Divination: Stupid or Wise

JiaoBeiBoth in mainland China and Taiwan Taoist temples, I frequently saw people praying and then throwing little wooden blocks of wood (jiao-bei 筊杯 ) on the floor repeatedly.  The blocks were cresent-moon-shaped and flat on one surface and round on the other.  The Taoist petitioners used the jiao-bei divination to ask a question of the gods who answered the questions by influencing the wood blocks.

The supplicants could only ask ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. If one block landed flat-side up and the other down the answer was ‘yes’ (“sacred jiao”), both down meant ‘no’ (“negative jiao”). If one block landed on edge, the throw was null and void  and must be repeated because the gods did not understand the question.  If both flat sides were up, the blocks would roll and appear to laugh — this is called “laughing jiao” which means the gods are amused at the statement put to them because of one of the following:

  • The question is not clear enough.
  • The divine reply is not sincerely sought as the questioner has already decided what to do.
  • The questioner knows the time is not ripe for the matter posed and yet still wants to seek divine direction.The question posed is therefore considered irrelevant.
  • The questioner already knows the answer, is just looking for reassurance, and the consultation isn’t necessary.

This last option reminds me of the mental subtleties Christians go through while seeking answers to prayers to their God when they don’t think they got the answer they sought for.

Stupid, right? Silly superstition, right? Well, I’ve always wondered how stupid it really is. I certainly don’t think gods are talking through the sticks, or through any such divination or augury method but perhaps there is some utility beyond the false beliefs. For instance, see my I-Ching post for one possible benefit of divination — cooking tofu in our mind juices or how vague readings help us to see behind parts of our minds otherwise hidden — creative insight.

Aeon magazine just published an article called “How to Choose” which discusses another possible explanation for the utility of “stupid, superstitious divination” methods besides my “creative insight” version. The author, Michael Schulson points out that many phenomena in life are somewhat random and that for those processes, using a systemic choice method may carry biases which harm the outcomes. In other words, reason can sometime hurt us. Well, good reasoning may tell us that a random choice would be the wisest, but this in not the sort of reasoning we usually do. Ironic, eh? For more details, you may enjoy Schulson’s article.



  • HT to Cris, at Genealogy of Religion, for writing on the Aeon article.
  • See my post on this Zulu movie where I labeled the divination used by a Shaman as “nonsense”. In the movie, the sick person (AIDS) blows on bag of bones that shaman read as a disease caused by anger and ordered a stupid prescription. So, yeah, often divination is stupid. But maybe my post helps you see the adaptive reason it evolved or persists.




Filed under Philosophy & Religion

8 responses to “Divination: Stupid or Wise

  1. Jiao-bei seems silly at first glance because it’s not a common way of decision-making in our Western culture. A New Agey Western woman I met told me she has some special wooden dice or sticks that she rolls when she needs guidance or direction. The wood sticks had Taoist sayings on them.After she read the numbers or notes on the sticks she look up some corresponding section in her book of the Tao.

    Seeking answers using sources outside ourselves seems to be common: reading horoscopes, tarot cards, the stock market guru TV telling us what stocks to pick. Seeking black/white answers seems to be a primal urge in us. Some may even call this urge spiritual or the god desire. You might be interested in my post where I explore our common everyday primal urges for guidance. Many seem to call our urges like this new age practices but that seems overly dismissive of our underlying human drives: http://skepticmeditations.com/2014/07/23/new-age-world-religions-and-primal-spirituality/

    We want corroboration we are going in the “right” direction. I find myself wanting some kind of “sign” that my particular effort or situation will pay off before I go too far down a certain track. More so I seek confirmations when I’m headed into some uncertain or unknown project that has potential to disrupt or change my life. I don’t see this as wrong, silly, or stupid. I think it’s how we seek the answers or confirmations that is a very thin line between being experimentally smart or being gullible and superstitious.

    Much of our lives seems to be trying to find meaning or to see the pattern in randomness. The more unknown our venture the more we grope in the dark for something to hold onto. Gods, wooden sticks, and stock brokers where created to help us. Selecting the “right” answers out of the noise. It can keep us striving and kill us at the same time. The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by L Melodinow is a fascinating read. I’d be interested in your perspective on randomness.

    Great topic and post. Thanks

  2. @ Scott:
    My main point of this post was showing two theories to explain the possible usefulness of divination. What did you think of those?

    Concerning your question “I’d be interested in your perspective on randomness.” That questions need to be much more specific. “Randomness” is a huge mathematical concept (See Wolfram’s “A New Kind of Science“), yet alone a word thrown around in the non-math world (lay uses). Anyway, for now, let’s stick to the two theories I discussed about divination.

  3. PS, Scott: for some fun videos on “Randomness” I watched these today.

  4. I meant… getting your perspective on “randomness” as a topic for future posts or discussions, if you were interested. I’ll check out the video.

    Anyway, I think reason and intuition (or creative insight) need not be either/or process. Both reason and intuition are “played” when we make decisions. Superstitious methods, or divinations, flipping coins or sticks, usually are games that have some rational rules or parameters for “play”. It’s just that we confine our decisions within those game rules and/or let the outcome of the game inform our decision-making.

    You’ve pointed out some intriguing problems with human nature and reason. It may be a cliche’, but- monkeys throwing darts at a target are supposedly as good at picking stocks as humans (on average over time). Maybe human pride makes us think we are better at creating outcomes than we really are? Yet, I don’t see any non-human animals creating smart phones or designing mile long suspension bridges.

  5. Ah, I don’t think it is “pride” — just simple cognitive illusions.
    If you get a chance, go check this I-Ching link I had in the above OP and see what you think of my Tofu theory to explain potential benefits of some divination techniques inspite of their obvious superstitious side.

    Thanx, as always, for participating in the conversation.

  6. R Vogel

    I like both of these theories for different kinds of questions. As one who works in the investment world, I recognize the inherent limits of a rational approach and I see the results in the investment world where they invent divination techniques of their own: January effect, Technical Analysis, Low Beta, Dogs of the Dow – it’s all hokum, but you have to make a decision somehow! The great thing about human beings is once we get the answer, we are hard wired to create a rationale for it!

    The other is in some ways more interesting to me. When looking for inspiration, reading religious text straight through is probably not the best thing. Our minds are going to try and create some sort of order out of the chaos and lead us to bad places (I’m looking at you, Ken Ham!). Creating the dissonance of reading text out of context allows the mind to open up, create exegesis, and build new ways of looking at things. The out of context bits becomes a kind of poetry – like that old game Exquisite Corpse.

  7. @R Vogel,
    Great examples — thanx. I totally agree.

  8. Earnest

    A need for a yes or no answer is sometimes a sign of enmeshment in fear of the future. If the future is bright and cheerful, there is usually no need for divination.

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