In defence of astrology, tarot and divination

I’ve noticed a resurgence in the popularity of astrology over the last few years (particularly an increased prominence in bookshops) which I’ve judged quite harshly. I have found it depressing that so many people are willing to believe objectively false things, and that bookshops which are otherwise dedicated to knowledge are willing to promote nonsense.

But a couple of essays in LessWrong’s excellent “The Engines of Cognition” series have changed my view. I still don’t think astrology is “real”: I don’t think the placement of celestial bodies at your birth or otherwise affect your life. But I do think it and other “woo” beliefs can be useful.

Here’s Joseph Henrich in “The Secret Of Our Success” (via Scott Alexander), emphasis mine:

When hunting caribou, Naskapi foragers in Labrador, Canada, had to decide where to go. Common sense might lead one to go where one had success before or to where friends or neighbors recently spotted caribou. However, this situation is like [the Matching Pennies game]. The caribou are mismatchers and the hunters are matchers. That is, hunters want to match the locations of caribou while caribou want to mismatch the hunters, to avoid being shot and eaten. If a hunter shows any bias to return to previous spots, where he or others have seen caribou, then the caribou can benefit (survive better) by avoiding those locations (where they have previously seen humans). Thus, the best hunting strategy requires randomizing. Traditionally, Naskapi hunters decided where to go to hunt using divination and believed that the shoulder bones of caribou could point the way to success … these divination rituals may have provided a crude randomizing device that helped hunters avoid their own decision-making biases.

In “Steelmanning Divination”, Vaniver tries a form of divination for about a month. They consult random chapters of the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text. Here’s what happened, emphasis mine:

daily divination almost filled the same role as daily retrospectives or planning sessions; I was frequently thinking about all the different parts of my life on a regular interval, using a variety of random access to filter things down … having a prescribed ritual for what sort of cognition needs to be done encourages reflection and popping out of the obvious frame … It encouraged experimentation by partially decoupling one’s mood and one’s decisions … This approach has also served me well with other forms of divination I’ve since tried; a Tarot deck works by focusing your attention on a situation, and then randomly generating a framegiving one access to parts of the space that they wouldn’t have considered otherwise

When it comes to introspection, it’s very easy to get stuck in classic thought patterns — unless we’re explicitly prompted to think about something in a new way. (Much of cognitive behavioural therapy is about trying to break out of classic, harmful thought patterns, in my experience.) Seen in this light, astrology and divination start to look like useful practices: they encourage you to think about things in a way you haven’t considered. And their lack of basis in reality is actually an advantage: because horoscopes and tarot readings really are random, each time you use them you’ll be forced to think about something in a new way.

I don’t think this ends up as a defence of the industry, or a defence of people that seriously believe in astrology and divination. As Vetiver shows, it is perfectly possible to find them useful without believing they offer “truth”. It continues to be bad that people believe in false things. But it does suggest that the practices aren’t irredeemable, and that you might even benefit from trying them.

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