26 June 2008

Casting Bones

There are times I wish I could believe in oracles.

Many societies throughout history have tried to find advice in the most unlikely of places. The Babylonians, for example, read liver spots to learn the future; the Shang dynasty Chinese cracked turtle shells; the Israelites cast lots; the Azande poisoned chickens; the Greeks and Romans had their oracles at Delphi. Despite the differences in the methods, the overall plan of an oracle is always the same: you address your question to the gods, you perform an action with an uncertain outcome (what will the liver look like? how will the shell crack? will the chicken die?), and then you interpret the results and act accordingly.

Now, of course the pattern of tea leaves on a saucer isn't going to tell us anything we didn't already know. The oracles are completely random, and the interpretation thereof is completely arbitrary.

But in many ways that's the beauty of the oracle. True: you will bring whatever interpretation to the oracle that you want. Any sufficiently ambiguous sign can always be twisted to suit your purposes. But the fact that you're consulting an oracle means you must now justify your own thought processes against the supposed divine truth of the oracle.

This process, I would argue, can be a great aid to decision-making. If the oracle justifies what you already thought was the correct course of action, then you will pursue it with less temerity, believing that the gods sanction your undertaking. If the oracle shakes your resolve, then you clearly had reservations in the first place and would be wise to reconsider your plans. And if you find yourself changing the oracle's interpretation to suit your own desires, then the decision was already made long before you inquired of the gods.

In other words, oracles are in many ways like Rorschach tests. They are forms without content. Instead of having an intrinsic meaning, their interpretation comes entirely from the mind of the beholder, who by supplying his own interpretation makes transparent certain thought processes that may otherwise have remained invisible. The oracle throws a grain of sand into the indecisive mind around which the pearl of a decision can coagulate.

But of course, it doesn't work at all if you don't believe that the signs are divinely inspired. At the moment, I am personally wrestling with a difficult decision. And, over the past few days, all 'signs' have been pointing to the same answer. But because I know that those signs are coming from my own mind and my own decision-making process, they are of little use to me. Granted, the fact that my unconscious mind seems to be unanimous should be an indication of how to proceed - but I don't know whether that consensus came about because my answer is the right one, or just the answer I want to hear.

A little bit of self-delusion, in other words, can be an antidote for indecision.

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