«An Astrophysicist's Sympathetic and Critical View of Astrology - Online College of Astr. Page 1 of 16 An Astrophysicist's Sympathetic and Critical ...»
An Astrophysicist's Sympathetic and Critical View of Astrology - Online College of Astr... Page 1 of 16
An Astrophysicist's Sympathetic and Critical
View of Astrology
A plenary talk presented at the Cycles and Symbols Conference
San Francisco, February 14-16, 1997
Physics and Astronomy Department
Hamilton, NY 13346
It is an honor to speak at this extraordinary conference, but some tension comes with it. Rick Tarnas displayed exquisite sensitivity to this tension when he asked me if it would embarrass me to receive a fax about an astrology conference at my physics and astronomy department. No, that was not a serious problem, but I also have not trumpeted it around my department that I am speaking at an astrology conference.
For many decades, I have been struggling to be true to two parts of me--the Piscean lover of depth psychology, mysticism, meditation, and astrology, and the tough-minded theoretical astrophysicist who looks skeptically on all these things. The astrophysicist is fond of his intellect, confident in the power of reason, even arrogant-a somewhat swaggering intellectual hard hat. The more mystically inclined part carries my wounds, is a more withdrawn dreamer, occasionally beset by corrosive self-doubt, but is always the doorway to the higher-a hippie visionary in a baseball hat. As you might guess, these two parts of me are often in opposition, both in the inner and outer world. For example, in 1975, well after my involvement in astrology, I was asked to sign the Bok "Objections to Astrology" manifesto along with 192 of my physics and astronomy colleagues. These colleagues wanted me to take sides in their cultural battle, not knowing of my inner struggle to get the hard hat and the hippie to dance together.
The present talk is an expression of this toe-crushing dance. The first section explores the relationship of astrology to modern science. I then discuss whether synchronicity offers a useful framework for appreciating astrology and end by making some suggestions about ways astrology might contribute to the theme of our conference-"The Return of Soul to the Cosmos."
II. Celestial Influences An Astrophysicist's Sympathetic and Critical View of Astrology - Online College of Astr... Page 2 of 16 The substance of our bodies comes from stellar evolution, supernova explosions, and our solar system's formation. The sun and moon generate ocean tides. Solar storms seriously effect radio broadcasts and probably have a weak effect on the weather. We are continuously bathed in all sorts of radiation from space. Right now approximately 1010 neutrinos per second are going through each square centimeter of the top of our heads. Don't worry.
Neutrinos rarely interact with matter. It would take approximately 1010 earths lined up like pearls on a string in the path of the neutrinos to capture half of them. You won't get a neutrino headache, but asteroids and comets crashing into the earth in the geologic past significantly affected biological history.
But what about astrological influence such as in the woodcut shown here from the sevenplanet conjunction in Pisces in 1524?
There we see a fluid influence that was believed to have caused floods and a peasant revolt. (Some even say that in an earlier incarnation, Rick Tarnas convened an astrological conference to take advantage of these powerful transits.) Today belief in such astrological influences has been replaced by ideas that can be gathered in the halls at this conference or found in the current literature. Unfortunately, the discussion of astrology, both by scientists who criticize it and those who uphold it, is extraordinarily strident, passionate, and often filled with outrageous statements.
There is little dispassionate discussion of the issues and much poor scholarship on both sides.
An Astrophysicist's Sympathetic and Critical View of Astrology - Online College of Astr... Page 3 of 16 As a young man in 1975, I was enthusiastic about my latest astrophysics research but also deeply hurt by many of the scientists I admired most because of their signing such an uninformed statement against astrology. I knew they understood nothing about real astrology and its extraordinary value, nevertheless it pained me to have my scientific elders denigrate something of importance for my inner life. More than two decades later, it distresses me just as much to hear some of the astrologers I admire most at this conference bash science in an equally uninformed way. Science is hardly above criticism, but neither side is served by shadow projection. I'll argue that the way to the personal and societal transformation we so desperately need is through reconciliation and understanding between astrology and science, not recriminations and intolerance. As we all know, in a religious war with all its primitive emotional irruptions and inability to communicate across the battle lines, truth is the first victim.
The typical argument against astrology from the science side begins with the idea that there are four forces in nature: the gravitational, electromagnetic, strong and weak nuclear forces.
Only two of them, gravity and electromagnetic, are long range forces that act over macroscopic distances. Movements of free charges easily shield electric forces, and magnetic forces decrease with distance even more rapidly than gravity, thus the only force of significance for accounting for astrological influences is the gravitational force. Thus, as my late colleague, Carl Sagan, showed, the gravitational forces of the doctor and nurse are much greater than anything from the planets. So he would say don't worry about Chiron's position, but rather whether you had a nurse in the fifth house or a doctor in Capricorn.
Such arguments are fine as they stand, but they are much too naïve. Destroying simple mechanisms for a physical explanation for astrological influence only kills straw men and does nothing to illuminate the possibility of more sophisticated ideas. Unfortunately, more sophisticated models of physical mechanism for astrological influence, such as proposed by Percy Seymour, have far too many speculative links that lack quantitative detail to allow for a reasonable judgment of their value. At this stage it is only a promise of a theory, not a full-blown quantitative physical explanation.
In astrophysics, because of the nature of the work, we welcome speculative theories. They often are the starting points for major research efforts. If the proposed theories for a physical mechanism for astrological influence were not victims of a culture war, they might be considered interesting starting points for careful model building, but too undeveloped to fight over. However, given the state of the proposals with which I am familiar, within currently accepted science, there is little support for a physical mechanism for astrological influence. Saying this here makes me feel like a cop at Woodstock.
Nevertheless, I encourage those interested in developing physical explanations for astrological influence to push their ideas to the limit. However, I think such causal and Cartesian explanations of astrological influence are misguided. I do not believe that astrological influence works through a physical mechanism between a planet and person.
Such explanations have their roots in a Newtonian view of a world of independent objects that causally influence each other. By causal influence, I mean one well-defined thing An Astrophysicist's Sympathetic and Critical View of Astrology - Online College of Astr... Page 4 of 16 effecting another by an exchange of energy or information, such as the sun and moon's gravitational field causing the tides or, more psychologically, my anxiety causing my blood pressure to rise. Such causal interactions are a far cry from the acausality, nonlocality, and participatory nature of the quantum mechanical view of nature. It's not just that the Cartesian/Newtonian view is old fashioned and quantum mechanics is both more current and accurate in every sense of the word. Equally important, since astrology presupposes a unified view of the world, it is best understood through a quantum view of the world that has acausal interconnectedness, observer dependence, and unity at its core.
Although I know of no quantum mechanical explanation for astrological influence, since the quantum worldview is so much more appropriate as a starting point for its discussion, I will very briefly summarize three of its key features. First, quantum mechanics is radically acausal. Despite its unprecedented accuracy and vast applicability, individual events do not have well-defined causes. It teaches us that lawfulness in nature does not require causalityan important lesson for astrology.
Second, objects in quantum mechanics cannot always be localized in finite regions of space and time. For example, certain correlated systems of particles, that are carefully studied in the so-called Bell Inequality experiments, appear to instantaneously communicate between the parts of the correlated system. In other words, what happens in a region, say at one end of the lab, instantaneously effects what happens at the other end and vice versa. Amazingly, the correlation does not diminish with increasing distance, nor is it a causal connection.
There is no energy or information exchange between the parts. Much more needs to be said about this deeply mysterious phenomenon than I can say here, but let me characterize it with the following brief statement. Nonlocality teaches that the relationship between parts is more fundamental, more real, than the isolated identity of the parts. From an astrological perspective, we could say that our relationship to the cosmos is more fundamental, more real than our isolated existence.
Third, quantum objects do not have well-defined properties independent of observation. It is not simply that our observation of these very small systems disturbs them, but that they are intrinsically indeterminate prior to observation. In other words, we must participate in defining the world through our observation. Astrologically we might say that a transit is not a fully defined entity but more a potentiality for experience made actual by our participation in it.
Astonishingly, this quantum view is not merely an artifact of its current mathematical formulation. Analysis and experiments, independent of the present formulation of quantum mechanics, show that nature is so deeply acausal and nonlocal that any future replacement for quantum mechanics must have nonlocal connections that work without any exchange of energy or information between the parts of the correlated system-without any causal connection. This is an extraordinary fact that should play a central role in any approach to understanding nature in general and astrology in particular. This is a long way from the Cartesian/Newtonian view at the basis of current attempts at formulating a physical mechanism for astrological influence. If you want a more substantial treatment of these An Astrophysicist's Sympathetic and Critical View of Astrology - Online College of Astr... Page 5 of 16 ideas than I can give here, I refer you to my book. Let me conclude this discussion by saying that although quantum mechanics may not give a physical mechanism for astrological influences, we can draw inspiration from the deep unity seen in quantum mechanics, without claiming that unity accounts for the efficacy of astrology. Plotinus, the greatest Neoplatonist of the second century, long before quantum mechanics, proposed an acausal understanding of astrology in his beautiful tractate entitled "Are the stars causes?" There he argues that the stars are signifiers, announcers, or symbols, but not causes of our destiny. Unfortunately, this message is easily lost as the old woodcut shows. Perhaps the neutrinos are to blame.
III. Synchronicity Astrologers often like to appeal to Carl Jung's principle of synchronicity to illuminate the working of astrology. Unfortunately, the issue is clouded because the term synchronicity is used in widely differing ways. Let me briefly review Jung's understanding of the term as a way of exploring a possibly useful acausal framework for astrology. According to Jung, synchronicity is an acausal connection of meaning between an inner psychological state such as a dream, fantasy, or feeling and an outer event. The terms acausal and meaning need amplification.
Jung used causality in the conventional sense-just the way I used it above. The acausality in synchronicity rules out any causal relationship between the objective event and the subjective state-what I call horizontal acausality, since the objective and subjective elements are on the same level of known contents. He also ruled out any transcendental causes, whether it be archetypes or angels-what I call vertical acausality, since the transcendent, or what is "above," is improperly invoked as the cause of the synchronicity "below." In doing this, Jung was not replacing causality, but supplementing it with a new explanatory principle that is acausal in both a horizontal and vertical sense.
The connecting meaning in synchronicity is not a product of the ego, but an expression of that person's individuation, which is attempting to transform the ego. Thus, synchronicity is a dramatic expression of individuation or soul-making, or nature's way of eliciting what we are meant to be, an authentic expression of our unique wholeness. So in this sense, meaning is a technical term for Jung. Let me embed these ideas in an anonymous first person account taken from my recent book, Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making. In synchronicity, as in astrology, understanding the meaning embedded in the experience is always the difficulty. To help unpack some of the meaning for this story, I'll preface it with a short poem entitled "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop" by W.B. Yeats. Here Yeats has a pompous Bishop meet a wise crone who explains how Love often dismembers us before making us whole-a central theme in the synchronicity story and one that is no doubt familiar to many of us here.
An Astrophysicist's Sympathetic and Critical View of Astrology - Online College of Astr... Page 6 of 16 I met the Bishop on the road And much said he and I.
'Those breasts are flat and fallen now, Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion, Not in some foul sty.
'Fair and foul are near of kin, and fair needs foul," I cried.