Determinism and Other Problems with Divination

CASE 5:  Popular Belief in Ancient China

Since the eagerness to know what is going to happen in one’s life is arguably one of the most basic of human desires, it is no surprise that the art of divination is a widespread human practice with a long history across many cultures. Under Global Context you’ll find that some Babylonian texts made predictions that sound a lot like those in the Daybook. But unlike the Daybook, Babylonian texts generally were not arranged according to the calendar. This is one way in which the Daybook is different from other divination books. In the Daybookthe future is not a mystery, since what is going to happen is precisely described. The reader can know immediately whether it is auspicious or not to do certain things on particular days. This creates problems, however, in at least two respects. One concerns the notion of free will and human destiny, while the other concerns belief in supernatural power. Both of these concerns, of course, will bring us back to the problem of superstition and science.

Let us assume that people who used the Daybook believed that the future could be known and that the book’s predictions were accurate. Working with these assumptions, if one simply followed the instructions in the Daybook and chose the correct days for carrying out one’s daily work, one’s life would be disaster-free. Everyone could be happy and prosperous. Indeed it would seem that all one needs to do to lead a happy life is to follow the instructions in theDaybook. This would appear to offer a mechanistic approach to life, one in which the conscious actions of gods have little relevance.

But doesn’t the Daybook talk a lot about gods and ghosts? Yes it does, it tells the user when to sacrifice to the deities, for instance, and how to exorcise evil ghosts. Again, if you follow its instructions, you can outwit the spirits every time, so by what power could deities or ghosts demand respect or fear? This question never arises in the Daybook.

There is also the problem of morality for, if the Daybook’s prescriptions work, then in principle it could be used to achieve success in carrying out evil deeds. Think, for example, what a burglar might do if he had a copy of the Daybook. An entry in the BURGLARS section reads:

Zi 子 is the rat. The thief has a pointed mouth with a light mustache, and he is nimble in using his hands. His [skin] color is black, and he has black moles on his face. He has a scar on his ear, and hides within the wall under the manure stack [?]. (SHT 827b)

If a thief with the characteristics described in the text were to avoid doing his business on the Zi day, would he be successful? There is no reason to think he wouldn’t, if the Daybook is to be trusted. In other words, neither spirituality nor morality play a prominent role in theDaybook even though it offers itself as a guide for daily behavior. In this regard it differs from many ancient guides to life, which tend to be built around a belief in spiritual agency. For the same reason, the Daybook begins to resemble science, for it presumes that the efficacy of its predictions is independent of spiritual agency. It also resembles science in its systematic laying out of information and its heavy reliance on numbers.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to view the Daybook as an early form of science. Unlike some of the high-end cosmologies being produced in China during the same period, it does not attempt to explain the future in terms of the regular and natural transformations of material and forces such as wind, water, heat, and so on. What it does is apply a rational system to spiritual agency. The material “things” discussed in the higher-level philosophies of the time can mostly be demonstrated to have existed: heat, light, force, and dense material, for example. The agents of change in the Daybook, on the other hand, cannot be shown to have existed because they often are spiritual, even if they must obey rational principles. So the Daybook shares with science a desire to understand the future and it presumes that the cosmos operates according to certain constant principles, independent of the whims of supernatural powers. But those powers still exist and in fact remain one of the reasons why things turn out to be lucky or not!

Go to the next section: NOW AND THEN.

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