Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lo! Strange signs in yon ever-turning sky…

"Unser Handeln sei getragen von dem stets lebendigen Bewußtsein, daß die Menschen in ihrem Denken, Fühlen und Tun nicht frei sind, sondern ebenso kausal gebunden wie die Gestirne in ihren Bewegungen."
–– aus Einstein sagt. Alice Calaprice (Hrsg.), München/Zürich: Piper, 1997, S. 177.

["Our behavior is borne by the always living consciousness that humans are not free in their thinking, feeling and doing, but rather are as causally bound as the stars in their motions."]

Perhaps you've heard of the recent "identity crisis" sweeping the astrological world. As Andrea Reiher reports (13 Jan 2011,

Astronomer Parke Kunkle tells NBC news that due to the Earth's changing alignment in the last 3000 years, the sign you are born into now are different than they were long ago. Plus, astronomers believe there is a 13th Zodiac sign called Ophiuchus, which falls between Scorpio and Sagittarius.

"This is not something that happened today. This has gone on for thousands of years," says Kunkle. "Because of this change of tilt, the Earth is really over here in effect and Sun is in a different constellation than it was 3,000 years ago."

The constellation of Ophiuchus is located near the celestial equator and is typically depicted as a man wrangling a serpent. "Ophiuchus" means "serpent-bearer" in Greek. …

… Ophiuchus can be found in the Sidereal Zodiac, which is used by Jyotish (or Hindu) astrologers. The Sidereal Zodiac's astrological sign dates are … based on a moving Zodiac, not the fixed one we use today in Western astrology. Therefore, that Zodiac has shifted almost one full sign from the fixed zodiac.

The astrologically inclined commenters are generally of one mind: "No way, I'm SOME ZODIAC SIGN through and through." Indeed, in the original article that Reiher cites (, 12 Jan 2011), we read:

"So I'm an Aries now, fabulous," said Jozsef Szathmary, reacting to the news.

Szathmary has gone from Taurus to Aries in stride, vowing to his sun alignment that he is ready to change.

"I'm a ball of sunshine....wherever the sun is at, that's where I'm at," he said.

And that is just the point. The Sun and Earth are moving surely and slowly, so the stars of your sign aren't the same as they were when that sign was assigned to your birth thousands of years ago.

Is this not an incredible instance of falsification in what otherwise claims to be a science, and an equally stunning case of cognitive dissonance and dogmatism by astrological adherents? Actually, I think astrology's scientific merit should be demonstrable or refutable on grounds prior to this "discovery". It is a philosophical puzzle which has been tickling my mind for days, since the question for Western astrologers now is whether a person's "fate" was decided by their birth star by the immutable (fated!) arrangement of the stars, or whether a person's fated "character" has actually changed.

Let us see what astrology's resources might be for salvaging itself. On the one hand, astrologers might say a person born a Cancer (like myself) still is a Cancer, and his fated character just included from all time the ordeal of having to go by a different astrological moniker. For instance, if I believed in astrology––which I don't––, I could view myself as a Cancer fated to live the rest of my life under the guidance of Gemini. In other words, I would lead heed a Gemini's guidance in a Cancer-way, much like an immigrant might live "the American way" in an unmistakably Greek way. His Greekness includes in it the capacity for living as an American. In this way, there is simply a new disclosure of the previously unapprehended dimensions of each Zodiac sign. Astrologists, therefore, might salvage their practice by saying the signs functionally overlap in certain ways. They might say that each sign has relatively disparate degrees of a common set of characteristics or tendencies shared by all the signs.

This tactic, however, seems undesirable, not only because it seems very ad hoc, but also because it seems to explode the notion of fate, which is central to astrology. Let us imagine I was born on 9 July 1979 and it was within the means of astrology to foretell that my fate would be to die as a mighty general in a foreign country. Had I been born two weeks earlier, however, as a Gemini, it would have been my astrological fate to die as a reviled political dissident in my own country. If my fate really is the former, then there can be no changing it––that's what fate means! If, though, I really do get 'demoted' to the fate of a Gemini, then I have no reason to heed either of my fates, since clearly neither of them––indeed, no fate at all––is unalterable.

An alternative tactic would be something like Mr Szathmary's, cited above: just accept your new "fate", based as it is on the ancient patterns of the heavens, and admit that our humble astrology merely tries to "model" the elusive reality. The shifting phenomena of the astrological charts would not disprove the truth of astrology, only loosen the pragmatic fit between the actual deterministic course of the heavens and astrology's usefulness as a tool for mapping that reality. Interestingly, in so far as normal science these days has generally settled for generating appealing "models" of the world (cf. e.g. Hawking and Mlodinow in The Grand Design), which never actually capture the "truth" of the "real world", then astrology has a legitimate seat at the table of scientific modeling. Its comparative inaccuracies are a function of the vast complexity of its object (viz. the entire cosmos and human behavior), not of its falsity per se. In contrast, the superior accuracy of other "hard sciences" is merely due to their comparatively narrower field of inquiry. Meteorology is actually more complex than astrophysics, and neuroscience probably more complex than both of them, but this does not mean we scorn weather science just because it is less pragmatically successful than astrophysics, nor that we reject brain science just because it is arguably still beset by semi-scientific illusions.

We can see hints of both tactics in another article by Reiher (, 13 Jan 2011), one intended to calm the troubled hearts of the astrologically inclined:

Astrological signs are based off the position of the sun relative to the Zodiac constellations on the day you are born. The problem is that the positions were determined thousands of years ago and they have since changed due to the precession, or Earth's "wobble." It would mean horoscope signs as determined by the constellation positions are now nearly a month off. …

The "new" dates are not news -- to astronomers, which are not the same as astrologers. Astronomers include the 13th Zodiac sign, Ophiuchus, which some theorize was discarded by the ancient Babylonians because they wanted 12 signs and not 13. …

Which is just an example of how fickle astrology is.

What are the characteristics of an Ophiuchus? Nobody knows, because astronomers don't assign characteristics based on where the sun was when you were born. And most Western astrologers don't count Ophiuchus. Certainly astrologers could choose to include Ophiuchus and would then have to assign its bearers characteristics and give it an element -- we would guess a Water sign, as Scorpio is one and they are assigned in triangles across the sky….

There has also been talk that this "new" change only affects those born after 2009. That's not right either. Ophiuchus was discovered just as long ago as the other Zodiac constellations and the Earth's shift on its axis has been happening and will continue to happen forever. In another 3000 years, signs will have shifted again and, for instance with ourselves, all Libras will be Leos.

But astrology doesn't work the same way as astronomy and if Western astrology is something you believe in, you're fine. Nothing has changed. So don't panic, horoscope fans. You can stay just the way you are. But it's an interesting concept to ponder.

I admit I don't follow how Reiher, regardless how much she may ponder, can admit both that the astrological signs are constantly shifting and that nothing has changed for astrology. I think her point is that "normal astrology" is not so much about your "fate" from birth as it is about following the relation between the sun and the Zodiac constellations on a regular basis. But how could you know what relation to track unless you arleady know your "birth sign" and unless it didn't change? Perhaps normal astrology is just about noting how the sun looks and predicting your mood for the day, or noting how the constellations look and predicting which wine you will have after dinner. In that case, the Weather Channel is my astrologer!

How fickle astrology is, indeed.

In any event, the foregoing sketches another reason why I reject determinism, actually: determinism is just promissory astrology. For, according to both astrology and determinism, my origin, character, and destiny are all unchangeably fixed by the primal conditions of everything in the cosmos. For both (hyper-)astrologers and determinists, we are literally just puppets of the motion of the sidereal universe. The problem, though, is that only astrology tries to make meaningful, coherent, specific prophecies from its deterministic presuppositions. "Ordinary determinists", by contrast, admit the world is too complex (so far?) for us to predict someone's fate by correlating it with heavenly phenomena. Clearly, though, the predictions of astrology are wrong, not only as a matter of experience but also in terms of the mutability of the astrological signs. Astrology could be true only if determinism were true. The more specific astrological predictions become, however, the weaker their fatalistic impact becomes, since, as we see, the signs will shift every n years and a person will be indeterminately subject to contradictory fates (fates, mind you, which aren't even "fated for all time").

Now, suppose astrologists, wanting to preserve determinism, lowered their standards for what an astrological prediction is. Then determinism would suffer the same fate as astrology at the hands of its critics. For by making a person's "determined" course of existence so vague that it can include numerous contradictory predictions, deterministic "foresight" is either vacuous––like the cleverly generic "horoscopes" which could be applied to almost anyone at various points in life–– or would be an admittedly unfalsifiable doctrine. For if, due to the complexity of the world, no prediction can be made in principle which is specific enough to demonstrate or refute determinism. Only if determinists dared to make predictions along the lines of plain 'ol horoscopes, would we have any means of testing the predictive usefulness of determinism. Without specifying what the causal mechanism is which grounds the deterministic links between "the entire universe" and "my personal fate", determinism is theoretically vacuous––mere promissory astrology. "We can't articulate what your fate is, but we are certain your destiny is fated: we're sure of determinism, but we can't make precise predictions from it: the world's just too complex." For if science were ever so complete that we could predict a person's behavior, inclinations, choices, and destiny from a reading of the stars at the time of her birth––which is to say, from looking at the largest causal matrix which has bearing on that person's actual existence––, then astrology would be the highest form of science. Here's a troubling syllogism, though:

1. If determinism is true, then astrology is true.

2. Astrology is false.

3. Therefore, determinism is false.

Consider another syllogism:

1. If the theory of special relativity is true, then the speed of light in a vacuum is constant.

2. The speed of light is not constant. (Assuming a future experiment shows this.)

3. Therefore, the special theory of relativity is false.

Yet another syllogism:

1. If Christianity is true, then the doctrine of the hypostatic union is true.

2. The doctrine of the hypostatic union is false. (Assuming a future argument demonstrates this.)

3. Therefore, Christianity is false.

In each case, the falsity of the entailments of a theory entails the falsity of the theory. Therefore, only if a determinist is prepared to defend the plausibility of astrology, should he be prepared to embrace all the entailments of determinism.

The usual rejoinder is that our failure to compute exact predictions is merely a limitation of our cognitive abilities, not a disproof of determinism… which sounds an awful lot like what an astrologist says. Here's a fundamental problem, though: if the basis for believing in determinism is the cognitively accessible "scientific evidence" for it, then the basis for determinism is a function of our cognitive abilities as scientific cognizers. In other words, if determinism is "scientifically demonstrable", then the cognitive access to scientific demonstrations of determinism is coterminous with any cognitive basis for determinism. Unfortunately, though, as soon as the determinist admits that exact science may never be able to compute completely rich predictions to satisfy the skeptic, he eo ipso undermines the reliability of our heretofore scientific proof for determinism. The consistent accuracy of scientific predictions in various domains is a function of our computational success: scientific predictions, in other words, are only worth the predictions on which they're printed. As such, the scientific evidence for determinism extends no farther than the success of predictions which bear it out. By admitting that we may in principle be unable to make predictions beyond a certain computational point, however, the determinist is admitting that determinism in principle may not extend beyond the computations we actually make. That is a "local" fact about us, though not a truth about the world as a whole––at least, not a "scientific truth."

The solution at this point would be to include a substantial ceteris paribus clause that, say, "the laws of nature which underwrite our scientific predictions apply in all cases at all times in the universe and will never change." To add such a clause, however, not only preempts the much vaunted revisability and falsifiability of exact science; but also, far from demonstrating it, merely assert determinism: "The world is the way it is from all time and for all time." If we believe in determinism because exact science meshes with it, yet also admit that the complexity of the world outstrips our ability to get at its true nature, then the "scientific validity" of determinism may just be as much the fault of our idiosyncratic cognitive limits as the falstity of astrology is the fault of the charts' phenomenological limitations.

1 comment:

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

[Attempted comment by Isaac:]

Hello again my friend. I’m still not comfortable with the comment format; I feel the need to start out with a greeting as if writing an e-mail.

I remember reading a comment in the past regarding the length of your posts. While I don’t think there is anything wrong with the length, admittedly as a commenter it is hard to pin down what points I’d like to address.
While I agree with you the reaction to some regarding a potential change in their horoscope is fascinating. However linking astrology to science and determinism isn’t what would have come to my mind with this news. If anything I would have thought a closer parallel would have been to how one who follows Psi, or any of the alternative medicine crowd, or the ghost and UFO crowd takes to data that is contrary to what they believe in. I think a common reaction if the data refuting their belief is strong than at first is acceptance. However as they have time to think further, at least from what I’ve heard and seen, it seem more often than not the true believer will revert to their original belief. Whatever evidence previously impacted them would be explained some way or another as false and they will continue with their original belief system, maybe even more convinced than when they were challenged.
I’m not sure I follow you when you compare astrology to hard sciences because they cannot tell the “truth” of the “real world.” Unless I’m wrong astrology is a way of thinking that precedes the scientific method. While it makes plenty of predictions, there is no real way to falsify them that would persuade a true believer. Of course scientist are human and often time once they themselves develop a theory it might also be hard to persuade them otherwise when presented with contrary data. In that sense I could analogize the astrologist to the astronomer. But astronomy allows for changes and independent scientists coming to the same conclusions based on observations and careful measurements. Astronomy and any valid science should have a mechanism for which it works, in theory if intelligent life were to arise on other planets they would come to the same scientific conclusions. If one day we get a message from space and they want to know if cancer’s had the same fate on our planet then that would be interesting. 
As for determinism, I think I’ll comment on your other blog post. However a quick thought would be the analogy of a perfect circle. Although mathematicians and scientist can theorize what a perfect circle could be like and even though one doesn’t exist in the real world does that make the theory less “true.” Hmm I’m not sure where I’m going with that either something about how determinism like a circle makes theoretical sense but can’t be shown perfectly in the real world but is still a valid and useful tool for exploring the real world or something……… on to the next blog post!

PS my catpcha to comment is "killy" haha