On Fortune-Telling (or The Mysteries of M. Reynaud)

Many of my friends, and many more members of my generation, seem to be putting renewed faith in fortune-telling. This isn’t really a huge surprise, since fortune-telling has always been huge part of society throughout history. Reading horoscopes, construing meaning from tea leaves, gazing over a crystal ball, scrutinizing vacuous articles about the NBA draft, even interpreting animal entrails—for every human activity that ever existed, someone with a hard-to-place foreign accent has tried to make a living by reading the future off of it. But regardless of whether or not your great great great grandfather knew he was going to die because of how his slaughtered cow’s liver looked like (rather than from the smallpox he’d contract from messing around with cow guts), its appeal is enduring no matter how many rationalist talking heads insist on its vapidity. But instead of joining my finger in the collective self-serving wagging, this entry will be focused on two angles I find people rarely talk about; what are its positive aspects, and how do I make a buck off it?

First things first, there’s absolutely nothing vapid about predicting the future! Our strongest natural impulse as humans is to try and take control over our existence, and attempting to foretell the immediate hereafter was the surest way our ancestor cavepersons could find a nice cave and some ripe fruit without getting eaten. To that purpose, those cavepeople spent ages trying out all those different fortunetelling techniques I mentioned before and more to find bigger caves and get riper fruit. Eventually, after cracking enough turtle bones, they found that some of the predictions they made always came true! Those fortunetellers who were lucky enough to be consistently correct usually become prominent members of the community, and their often very useful predictions became enshrined within their community. As time went by, those people went from calling themselves fortune tellers—or whatever the word for fortune teller is in caveperson language—to diviners, to oracles, to philosophers of nature, to scientists. And sometimes those predictions are so unbeatable that we completely forget they’re even predictions; we just call them laws of nature, as if you could sue the universe for failing to make apples fall the way you predict they will.

As I’ve talked about before, any kind of fortune-telling trick that is consistently correct automatically turns into a scientific law—the moment someone figures out how to consistently guess their luck by finagling cow intestines, you better believe they’re going to set up a hedge fund and begin trading on the stock market. That doesn’t mean inaccurate methods like tarot card readings aren’t real, they’re just not provably consistent, which most scientists consider a synonym for “correct”, which most scientists consider a synonym for “real”. But thinking about accuracy and consistency is the exact wrong thing to look at when talking about reading the future these days; being the person who says “that horoscope stuff is garbage” to your friend when they’re seeking guidance with a tough life circumstance is less likely to make you the victor in some contrived imaginary argument and more likely to make you look like a tone-deaf asshat. People forget that horoscopes aren’t popular because they’re accurate—they’re popular because they’re soothing.

Why are they soothing, you might ask? Most will quickly imply that it’s because these people enjoy deluding themselves into thinking they know what’s coming in their life. What people seem to ignore is that these types of activities, regardless of actual predictive capacity, provide a very valuable opportunity to step back and reflect on one’s life. When Madame Zostra declares “You have an enemy!”, the first thing you do isn’t to immediately install home security; it’s to ask yourself questions like “What enemies have I made over the years? Who would want to hurt me, and why?”. Those sorts of questions, and the process of guiding you into asking them to yourself, are the hallmark of psychotherapy. And whereas seeing a shrink is prohibitively expensive to lots of people these days, you can usually find a horoscope in the paper every morning, or literally anywhere on the Internet. Even better, you get artistic symbols and interesting mystical references along with it! It might not be clinically better than sitting in a drab room with a 40-year old who mostly just stares at you while you babble, but I definitely can’t blame people for feeling like it is.

This gives us an interesting opportunity; what if we could replicate the things that make fortune-telling appealing, while guiding people towards productive self-assessment, without all the inaccurate “You will suffer a terrible fate!” hand-wringing? And most importantly, how do we make money doing it?

Our first step into becoming a fruitful psychic is identifying a technique to use; I personally favor the tarot for its simplicity. In its most abstract form, reading tarot consists of selecting some number of visually attractive symbols randomly from a predetermined set, each of which represents some aspect or concept of human life, and interpreting their collective selection. Simple enough! Now we have to find easy-to-interpret, rapidly deployable symbols that are visually aesthetic and don’t involve signing up for a year-long subscription to stock photos of women eating salad alone while laughing. Where on Earth could we find something like that? 🤔🤷

Emoji it is then; all you have to do now is come up with a decent list of your favorite emojis, large enough so that ever pulling the same combination out is extremely unlikely, and assign some interpretation to it. The looser or broader the interpretation the better! Remember, the idea is to give people the excuse to think about themselves; the more they have the ability to think about what they want to think about, the more help they’ll be able to give themselves. Naturally, I’ve come up with my own totally arbitrary list, which I’ve put up at the end of this entry.

Lastly, give yourself a psychic persona with a nice foreign name that evokes mystery and deeper knowledge. Unfortunately, the only mystery a name like Rodriguez-Gonzalez possesses is the mystery of where the hell all those syllables came from⁠—something European, short, and elegant like Reynaud should do the trick. Give yourself a pointless honorific like Monsieur/Madame or The Great to feign authority, set up a social media account, and “read” away; after that, all you can do is hope you get enough followers so that you can sign a printed tarot card deal and rich people hire you to answer why their lives aren’t better. I can’t predict how your fortune will fare, but I can tell you that Monsieur Reynaud is already in session.

EmojiDescriptionInterpretation
🐉 DragonDesire for control, attachment
🌋VolcanoAbrupt change, release after building up
🌌GalaxySelf as part of a whole, “the big picture”
📯Postal HornAnnouncement, warning, call
🌕MoonIllusion, deception, confusion
🏺 Amphora (Jug)Physical possessions
🎇SparksNew emotion, physical pleasure, sexuality
🎭Drama MasksSelf as social entity, drama
🌠Shooting StarWishes, opportunity, self-actualization
🌄SunriseA change of thinking, rejuvenation
🐋WhaleHardship, longevity
🎠Carousel HorseEntertainment, spiritual emptiness
🐚Spiral ShellSecrets, intuition, rumors
👥ShadowsSociety, surveillance, anxiety, paranoia
👹Oni (Ogre)Aggression, fear
💀SkullDeath, endings
🔮Crystal BallSeeking guidance, the unexplainable
🔱TridentCraftmanship, the application of talents
⚖️ScalesJudgement, justice, evaluation
🌬️BreathNature, health, taking a break
🃏JokerBreaking of norms, exclusion
👁️EyeThe attainment of new information
🕊️DovePeace, reconciliation
🕯️CandleEmotional realization, mental healing
🕸️WebFeeling trapped, planning, a project
🗝️KeyUnderstanding, acquiring new skills
🗡️DaggerViolence, conflict, debate
🎱8-BallRisk, danger, taking a chance
🏛️TempleInstitutions, orthodoxy, group authority
🏝️IslandSimplicity, leaving behind the unnecessary
☀️SunFulfillment, happiness
♟️ PawnEmployment, responsibility
🌪️TornadoDestruction, tearing down boundaries
⛩️Torii (Shrine)Spirituality, mindfulness
🗿Moai (Statue)Mystery, stability, emotional hardness
HourglassPassage of time, deadlines, procrastination
🦄UnicornFantasy, morality, virtuosity
👺Tengu (Goblin)Mischievousness, social disregard
⛓️ChainsBuilding bonds, strength, burdens
🧿Nazar (Talisman)Protection, mindfulness against harm
🧙MageCreativity, solving problems
⚗️AlembicLogic, rationality, analyzing
🧮AbacusWealth, tasks, coordination
🌹RoseBeauty, romance, art
👑CrownIndividual authority, power
🌊WaveThe unconscious becoming conscious
🌩️LightningShock, sudden realization, surprise
🎑Tsukimi (Ceremony)Ritual, self-care
🌱SeedlingGrowth, birth, beginning
SailboatTravel, new things, moving past emotions
🍾 CelebrationPositive self-assessment, enjoyment
🌍WorldYour surroundings, compassion

On Hunting Unicorns

When I was in high school and very much in the crackpot stage of my life, I used to be a big follower of cryptozoology; the study, and attempt to prove the existence of, creatures only described in the folkloric record. (Note that I say “study” here in the same sense that a serial killer might say that “murder is the study of human death” in a schlocky police procedural.) Whenever somebody would ask me why I thought flying deer or unicorns existed, I’d simply ask them to prove me wrong: hOw dO YoU KnOw tHeRe aReN’T AnY? dId yOu lOoK EvErYwHeRe aNd nOt fInD OnE?

When I got older and “wiser”, I realized my follyhad unicorns existed, we would have simply either shot them all to death or genetically modified them for optimal horn production to the extent that we’d only be left with large bony masses and an atrophied horse body attached to them. But colt meeting Colt notwithstanding, believing in unicorns (or cryptid of your choice) tends to be tricky to deal with both philosophically and scientifically, and in this entry I’ll try to show you why.

unicorn2 copy

You see, scientists are in general cranky old codgers, and this grouchiness manifests itself through an all-pervading negativity when it comes to the discussion of scientific pursuits. (If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a scientist call another scientists work some variant of the word garbage, I’d have enough metal to run Smith & Wesson out of business.) And, like anything made by cranky old codgers, this negativity has been philosophically formalized into what can be summarized briefly as “you’re wrong, we just don’t know how yet”.* In that sense, scientists instinctively value beliefs that are (nominally) easy to disprove, which makes believing in the existence of unicorns tricky business.

*Incidentally, this is precisely why scientists call the claims of science “theories”; no matter how correct or proved these claims may be, we’re only one unicorn away from having people throw trash at us from the auditorium back seats during our university colloquium.

To illustrate, imagine we’re in some stodgy Viennese café in the early 1900’s and two philosophers with opposite claims about unicorns are trying to convince us of their viewpoint; Philosopher 1 claims that no unicorns exist, while Philosopher 2 states that at least one unicorn exists somewhere on Earth. If we are the same kind of grouch that I discussed before, we would set about attempting to show which claim is “less wrong” by attempting to disprove one claim or the other.

However, notice the difference in effort to do so; to refute Philosopher 1, we’d only need to hunt (or hire someone to find for us) one unicorn to completely blow his claim out of the water. To refute Philosopher 2, we’d need to scour every single part of the Earth to make sure that unicorns aren’t hiding out in some remote unreachable corner of the planet.* Sure, finding a single unicorn would be a herculean challenge for any hunter, but it is far more challenging to survey the ends of the Earth to make sure that there aren’t any.

*Spoiler alert: Yes, that includes the ocean.

unicorn1

From the perspective of optimizing the amount of time we spend drinking coffee and making unpleasant faces at passerby, it is far more convenient to entertain the notion that no unicorns exist; simply because it’s far easier to disprove it. And if you notice carefully, it turns out that claims that refer to a universal truth (i.e. there are no unicorns/everything is unicorns) in general are far, far easier to disprove than claims that are their direct refusal—namely, that at least one unicorn exists/at least one thing isn’t a unicorn. These types of claims are usually referred to as existential, in the sense that they claim that a specific thing exists (or doesn’t), and this “oppositeness” always holds; the refutation of a universal claim is always an existential claim, and vice-versa. If we were particularly pretentious—and if we’re in a Viennese coffee shop in the early 1900’s, that’s extremely likely—we might even call it something like the “no unicorns principle”:

No Unicorns Principle: Claims that are universal have more philosophically scientific worth than those that are existential.

If you look at the different theories in physics that have popped up throughout human history, you’ll find they share something in common; their claims are almost always universal, like the claim made by Philosopher 1, in the sense that they make statements like “everything is ████ ” or “everything of this type behaves according to █████ “. Perhaps more strikingly, you’ll find that there are far fewer theories regarding the existence of things in the vein of what Philosopher 2 proposed; statements like “there is at least one object that behaves according to ████ ” or “there is a ████ ” are fairly sparse in the history of science.

This is, in the context of my previous arguments, no coincidence. That innate grumpiness in scientists has manifested itself as the historical tendency that almost all of our physical theories are of the universal type, and statements about the existence of weird objects in our universe are almost always made as a direct consequence of their prediction in universal theories (and even then we get into big fights about them). It is for that reason that most of our experimental efforts are focused on finding specific things, since it is through this method that we go about disproving all theories that don’t predict these things’ existence. And when it comes to hunting these unicorns, you better make sure you bring a big gun.