Applying ancient divination to modern intuition | Peter Struck | TEDxPenn

Translator: Nadia Putri
Reviewer: Denise RQ The year is 480 B.C. The Persians have mounted
on an army of 300,000 men, the largest in history up until that time. It’s a sized army
that the Romans would later use to dominate the entire Mediterranean. The leader of the Persians, Xerxes,
a man of such stature during his time that even people of other nations
referred to him simply as “The King”, had decided to launch
the full fury of this force against a single city, Athens. The situation in Athens was serious. The Athenians figured if anyone could come up with a solution
to this particular problem, though, it may well be them. They were, after all, renowned for their ingenuity
and their rational intellects. They had recently invented
democracy and tragedy, and within a decade, would see the birth of Socrates
and philosophy as we know it. So, they did what any rational people
would do in such a situation: they deliberated. They gathered information. They used rules of logic
to draw inferences. They used public debate
to test their conclusions. And with careful arguments,
they considered their courses of action. After grinding away at it, they did what any rational group
of people would do at that time: they sent away for an Oracle. The Pythia was the most
authoritative oracle of the day. She was an aging, frail, illiterate woman housed in a massive
stone temple at Delphi. She took questions from her petitioners, and she dispensed answers
in the form of riddles. The Athenian answer was grim. But there was one small glimmer of hope. The Pythia said that only a wooden wall
will remain unconquered. [Themistocles] took this riddle
back to their city. And a debate which have been meandering
in many different directions quickly crystallized
around two potential options. Either hole up in the traditional
stronghold of the Acropolis which have been surrounded
by a wooden fence or use wood to build a navy to take on Xerxes at sea
and cut off his supply lines. The second course of action prevailed,
and Athens survived and thrived. Now, we might wonder
why did they do this? Why did they rely on an Oracle? Why did they imagine, especially this group of people
that was an emblem for rational thinking, why did they imagine that a person
with no knowledge base could provide any pertinent insight
into their situation? And this was no aberration. The Greeks were in the habit
of turning to oracles and also used many other techniques when they ran up to the limits
of their own rational thinking. They were interested
in the instinctual behaviors of animals like the flight paths
and screeches of birds. They were interested in their dreams, and they spent time examining the pulsating entrails of the animals
they sacrificed to their gods. They called it the study
of divine signs or divination. Seems like strange behaviour, yes? Well, in the next 10 minutes,
I’m going to try persuade you of 2 things. Number one, it wasn’t strange,
and number two, you still do it. My field is classics. The study of Greece and Rome. And when scholars in my discipline
take on this question, they typically pull out
two kinds of answers. Number one comes from
a vantage of social history. Let’s imagine that what we have
is an elite group that has a strategy, and they use the ostentatious
mystery of divine science in order to persuade
the masses to come their way. They form consensus,
and they manage descent. But there’s a problem for this idea. The problem is that most situations
of divination, despite our example, were not relevant to politics. Most had to do with matters of personal
and even intimate concern. Should I be involved in
a business deal with this person? Should I take a trip on this day? Should I marry this man? These things have nothing to do with the dynamic
between the elite and the masses. There’s a further problem, which is according to
all the evidence that we have, even in situations of politics, the elite thought it worked
just as much as the masses did. So if elite were pulling
wool over anyone’s eyes, they were pulling wool
over their own eyes as well. Doesn’t quite hold up. Another kind of explanation comes out, and it starts from
the idea of superstition. We’re told that primitive brains
are superstitious – and the corollary is that ours aren’t – and they’re prone to
exotic theological commitments so they believe in strange things. But there’s a problem
with this line of thinking as well. While it may well be a part
of the behaviour divination, it doesn’t necessarily explain
the behaviour divination. While superstition may have
something to do with it, it doesn’t necessarily lead to
the behaviors that we see in divinations. It’s not as though, when sufficient amount
of superstition in the air, people think that the Universe is coursing
with hidden messages that are readable by these techniques. A final kind of explanation,
which is the category of no explanation, suggest that well, lots
of people do weird things, cultures have strange beliefs,
so there may well be no explanation. It’s just a weird Mediterranean behaviour and we’ve grown out
of that kind of thing, thank goodness. There’s a problem here as well, though. It wasn’t just the Greeks
who did this kind of thing. In fact, all ancient cultures
for which we have evidence, from the Southern tip of Africa
to Northern Britannia and from Eastern to Western Eurasia, we’re in the habit when they ran up against the limits
of their rational thinking to turning to techniques
that took over for them and allowed them
to advance their problems. The techniques vary. The Chinese took tortoise shells
and put them in fire and then read the cracks
that happened afterwards. But the structure
and the thinking is the same. If we’re going to propose
that this is some kind of mass delusion, we’d need some explanation
for why the mass delusion is so consistent across human cultures that had functionally nothing
to do with one another in many different areas of the world. Superstition is a very weak answer. Now, in my work on the arcane past, things took the most
important turn for me, when I took a brief tour
into the present time. A time I don’t spend
that much time in and it’s strange. Strange and bizarre for me. I spent a year with a team of researchers at the Center for Advanced Study
in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. This is mainly a group
of cognitive scientists, evolutionary biologists,
and behavioral psychologists who are pushing
the envelope of understanding of the complexities
of our cognitive lives. Most of us, and I surely at the time, have a standard picture
of how our brains work. We set out on a problem.
We direct our awareness to it. We self-consciously gather facts
and using logical rules, we draw inferences,
we reach conclusions that then motivate our actions. Let’s call this discursive thinking. But this is only part of the story. The researchers at the Center
were expanding this view and opening up fields
that I would call non-discursive thinking. Things that don’t quite answer
to that description or the way our brains work. And some other pieces
that they were coming on would ring bells for me,
struck me as very familiar. One scholar was working on
face-to-face conversations. He looked at how we continuously,
and unselfconsciously process non-verbal cues
in our conversation partners. And that these
shape the top-level thinking that emerges from such events. The oracular consultation
was famously interactive. The bell is ringing in my head. And someone even without
a knowledge base, may well discern from just seeing how a person
reacts to different suggestions, what the most useful one
is going to be in a particular situation. Another kind of scientist was studying
the phenomena of thin slicing. This is a claim that our snap judgments
are sometimes as good, and for some things better than
our most careful deliberative processes. The examination of entrails
instantly came to mind for me. In situations like these,
often in the heat of battle, where debate is coursing around
from many different pieces of information, the cutting open of a live animal,
usually a large one, has a way of focusing people’s attention. And the focusing of
the splayed innards of another animal interrupts the conversation. While the diviner is staring at that,
let’s imagine that the diviner comes up with a snap judgment,
not a considered decision. And while rule books for such things
were legendary in antiquity, none of them survived,
and I think none of them ever existed. It’s not about applying rules
to a particular situation. It’s about making a snap judgment
in the heat of the moment. There were also scholars at the Center
who were laying out the strong gains that people accrue when
they’re dealing with complex problems. After they have been
grinding it out for awhile, to set their attention
on something else for awhile, and allow their non-conscious minds
to advance the problem. Their non-conscious minds have power
and can advance the problem. When they return to it later,
things look different and clearer than they did before. Nearly all the techniques
of antiquity did this kind of a thing. As an historian of ideas,
this got me to thinking. Discursively, I think. I was interested now in looking at
non-discursive thinking historically. Over time, there are
different manifestations of this. In the contemporary period,
in polite company, anyway, we use the term intuition
to describe these things. We may well refer to
the famous phrase of Malcolm Gladwell, thinking without thinking. A century and a half ago,
in the wake of Darwin, in the middle of the 19th century,
when physiology was the queen of sciences, there was a different way
of talking about it. These scientists were fascinated
by the reflex action that they observe
in the musculature of our body, and they propose there were
congruent kind of actions happening in our thinking. They call this unconscious cerebration. Two centuries before that,
the English poet John Milton has the archangel Raphael
explained to Adam in the Garden of Eden that the creatures of the Universe
think in two different ways. There is discursive thinking,
which is what humans mostly do, and then he says
there is something else called intuition, which is
mostly the way angels think. On occasion, humans get a chance
to think like angels, but it happens rarely. This opened up a whole new vantage
on Greek divination for me. It started to look less like an outlier, and more like the tail
of a long and consistent arc of human cognitive history
that attested to a core human experience. We oftentimes find ourselves
in a situation of knowing things without knowing
quite how we know them. This led me to propose an axiom. Here’s my axiom. Our ability to know exceeds our capacity
to understand that ability. Let me repeat. Our ability to know exceeds our capacity
to understand that ability. And if it’s true, as an axiom,
it held in the past, it holds good now, and even despite the ingenious work
of our cognitive scientists, it will hold into the future. We will remain to some degree
mysterious to ourselves. The axiom tells us that there will be
surplus knowledge. Surplus knowledge is provocative. It provokes some accounting for it, and by the axiom,
that accounting won’t be exactly right, but it needs to be culturally useful. So back to the ancient world, I gained a different kind of perspective
on what they were up to after spending time
with these cognitive scientists. When they took time
out of their deliberative thinking to change focus on a puzzling riddle:
cracks on a tortoise shell or the erratic flight paths
or the screeches of a bird, they were engaging in their own local variant
of a culturally authorized techniques for opening a space
for non-discursive thinking to happen. This was not an example, mainly, of them engaging
in exotic theological commitments because of superstitious brains. It was not an example of them trying to manipulate the masses
with ostentatious mystery. That’s not why they did this. They did this because it worked. Our non-conscious brain has power,
and they had ways of putting it to use. And finishing back up to the present time,
my claim that you do this kind of thing: well, whenever you’re facing
a multi variable question with over complex data set
in a situation you really care about and you need to take a break,
chances are you probably do something. You clean your desk. You take a walk. You take a shower. You sleep on them. These are our culture’s authorized forms for opening up a break
in discursive thinking and allowing our unselfconscious,
non-discursive mind to take over for awhile. According to our best authorities today, this improves our chances
of making headway, and according to
the authorities from antiquity, whom I must say,
I trust a little bit more, you should definitely do this. You may well defeat a great empire. Thank you. (Applause)

11 thoughts on “Applying ancient divination to modern intuition | Peter Struck | TEDxPenn

  1. Awesome information. As a modern-day tarot reader I can say this is actually how it works. Answers that wouldn't come when I was obsessing over the problems and options came far more easily working on the visual puzzle of the cards. This also translates into other areas of my life; for example when I get overwhelmed by a problem, I'll sleep on it or go outside to sit and play with my dog – and find when I return to the issue later that I have a clearer, more balanced mind and perspective. 🙂

  2. So in Laymen’s terms divination is a form of meditation to allow the intuitive mind formulate thinking on how to solve a problem compared to the conscious mind that if we focus on that problem we get further and further away from the solution we are seeking? If that is the case then there is something to it. I’ve been curious about divination for a while since it’s a mystery to me

  3. if anyone else was using both their rational and intuitive mind, they would agree this guy took a long time to say very little

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