Is Tarot natural? Is it supernatural? Where does it fit in the Great Cosmic LEGO Set of our universe?
I ask these questions largely out of an idle sense of curiosity and a childish desire to use a LEGO metaphor on my blog. But I think these questions are worth asking, because the Tarot community–and the hoobedy-hoobedy community more broadly–doesn’t spend nearly enough time pinning down its fundamental ontology. We all throw around vague notions of how we think Tarot works, often with recourse to ill-defined notions of “energy”, “vibrations”, or (Gods have mercy on my soul) “spirit guides”. And while any of these is a perfectly acceptable explanation of how Tarot works, and just as liable to be correct as any other, none of them is (are?) meaningful unless we know what these terms actually mean and where they belong in our inventory of the aforementioned Great Cosmic LEGO Set.
When most people talk about nature (or, if you prefer, Nature), they’re using a romanticized definition of nature as distinct from artifice. They mean the sort of raw, untamed nature that made Nathaniel Hawthorne quake in his boots: thunderstorms and unexplored forests and the terrifying, soundless depths of the ocean.* Nature is meant to be the force of the world as it existed before the Bronze Age, wild and unknowable. This is painted in contrast with artifice, with everything that is a product of human invention. Rivers, we’re told, are natural. Canals are not. Birds are natural. Airplanes are not. Drinking tea made from willow bark is natural. Taking aspirin is not.
And yet, weirdly, both of these categories–the natural and the man-made–are understood to operate according to the same rules. The same natural laws govern canals as do rivers. The same chemical composition is what makes aspirin and willow tea pain relievers. Bernoulli’s principle allows airplanes and eagles to soar in equal measure. We generally accept that everything in the universe follows the same rules; the dividing line between what is natural and what is not seems to be a matter of whether those rules are applied by humans or by the invisible hand of God.** When a river just appears because of snowmelt, gravity, and erosion, it’s considered natural. But when humans create a river (from an understanding of the same forces that led to the formation of the natural one) in order to better irrigate their crops, it’s artificial. Really, that’s the only fundamental difference I’m able to perceive.
Meanwhile, for most people, something like Tarot sits in a third category, set apart from this duality of nature and artifice. Tarot is considered supernatural. People consider that Tarot works (if it works at all) according to some mysterious and magical set of principles, distinct from and even in opposition to the laws that govern the natural world. Occasionally, someone will throw out the line “Science just hasn’t come to understand Tarot yet“, with the understanding that Tarot does fit into the natural universe somehow and that we will one day be able to explain it the same way we explain rivers, birds, and the pain-easing properties of willow bark. But more often, people will say that science cannot explain Tarot, that the divinatory arts are beyond the domain of empirical knowledge.
Now, let’s break these categories down a bit.
For my personal understanding of the term, nature is simply the totality of what exists in the universe. (I considered titling this blog post “On What There Is”, in reference to a famous philosophical work, but then I worried no one would get the reference and that my Tarot blog would come up on Google for people who were looking for something very different from a Tarot blog.) Nature is everything, plain and simple. And that means that the distinction between natural and artificial, as people tend to use it, is meaningless. Canals, airplanes, and aspirin are all natural. So are other things, like, say, vaccines, homosexuality, and nonbinary gender. If a thing exists, it is natural. The only “unnatural” (or “non-natural”) things are things that physically cannot exist, like a round square or a bad film by Christopher Nolan.
Okay, I’m joking about Nolan. But the round square (or a similar geometric impossibility, like a four-sided triangle) is the best example of what would constitute something not-of-nature according to my understanding of the world.
Here, it’s worth pointing out that the term “natural” is severely value-laden. People will say something is natural as evidence that it is good, or that something is unnatural as evidence that it is bad. That’s just silly and incorrect. Even under the nite conventional definition of what constitutes “natural”, lots of bad things are natural. Crop blights, tsunamis, syphillis, women dying in childbirth. And lots of good things are conventionally considered artificial, like the printing press, smoke detectors, baby formula, and vaccines.
A brief aside: Yes, vaccines are good. VACCINATE YOUR CHILDREN. WHY ARE THERE STILL PEOPLE WHO ARE OPPOSED TO A THING THAT CAN PREVENT THOUSANDS OF HUMANS FROM DYING?
My nature-as-everything definition breaks down that false valuation of the natural even further, because literally everything is natural regardless of whether it’s good or bad. Nuclear weapons? Natural. Guns? Polio? Natural. Solar energy? Puppies? Natural.
You get the idea. It’s all natural.
But then the question of the hour: Where does Tarot fit into all of this? The easy answer is that Tarot, like everything else, is natural. After all, that seems to be a definitional truth considering the way I’ve set up my concept of nature.
But to say that Tarot as natural is a shallow claim, and it masks some of the assumptions that underlie how people read Tarot. The cards themselves exist and are therefore a part of nature, yes. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the same can be said of the putative powers of Tarot.
Let’s say I showed you an hourglass and told you it could reverse time. The hourglass itself, being an object that exists in nature, is natural, but that doesn’t mean that backwards-flowing time is natural as well unless the hourglass actually can do what I say it does. Likewise, Tarot cards themselves are part of the natural order, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the divinatory purposes for which we use those cards are also part of nature. The physical cards themselves exist, but divination could still be a load of hooey.
Now, obviously, I am someone who believes in the value of divination. I have a blog about it, after all. But I think that in this conversation about what it means for something to be natural, it’s important for us to note that divination is not necessarily so. If Tarot works, the process by which it works is (by definition) natural, but it’s also entirely possible that Tarot doesn’t work in the first place.
Because this is a Tarot blog, let’s leave that argument to the side and just stipulate that, for the sake of this post, Tarot works. That being the case, the mechanism underlying Tarot must be natural, the same way everything else in the universe is. Nothing is unnatural. Nothing is supernatural.
There are a variety of ways to talk about how Tarot works, and I certainly don’t have the authority to say one is more correct than another. But the ultimate point I’d like to make with this post (aside from VACCINATE YOUR CHILDREN) is that whatever your account is of how Tarot works, it needs to fit in with the rest of your conception of everything-that-is. It needs to be a part of your account of nature. Don’t just write Tarot off as supernatural and unexplainable; that’s lazy thinking. (Personally, I’d argue that saying Tarot relies on as-yet undiscovered scientific principles is also lazy thinking, because it shuts down inquiry just as effectively as the Tarot-is-magic line of thinking. But that’s a conversation for another time.) Let’s work to build an understanding of the universe that includes Tarot as another feature of the natural world, and not as something separate from nature.
I am still without a computer, which is why there was no blog post last week. I have written this entire post on my phone, and although I know it’s in severe need of editing, I will kill someone if I have to type any more on this tiny screen. I apologize for the lack of editing and for any typos or formatting errors. Hopefully, I will have a computer by next week, and all will once again be right with the world.
*Have I ever mentioned I have thalassophobia? It’s not severe, and I will still go swimming at the beach when given the opportunity, but the ocean freaks me out. I grew up in a desert. I’m uncomfortable seeing that much water in one place. And there are sharks in the ocean.
**This is an expression. Don’t crucify me for using implicitly Judeo-Christian figures of speech.