Bruno: Pt. IBy Courtney Roberts, MA
If the mere thought of a pseudo-science like astrology straying into the sacred grove of Academe provokes any sort of derision on your part, or an involuntary reflex to summarily dismiss the contents of this paper, then hold that thought; for it is the origin of that very prejudice that I propose to examine here, perhaps more closely than it ever has been by those who hold it.
Astrology was a mainstay of the medieval university system. Giants of science like Galileo, Tycho and Kepler were enthusiastic, professional practitioners. If you've always been told that they only did it for the money, you might want to revert to the primary sources, and then start asking why.
So how was astrology excluded from serious study, and when? Was there a conclusive demonstration at some point that there is no planetary influence on life on earth? Did physics and astronomy necessarily make astrology obsolete, or were other social and political factors involved? How did astrology go from the ‘queen of all sciences’ to the stooge? Is it really inimical to science, or have rapid advances in post-modern cosmology challenged the entire nature of that question?
To attempt to answer these questions, it will be necessary to examine the history of the suppression of ideas, whether religious, philosophical, or scientific, for in the struggle for freedom of expression, astrology plays a recurring role. The prejudices of the opponents of astrology will be examined, along with those of astrologers themselves, who have too often been the worst enemies of their own art.
Freedom and the Philosophical Battleground
The body of human knowledge has evolved as much through bitter and bloody conflict as through reasoned discourse. We humans are remarkably vicious when it comes to guarding our cherished notions, historically responding to differences of opinion with nothing short of murderous suppression. Of course, there is usually something more than mere ideas at stake. Power, wealth, prestige, and influence are more often the underlying causes of what passes for ideological warfare. And yet, it is the open warfare, not the ulterior motives, that draws all the attention. We can trace these dynamics throughout both the history of human rights and the suppression of astrology.
We are accustomed to think of modern, western society as the bastion of free speech and rationalism, just as we like to think of ourselves as entirely reasonable creatures, but our enlightenment casts a long shadow. In spite of all the conscious efforts of science to educate, an equally unconscious effort has gone into limiting public discourse within certain acceptable parameters, and to imposing a uniquely mechanistic, reductionist mindset.
I’m not singling out the enforcers of scientism for any special culpability in this. Scientists are people too, and must operate within societies, as the sociology of science and the ensuing science wars have demonstrated. Science, in the course of its rise from Aristotelianism and magic, to its 19th century emergence as ‘science’ per se, has been subject to all the conforming pressures of its surrounding society. It thus stands well within a tradition of suppressing unwanted ideas and eradicating the people who think them -- a tradition that spans all cultures and historical eras, and is still very much with us today.
To put this rather disheartening claim into some historical context, let us consider the early days of the battle for free speech in England. Our first case in point is The Aereopagitica (1644) by John Milton, a cornerstone document. In his lengthy plea to government censors for the rights of a free press, Milton uses various arguments and metaphors to drive home his point, that truth is better revealed in open battle with error ‘in the dust and heat.’ This open-minded liberality is the mirror in which we prefer to see ourselves. However, as Richard Webster has pointed out in his sweeping discourse on freedom of expression, ‘Reconsidering The Rushdie Affair,’1
“…Milton’s celebrated defense of the freedom of
the press was simultaneously a plea for maintaining a particular kind of
religious intolerance. For although
Milton loudly demanded freedom to expound his own opinions, his libertarianism
did not extend to the opinions of those he hated.
This bad habit of demanding the freedom both to express our own favourite opinions and to forcibly suppress those with whom we disagree, lingered long into the nineteenth century, in both the Old World and the New, forestalling the emancipation of slaves, serfs, workers, and women, and severely limiting the extent of political and religious discourse.
We should, with some sympathy, bear in mind that public torture and execution had long been the normal consequences of dissent. There was nothing new about that. It was the idea of freedom that was new and would take some time to fully develop.
As long as we remain unconscious of these deep-seated and long-standing tendencies, they remain habitual. We have made great progress since Milton’s day in extending freedom of expression throughout. However, as it becomes increasingly difficult to organize an execution, those threatened by opposing opinions must resort to character assassination instead.
The relationship between modern astrology and the self-appointed guardians of science is a good case in point, where rather than undertake the years of rigorous experimentation necessary to clarify the claims of either side, the attacks of ersatz skeptics on the queen of all ‘pseudo-sciences’ have been carried out in authoritarian tones seemingly more appropriate to religious fundamentalism.
In 1976, CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, was formed in the aftermath of an orchestrated attack against astrology led by Paul Kurtz, Bart Bok, and Lawrence Jerome. As editor of the journal, The Humanist, Kurtz arranged the publication of a statement condemning astrology, signed by an assemblage of 186 distinguished scientists, including no less than 18 Nobel Prize winners. 2
Using the grandstanding tactics that have since earned Kurtz the reputation of a propagandist rather than any kind of serious thinker, he sent this anti-astrology manifesto to newspapers throughout the US and Canada. It did generate considerable interest, including a discussion on the front page of the New York Times.3 However, as Paul Feyerabend noted, in Science in a Free Society,
“When a representative of the BBC wanted to interview some of the Nobel Prize winners they declined with the remark that they had never studied astrology and had no idea of its details. Which did not prevent them from cursing it in public.”4
Compare their position to the objective and genuinely skeptical reaction of Freeman Dyson at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, who refused to sign Kurtz’s document, admitting that he simply didn’t know.5
In the same text, Feyerabend comments further on,
“...the religious tone of the document, the illiteracy of the ‘arguments’ and the authoritarian manner in which the arguments are being presented. The learned gentlemen have strong convictions, they use their authority to spread these convictions (why 186 signatures if one has arguments?) …”6
Why indeed, one might well ask. Accompanying the ‘Objections to Astrology’ in The Humanist were two supporting articles by Bok and Jerome, which further elaborated on the objections. For example, the original objections state that,
“It is simply a mistake to imagine that the forces exerted by stars and planets at the moment of birth can in any way shape our futures. Neither is it true that the position of distant heavenly bodies make certain days or periods more favorable to particular kinds of action….”
In Bok’s accompanying article, he elaborates on this assertion, contesting the idea that the motions of the sun, moon, or planets have any influence on human affairs.
“All I can do is state clearly and unequivocally
that modern concepts of astronomy and space physics give no support – better
said, negative support – to the tenets of
Feyerabend was quick to point out, drawing on the work of John Nelson, that
“‘modern concepts of astronomy and space physics’ include large planetary plasmas and a solar atmosphere that extends far beyond the earth into space. The plasmas interact with the sun and with each other. The interaction leads to a dependence of solar activity on the relative positions of the planets. Watching the planets one can predict certain features of solar activity with great precision. Solar activity influences the quality of short wave radio signals hence fluctuations in this quality can be predicted from the position of the planets as well.”7
Feyerabend goes on to quote extensively from the then current (1978) research into cosmic influences, including Nelson’s work for RCA, the work of Frank Brown, Piccardi, Tromp, and Bouma, all of which showed promising correlations between “organic and unorganic (sic) processes and lunar, solar, and planetary parameters.”
Continuing, Feyerabend refers to the Biometeorological Research Centre in Leiden, which issued periodic lists of relevant publications. These lists included monographs, reports, articles in scientific journals, conference proceedings, and extensive bibliographies.8
While certainly worthy of further investigation, this considerable body of work, which has since expanded into new fields like chronobiology, was apparently ignored in the scientists’ proclamations. They seemed equally unaware of the classic distinction between ‘judicial,’ or horoscopic astrology, and ‘natural,’ or cosmological astrology.
The questions remain: How could so many distinguished scientists be so certain about something they knew nothing about? Why were they so eager to stand in judgment and condemn a field of study without consulting the relevant publications?
Astronomer J. Allen Hynek, in composing the forward for Michel Gauquelin’s Cosmic Influences on Human Behavior, stated that,
“It is important that the claims of astrology be examined scientifically. I cannot agree with those scientists who proclaim the falseness of astrology on purely authoritarian grounds. Appeal solely to authority is not a part of the scientific method, and the public should not be taught that it is.”
Hynek then felt compelled to add, “It is with considerable hesitancy nonetheless that I write this forward, because for an astronomer to have anything whatsoever to do with anything remotely related to astrology seems enough to rule him out of the scientific fraternity.”
Why? Why did Hynek feel that in pursuing the possibility of significant interface between life on earth and its surrounding cosmic environment, he had so much to fear from the ‘scientific fraternity’?
The high-handed manner in which many (but by no means all) scientists go about attacking and debunking unwelcome ideas has been compared to the authoritarian excesses of the institutional Church, and with some reason. It is not difficult to trace a historical continuity, in which science picked up where the Church left off, inheriting the mantle of absolute authority and universal, inarguable truth. Patrick Curry, in his considerable contributions to the history of astrology, has drawn very detailed parallels between the two. Patrice Guinard, in his doctoral dissertation on astrology, comments as follows on the same parallels in describing the debunkers of 1975:
“The scientistic ideology, inheritor of the astrophobic moralism of Christian theologians, legislates opinion in the name of certainty about its own standpoint and practices. No surprise there, since its presuppositions have replaced the dogmas of the Church, its techniques have invaded our way of life at every turn, its discourse spreads out in the same centers of academic life formerly occupied by the theologians, and finally, since there is in today's world no spiritual horizon beyond the borders of science, just as in the Middle Ages there was no horizon outside Christianity.”9
That a historical continuity exists is self-evident, but it is only the most recent manifestation of a problem that extends much further back in time. Blaming ‘the Church” for the suppressive arrogance of scientism may be a little too easy -- an immediate oversimplification that underestimates the real scope of the problem. The Roman Church has become a popular scapegoat, a convenient stopping place for our reason, and blaming it for the ills of society becomes a way of avoiding some of the more unpleasant truths of human nature.
The Roman Church, like science itself, was, and remains, an essentially human enterprise. It perpetuated, but did not necessarily originate, well-established patterns of human social behavior, in many instances assuming the roles and duties previously carried out by Imperial officials, or local priesthoods like the Druid orders. Still, the Church is routinely excoriated as if it were something unnatural and completely apart, seemingly imposing itself upon Western civilization, rather than an accurate reflection and natural manifestation of the same.
As such, the Church can hardly be accused of inventing persecution, particularly of astrology. It was considerably more tolerant of astrology than the Protestant reformers. In the following excerpt, Richard Webster firmly addresses the issue of the Protestant commitment to personal liberty:
“… it is unfortunately not the case that the Reformation replaced a state of religious tyranny by a state of religious freedom. It may well be that Martin Luther is sometimes celebrated as a champion of such freedom, but this view of his achievement rests upon a misconception. His famous pronouncement at the Diet of Worms of 1521, …was certainly not a declaration of untrammelled liberty. For Luther was simply fighting against the authority of the pope in the name of an authority which was even higher than that of the pope, the word of God."
As Joachim Kahl has observed in The Misery of Christianity, ‘submission to this objectively present authority was freedom of conscience as he (Luther) understood it.’ In 1531, Martin Luther gave evidence of his own conception of religious freedom by assenting to Melanchthon’s suggestion that Anabaptists should be punished by death. In 1536 he persuaded Philip of Hesse to accept the principle of the death penalty for all ‘heretics’.
Luther’s murderous attitude was perfectly normal for a 16th century European male pursuing power and influence, and should not be attributed to his Christianity. Try to imagine Jesus in the Gospels hanging on the cross and demanding, “Father, kill these unbelievers!” Luther’s attitudes and behaviour were consistent with the social and political institutions of his time, which, while nominally Christian, continued to operate with the same ruthlessness and complete lack of Christian love as the Roman and pagan regimes that preceded them. This was not because they were Christian. It was because they were human.
Calvin was no different, and intrusive laws governing intimate aspects of personal life cemented the suppression of personal liberties in his Geneva. Gambling, drunkenness, dancing, or singing flippant songs drew severe penalities. Calvin strongly encouraged the burning of witches, and participated in the persecution and execution of theological opponents, most notably the anti-Trinitarian, Michael Servetus.
Protestant vs. Catholic Astrology?
While Protestant Christianity is now unequivocally anti-astrology, it didn’t start out that way. While both Calvin and Luther opposed judicial astrology, Phillip Melanchthon, the prolific scribe of the Reformation, with his thorough grounding in all things Greek, used astrology liberally throughout his work. He is even said to have changed Luther’s birthday to give him a more auspicious horoscope.11 While all three Protestant leaders rejected the heliocentric theories of Copernicus, natural astrology remained a standard part of their Christian cosmology. Calvin himself conceded that
“...the most insidious feature of astrology was that it started out from a series of undeniable truths.”12
The Roman Church, the institutional successor to Imperial Rome, has waxed and waned in its enthusiasm for astrology throughout its long history, but in many instances has been very accommodating, at the highest levels, and for long centuries at a time. It is true that after the 4th century, under the newly Christianized Roman emperors, astrology and other forms of divination were repeatedly banned, often on pain of death, but there was nothing new about that. Astrology had been in deep trouble in Rome for some time. The Christian emperors and their courts went on using astrology and astrologers, just as the Roman emperors had always done, but just like the emperors, they didn’t want anyone else using it, especially against them.