Astrology – Dangerous Pseudoscience or a Harmless Spiritual System? | Overthink Podcast with Ellie Anderson and David M. Peña-Guzmán

Key Takeaways

  • Astrology originated in ancient Mesopotamia at around 4000 to 3000 BCE
    • Originally, it was intended only for kings (political advice for the future of the state or the kingdom)
  • For thousands of years, there was no difference between astrology and astronomy in human history
  • Astrology is based on the idea that the Earth is the center of the universe
  • Copernicus made it clear that the Earth revolves around the sun (heliocentrism) and not the other way around
    • This is when the split between astrology and astronomy happened and astronomy becomes the true science
  • Today, astrology continues to be popular despite being universally criticized by scientists
    • Some people (especially millennials) don’t believe in astrology, but they use it to make decisions about everyday life
    • This is what the German philosopher Theodor Adorno calls metaphysical irony
  • In his book “The Stars Down to Earth”, Adorno warns about the danger of following such a system without taking a subjective stance in relation to it its history and scientific validity
    • For Adorno, astrology is a system of pseudo rationality and fascist propaganda
  • Financial forecast, dieting advice, and weather models are not on the same epistemic level as astrology, but they share a similar data-heavy road to future 
    • This kind of approach will always leave us disappointed because it promises more than it can deliver
  • People desire security, and predicting our future helps with alleviating our fears and anxieties
  • Ellie and David warn us to be cautious if we decide to live our life according to something that’s in disagreement with hundreds of years of scientific findings of physics and astronomy

Key Books Mentioned

Intro

  • Ellie Anderson (Pomona College) and David M. Peña-Guzmán (San Francisco State University) are philosophy professors and hosts of the Overthink podcast; the philosophy podcast you’ll actually want to listen to!
  • In this episode of the Overthink podcast, Ellie and David talk about the history and the science behind astrology, why it promotes fascist thinking, what is the psychological appeal of astrology, and much more
  • Hosts:

Where Does Astrology Come From?

  • Astrology originated in ancient Mesopotamia at around 4000 to 3000 BCE 
    • How to explain world events (famine, drought, fall of a kingdom, etc.) via the behavior of celestial bodies
  • Not everyone had access to astrology previously 
    • Originally, it was intended only for kings (political advice for the future of the state or the kingdom)
    • Astrologers in ancient Babylonian society had high status and they were civil servants
    • Women did not have the opportunities for entering the astrological discourse
  • Independently of the Babylonian trajectory, systems of astrology developed in China, Japan, and the Americas
  • For thousands of years, there was no difference between astrology and astronomy in human history
    • Astronomy was called the astrology of natural phenomenon
    • People had legitimate reasons for believing that there is a causal relationship between the celestial and the terrestrial realm
  • “Scientists and astrologers were called by the same name, just with a different qualifier” David M. Peña-Guzmán
    • Natural astrologer – studying the celestial realm without making predictions about the future
    • Judicial astrologer – making horoscopes for Babylonian newspapers

The Rise of the Scientific Revolution and Copernicanism

  • Astrologers were committed to the two-sphere cosmology of antiquity: terrestrial and celestial realm
  • There is an absolute distinction between the terrestrial realm (the earth) and the celestial realm (the sphere of the stars)
    • The celestial realm is eternal and incorruptible. There is no change.
    • The Earth is lowly and corruptible
  • The celestial realm can influence the Earth, but Earth cannot exert the same power because it doesn’t rise to the same metaphysical worth as the superlunary realm
    • Copernicus made it clear that this distinction doesn’t make sense because the Earth is not the center
  • In the Scientific Revolution, we get verifiable proof that the Earth revolves around the sun (heliocentrism) and not the other way around
    • Astrology is based on the idea that the Earth is the center of the universe
    • There is no more reason to believe that causality between these realms is one-sided
    • Earth exercises as much of a gravitational pull on the sun as the Sun on the Earth
    • This is when the split between astrology and astronomy happened and astronomy becomes the true science

To the Stars for Answers (Adorno’s Criticism)

  • Today, astrology continues to be popular despite being universally criticized by scientists 
  • Why are people (especially millennials) interested in astrology, but don’t really believe in it?
    • This is what the German philosopher Theodor Adorno calls metaphysical irony 
    • People don’t believe in astrology, but they use it to make decisions about everyday life
  • In his book “The Stars Down to Earth”, Adorno warns about the danger of following astrology without taking a subjective stance in relation to it its history and scientific validity
    • For Adorno, astrology is a system of pseudo rationality
  • This links to Adorno’s critique of the irrationality of capitalism:
    • Capitalism creates irrational effects because it is saturated with many inconsistencies
    • People can appreciate any system of belief (even if it has no foundation in reality) as long as it has any internal consistency
  • In this context, astrology is symptomatic of people’s need for some kind of order in a capitalist world that denies order (disoriented agnosticism)
    • People have no control over the various forces that shape their lives 
    • But is looking to the stars for answers a rational choice?
  • People are looking for something to believe in and astrology gives them comfort because it makes us part of a hidden plan (in the world beyond us)
    • This logic of submission is Adorno’s biggest worry because it draws people to an abstract authority that ultimately fulfills our need for subordination
    • This is what makes astrology fascist in Adorno’s view

The Search for Our Destiny in Data

  • In his book “A Scheme of Heaven”, Alexander Boxer warns about the idea of determining our destiny based on data
    • Financial forecast, dieting advice, and weather models are not on the same epistemic level as astrology, but they share a similar data-heavy road to future 
    • This kind of approach will always leave us disappointed because it promises more than it can deliver
  • People desire security, and predicting our future helps with alleviating our fears and anxieties
    • “It’s ultimately a refusal to embrace the contingency of the world and the contingency of the future.”David M. Peña-Guzmán
    • Data will not fix your destiny
  • There are a lot of “scientific” discourses that claim to be scientific but are actually based on fallacy and have little epistemic validity (e.g. personality science)
    • Ellie believes we need to broaden our critique of astrology to include discourses like personality science
    • There is a lot of similarity between astrology as it’s practiced today and various studies of personality types
    • “I do think there is an air of pseudo-scientificity to psychometrics of all kinds. The idea that our internal mental states and our dispositions can be measured objectively and classified, according to some taxonomic scheme.”Ellie Anderson

Is Astrology Harmless?

  • Not for Adorno. For him, it makes you open to totalitarian thinking and fascism
  • Ellie and David warn us to be cautious if we decide to live our life according to something that’s in disagreement with hundreds of years of scientific findings of physics and astronomy
  • Astrology could be just another way of encouraging totalitarian thinking, like many of our daily activities (e.g. indulging in consumerism) 
  • Whatever you opt for, ask the question of “…what psychological needs and impulses this is actually addressing, because until we do that, we will be left with a certain social practice that is somewhat irrational or arational that we cannot really make sense of”David M. Peña-Guzmán
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Notes By Dario

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