The Metaphysics of Tarot, Part 2

In my previous post on the metaphysical commitments required of (a certain kind of) Tarot reader, I hit two main points: the non-identity of mind and brain, and the non-linear nature of time.* One comment I got on that post was to the effect that both of those commitments seem uncontroversial; they’re the kind of thing that most people take for granted. And that’s absolutely true. What I’m doing here is not telling people they have to believe certain radical things, but rather pointing to places where most of us have implicitly taken a side on a philosophical debate we may not even have known existed.

Here are a few other metaphysical ideas that underlie the way many of us approach Tarot:

3. Free Will

I feel gross just writing the words. I am a hardcore determinist–something that gets me into hot water with the rest of the Tarot community. Most of us do not believe that the cards are the final arbiters of what’s to come. We don’t read the future in such a way that it’s impossible for things to turn out differently from how we’ve predicted. Part of this is that Tarot readers are mere mortals, and our predictions are never 100% accurate. Part of it is that it would be terrible for business if we told our clients there was nothing they could do to change the course of their lives for the better.

But there’s also a less machiavellian reason involved. I think most Tarot readers do earnestly believe that the future is not yet written–that the cards show us how things will likely be, but not how they must be. (It’s then up to Tarot readers to find a way of believing in free will that’s compatible with their conception of the shape of time; see part 1 of this post.)** In fact, even I–with all my griping about the causally determined nature of the universe–believe in free will.

There are two main camps when it comes to the affirmation of free will: libertarianism and compatibilism. Libertarianism is, broadly speaking, the idea that everything in the universe is causally determined by the laws of physics except for the actions of rational agents. There are several flavors of this, but the general idea is that there’s something special about consciousness, that allows us to determine our own actions in a way that’s not pinned down to physical circumstances beyond our control. Compatibilism, on the other hand, is the idea that our actions actually are causally determined, but that we still have free will–usually through the application of a revised and somewhat neutered definition of freedom. Personally, I’m a compatibilist, and I have a lot of issues with libertarian free will. Regardless, I think you’ll find that most Tarot readers fall into one of these two camps (and likely, more libertarians than compatibilists) rather than rejecting free will outright.

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4. A Complex Notion of Causation

Unsurprisingly, the biggest assertion we find in the Tarot community is that Tarot works. Even among people who haven’t given much thought to how or why it works, there is a sense that something is going on. Somehow or other, when you ask a question and pull a card, the right card for the occasion shows up.

Metaphysically, this is a big pill to swallow, because it complicates our understanding of the way causation works. No one entirely understands causation, but Tarot doesn’t fit neatly into any of the pictures we can give. What, exactly, causes the right card to show up? If it’s some kind of mental or spiritual substance (see part 1), then we have to have some account whereby physical events can be caused by mental states. And that is a HUGE metaphysical commitment. Philosophers fight to the death simply over whether our own minds can cause physical events in our own bodies (e.g. I am thirsty so I get a drink of water). It’s a really big deal to extend the notion of mental causation in such a way that our minds, or some other disembodied mind, can causally affect which card comes up in a randomized deck.

Note that I’m not saying this position is untenable. In fact, I hold something like it. But it is a controversial metaphysical view, and I think it sneaks in under the radar for a lot of Tarot readers.

On the flipside, if you don’t believe that the cause of the “right” card showing up in a reading is something mental, you might be inclined to say that Tarot is acausal in nature. That is to say, the right cards come up each time, but there’s no principle that causes them to do so; there’s just sort of a happy synchronistic coincidence fundamentally embedded in the act of divination. (This would connect in rather nicely with libertarian views of free will.) But then that raises interesting questions about why this one thing is unmoored from the causal laws that govern the rest of the universe. I don’t know that those questions are damning for this view, but they’re interesting, and if you think of Tarot in this way, it’s worth exploring how you’d answer them.

That’s all for now. There might be a part 3 of this post at some point in the future, if I’m struck by other important ideas that I haven’t covered here, but I think I’ve got a good survey of the philosophical stances woven into the popular approach to Tarot. Do let me know if you feel like I’ve missed something crucial, or if I’ve misrepresented any position here.


*I also railed against the use of the word “metaphysical” to mean “mystical” in common speech. However, I admit, I looked up the etymology in the OED. The first recorded use of “metaphysical” meaning “magical” is in a Christopher Marlowe play. The second is in Macbeth. I will grudgingly allow that if this application of the word was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s also good enough for me. But I don’t have to be happy about it.

**To be fair, I think many Tarot readers probably believe that time has a branching structure: there are multiple futures branching off from this point in the present, and our choices can take us down one path or another. This is very different from the Einsteinian four-dimensionalist view I had presented previously. I don’t love this view, but it is philosophically strong and quite common, so I should probably give it equal time.

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6 thoughts on “The Metaphysics of Tarot, Part 2

  1. I am not sure specifically what I believe about why reading tarot works for me but to play the devil’s advocate maybe any card that shows up is the right card because of my projections?

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    1. Absolutely! As I understand it, there are two things you might mean by “projections”. First, you might mean that the cards come up randomly, and that you project meaning into them that’s somehow appropriate for the situation. That’s a strong view, and I didn’t touch on it in my post. Second, you might mean that your subconscious projects and causes certain cards to turn up–in which case we. I think we circle back to questions about causation. (Although of course, you may have meant something else entirely, and it’s possible that I just grossly misread your comment.) Thank you so much for reading!

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  2. I really enjoy reading your posts because they make me think. I did mean the first definition. Although I like to “think” the second definition gives me a headache to keep following that thought…lol. Thank you for the time and effort you invest in your posts.

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  3. Thanks so much for these posts – as an academic philosopher also starting my journey into tarot, your posts on the metaphysics of tarot are delightful to come across. Personally, I take a firmly naturalistic approach: I don’t believe that cards foretell the future or that anything other than chance determines their order; I think that we as readers project meanings onto them and use them as tools to tell stories about our lives and the lives of others. But these thoughts on what more mainstream tarot practice implies metaphysically are really fascinating.

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    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed them! I grew up reading Tarot, and the naturalistic approach was my bread and butter. You may enjoy some of the posts in the “How I Use Tarot” tag, although the earliest of those makes reference to the flaming pile of human feces that is Woody Allen without calling out his status as a flaming pile of human feces. (When I wrote that post, I had never been told about what a monster he is. My views on him have subsequently changed somewhat.)

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