would have saved that life. (Assuming I’m not just a massive dick.)

Let’s now recontextualize Aristotelian freedom in a framework of philosophical determinism. So what if the future is set in stone? So what if everything we’re going to do is already determined? Yes, in one sense, that would mean we’re not free, insofar as we don’t have the option to behave differently than we do (or will do). But in another sense, I think we can still consider ourselves free. Even if presented with choices about the direction of the future (choices that, I’m claiming, don’t really exist), I think most if not all of us would choose the paths we’re already on. After all, we already live in a world with (the illusion of) choice. If it turns out the choices we think we make aren’t actually “real” choices, in that they don’t change the future, that doesn’t change the fact that we would still have made those choices if presented with a genuine set of alternate possibilities. We can still have Aristotelian freedom in a predetermined universe.

This is a tricky concept to understand. Imagine that we’re playing a game where I offer you the choice of Door A or Door B. Unbeknownst to you, the rules of the game are structured in such a way that you will always end up choosing Door A. You don’t have a genuine set of choices available to you, so according to our first definition of free will, you don’t choose freely.

And yet, you have selected Door A while acting under the genuine impression that you have a free choice. Whatever reasoning went into your choice of Door A (even though, ultimately, you were going to pick Door A no matter what), that’s the same reasoning you would have applied if given a real choice between the two doors. If I now put you in a genuine situation, where you are actually able to choose between Door A and Door B, you’ll use the same reasoning that you used when you had the mere illusion of choice, and you’ll end up choosing Door A anyway. Even though you could not have chosen a different door than Door A, it’s the door that you would have chosen if the choice presented to you had been genuine. In this sense, under an Aristotelian vision of freedom, your choice of Door A was still free even though it was determined.

I hope it’s obvious enough how this discussion of freedom and free will connects back to Tarot. This is a rather unusual post for this blog, in that the word “Tarot” is not actually used all that much and I don’t talk about individual cards or the symbols associated therewith, but I think it should be pretty clear why I think this conversation about determinism and freedom is an important one for Tarot readers to have. I am not demanding that everyone become philosophical determinists, or that you all abandon one definition of freedom in favor of another; as I mentioned in my previous post on this subject, a lot of the debate around determinism reduces to unarguable personal intuitions. For those people who find determinism philosophically unacceptable, I doubt that this post has changed anything. But I hope I have succeeded in showing the way a Tarot reader can believe in determinism, can believe in free will, and can still find the exercise of reading Tarot important and valuable without diving off a cliff into the dark seas of nihilism.

*Just imagine how impossible it would be for us to comprehend the universe if our senses didn’t forcibly impose a sequential form of time. All our sensory input would be composed of a set of disconnected fragments with no progression or sense of causation to connect them into a coherent narrative about the world. Human understanding would be nonexistent.

**Philosophers refer to this as a four-dimensionalist view of persistence through time, also called perdurantism. Essentially, the idea is that time is a fourth dimension of space, and that objects are extended through time (and therefore have multiple temporal parts with determinate existence at various points in time) the same way they’re extended through space. I don’t know if physicists have a term for this understanding of time, but you can see it expressed in certain science works, especially in Stephen Hawking’s books A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell.

***Seriously, kids, I’m grossly oversimplifying. Aristotle goes through this whole thing about how voluntary actions are those that “depend on” you, and then there’s a discussion of “countervoluntary” actions that are performed out of ignorance or force. I’m skipping all of that. So keep in mind that his argument is much more complicated than what I’m presenting, and that I’m giving you a filtered version of it that, while not inaccurate, is highlighting the aspects of his thought most in line with what I want to say.

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