Are Tarot cards supernatural? This common question is surprisingly difficult to answer and takes us into some pretty deep philosophical territory.
First, what does it mean for something to be “supernatural”? It’d be nice if we had a readily available definition of “supernatural” but defining it is pretty tough.
We might start with the idea that the supernatural is beyond the “natural” but that only begs the question: what is the natural?
If we defined naturalism as the belief that “only the natural exists” that would clearly be a circular definition, with the term “natural” being included in the definition of “naturalism.”
Similarly, defining naturalism as the belief that “the supernatural does not exist” is circular, because the term “natural” is again included in the term “natural,” which is part of the definition.
But what if we just tried to define supernatural by means of examples such as ghosts, spirits, gods, etc. To say that Tart cards are supernatural would thereby mean it involves spiritual forces, realms, or entities.
But take ghosts. What if the phenomenon people refer to as “ghosts” when they say they have experienced ghosts is really just an aspect of the natural world that is currently explained by science or will be explained by science in the future?
What if a hundred years from now a more mature science will look back at us and say, “Ahhh, when those people used to talk about ghosts, they were really referring to this natural phenomenon they didn’t understand.”
This discussion reminds me of the science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote that:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Take the iPhone. To people 3,000 years ago it might have been considered a piece of magical or supernatural technology. The scientific complexity of its operations are so complicated as to be inexplicable to the ancients. To me, a modern product of the 21st century, it still seems like magic sometimes.
But it would be pure hubris if we believed that scientists today have a complete grasp on reality such that we can distinguish what is “magical” and what is “natural.”
That is why the question, “Are Tarot cards supernatural?” is so tricky: it requires that we are able to separate the natural from the supernatural.
But I have long thought that: we don’t know what Nature is capable of.
But might seem “spooky” to us today might seem perfectly “natural” to scientists 1,000 years in the future.
Just take consciousness. There is so much about consciousness that humans do not know. We have just barely scratched the surface of trying to delve into its mysteries.
And we have to take seriously the idea that there are aspects of consciousness that might remain forever closed off to the understanding of humanity. Being merely evolved apes with some fancy gadgets, there are no guarantees that our minds evolved to be capable of understanding something like consciousness, no more than a chimpanzee’s mind evolved to be able to understand quantum mechanics.
Ahh! The physicalists will jump in and say: all this is a load of bullshit! There is no such thing as spirituality! Science tells us that it’s all just atoms and the void! All that metaphysical mumbo jumbo is nonsense.
While the physicalist is certainly entitled to their metaphysical beliefs about the world, I would make a small correction: science is a method.
That is to say: science, properly speaking, is a method for experimentation and testing using observation and publically definable operations.
Naturalism is not a finding of science but rather a presupposition of scientists.
In other words, science as a method does not preclude people who believe in God or the supernatural from being good scientists. You might be an excellent scientist and believe in the supernatural.
You might just believe that whatever empirical science is not capable of studying, that is supernatural. And that you just have faith in that, perhaps because of some personal revelation in your life.
Those beliefs don’t necessarily stop you from “doing science.”
Science does not prove naturalism, it only restricts itself to the study of the natural. But restricting yourself to the study of X, does not thereby entail only X exists. That’s like proving a negative.
After all, it would be a fallacy to say: “I have only ever experienced X, so therefore everything that is not-X does not exist.” Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Nevertheless, the naturalist might feel they are on solid ground because they can say “I only believe in things I have evidence for.”
But if the person who believes in the supernatural has personal experience of the inexplicable is that not a kind of evidence? After all, they saw it and experienced it with their own eyes.
Yeah sure, says the naturalist, but people are gullible and easily deluded and fooled by tricks and cognitive biases. The human brain is fallible and prone to illusion and hallucination. Personal experience doesn’t prove anything.
And this is surely right, if by “proof” we mean “provable in the court of public opinion.” Just because one person saw a ghost doesn’t thereby provide substantial proof to convince a skeptic that their experience was true. Maybe they just hallucinated it.
But must we only believe in things that can be rationally convincing to the court of public opinion? Is it not perfectly reasonable to hold some modicum of personal truth based on personal experience? It seems like we can hardly fault someone for believing in something they personally experienced.
Sure, we shouldn’t let these personal beliefs affect public policy or government or law, but for me it makes no sense to get up in arms trying to run around and convince everyone that they are delusional and hallucinating so long as their beliefs are not harming anyone else.
But therein lies the rub, for the skeptic might argue that many so-called beliefs in the supernatural are harmful.
Take Tarot, for instance, and the supposed power of psychics to predict the future using Tarot.
Many professional readers try to abide by a code of ethics that says: we will not do readings about health or pregnancy or legal matters.
For example, suppose an unethical psychic pulled the Death card for a querent and said, “You’re going to die within the next year.”
Now, obviously, this would cause a lot of anxiety in the querent. And suppose that anxiety exacerbated some underlying heart condition such that they actually did die within a year.
How awful that would be! This is why Tarot readers should never, ever read for health.
But this seems like a strictly ethical restriction. If psychic powers were real, or if the Tarot really did operate by means of supernatural forces, then it seems like stopping at health is rather arbitrary.
But this restriction is there for good reason.
But what if a similar ethical concern applies to all sorts of normal questions, say, about love? If a querent goes to a psychic and asks about her ex-boyfriend, and they psychic gives her a kind of false hope that things will magically get better, is that not a kind of false hope? Is that not harmful in its own way?
That is a tough one, and deserves its own post.
But going back to our question: Are Tarot cards supernatural? We’ve covered how this is a tricky question to answer.
Defining the precise demarcation between natural vs supernatural is rather difficult. What is considered “supernatural” today might be considered perfectly natural 1,000 years from now.
Furthermore, we’ve shown that our personal beliefs and presuppositions about the world, as well as our personal experiences, determine our metaphysical beliefs. And it’s not a matter of “proving” who is rational vs who is irrational.
Philosophers have long debated the rationality of faith. It seems to me that the debate has reached a kind of stalemate: the believers cannot show that atheists and naturalists are irrational and the atheists and naturalists cannot show that the believers are irrational (if they are dealing with the most sophisticated and nuanced version of faith, not some simplistic belief in an anthropomorphic “sky daddy” or whatever.)
If you want my personal opinion, I lean more towards metaphysical agnosticism. I neither believe nor disbelieve in the supernatural. I don’t discount the possibility that Tarot is “spooky” or “spiritual” in some way. Nor do I discount more naturalistic explanations of the Tarot that rely merely on psychology or whatever.
I view both of these positions as useful conceptual frameworks that serve different purposes depending on the context. Sometimes it can be beneficial personally to lean into the spiritual dimensions of Tarot. Other times it can be useful to lean into its naturalistic, psychological dimensions. I don’t see them as mutually exclusive but rather two sides of the same coin.