Divination, Intuition and the Irrational

Recently, I finished reading the book Number and Time by Marie-Louise von Franz. Von Franz was one of Carl Jung’s collaborators and the theme of the book was born out of the interest Jung took later in life in the qualitative study of number and the attempt to unite the psychic and the physical worlds through the concept of the archetypes. Feeling he was getting too old to deal with the issue in depth, Jung handed his papers over to von Franz and the result was partly Number and Time.

While reading the book I got an answer to a question I had been pondering for several years ever since I did some experimentation with the practice of divination. Divination did not work for me and von Franz has provided me with an explanation why.

For those who don’t know, divination is the practice of trying to guide one’s actions or the actions of others through an interpretation of what we might call random stimuli. Numbers can be used for this purpose and that was why the subject came up in von Franz’s book. Tarot cards are another option and it was tarot divination that I began playing around with in 2019. What I came to realise was that divination clashed with an existing practice I had developed purely by accident. Therein lies a story.

The story behind the story is that I’ve moved around quite a lot in life. Several times in my adult life I have packed up and moved somewhere new. This was a continuation of my childhood where our family relocated several times. I changed schools six times during my primary and secondary years.

This fact is important to the story I am going to tell because the story is about one of the times I relocated in my adult life. The details of the move are not important. I took up a new job in a city in a different state of Australia. It’s because this was not the first time I had done this that what happened next cannot be explained as an emotional or psychological reaction to a novel experience. If I had only ever lived in one place my whole life, it’s not hard to imagine that a move to a new place would trigger elevated emotional states, anxiety or even depression. But I was used to moving around and so I knew what to expect.

Well, I thought I knew what to expect. But then something strange happened. Almost immediately after arriving in what I thought was going to be my new home, I had the “feeling” that the move was wrong. What was the nature of this “feeling”?

As I have mentioned, it was not emotional. The move had gone exactly as I had imagined it would. Nothing unusual or aggravating had happened. In our age of modern information technology, it’s possible to do extensive research about a new place before you arrive. In a sense, this actually negates some of the feeling of excitement about a move since you can plan your arrival in great detail including looking for places where you might like to live etc. My new home had thrown up no surprises that triggered a strong emotional reaction on my part.

If the “feeling” I had was not based in emotions, neither was it based on rational grounds. My new job turned out more or less how I had anticipated it would. There were no big surprises there either. And, in any case, the “feeling” had begun before I started work.

If I was to give a name to this “feeling”, I would call it gut feel. My gut was telling me this was a wrong move. I have had these kind of gut feelings as long as I can remember so, in and of itself, this was also not surprising or new. But what made this situation different was that for the first time my gut was telling me to do something that was explicitly irrational in nature.

Think about it, you move interstate to take up what you hope will be an interesting and rewarding job. There’s the possibility to make new friends, meet new people, broaden your horizons etc. Logic and reason say that, even if things don’t work out exactly as you imagine at the start, you should give it a chance. You should wait at least a few months so you can make a proper judgement based on experience rather than jumping to conclusions.

The trouble was, I wasn’t jumping to conclusions. That would imply that I was over-thinking things. But I wasn’t thinking at all. All I had was this incongruous feeling in my gut. It was kind of stuck there droning away like an off-key singer in a choir.

In his book Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard explores the issues raised by the biblical story of Abraham being told by God to kill his son, Isaac. Filicide, the act of a parent killing their child, is obviously one of the most heinous acts known to man and the story of Abraham makes it all the more problematic because Abraham has no excuse other than that God told him to do it. Were such a case to go to trial, a defendant who attempted to excuse himself on the basis that God spoke to him in the middle of the night would be thought of either as a liar or a madman. Kierkegaard explores the moral implications of the story and the question of whether there is a “suspension of the ethical” in such cases.

Although I didn’t know it at the time as I hadn’t read Fear and Trembling yet, my experience with the gut feeling raised a similar problem. Imagine if I followed my gut, quit my new job after just a few days and returned to where I came from. My friends and family would naturally ask me what went wrong. If I told them the truth, that nothing had gone wrong but I had quit because my gut told me to, this would not be a socially acceptable answer and people might begin to question my mental state. That comes on top of the moral issue of quitting a job without giving it a real chance, something that would be an inconvenience and expense to my employer that they could quite rightly hold against me.

In our rational society, irrational answers are not acceptable. Thus, what I found myself doing at the time was trying to find logical reasons to do what the feeling in my gut was telling me. But it seemed very obvious to me at the time that I was just in denial. I was looking for excuses to do what I knew that I had to do anyway. If I was honest, this gut feeling was irrational and why should I pretend otherwise.

To cut to the end of the story, I did end up quitting the job after a few months and I went back to where I came from. Things worked out well after that despite the fact that I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do next. The lesson I took from the experience was to listen to my gut and not to waste time trying to rationalise the irrational.

In the last few years, as I have been reading Jung more extensively, I have learned that Jung defined gut feeling as Intuition and explicitly categorised it as an irrational function of the psyche. He called Intuition “perception via the unconscious”. When a person acts via Intuition such as I did in quitting my job, that’s called extroverted intuition. Extroverted intuition is perceived by society as irrational and often immoral. The biblical story of Abraham and Isaac takes the problems of extroverted Intuition and turns them up to 11.

What I now realise is that my story about gut feeling is the story of learning to accept Intuition for what it is. I’ve experienced some of the social and moral problems that come along with extroverted Intuition, although I haven’t tried to kill anybody yet. I promise.

Kermit confronts his Intuition

With that background, I’m ready to tell the second part of the story and we return to my experimentation with divination in 2019. The date here is crucial because, although I had no idea about it at the time, my experiment with divination would prove hugely important. Once again, the issue would revolve around a change of residence and job, although this time I was moving within Melbourne.

When you’re beginning with divination, it’s recommended to start with small and seemingly insignificant questions so that you can get practice before moving on to more important matters. I had been trying the beginner divination exercises that for about six months and produced results that can best be described as “meh”. Feeling a little frustrated with the situation, I decided towards the end of 2019 to do a tarot divination on a decision of weight. Again, the details are not important. Let’s just call the two options A and B where the main issue was a decision about where to live.

My gut feel, my intuition, was telling me strongly that Option A was the right decision but I decided to do a tarot reading anyway. The tarot cards seemed to tell me equally clearly that Option B was correct. This was a problem. I was hoping the tarot reading would agree with my Intuition. I mulled over it for a few days and then did a second tarot reading. Again, the reading seemed unambiguously to favour Option B. I decided that it was time to put this tarot business to the test and so I went against my Intuition and chose Option B.

The results of the test came back almost immediately but at the time I had no idea that they would become even more meaningful later. In the short term, Option B caused me to lose a small but not insignificant amount of money and endure a couple of months of frustration and mucking around. I’ll skip the details. Let’s just say it was very clear that Option B had been the wrong decision and that my reading of the tarot cards must also have been wrong.

Then the story took a twist. By a fluke, I got another chance at Option A. This time I didn’t bother with a tarot reading. My Intuition was still saying that this was the right decision, so I went for it. By now it was November 2019. I moved house into the suburban setting that I mentioned in my recent post on accidental ornithology.

We all know what happened next. Melbourne ended up having the longest lockdown in the world and I ended up spending it in a relatively pleasant suburban garden. Option B would have seen me climbing the walls of an inner-city apartment. I know a several people who had to endure that and they looked visibly the worse for wear when I saw them after the lockdown. So, yes, Option A really was the right decision. My Intuition was well and truly right and my tarot divination well and truly wrong.

But here was the theoretical problem: divination is supposed to use Intuition. How could the Intuition I had developed naturally over the years have been contradictory with the tarot reading? I must have been doing something wrong. Von Franz’s book, Number and Time, has given me the answer.

Von Franz notes that archetypes and the unconscious only become visible when consciousness is “dimmed”. But this “dimming” is relative to the charge that is present in the unconscious which we can call “psychic energy”. Thus, the archetypes can be said to become visible when there is either a breakdown of the conscious-ego or a heightening of psychic energy in the unconscious. I would further add that the breakdown of the conscious-ego can’t be a traumatic one because that would trigger an emotional reaction and the emotional reaction would serve to cloud any perception of the archetypes.

This explains my gut feeling experience in my initial story. A change of job and location provides exactly the circumstances where we would expect “psychic energy” to be elevated. It was precisely because nothing else went wrong and I was not affected emotionally that I had access to the unconscious via Intuition.

Von Franz make the same point in relation to divination. She says it should not be conducted in a spirit of frivolity and that “the greater the psychic tension the more probable and to the point the result.” This explains my poor results with the beginner tarot divination exercises because they were rather frivolous and there was no psychic energy behind them. Both natural Intuition and divination seem to require that there is actually something at stake; something that elevates the energy in the unconscious without triggering the distracting energy of the emotions.

This still leaves open the problem of why my divination was so wrong in late 2019 because there definitely was psychic energy behind that decision. Von Franz has the answer to that question too; namely, I was using my conscious-ego when doing the divination readings.

I had learned over the years to “listen” to Intuition. For me, Intuition was a receptive mode of the psyche. Most of the time, Intuition had nothing to say and this makes sense because most of the time there is no elevated psychic energy to kick it into action. In modern civilisation, we spend most of our time in psychic homeostasis. It’s only when things “go wrong” or we try something different that the psychic tension rises enough to trigger the Unconscious into action.

Thus, when I did the tarot divination exercise, I was in conscious-ego mode and not in Intuition mode. Accordingly, I approached each tarot reading as a problem to be solved. Von Franz notes that scientific exploration is founded in the rational-ego while divination is based on randomness.

“In (scientific) experimentation the observer’s conscious ego cuts a particular system out of the realm of wholeness. But in the oracle one allows chance to make the cut and only subsequently tries to read a result from it.”

The problem I had with the tarot exercise was that I treated it more like scientific enquiry. The question I was asking the cards was the hypothesis that framed the situation. It cut the hole in reality to use von Franz’s metaphor. Thus, I ended up too much “in my head” when the whole point of Intuition, as I had previously learned, is that it lays outside the rational mind. It must be “felt”.

This seems to me to be a problem with the beginner divination exercises. On the one hand, you can’t expect new practitioners to make important decisions based on tarot readings. On the other hand, the triviality of the reading ensures there is no psychic energy at work and therefore nothing to trigger the Intuition.

This raises a larger question around divination. If divination is really a proxy for Intuition and is only going to work when there is psychic tension, and if psychic tension is generated by real-world events anyway, why not let the events themselves play the role of the “chance” which makes a “cut in wholeness”? Then, Intuition would be free to respond to events when necessary i.e. when psychic tension is heightened. In short, what is the point of the divination cards or numbers?

Three possible answers to this question come to mind.

Firstly, divination can be thought of as a training exercise for Intuition. Jung believed that we are each born with specific psychic predispositions. Intuitive types will already have access to the Intuition and may not need any training to activate it. But those for whom Intuition does not come naturally can try to develop it through divination exercises.  

Secondly, the symbols used in divination provide an extra level of randomness that can expand the scope of Intuition. Intuition is by definition vague and interpretations of its meaning may be more or less accurate. The arbitrary symbolism of a divination reading prompts the practitioner to consider the broader implications and context.

The third point relates back to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Divination provides an external, visible representation to the Intuition. Psychologically, it is a projection. If you remove the projection, you allow that the individual can just do whatever they like whenever they like. The divination exercise could therefore be seen as a kind of psychic protection against ego inflation.

To the extent that a society accepts divination as an valid means of decision making, divination provides the same safeguards at the social level. Since any significant political decision will be accompanied by a heightened psychic tension, divination makes sense from a psychological point of view while also providing a central point of reference to ensure the socio-psychological dynamic does not go off the rails.

Of course, we live in a society that does not believe in divination or the irrational at all. As religion has continued to fade as a social force, we have simply replaced its irrationality with the facade of rationality provided by “science”. Corona provided a paradigm example of this delusion.

We are living through a time of heightened psychic energy which points to significant movements in the collective unconscious. It should be clear by now that corona was not the end of the story and the psychic machinations have not finished with us yet. Because our society has no way to understand this dynamic, we pretend that everything is “scientific” and “rational” and we have no problem committing acts equally as irrational in the name of science as Abraham did in the name of God. Unlike us, Abraham was honest about the irrationality of his behaviour.

Interestingly, this error seems related to the one that I committed with my tarot reading in late 2019. I used my conscious-ego where it was not appropriate. And just like my tarot reading was 100% wrong, so too has the “science” been 100% wrong for the last three years.

Because modern society has no means to recognise the irrational except as “mental illness”, it cannot process the world that we find ourselves in now. We continue to invoke the conscious-ego via “science” and “reason” in the most ridiculously illogical ways. Even Kierkegaard, the absurdist par excellence, would be shaking his head.

But we are also proving Kierkegaard’s point and it was one that Nietzsche and the other existentialists also made: reason and science are based in the Irrational because the rational-ego is born out of the Irrational. Failure to accept the irrational basis of reality will eventually lead to the destruction of reason.

14 thoughts on “Divination, Intuition and the Irrational”

  1. Hi Simon,

    Yes, I tend to agree with your concluding sentence because after all, it is irrational to pretend that are as a species we are rational. The facts suggest otherwise. From that incorrect assumption, much harm flows.

    People perhaps unconsciously perform divination quite a bit. I tend to read the newspaper with that sort of lens where my mind scans the articles presented and settles on a few articles for further reading. Our consciousness is required to cope with an influx of a lot of information on a regular basis, not to mention (as in your example) it is required to make decisions often with a less than complete narrative, so a method of setting limits is helpful for a smoother life.

    But gut intuition is always worth listening too. Oh yeah. Incidentally, I’m also of the belief that we are trained from a young age to disregard messages originating from the gut. The subconscious knows, it’s the conscious part of the mind that has to play catch up.

    Am I inferring in this essay that you’re hedging around the issue of ‘letting go’?



  2. Simon – what an interesting & high-stakes experiment. I’m curious as to how the cards gave you such definite answers. There are so many ways to read them! The idea that a card could give a yes or no answer makes me wonder what sort of yes & what sort of no…? As in ‘yes, because…’ or ‘no, because…’ When yeses & nos have justifications, they needn’t be mutually exclusive (like comparing a list of pros & cons).

  3. Chris – I guess that this comes down to the need for compliance. What the powers that be need is a population that will do what they’re told and so gut feel needs to be suppressed since it might tell you that you’re getting screwed. Of course, you could draw the same conclusion from logical thinking.

    I think you’re right about the newspaper example but the problem is that somebody else is choosing the articles for you. I think that’s why the “elites” are gearing up to crack down on the internet and social media in particular since it’s too random. Not sure what you mean by “letting go”. Care to elaborate?

    Shane – yes, but what makes it more interesting is that at the time it didn’t feel very high-stakes. If I had known how important the decision would be, I would have thrown my tarot cards in the fire :). You’re right. The fact that the cards seemed to give me a definite answer was probably evidence that I was stuck in the either-or mindset of rational thought. On the other hand, the problem I have with divination is that because there are so many ways to read the cards, you can make up any reading. To me, it feels like you should go with the “first” impression. Otherwise, you’re just making up the reading that suits you.

  4. Simon – it’s also interesting that you chose to use tarot cards (rather than, say, flipping a coin or throwing dice). The thing about the cards is that they’re pictorial: they tell a story. A single card contains multiple symbols & associations. Just like a dream. And if you draw more than one card, the sequence & juxtapositions add complexity. Ideally your gut would respond to a card (or a spread) at first sight, in which case any further thoughts could well just be static from the rational mind. The thing about divination of whatever kind is that it hinges on a moment in time. Reshuffle the cards & five minutes later you get a radically different reading. Not sure about free will, but people read the signs selectively. 🙂

    What you describe as your gut & intuition sounds akin to how Iain McGilchrist describes the right-brain hemisphere, which has a more complete picture than the rational left.

  5. Shane – I remember playing round with flipping a coin back in high school. We didn’t even think of it as divination, it was just a way to make a decision. What I always found funny about it was that the binary nature of the coin toss would instantly trigger a reaction from somebody who objected to the decision. I guess it was a good way of figuring out what you really wanted.

    McGilchrist is still on my reading list. If I remember correctly, the right brain has a more holistic picture but it’s less focused. That would fit with my idea of Intuition as more of a “feeling” than a “thought”.

  6. Hi Simon,

    Ah. If you get the chance, I recommend standing (or sitting) quietly in a forest one day for a bit and experiencing the life going on all around. I’ve got a hunch that in order to survive in a densely urban environment (not your garden, more say built-up Collingwood nowadays just as an example), we all have to kind of employ the conscious part of the mind to quieten down the messages the subconscious is sending. By letting go, I meant to reduce the effort required to quieten the subconscious and see what stories are revealed. Of course there is a fine line there and a person must be careful.

    The news is a bit of a problem, but I tend to use it to see what patterns are revealed by the flow of the articles. The really weird thing with that lot is if they’re caught lying about one or more highly amped up narratives, then they lose credibility, and that is a problem for them because it represents a loss of a channel for their narratives. Thus I’m guessing the hamfisted attempt to reduce alternative channels. It’s been tried before.



  7. I grew up thinking that everyone understood logic and used it constantly. It was only a few years ago that I realized many of the “rational” reasons people (including me) give for their decisions are just a facade on top of emotional motivations. Trying to engage logically with these fake reasons just leaves everyone frustrated.

  8. Chris – actually, I think my story was about “letting go” although I would phrase it as learning to listen to the subconscious (intuition). Whether that’s a good idea is very much dependent on the individual. There are some people who would be overwhelmed by the subconscious and probably need to repress it to stay in balance. I suspect most modern westerners have the opposite problem, though.

    Alex – most of what people think of as rational or logical are just explanations made up after the fact so that events seem to make sense. For me, one of the hallmarks of rationality is the ability to reason back to first principles i.e. questioning your assumptions. Most people not only can’t do that, they actually have an emotional response when invited to do it. People treat such matters as articles of faith rather than assumptions to be interrogated.

  9. I constantly refer to this when I see the next big marketing price on the fabulous power of new AI. What we call ‘intelligence’ is just one very narrow part of the human experience, and is far from our most powerful or even most useful tool. It seems to work very well in ‘sliced off’ and abstract parts of reality, such as machines or moving symbols around in the form of language and number. Outside of that it’s uses really are quite limited, as the real world is too complex and unpredictable to reason out. It’s like when a great sportsman or musician can’t give a rational explanation for their performance when asked, it just sort of flowed, like a river.

    The German romantics all made the funny observation that the reason nerds struggle so much with understanding women is that they are much more in tune with this intuitive part of existence, and those who can’t access it will flounder.

  10. Skip – I don’t think it’s an accident that the more we pursue disembodied “rationality” the crazier society is becoming. If these machine learning tools do end up being used in professional occupations, I’d expect to see an avalanche of crap. Hopefully it will be limited to non-important sectors like IT. Heaven help us if it makes it into medicine, law etc. Although as the last few years have shown, those professions have probably already had the last remaining vestiges of humanity sucked out of them so this would just be finishing the job.

  11. Simon – yes! Focus seems to be what the left brain does best. To summarise McGilchrist, which no doubt does him an injustice, humanity’s left brain emphasis has been growing over the centuries & the more it increases, the more its bias dominates our civilisation. Like, a left-brain-designed environment trains each new generation of humans to lean progressively more on their left hemisphere: a vicious circle. Culminating, seemingly, in AI, about which there seems to be a lot of debate lately, w/ the release of chatbots & release from the need to write your own theses (as if most PhDs weren’t already disposable).

  12. Shane – not to forget that the increasing division of labor means that people have been encouraged to focus on a smaller and smaller area of specialty. One of my uni lecturers was writing her PhD thesis on long range reflexives in Scandinavian languages. Imagine spending three years of your life examining one tiny grammatical element of a tiny language group. You’d need to shut down your right brain just to get through it.

  13. Hi Simon,

    That is a great book from von Franz. She has written lots of good ones like her archetypal interpretations of folk stories.

    Sometimes I play with the idea that the more definite (rational) the problem, the more insignificant or trivial the answer, and vice versa. On the one hand, to become ever more rational, the sciences have investigated ever more trivial problems. On the other hand, for the really big problems one has traditionally resorted to the supposedly highly irrational teachings of religion and mysticism.

  14. Crow – that’s a good point. I think it depends on how things are organised. Let’s take the example of writing a novel. The initial idea for the novel is irrational. But the working out of the novel is more rational if you are writing a 3 Act story structure. Therefore, the writing at the “lower level” becomes a series of problems to solve. But you still need to understand how those “problems” relate back to the overall idea.

    These days far too much of society in general involves “problems” delegated to subordinates who don’t understand the overall idea. They might be acting “rationally” within their own frame of reference but that rationality has no context. This happens even in institutional science too. That’s a problem that comes with scale and the reason why bureaucracies so reliably become Kafkaesque.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *