The Holy Multiplicity, by Olga TokarczukTranslated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

To change your password click here.

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Adjust

From “Scientomancy, or Divination by Science, which was published in the Fall 2022/Winter 2023 issue of Salmagundi Magazine. Translated from the Polish.

I would like to focus on a special way of predicting the future. As we are living at a time of unusual uncertainty and anxiety about what will happen next, this topic is on many people’s minds, prompting us to ask: “What is our future going to be like?” And also: “Can we foresee it to any degree at all?” When I say “our future,” I’m not thinking about the next few years, but rather the gradual processes whose effects will be visible several centuries from now.

In ages past, various ways of predicting the future developed dynamically. This dates back to oracles making predictions based on observations of nature, or by apparently communicating with supernatural forces. The more obvious ones include oneiromancy, as in divination by dreams; arithmancy, which uses numbers for predictive purposes; chiromancy, for reading the future through palm lines; and ceromancy, which bases its predictions on wax poured into water. The less obvious ones bear certain hallmarks of eccentricity, at least from the modern point of view—though, since they were practiced, they must have had some sort of effect. Ololygmancy divined according to the way dogs barked or howled; tyromancy drew conclusions about the future from patterns in cheese; and tasseography was divination through coffee grounds, wine sediments, or tea leaves.

The language of fortune-telling was always special: imprecise and highly ambiguous, as if intended to be substantiated by human interpretation. Talented fortune-tellers seem to have done their best to predict their clients’ expectations, telling them what they wanted to hear. As a result, reviewing the predictions today not only tells us a great deal about individuals and their lives, but also about a society and the deep collective needs, fears, and desires, conscious or unconscious, that were prevalent within it.

Considerable forces were always harnessed for predicting the future, but their significance grew at moments of historical crisis, in times of uncertainty or terror. During the third and fourth centuries ad, when the ancient world was shaken to its core and everything was changing, there were so many astrologers, clairvoyants, and soothsayers that the popes took fright. In the fourth century ad, the Church banned every form of divination or practice that involved reading the future in any way, because only God could know it. These prohibitions weren’t very effective; a thousand years later, astrologers were active at the papal and episcopal courts, and within the entourages of numerous Christian rulers.

In the past few centuries, when the influence of religious restrictions or objections has decidedly weakened, literature too has taken to predicting the future. From some point in its development, the modern genre of science fiction started to rely on futurology, which came into being in the twentieth century. Stanisław Lem and Philip K. Dick were incredibly good at predicting all sorts of human inventions.

Actually, literature has proved a better fortune-teller than scientifically backed futurology, which is only known today for the fact that it doesn’t work. Most of its famous forecasts have failed to come true. Many futurological projects that were launched after World War II were wide of the mark for a reason that Lem understood well. “Even minor progress in any field reveals to us the vast, previously invisible foreground of our ignorance,” he wrote in the Seventies, anticipating the famous metaphor of the black swan created by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Predictions do not come true because something unpredictable always occurs, even if it seems quite impossible. Take, for instance, Thomas Malthus’s gloomy visions of overpopulation, which totally failed to foresee methods of regulating human reproduction.

I think that among the thousands of scientific discoveries, there are some that have great potential to change our tendency to think about the world in terms of paradigms; this is an approach that can undermine the most intuitive of overt certainties. We have only to remember the problems experienced by Nicolaus Copernicus before he succeeded in entirely changing our way of thinking about the universe. The Ptolemaic geocentric system seemed obvious, and was accepted on the basis of consensus, despite being erroneous. Yet at the same time it was logically and notionally cohesive, and allowed one to explain, though often in a rather complicated way, many of the movements of the celestial bodies.

A scientific revolution can occur that transforms the paradigm, and with it the discipline in question, and in many cases plenty of other areas of knowledge and of life as well. The results of the Copernican revolution affected not just the work of astronomers but had psychological, philosophical, and religious consequences; it transformed art and brought about profound changes in how human beings perceived themselves and their place in the world.

It’s very possible that some of the most ground-breaking discoveries of the modern era will have avast impact on how we view and understand the world in the future.

An outwardly unimportant, innocent discovery from the borderland of biology and medicine leads us inside the human body, where it turns out more organisms appear to be living than we had thought. The human gut is inhabited by about thirty-nine trillion bacterial cells that form a so-called microbiome. We inherit the kernel of it from our mothers as soon as we are born, by drinking their milk. Without it we would be at risk of attack from pathogens. But the microbiome also affects our emotions. Scientists are frequently proposing that we treat the human organism and the symbiotic microbes that inhabit it as a holobiont—in other words, as a single living being composed of many living beings. Fascinatingly, our microbiome changes over time and is connected to our way of life, dependent on our diet, work, leisure, and so on, and is thus susceptible to human culture.

Thus we can say that the sort of holobiont that we are is a multispecies creature, consisting, apart from its host, of bacteria, Archaea, fungi, and viruses. Let’s try to imagine our organism as something like a complicated, multilevel organization, like an ecosystem—a coral reef, for example—housing various organisms that cooperate or compete with one another, and that are more or less interdependent. From this viewpoint, the issue of identity becomes a curious one: What is me, and what is not me? How am I to define or perceive myself with these other organisms, or maybe without them? To what extent is my identity the sum of their identities as well? Since I cannot live without them, is it the case that they, too, are me? Is it legitimate to talk of “I” (or “me”) and “they” (or “them”)? And what in fact is this famous “I”?

Before the discovery of the holobiont, a perception of living beings as exclusive entities separate from one another formatted our image of the world and of ourselves. The concept of the self as a separate, monistic, self-enclosed “I” first came into being during the Reformation and the Renaissance. This was also when the philosopher Rudolph Goclenius popularized the term “psychology,” though the context was theological. Easily combined with other words, the prefix self expressed a new way of thinking about the world, where the individual was acquiring great significance. The self always related persons to its own identity: self-regard, self-destruction, self-love. From then on, the individual “I,” separated from the rest of the world, became the chief perspective from which we viewed reality.

A huge role is played in our religions, mythologies, and fantasies by the solitary individual. We move around in the world like perfectly spherical monads with smooth surfaces, bumping into one another from time to time, but essentially remaining separate, indivisible unities; every inner division is perceived as an illness. This sort of “I,” isolated from the world, is the object of many philosophical and religious parables. In all this we are backed up by God, equally individual, equally isolated and remote, suspended in a void, and not dependent on anyone else. To this figure, monotheism added a sense of the homogeneity of societies and groups. Monotheism is the foundation of the hierarchical system, because only individual beings separated from one another can be arranged in some kind of order.

It was on the basis of these assumptions that the whole of Western psychology and our common perception of ourselves as strictly defined monolithic units, co-existing with, but separate from, others was formed. As a result, the seemingly innocent discovery that the human being is composed of a multitude of other beings that influence what we feel, what illnesses affect us, and perhaps also how we think, is a fundamental one. Above all, it changes our relationship with the rest of nature, because we turn out to be more a part of it than we are separated from it by a special status and special rights, as religion would assure us.

It follows from this that if God created us in his image, then the figure of God would also have to become more complicated—literally a composite. Perhaps somewhere in the distant future this will lead to the spread of polytheistic religions. We would no longer have the Trinity. We would have the Polygony, the Holy Multiplicity.


More from