If you’re looking to part a fool and their money, psychic readings are a great business*. Through the art of cold reading,by making statements that seem personal, but are true for most people, the psychic creates the illusion of having supernatural intuition about their client. For instance, they may say “I sense that you are sometimes insecure, especially with people you don’t know very well.” Who isn’t? Or, if the client is older, they may say, “Your father passed on due to problems in his chest or abdomen,” which would be true for the majority of causes of death. Psychics also use the rainbow ruse strategy of making a statement that is vague and contradictory about the client, such as “Most of the time you are positive and cheerful, but there has been a time in the past when you were very upset.” It’s probably not hard to find experiences in your life that match this statement to yourself, and if you can’t, the psychic can claim you need to look deeper or that you are suppressing something.
A favorite tool of psychics in performing their readings are tarot cards. These cards come in a wide variety of themes, with fantastic artwork, and generalized symbolism that takes on different meanings depending on where the card appears in a spread. They work because they exploit both the cold reading technique and generate rainbow statements in their symbolism.
Tarot Universal de Dali
I occasionally do Tarot readings for myself. Over the years, when confronted with a challenging life issue, I would turn to The Mythic Tarot set for help figuring out what to do. This set portrays four different Greek Myths in the four different suits, and I always have to keep the book open when doing a reading because I find it impossible to remember what the cards mean.
I expect many scientists out there would say that my playing with the tarot harms my credibility as a skeptic, but I am completely aware of what makes the tarot work, and have no delusions that the meanings I appear to find in the cards are self-generated. The cards are like the old Principia Discordia quote about books, “…a mirror, when a monkey looks in, no apostle looks out.”
That doesn’t mean the cards are useless. The tarot meme has survived five centuries, in part for the solace it provides, but also because it serves a useful function. A tarot reading provides an exercise in deep, sustained thought on a subject, each new card challenging the practitioner to look at the subject of inquiry from a different angle. The tarot spread doesn’t answer any questions, but like a Rogerian Psychologist it prompts us to find the correct answers within ourselves.
With this obligatory, “I am not a flake,” disclaimer out of the way, let me say how incredibly happy I was to discover the recently released Science Tarot set. That’s right, science-themed tarot cards, and they are absolutely delightful. All the traditional cards are here, but instead of wands, pentacles, swords, and cups, we have Bunsen burners, magnifying glasses, scalpels, and beakers. Filling the roles of king, queen, knight, and page in the various suits are science giants like Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Hypatia, Galileo, Herschel, Oppenheimer, Barbara McClintok, Carl Sagan, John Muir, and others. While the concepts surrounding science and academia fill in the major arcana, such as the student playing the Fool, Schrodinger’s Cat as the Wheel of Fortune, Conservation of Energy as Justice, and, most apropos, the Devil being unquestioning behavior. The cards tell a version of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey Monomyth adapted to the natural world, turning science into an epic hero’s quest, complete with discovery, strife, growth, and achievement.
The set also introduces three new spreads for tarot readings: the Chemical Reaction, Periodic Table, and, my new favorite, the Benzene Ring.
The Chemical Reaction Spread
This simple spread is actually pretty standard for most tarot sets. It consists of asking a question and laying out three cards. The leftmost card represents the past, middle the present, and rightmost the future. I’m not too big on this spread, as it isn’t as involved and challenging as others, lacking the deep, meditative immersion in a subject that makes tarot such a useful exercise. It does make for a useful example of a tarot reading, however:
My Chemical Reaction Spread
Here’s the breakdown of my reading, using the book as a reference:
- Reactants Representing the Past: Seven of Wands (Expansion), a red giant star representing a maturing state, inner creation, “finding your voice.”
- Transition State of the Present: The World (Grand Unified Theory), a theory of everything, the achievement of a “grand and profound goal,” attaining “wholeness and prosperity.”
- Product Representing the Future: Eight of Wands (Big Bang), the climactic birth of the Universe, sending ideas out into the public sphere, a growing universe of ideas and influence.
This spread speaks pretty clearly to me. My past has been one of constantly working on my personal growth, my recent years have been filled with a sense of accomplishment as I fell into security with my soul mate and philosophy of science, and my future plans are to promote this worldview and contribute to it as much as possible. The message I get from the spread: keeping working at it. If the cards were reversed, I would probably find a way to read the same message in them. If I was unable to find a message in the cards relating to my life, then, as the authors say, “If a tarot reading seems to make little sense, another reading may speak more clearly instead.”
The Periodic Table Spread
The Periodic Table Spread
With 10 cards, each one prompting the practitioner to focus on a different aspect of the question, this spread provides a great mental tool for deep immersion on a topic. The positions of the cards relate to the elements on the periodic table in terms of being reactive, inert, transitory, and a place for the “undiscovered element.” I’ve found it a challenging spread at times, when a card appears in a position where I cannot find any connection to my own life, but everything up to that point had worked well, but the challenge itself provides deeper insights, even if it cannot be resolved.
The Benzene Ring Spread
Benzene Ring Spread
These six cards fall into place where the hydrogen atoms link on a benzene molecule, running in a full circle from perception of the subject to resolution. In the above spread, I have drawn the following:
- Personal Perception: Four of Wands (Brown Dwarf), waiting at the threshold to become or fulfill one’s promise
- Personal Intention: Ace of Swords (Reductionism), a path of discovery and insight, peeling away layers to find knowledge
- External Perception: Six of Swords (Quantum Sea), immediate perceptions can be misleading, accepting apparent contradictions can provide guidance
- Complication: Eight of Pentacles (Drift), experiences and knowledge gained in journey may be positive, but often traumatic in their transformative nature
- Integrating two Perceptions: Seven of Swords (Chaos Theory), trying to maintain total control is futile, go with the flow
- The Resolution: Eight of Wands (Big Bang), releasing creative energies, expanding the impact one has on the lives of others
Here’s the part I really like about this spread: you can run it again on the same question since the things you learn in the first run of the spread have changed your outlook on the topic, the second run of the spread can be interpreted in the context of these new insights:
Benzen Ring Spread, Second Run
- Personal Perception: The Sun (Duality of Light), unification of opposing ideas into one reality, appreciating end result
- Personal Intention: Three of Pentacles (Bonding), introduction of a new influence stimulating new growth and creativity
- External Perception: The Lovers (Binary Star), balance in a relationship producing radiant energy
- Complication: Nine of Pentacles (Aurora), brilliant, fleeting display of beauty on a grand scale, casting off of old for a new self
- Integrating two Perceptions: Four of Cups (Dormancy), waiting at the threshold, rest and preservation that may lead to missed opportunity
- The Resolution: King of Pentacles (Marie Curie, Visionary), “look into the distance, take command, and do what must be done”
I like how there are some mirror images in these two readings, a symmetry of concepts. The first reading has a personal perception of dormancy and being at a threshold of becoming in the brown dwarf, while the second reading has the same concepts in the integration of perceptions place with the dormancy of the lungfish. The resolution of the first reading is a brilliant burst of expression in the big bang, but this same kind of event is the second reading’s complication in the Aurora. Symmetry
What do these two readings mean? They mean whatever you find in them for yourself.
The book accompanying any tarot set is meant only as a starting point. From it, you can play with crafting your own spreads and semantic connections in the cards. My favorite aspect of Science Tarot is the familiarity of the people and concepts portrayed in the major and minor arcana. I know Carl Sagan far better than I know Odysseus, and will gain insights when he comes up in a reading from my personal experience with the Cosmos series and his many books. Lack of inquisitiveness speaks more to my personal philosophy than a supernatural lord of the underworld, just as the Conservation of Energy principle provides a more concrete concept than the sword and scales of Justice. I can lay these cards out and, based on what I know about the concepts, set the book down and make up my own interpretation of the spread.
* My mother was very into New Age belief when I was growing up, and I was heavily exposed to the Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.) culture in Virginia Beach, and I can attest, the majority of psychics have the best intentions. They don’t know they are doing cold readings and making rainbow statements, they truly believe they have insights. A great article by a former psychic about how the culture creates these beliefs is Karla McLaren’s Bridging the Chasm between Two Cultures. Just as no one consciously designed the tarot to be universal, psychic culture didn’t set out to defraud people. I perceive them the same way I percieve psychiatrists: well-meaning, but no scientific support.