I have a friend who is a magician. He performs the occasional stage show with card tricks and coins hidden behind the ear. His work is sleight of hand, a flash of movement deceiving the eye. He’d say it’s science. You experiment and find what actually works.
My friend, Angus Stocking, is also a tarot reader with his own small business for clients who have questions about love, money, and other volatile, mysterious indulgences. For him, reading people’s cards is different from stage magic. In one he wows the audience with gentlemanly distraction, and in the other, he believes he is accessing an invisible realm of order and prediction where each card holds symbolic information relevant to the viewer’s life.
Besides reading cards, Angus might have you reach into a bag to dig out a rune stone marked with one of 25 symbols, or colored marbles for the I Ching, a Chinese divination technique dating back 3,000 years.
“Sometimes you need the extra umph of a miracle to listen to what is being said,” Angus tells me.
Angus has a scientific mind. He’s a land surveyor by trade and makes the bulk of his living writing papers for the infrastructure industry, studying and writing about materials and engineering techniques for bridges, manhole covers, sewer drains, and skyscrapers around the world. He reads fortunes on the side.
Does he honestly think it’s real?
“I regularly experience synchronicities or intuitive predictions at a rate that argues against simple chance,” Angus says. “It becomes fatuous to insist there is not a spiritual component.”
Since I’m Angus’ friend, I get free readings, and I’ve had time to run an anecdotal experiment. Why not? I’ve been receiving readings for about five years now, which has seen major life transitions for me, a rotten divorce and a move after 18 years in the same area, a couple new books, a custody battle over children. In the beginning, the cards looked ugly, a lot of death, devils, and towers struck by lightning, people falling to their deaths. The week my wife and I split, I pulled from Angus’ bag a rune stone which referred to the word sever. The description in his rune book read: bite through until your teeth meet. It’s exactly what was happening. As life smoothed out, so did the cards, more moons, stars, cups raised, ships sailing in for rescue. In other words, the cards neatly matched my life.
I believe it would be unscientific to discount the magic Angus professes. How could you prove hogwash, no alignments between stars, cards, stones, and the fates?
Angus says, “Magic isn’t non-rational. You do experiments and you record the results.”
In 2010 I traveled to a small research station on the Greenland Ice Sheet with José Rial, a UNC Chapel Hill climate researcher who specializes in chaos theory. Accompanying him, I read through his papers and listened to him explain how the real answers are in the noise, what most scientists throw away. He placed listening devices across the ice sheet, recording glacial quakes and tremors, hearing the slightest pings and cracks that he added to his larger studies in the millennial teetering of climate changes between hemispheres. He was gathering as much diverse data as he could, holding it up to the light in search of connections.
As we flew in a Twin Otter with skis on its landing gear, Rial stared through his window at horizons of ice and buried mountains. Over engine roar, he said, “Like Darwin said, so much beauty for so little purpose!”
At the research station, everyone else was saying the planet will get nothing but get hotter. Rial, concerned with instability, said that when an entire planet oscillates at our current frequency and scale, the new equilibrium will not necessarily be what you think, or what models predict. At our eating table in a tent as Arctic storm hounded the walls, Rial was the only one saying a new ice age is just as likely an outcome. It could be right around the corner.
Chaos is not far from magic. Turn a card, read if it’s true.
The magic of the cards may be the unaccountable coincidence, the glimmer of light you happen to notice, like Rial listening for order between ice quakes and global climate fluctuations.
Angus tells me, “There’s a continuum. You could say at one end of the spectrum the cards come up completely randomly and we derive a meaning we find useful. Considering that, it’s still worthwhile. But I believe in the full woo-woo, the cards are not random, there’s what we might call a third intelligence in the room.”
Intelligence, I ask?
“As above, so below,” he says, “There is some intangible undetectable force, something like gravity, an ordering principle that makes the cards form into a diorama or model of a situation that can be read.”
Do I believe? Yes, no, maybe. Self organization is a recognized principle: in an initially disordered system, order arises from local interactions between parts.
When Angus makes a coin disappear, I know it’s hidden behind his hand. The coin is not really gone. He won’t tell you the trick, and won’t do it twice in case you observe too closely and discover what he’s up to. He leaves you in uncertainty, your brain struggling to put pieces together, which is both magic and science. The coin, when it disappears, leaves you wondering how the pieces fit together, all in service of asking the question.
Woodcut: 1888, artist unknown, from L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology).