Archive for October 22nd, 2022

Astrology Ontology

October 22, 2022

Astronomy uses people to explain the stars.

Astrology uses the stars to “explain” people.

(Anon)

Many amateur astronomers, myself included, have enjoyed Quasar Publishing’s annual Astronomy publication. Astronomy 2023 includes an article titled Astrology – the First Astronomers which at least in some forums, has generated some discussion.

The one page article talks a bit about the historical context of astrology as predating astronomy, its focus on the constellations that the Sun appears to pass through – the zodiacal constellations – due to the Earth’s annual trek around the Sun, and that the Earth’s slow wobble about its axis leads to the so-called precession of the equinoxes that has changed the zodiac’s constellation-occupying date ranges.

The article also talks about some well-known figures in the history of Science have practiced astrology including Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Ptolemy. As did Kepler, who also believed that there was some relationship between the platonic solids and planetary spacing. Today, we revere him for his Three Laws of Planetary Motion, investigations into optics, measuring the volume of wine barrels, and an early Science Fiction story (Somnium). He, like many early scientists, was on the cusp of the old and new ways. Think also of Newton, who was an alchemist. It’s easy for us to see the many ways in which they were in error now, given our historical perspective and educational good fortune.

The Astronomy 2023 authors comment on the aspect of the day of a person’s birth in relation to the Sun’s position at that time as used in “newspaper horoscopes”, and follow on with this:

Astrologers have clearly defined methods on how to create such charts, but the problem is the validity of their initial assumptions to start with. From a scientific basis, it has never been demonstrated how the arrangement of these distant bodies can influence individual’s characteristics.

So far, so good.

Earlier in the article we have this:

This article is not a criticism of astrology, but more spelling out the differences between astronomy and astrology.

That’s also fine as far as it goes. They continue with:

A bit like how science cannot be used to disprove God (whichever version) or in this case, astronomy disprove astrology.

It’s true. The existence of gods is not susceptible to proof or disproof. I’m not going to lose sleep over this or the infinity of other things we can’t prove or disprove. As an aside, the word prove shouldn’t be bandied around so much. The only things that can be proven are mathematical theorems. Science doesn’t prove things: it gathers more and more evidence in favour of a particular hypothesis or against some other.

The article follows on with:

They are just different. Astrology and religions are belief systems which are effectively non-falsifiable…this means there is no test known (or perhaps even possible?) that would disprove a concept. By religions, we include all the gods, including those that used to be worshiped by the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East cultures, responsible for the mythological figures immortalized in today’s constellations.

To be honest, by the time I had tossed around the content of the article, the initial knee-jerk reaction of “why the heck is there anything about astrology in Astronomy 2023?” had given way to: “how could the article be improved?”

My main feedback to the authors is that we need to be careful not to encourage the perception that all forms of knowledge are equal. Having an opinion isn’t enough, especially for things that matter in some important way. It’s okay to criticise ideas and systems of belief. More than that, we must criticise ideas because otherwise no progress can ever be made! Sometimes ridicule is also valid, in the case of truly toxic belief systems. Kinder, constructive criticism is better. Let’s face it: we’ve all had bad ideas.

The authors do make the point that belief of the astrological and religious kind are not falsifiable. They also mention that astrological assumptions and mechanisms are suspect.

Perhaps the case could have been made even more clearly by saying that systems of belief such as astrology and religion have no predictive or explanatory powers, whereas Scientific theories do, and further that the latter are open to question and revision. That’s not to say that Science is not a human process. There’s ego and politics aplenty. But the Method wins in the end.

I would also suggest that if all someone does when reading their daily horoscope is to have a laugh, then there’s nothing to worry about. If astrology or religion leads to important life decisions, then I think it is more than reasonable to apply a bit more scrutiny.

To prefer the hard facts over our dearest illusions, that is the core of Science. 

(Carl Sagan commenting upon Johannes Kepler)