Part A - Exploratory Research
After reading "Steelmanning Divination," I was inspired to try it out. My question was "Should I begin using the I Ching for divination?" and I used IChingOnline to interpret my results.
I obtained hexagram 24, and I'm going to recapitulate my responses to the three interpretations on the site. At the end, I'll do a summary reflection. In "Part B," I heavily critique this whole experience. I think that is the most important part of this post.
1. Thunder regenerates deep within Earth's womb: Sage rulers recognized that the end of Earth's seasonal cycle was also the starting point of a new year and a time for dormancy. They closed the passes at the Solstice to enforce a rest from commerce and activity. The ruler himself did not travel.
You have passed this way before but you are not regressing. This is progress, for the cycle now repeats itself, and this time you are aware that it truly is a cycle. The return of old familiars is welcome. You can be as sure of this cycle as you are that seven days bring the start of a new week. Use this dormancy phase to plan which direction you will grow.
Response: The opening imagery does bring up a subtle emotional response. I make connections to my life: I am working and in school for significantly less hours this season. Several years ago, I was involved in a local spiritual community, which I broke away from entirely to set out on a new phase of life, one that I planned to be more rational, aligned with my values, and accomplished.
I was introduced to it in the first place by being unexpectedly asked to do a tarot reading for a woman I was on a first date with; she decided to invite me to a meeting of the spiritual community, and I stayed for several years. Hence, the second paragraph seems apropos, especially since I do not feel at all as though I'm "regressing," but rather that I'm using it in the context of new values, understandings, and purposes. It is in fact welcome. I am also in the midst of a career change involving a great deal of planning. This seems right on the money.
2. You are about to experience a rebirth -- about to be given another chance, a new lease on life. You have persevered, gone the distance through an entire cycle -- through the Spring of hope or new passion, through a Summer of growth and building, only to be sacrificed like the archetypal Harvest King at the Autumn reaping. You lie dormant like seed beneath Winter snows now, healing and absorbing new energies in preparation for the new young Spring coming shortly to your life.
This helps me feel more hopeful about my potential. Being older, going back to college in my 30s surrounded by high school students, I have emotionally started to feel like I am failing, struggling with how long it will take to get through schooling and into a line of work that would be more fulfilling. I am a year in, so "gone the distance through an entire cycle" again seems accurate, and an acknowledgement of my effort and accomplishment that I've received nowhere else. There is indeed a measure of healing and energizing that has come of this return to school - a gain in self-confidence, interest in the subject matter, new desires, possibilities, ideas.
3. RETURN. Success.Going out and coming in without error.Friends come without blame.To and fro goes the way.On the seventh day comes return.It furthers one to have somewhere to go.
After a time of decay comes the turning point. The powerful light that has been banished returns. There is movement, but it is not brought about by force. The upper trigram Kun is characterised by devotion; thus the movement is natural, arising spontaneously. For this reason the transformation of the old becomes easy. The old is discarded and the new is introduced. Both measures accord with the time; therefore no harm results. Societies of people sharing the same views are formed. But since these groups come together in full public knowledge and are in harmony with the time, all selfish separatist tendencies are excluded, and no mistake is made. The idea of RETURN is based on the course of nature. The movement is cyclic, and the course completes itself. Therefore it is not necessary to hasten anything artificially. Everything comes of itself at the appointed time. This is the meaning of heaven and earth.
All movements are accomplished in six stages, and the seventh brings return. Thus the winter solstice, with which the decline of the year begins, comes in the seventh month after the summer solstice; so too sunrise comes in the seventh double hour after sunset. Therefore seven is the number of the young light, and it arises when six, the number of the great darkness, is increased by one. In this way the state of rest gives place to movement.
I'd never thought consciously about the fact that my decision to return to school is driven by personal desire that arrived spontaneously during an extended vacation, not by being forced by circumstances such as job loss. I hadn't thought about how much harder this might be if I was more attached to my old way of life. This change has indeed led me to "societies of people sharing the same views," especially including the EA and LessWrong communities. It is a welcome change from my old spiritual communities, which had a hidden and exclusive atmosphere that was indeed associated with serious mistakes, which I won't go into.
I've been wrestling with my desire to hurry this process along by working hard through all opportunities to take a break, and confronted by my need for some rest and leisure. To say "therefore it is not necessary to hasten anything artificially" is helpful to hear, affirming my decision to take a whole day to hike yesterday, or to spend a few hours this afternoon learning about the I Ching.
Overall, my interpretation did ultimately provide answers to the original question: "yes, I should use the I Ching, both because it helped me find more meaning in some emotional questions I've struggled with, and because it's a way of taking a more leisurely attitude toward my personal transformation". We'll see if I actually do continue to use it and find it helpful.
In this case, it was not used and did not encourage me to approach a problem from a new angle, dramatically transform my perspective, or encourage me to seek out opportunities that I had not considered before. Instead, it seemed to help me articulate emotions to myself, and to send a message that boiled down to "you're doing just fine." However, the imagery, tone, and range of ways this was communicated did, I think, touch me in a way that hearing that reductive version would not have.
My plan is to continue using the I Ching, and perhaps to try other divination systems, and see if they seem fruitful in other ways.
Part B - The Critique
Immediately after publishing, I was stricken with doubt. Perhaps this is precisely how irrational, useless thought-parasite systems spread. Perhaps they co-opt rational thought, first out of plain curiosity, sort of "grooming" the mind to find value in them until we are too invested in them to stop. I recognize that it feels mildly good to indulge in this divination. The writing and reflection comes easily - I don't know how well the System I/System II distinction is holding up, but it feels like a way of popping me over into System I. Whatever easy association occurs, goes. No need for evidence or logic.
If divination has an effect like that, perhaps divination survives by providing humans with mild, easy pleasure. Maybe it helps them conserve mental resources by switching to a less demanding thought process.
How would I know, in the end, whether I'm using divination, or it's using me?
I'd have to have some sort of pre-existing standards for evaluating whether it was providing me with net utility. When I add up the pleasure it gives, the insight it seems to produce, and the effects of acting on that insight, how does that balance against the time it takes, or any negative impacts of acting on it?
If my value is to be rational and productive, but it provides me with an irrational pleasure that actively distracts from the rational productivity I value, then how do I decide what my "true" preferences are? How does this connect with the "afterglow" I feel when engrossed in writing or reading? Is this afterglow a form of mental pleasure/stimulation that accompanies productive thought? Is it another sort of thought-parasite that encourages me to engage in activities that are, like I Ching, perhaps have only the mere appearance of being useful?
By what standard might I evaluate my own work for its value, to myself or others? I'm not getting paid to think or write, and I feel suspicious of whether good feelings might be not just irrelevant but active distractions from that purpose.
One potential solution is to focus on activities that outside models suggest are net beneficial. Here's a thought experiment.
I'll imagine I'm taking a pill that saps away the pleasure in work to a neutral baseline for all activities for one hour. Under those conditions, where all forms of work feel equally, neutrally pleasant, would I prefer to work for minimum wage for an hour, or to write for an hour? I would choose to write, based on pure intuition. That either means there is something I value in writing beyond the pleasure it brings, or I am failing to adequately engage with the thought experiment. Perhaps I do enough writing that I'm mildly addicted to the high that comes with it, and the addictive psychology won't risk a thought experiment that threatens my continued writing habit.
Would I prefer to do the paid work, or to spend an hour consulting the I Ching? I am not sure. That suggests there may be some value in continuing to experiment with the I Ching, enough to weigh against receiving a modest amount of money. In this case, I'm fairly confident I'm not addicted to using the I Ching, since I've only done it once.
It's probably appropriate, then, to establish a Schelling Fence on this matter. I will use the I Ching no more than 9 more times (for a total of 10 uses). At that point, I need to be able to point to at least one specific action I've taken or interaction I've had as a result that is compelling to me as evidence that consulting the I Ching is providing tangible benefits for my life. Specifically, it needs to help me
a) Discover or take neglected and important steps toward improving my school/career/relationships/enjoyment of life
b) Give me an insight into a dynamic in my life that is lucid enough to seem meaningful and valuable to other people when shared (stripped of any mention of its origin)
To be clear, it does not count if the purported impact is only through using the I Ching. For example, "using the I Ching improved my QoL, because I felt good while I was interpreting my divination results" doesn't count; neither does "The I Ching told me to use the I Ching, and now I do". Any truly meaningful results need to point awayfrom divination, not back into it.
Next: Run 2/10
One side note: I've been surprised by how much the presentation differed between the copy I originally read (Brian Walker's translation) and various "get I Ching readings online" sites that I've gone to over the years. It might be worth looking at a few different translations to find the one that fits you best.
It definitely makes sense to track "am I discovering anything new?", as measured by "I changed my plans" or "I explored fruitfully" or "my emotional orientation towards X improved" (instead of merely changing). It seems worth comparing to other retrospective / prospective analyses you might try; in the same way that one diet should be compared against other diets (not just on grounds of nutrition, but also enjoyment and convenience and so on).
I also attempted to track "how much of a stretch was the scenario/perspective/etc.?", where sometimes it would be right-on and other times I could kind of see it and other times my sense was "nope, that's just not resonating at all." If something is resonating too much, either you have a run of luck that's unseasonably long or you're getting prompts that aren't specific enough to be wrong. If you're trying to train the skill of discernment, you need both to notice when things are right and wrong, and thinking that it's right is worthless unless sometimes you also think it's wrong.
I heard an idea on the Rationally Speaking podcast today of “befriending a straw man.” The idea is that rather than putting forth the most charitable interpretation of a poorly articulated thought, or just strawmanning it, you take the poorly articulated idea seriously exactly as stated and see if you can find merit in it that you’d otherwise not have discovered. This seems valuable. I think the idea here is to get out of your mental ruts, and to do that you might need to be exposed to ideas that don’t make obvious sense and really try to treat them as fact.
This “befriend the straw man” idea would imply that it’s most important to consider the aspects of the divination that make the least sense or seem obviously wrong. By contrast, a YouTube video I watched of an old lady giving lessons on constructing hexagrams said to ignore those bits.
So in the end, we’re sort of asking what we think the function of the divination is, and then determining how to interpret it based on that.
Edit: This comment turned into a whole second half of the OP, so I added it above.