Sunday, May 18, 2014

Disciplines of the Imagination

Las Campanas Observatory, Chile (January 6, 2006)

As +Rurousha often writes, the best part of blogs are their comments. I fully agree with this statement, and I am happy when long threads of comments populate the entries of this blog. My post about magnolias and life on extrasolar planets was especially rich with interesting discussions. One thread, initiated by +Grace Monte de Ramos, ended up mentioning astrology, and was closed by a very interesting comment by +Marj Evasco about the "disease of literalness" and the "disciplines of the imagination". It made me think for days... and finally spurred me to write a few words about astrology.

Las Campanas Observatory
For most of history, astronomy was the theoretical framework for astrology; which in turn was the practical application of astronomy. Astrology was taught in universities, where the astronomy faculty was required to make astrological predictions, as well as personal astrological charts for the university benefactors (the local princes). This was not just another chore (like serving in yet another faculty committee): it was the main raison-d'etre for these astronomy positions. The astronomers were willing partners in this activity not just because it was the source of their salary, but also because it promoted their prestige, continuing a millenarian tradition started by the priests of long extinct civilizations. Uraniborg, for example, was built with great expenses as Tycho Brahe observatory by the king of Denmark. During construction it absorbed 1% of the danish GDP, which is huge if you think that the Apollo project at its peak (in 1965) was just 0.8% of the US GDP. The reason for such an investment was for the renown astronomer to generate astral charts to guide the policy of the kingdom. Galileo himself was well known for his astrological work, and got in trouble from time to time because of the vehemence of his predictions. Doing science while simultaneously dabbling in the occult was not a unique characteristics of astronomers: chemistry has its roots in alchemy. The great Isaac Newton spent more time in his alchemic search for the philosopher's stone (to transmute base metals into gold), that he did to formulate the laws of physics. Newton was a prolific writer: he left more than 10 million words (enough for 150 full size novels). Only 20% of this corpus was about science and his activity as Master of the Mint; the larger fraction was about his heretical religious views and his work in alchemy. The extent of Newton's involvement in secret arts was such that John Maynard Keynes (the famous economist and collector of Newton's writings) opined that he was "not the first of the age or reason, but the last of the magicians".

Magellan Telescope
The fact that the founding fathers of science practiced what we would now call magic and superstition should not be seen as the original sin of science; it is rather an evidence of its strength. Newton, Galileo, Tycho were men of their times. During their lives there were no factual reasons to believe that the ideas of alchemy, or astrology, were unfounded. Their greatness was in transcending the supersticious foundations of the culture in which they lived to lay down the foundations for the scientific method, a revolutionary evidence-based approach to the physical world. The scientific method was what made ultimately possible to separate myths from reality, something that only came to fruition with the Age of Enlightenment. Astrology turned out to be unfounded: the only two celestial bodies that can possibly have a physical action on Earth are the Sun and the Moon (tides). Furthermore, the whole technical framework for astrology (constellations and geocentric cosmology) have long been proven to be an illusion. The irony in all this is that it was Tycho's superior data for the position of Mars that were crucial to ultimately disproved his own geocentric view . The same fate befell on Alchemy: it is not possible to convert iron into gold with chemical means, although the feat is possible, at great costs, with nuclear reactions. The irony here is that Newton started the science that showed how his main life efforts were in vain. Science is a self-healing process: ideas that are falsified by experiments are ultimately rejected, and replaced by new paradigms that can better explain and agree with the data. Science is a purely empirical endeavor.

Yet, I agree that science is also a discipline of the imagination. It is a way to abstract the stark reality of the physical world and give it a life, meaning and aesthetic value in the realm of the mind. It is an instrument to appropriate the elegance of the universe and describe it in mathematical form. It is a way of transcending the imperfections of the human nature and aspire to the divinity of the cosmos. This is why many scientists that are not religious in traditional terms still have a sense of sacred (e.g. Einstein secular religion). Astrology is no science, and it has no basis in the physical world. Still, it can be a fascinating discipline of the imagination. Astrology and the esoteric world are precious windows on the human mind. Like myth making, or religion. They tells us about the strategies devised by our minds to cope with their existential problems, and come to term with their mortality.

Furthermore, reading the horoscopes after the Sunday comics is fun. As long as, of course, they are not taken literally and considered as a factor for deciding government policy. ;-)

Las Campanas, Chile (January 6, 2006)

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