This is the first question any reasonable person should have when first thinking about Tarot: Are Tarot Cards BS?
For X to be BS means that it is not true. That it is a lie. A myth. Does not correspond to the world. Does not do what it claims to do. Is a sham. Load of bullshit. Full of bullshit. Full of it.
On first blush, saying “Tarot is bullshit” is not the same as saying “Big Foot is bullshit.” When someone says Big Foot is bullshit, they mean to say Big Foot does not exist, that claims of someone seeing him are false.
Well, the Tarot obviously exists. It’s a real thing. It started as a playing card game in the 1400s and evolved into an occult object commonly used in esoteric rituals or as a tool of fortune-telling (it’s also still used a playing card game, btw.)
So obviously the claims of bullshit are directed towards its supposed function. Which raises the question: What does the Tarot do?
The popular conception of Tarot such that “Tarot cards are BS” is its supposed power to predict the future.
For example, if I asked the Tarot, “Will Biden be elected twice?” that has a true or false, objective answer, which will be made true by objective facts in the world. If I shuffled the 78 cards thoroughly and pulled a card and I interpreted it to mean “yes,” suppose I took that answer and wrote it down, and in 2024 if Biden did in fact win, would I thereby have evidence that “Tarot predicted the future”?
If you are skeptical about Tarot, this is a tall order.
The most obvious explanation is that it was just a coincidence. If someone had conducted a similar experiment with flipping a coin, and the coin also successfully predicted the future, would we have equal reason to think the coin had “predicted the future”? Nope.
Well, if you think about it, the Tarot is really just a 78-faced coin. If you increased the number of sides of the coin from 2 to 78, at what point does it turn from “random chance” generator to “fortune-telling machine”? What if you started carving unique, artistic images into each of the 78 coin-sides. And what if over a period of centuries some famous and influential occultists began to ascribe special symbolic meaning to each coin-side. Do coins now have magic powers just the same as Tarot?
To the skeptic, it seems as the best explanation is still random chance.
People are famously bad at recognizing whether a series of coin-tosses are randomly generated or not.
Does one of these sequences look “less random” than another?
If you thought the first sequence looked “less random,” congrats! You are a normal human, easily fooled by randomness. Both sequences have an equal probability of being generated by a random coin flipper.
Imagine you have 6,000,000,000 coin tossers in a coin-predicting competition.
On the first round, you ask all 6,000,000,000 to try to predict head or tails before flipping the coin
Everyone who didn’t guess correctly, they are eliminated from the competition.
And then you repeat this process, until the selective process produces a person who has predicted the coin toss many times in a row.
Can you imagine what it would feel like to be this person? They would feel like a god! Or guided by the whispers of a god. They would feel all knowing when it comes to the hidden meaning of the coin, having penetrated into its secret essence.
So now let me asking you: this person who won the coin-tossing contest, they have guessed right all these times in a row. What is the probability of them getting it right again? 50/50. It never changes. Thus, this person was no more or less likely to have won than anyone else. It was just by random chance that they won.
This is how the stock market works, btw. But that’s another story.
Now let’s go back to the Biden reading with the Tarot. There are two ways to do the reading: objective and subjective. Objectively, you could have preassigned the even cards to yes and the odd cards to no. Subjectively, you would just interpret the cards based on what “feels” negative or positive to you.
In my opinion, the objective method is no different from tossing coins. The question is:
Does the physics of the coin – the causality of the coin which makes it flip this way or that – is that physics at all related to the physics that produces the events associated with Biden winning or losing? Can you “read” the Biden-physics off the coin-flipping physics?
Well, this is a tough question, because one might argue that the Biden result depends on the collective freewill of humans, who are voting. And if there is a connection between the coin-physics and the freewill-physics it would seem to suggest an “immaterial physics,” or imply a web of causality so subtle that it belies the imagination.
If we don’t believe in freewill, then perhaps the same ultimate laws of Nature which explain the big bang also explain the connection of the coin-flip and the Biden win. This is the idea, expressed by Einstein, that “god doesn’t play dice” and behind the pure chaos of random probabilities in the world are ultimately “hidden causal variables” that connect all disparate, entangled phenomena in a single web of direct causality.
Proponents of pure chaos theory, in contrast, argue that the randomness of quantum mechanics, and the phenomenon of action-at-a-distance quantum entanglement, shows that there are no “hidden causal variables” behind every non-local phenomena. Thus, two particles could be on the opposite sides of the universe and somehow entangled without any “direct” causal web connecting them.
This is what physicists call “spooky-action-at-a-distance.” It’s still an open question whether these “hidden variables” exist. But if we say hidden variables are an axiom to be taken for granted it leads to many counter-intuitive phenoma. In contrast, if we say it’s pure entangled randomness then it imples that our intuitive concept of causation as a series of billiard balls bouncing off each other is deeply flawed.
As abstract as these concerns are, they impact how we understand the Tarot. Are there hidden variables behind every Tarot coincidence? Or is there pure chance?
Many believers in gods or spirits believe this is a scientific loophole that allows the spirit-world to interact with the material world: by means of these hidden variables. We also know that “observation” (whatever that means; it’s open to debate) can collapse the probability wave governing these random probabilities.
Does “observing” Biden winning in your imagination have any impact on a probability wave? What if you and Biden were somehow entangled in some way you could never comprehend?
So what might the Tarot believer say to the skeptic? Often true believers talk about Jung’s definition of “synchronicity,” which he defined as meaningful coincidences that have an acausal relation. We have all experienced these. We think of a friend we haven’t thought of in a long time and suddenly he sends us a text message. Mere coincidence or not?
Jung would call this a synchronicity. Clearly, the fact that your long-time friend called you is meaningful. It’s especially meaningful because you were just thinking about him randomly 30 seconds prior to the text.
Was this an example of precognition? Or just a pure coincidence?
There are multiple ways to think about this. A skeptic would dismiss it as mere coincidence. A believer might say that somehow the future caused the present. The phonecall in the future caused the thought in the present.
Can we try to study this? Yes! In fact, psychologists have studied this phenomenon, called precognition, an example of “Psi”, in the laboratory for a century. The study of Psi from an experimental perspective falls under the rubric of parapsychology and can be traced back to Joseph Rhine (September 29, 1895 – February 20, 1980)
Rhines is famous for his studies of Zener cards:
The Zener cards are a deck of twenty five cards, five of each symbol. The five symbols are: a hollow circle, a plus sign, three vertical wavy lines, a hollow square, and a hollow five-pointed star. They are used to test for ESP.
In a test for ESP, the experimenter picks up a card in a shuffled pack, observes the symbol, and records the answer of the person being tested, who would guess which of the five designs is on the card. The experimenter continues until all the cards in the pack are tested.
There are many problems with the Zener card experiments. Many skeptics have raised problems.
However, consider this passage from Dean Radin’s book Real Magic [affiliate link], which I quote at length:
“The mathematical discipline that specializes in the evaluation of experimental data is statistics. Professor Jessica Utts is chair of the statistics department at the University of California at Irvine. In. 2016, she was also president of the American Statistical Association (ASA), the world’s largest community of professional statisticians. In her presidential address to the ASA, speaking at a meeting attended by six thousand statisticians from sixty-two countries around the world, Utts said something that undoubtedly surprised many of the attendees. I quote a segment of her talk at length. because it’s directly relevant to understand the evidence for psi. She said the following:
‘For many years I have worked with researchers doing very careful work in [parapsychology], including a year that I spent full-time working on a classified project for the United States. government, to see if we could use these abilities for intelligence gathering during the Cold War…
At the end of that project I wrote a report for Congress, stating what I still think is true. The data in support of precognition and possibly other related phenomena are quite strong statistically, and would be widely accepted if it pertained to something more mundane. Yet. most scientists reject the possible reality of these abilities without ever looking at the data! And on the other extreme, there are true believers who base their beliefs solely on anecdotes and personal experience. I have asked the debunkers if there is any amount of data that would convince them, and they generally have responded by saying, ‘probably not.’ I ask them what original research they have read, and they mostly admit that they haven’t read any. Now there is a definition of pseudo-science-basing conclusions on belief, rather than data!
When I have given talks on this topic to audiences of statisticians, I show lots of data. Then I ask the audience, which would be more convincing to you, lots more data, or one strong personal experience? Almost without fail, the response is one strong personal experience…I think people are justifiably skeptical, because most people think that these abilities contradict what we know about science. They don’t, but that’s the subject for a different talk!'” [bolded emphasis mine]
I won’t go into the statistical details surrounding the data. But the point is that here we have a preeminent expert in evaluating whether experiment findings are bullshit, and after decades of directly working with experimenters and crunching the numbers, concludes that there is something “real” to the phenomenon of precognition.
Now let me be clear:
We have established that the phenomenon of precognition is real without necessarily having given an explanation. No one knows how to explain the data. We have not identified a causal mechanism that explains the data.
That is: hopefully we have established a real explanandum, a thing to be explained, without necessarily finding the explanans, the thing that explains the phenomenon.
Is the explanans quantum mechanics, some kind of retrocausation perhaps?
Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t know. But we know the phenomenon is “real.” Or, at least, there is very strong statistical evidence which indicates that the data, on the whole, is not entirely due to random chance.
But let’s go back to Tarot and our Biden reading. Suppose we take the second method, the subjective method, where we interpret the cards in order to predict whether Biden will be re-elected or not.
Suppose we draw the Death card.
Is there is a “fact” about whether the Death card means “yes” or “no”?
Not really. There might be pre-established conventions. But if you are going the subjective route, there is no right answer. If you are a Democrat you might say the Death card means “rebirth” and Biden will metaphorically die during the election and be re-born as the second-term President. If you are a Republican you might say that the Death card means “change” and that Biden will lose to his contender, instituting change in the White House.
Who is “right”?
Impossible to say. This is what makes Tarot reading a matter of hermeneutics. It is interpretive and interpretation depends on your entire set of background knowledge, your whole set of values, beliefs, and biases that constitute your semiotic web.
But only one person will be right because it is an objective fact that Biden either will or will not be re-elected.
Suppose that the Democrat ends up being right and Biden does get re-elected. Suppose in pulling the Death card she gets a flash in her mind, a brief vision of Biden pumping his fist in victory.
Fast forward to 2024, suppose Biden wins and pumps his fist in victory. Did that future first-pump “retro cause” the vision in her mind?
Hard to say. But if we take the precognition psi studies seriously, we should at least be open to the theoretical possibility it is true.
Now, it’s one thing to say: a particular case of true precognition is theoretically possible, and quite another to know for sure that it is indeed true.
Same with particular cases of Tarot “successfully” predicting anything.
So does that mean that Tarot is BS?
Well, not necessarily. We have hopefully established it’s at least theoretically possible that some isolated cases of Tarot fortune telling are theoretically possible.
But what about when you walk into a psychic tent and the fortune-teller rattles off 10 predictions and none of them come true? Many skeptics who proclaim that Tarot cards are BS have had such negative experiences with fortune-tellers making wildly wrong claims.
I would even go so far as to say that the vast majority of Tarot predictions that have ever been made have been false.
But does that mean Tarot, as a whole, is BS?
Well, it all depends on what we ask of the Tarot.
Suppose the question is not: Can I predict the future using the Tarot?
Suppose the question is instead: Does predicting my future using the Tarot make me happy?
We might be able to come to some objective conclusion regarding the first question, but the second question is far trickier to answer.
Suppose someone only cares about whether Tarot makes them happy and they ask the Tarot if Biden will win his reelection. They get the Death card. Now, the Tarot session will be a success if the Death card triggers therapeutically useful conscious and unconscious associations and possibility modeling, exploring one’s attitudes and beliefs towards the possibilities contained in Biden winning or losing.
Suppose he loses to another Trump-like Republican. Does that make you anxious? Fearful? Depressed? Happy?
The process of predicting the future with the Tarot is essentially a therapeutic possibility generator that can be used as a kind of complex, archetypal Rorschach blot upon which we can play out the story of our lives, rewinding, imagining, predicting, editing, daydreaming, etc.
This imaginative narratizing is central to healthy Tarot practice. The imagination is a powerful tool, more powerful than most people realize. For many people, the imagination is an underdeveloped organ. But for those who have actively developed their imaginative powers, it can be a potent tool in exploring your inner world, and correspondingly, for understanding the past, present, and future.
World-class athletes are known to be experts in imagination. A downhill skier might imagine herself flying down the hill moving her muscles this way or that in precise coordination according to deeply embedded habits.
By understanding ourselves and our deep inner life, we can understand our own dispositions and behaviors. By knowing ourselves, we can come to know the forces of inertia in our lives that make us likely to experience one thing or another. If we are cigarette smokers, at some deep level we can make predictions about our future health (unless we are just downright ignorant or delusional.)
But in theory, the Tarot gives us a symbolic toolbox to help us respond to that perennial philosophical maxim: Know Thyself, the question at the heart of all wisdom.
The Tarot is a powerful tool to aid the imagination. It is a possibility generator that has hundreds of years of built-up symbolism and meaning constructed in the collective unconscious of humans who have interacted with the Tarot. This collective unconscious has generated a deeply meaningful set of interacting and overlapping archetypes that correspond to broad psychological structures that resonate with the bio-social fabric of humanity, particularly those raised in the cultural matrix of Western civilization.
Interacting with this cultural matrix can be effective as a psychoanalytic tool for reflective exploration. In this sense, the Tarot is very much not bullshit.
For many people, the Tarot has a spiritual-ritualistic-mythological significance that is religiously significant regardless of whether it can successfully portend the future. Esotericists often called this. spiritual-ritualistic-mythological mode of Tarot functioning “divination” in contract to mere fortune-telling (though that distinction is slightly artificial.)
Or maybe you just find Tarot “neat” or “fascinating.” Maybe you like the artistry. The collector-aspect. The history. The community. Maybe it’s just fun. Does that mean Tarot is BS? Not necessarily. The Tarot is all these things. It cannot be reduced to any single dimension or function.
But ultimately, the question, “Are Tarot cards BS?” is itself like a Tarot card: open to interpretation.