Posted in History & Literature

Fortune Telling

Humanity has always been interested in trying to predict the future. Even if the future cannot be changed, we seem to have a primal craving to know something that should not be known. The history of fortune telling can be traced back to ancient times in almost every culture.

The ancient Greeks were particular fans of divination – the art of foreseeing with the inspiration of a god – and the most famous example is of course the Oracle of Delphi. The priestesses of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were known to give very accurate, yet cryptic, prophecies inspired by Apollo. For example, when Croesus, king of Lydia, consulted the Oracle regarding his invasion of Persia, he was advised: 

“If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed”. 

Croesus believed this to mean that he would conquer Persia, but ultimately, the invasion failed and his own empire was destroyed by the Persians instead.

However, as the Oracle of Delphi would only give prophecies on the 7th day of every month, most commoners could not afford to have their fortunes told by them and would instead turn to seers. Seers told fortune through variable method, all with the purpose of interpreting “signs from the gods”. An example would be a haruspicy – divination through the inspection of an animal’s organs, commonly a sacrificed sheep’s liver.

Divination was an important part of Native American cultures. Diviners would use potent hallucinogens to reach an altered state of mind to derive visions. Scrying was also common – the practice of “seeing” the future by using reflections in mirrors or water surfaces.
In ancient China, oracles would read the future by reading the patterns of cracks on a burnt turtle shell (plastromancy). Nostradamus, the famous French seer, would scry the future in a bowl of water. The most classic, stereotypical image of a fortune teller is a gypsy woman gazing into a crystal ball or reading the palm of a person to foresee an individual’s future.

Fortune telling still plays an important role in the modern world, with a significant proportion of people in multiple cultures believing that the future can be predicted by fortune tellers. In the Western world, horoscopes are a common feature of newspapers and astrologists and tarot card readers are frequented by people seeking advice. In countries such as Korea, China and Japan, a significant number of people will seek fortune tellers to see how “well-matched” a couple are before marriage is decided.

There has been zero scientific evidence to suggest that clairvoyance is real. However, perhaps that is not the point of fortune telling. Another name for fortune tellers is soothsayers – perhaps having our fortune told gives us a sense of comfort as it eases our morbid curiosity for what the future holds. The future is an endless sea of possibilities and the realisation that anything could happen can be crippling. So maybe the aim of fortune telling is not to predict the future, but to temporarily treat your fear of the future so that you may live in the present.

Posted in Philosophy, Special Long Essays

The Tree Of Possibilities

Author Bernard Werber (the inspiration for this Encyclopaedia) posited the following theory: if we could see the future, would we not actively build towards a better future? Imagine a tree soaring high into the sky, stretching countless branches in all directions. The many branches of the tree branch off into smaller branches, which branch into even more smaller branches. At the end of each branch, there hangs a leaf. This tree is not a normal tree; it is a Tree of Possibilities that represents the flow of time from the beginning of the universe to the distant future. Each split in a branch represents the creation of two different futures due to a choice or a change, while a leaf represents the final future created from the cumulative effects of these changes. Thus, the Tree of Possibilities is the ultimate crystal ball showing all the pasts that could have been and all the futures that can happen.

Of course the Tree of Possibilities is a fictional model created in our imaginations. But what if we could actually make this tree? First, we would create an organisation of the greatest scientists, mathematicians, sociologists, psychologists, historians, philosophers, science fiction writers etcetera that represent the many fields of knowledge. These people are gathered in a location far from the reaches of governments and the media, where they can discuss without any interference. These specialists will debate over all sorts of topics, amalgamating their knowledge and intuition to generate a tree diagram as mentioned above. This is a diagram free from ethics, morals, laws, optimism, pessimism and individualism – the ultimate objective view of all possible futures that humanity and the Earth may face. The experts may agree with each other at times and disagree at times. There is ample possibility that their postulations are wrong. But none of these matter. The important point is not that the Tree is “accurate” or not, but that it is an extensive scenario database of all the paths humanity can walk on towards the future.

The Tree of Possibilities will have various conjectures such as: What if nuclear war broke out? What if artificial intelligence is perfected? What if chimpanzees reach the intelligence levels of human beings? What if we build cities on the Moon? However, the future is altered much more easily that you would think. Thus, there will also be branches representing much more trivial and ordinary (even bizarre) postulations as well: What if smoking is banned? What if the average age women gave birth is older? What if rhinoceroses were domesticated pets? What if pianos do not exist?

On analysing these numerous postulations, a branch bearing the leaf with the ideal future will be found. Ergo, we can choose to follow a path of least resistance, where all the choices we make will ultimately lead to that ideal future. Essentially, the Tree of Possibilities is a tool that is used to predict the future. However, it is not “fortune telling” as it is based on logic rather than magic and divinity to see into the future. The future the Tree tells is not a set “destiny”, but rather one “possibility”. Thus, instead of fearing the future like we do with fortunes, we would instead feel excitement over the potential of finding the ideal future. If the path we are currently on is fated to an unhappy ending, then we can simply jump onto a different path with the guidance of the Tree. Unlike fortune telling, which destroys all uncertainty and any other possibilities in the future, the Tree of Possibilities provides humanity with the greatest gift: dreams of a better future.

As you could imagine, the possibilities of the future are infinite so a drawn-out diagram of the Tree of Possibilities would take up extensive amounts of space. Ergo, the ideal form of the Tree of Possibilities would be a computer program. As computer programs only need sufficient storage space, it provides a perfect environment in which the Tree may grow. The program would generate a Tree based on the information provided by the scholars, drawing out each branch and leaf, while also calculating the effects of any action on each of the possible futures. If we further applied the engine used in chess programs to predict the next few moves, then we may be able to create a program that can calculate the ideal future and the path of least resistance for humanity.

My ideal future is this. There is an isolated island, far from any interference, with a large building. At the centre of this building, there lies a supercomputer running The Tree of Possibilities. The computer is surrounded by lecture theatres, conference rooms and residential areas. Thus, specialists of each field may come to stay and use their knowledge to water the Tree and foster it. This island will provide humanity with hopes and dreams, leading them towards the best possible future based on logic and imagination.

The Tree of Possibilities will radically change our day-to-day lives. One of the greatest weaknesses of human beings is the inability to see the long-term happiness and sacrificing it for short-term gain. However, if we were able to see precisely how our actions will affect the future, then would we not act differently? Armed with insight and foresight, people will understand what is best for the future, and instead of the current near-sighted attitude of only seeing the gain right before our eyes, they will act in the best interests of their children and grandchildren. Politicians will see how useless bickering over trifling issues is and instead focus on policies that take a while to show the effects (yet nonetheless important), such as environmental conservation. The Tree of Possibilities will help us make rational decisions to create a world that the future generation will be happy living in, without being swayed by emotions and selfish greed. And so, we will build towards a utopia.

The greatest weapon a person has is imagination that can build the future.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Fortune Telling

A “good fortune teller” is not an “accurate” fortune teller. A “good fortune teller” is a fortune teller who “says good things”. A fortune teller who tells fortunes that are too real, despite warning people of the dangers to come in the future, tends to be ignored and hated on just like Cassandra from ancient Greek mythology. Human beings say they fear uncertainty in the future and want some certainty, but they do not want to hear about an unhappy future. This is a normal response. Who would want to hear that they will soon be diagnosed with a terminal illness, or that they will break up with their lover? However, people are fascinating in that they still try to know the future. We go to fortune tellers and read horoscopes to try figure out what will happen to us. But if they receive bad news such as “you will fail your next exam”, instead of studying even more they curse at the fortune teller for giving them a bad prediction. Thus, human beings live among curiosity about their life and fear of the unknown future, while celebrating good fortunes and actively denying bad ones.

The reason why we like to have our fortunes read is similar to why we watch previews of television shows: we are curious about what will happen. But if you ponder this deeply, you soon come to a great epiphany. The further you look out into the future, the clearer this becomes. Everyone eventually dies. A person’s life span is typically not much longer than a hundred years, with everyone meeting the same fate some day.

A fortune teller predicts the ups and downs of a person’s life. If you think about it, life is composed of a series of peaks and troughs that eventually result in death. No matter what misfortune comes your way, it will pass just as seasons come and go. A person who passed an exam is happy and leads a good life, but even if the person fails, they somehow make it through. Unless you give up, a person will continue to live on. C’est la vie. Life is as simple as that.

If the best fortune teller in the history of mankind told your fortune, they would say the following: “nothing matters, live the way you want”. Whether your fortune for the week is good or bad, you will eventually die. There is no point scaring yourself with fortunes, live every day as if it was your last. An uncertain future may be scary, but it also represents infinite possibilities. Just like Schrödinger’s cat, our tomorrows are both alive and dead at the same time. Until tomorrow comes and the box is open, we can never know what the future holds.

So as long as it does not harm you or anyone else, do whatever the hell you want.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Power Of Thought

The power of thought is extremely potent. Beliefs can drive people to extreme actions, or let those who lost everything pick up and carry on. Not only does this apply to religion, but all beliefs have a powerful effect on us.

The most easily observed effect is that the mind has over the body. In the 1950s, an accident occurred where a sailor was trapped in a refrigerated container on a cargo ship. There was plenty of food, but he knew he had no hope when his fingers and toes begun to go numb, and as his body started go stiff. Instead, he decided to record the pain and suffering of freezing to death on the wall using a piece of metal. By the time the ship arrived at the port, he had already frozen to death. However, the container was not refrigerated as it was not being used – the sailor had killed himself with the power of thought.
This shows how thought affects the way we perceive the world, which forms the basis of the placebo effect. If you give a patient sugar pills and tell them it is medicine, it is common to see an improvement in their health. This is due to the body’s amazing ability to repair itself, yet the brain believes the drugs helped it recover.

Thoughts and beliefs affect society as well.
Private property, the monetary system, authority and ethics are all products of the human mind. This is called the Tinkerbell Effect, where some things only exist because people believe in them. The name comes from how Tinkerbell from the play Peter Pan is revived with the belief of children.

Furthermore, believing can determine the future. In philosophy, there is something called the Thomas Theorem, which states that “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. For example, if there is a rumour that a bank will go bankrupt, people will withdraw their money and cause the bank to go bankrupt. 
This theorem explains self-fulfilled prophecies, a type of prediction that causes the events to take place because of the prophecies. Horoscopes and fortune telling are largely based around this effect, where telling a person that “good things will happen” (or bad) will cause the person to think positive (or negatively) and result in them acting in favour of positive results (or negative). 
This strange phenomenon is described very well in the movie “The Matrix”. When Neo visits the Oracle, she tells him “Don’t worry about the vase”. When he says “What vase” and turns around, he knocks over the vase behind him, causing it to fall and shatter. The Oracle then questions whether the vase would have broken if she had not told him about it. A similar case is seen in “Terminator” and “Back To The Future”.

As shown above, thoughts and beliefs contain immense power, and all humans need to do to make a better world is imagine and believe in such a world. However, the problem is that we seem to be unable to utilise this potential.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Forer Effect

Read the following passage, and rate out of 5 how accurately it describes you:

You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.

Does it fit your personality quite closely? Interestingly, in a study of 150 university students, the average score given was 4.26 out of 5. This is actually composed of pieces of horoscopes by the psychologist Bertram R. Forer, who studied the psychology of horoscopes. As one could see (on retrospect), the above paragraph involves many sentences that would fit almost everyone. 

It is through these broad yet somehow specific-sounding statements and the human psychology that the words describe exactly who they are that allow horoscopes and fortune tellers to gain such a profit. 

(Image source: http://fc09.deviantart.net/fs45/i/2009/155/d/5/Zodiac_by_sygnin.jpg)