Sunday, November 28, 2010

Unasked Questions

Why would anyone not want to study astrology? Astrology is ancient. People like to study ancient things. Astrology organizes the world. People like to study things that create order out of disorder. Astrology analyzes human interactions. People care a lot about relationships. Astrology examines the meanings of the past, future, and present moments. People like to study ways of regarding different circumstances.

By all indications, people should want to study astrology.Yet few people give astrology any thought beyond an occasional glance at their sun sign horoscope, even though they know there is much more to astrology than that. Astrology is not seriously studied at universities and research in astrology is rarely done. Scholarly journals and funding are not open to astrology. Professors are not clamoring for astrology to be taught. Instead, professors are more inclined to argue against astrology as if their careers depended on their ability to discourage students.

The usual academic argument against astrology is that it is not a science, as if science has a monopoly on Greek roots: astrology = star study, horoscope = time watcher. Yet why would astrology need to be a science for researchers to study it? Science studies multitudes of things, even things that are not real. For example, it would be difficult to claim that superstring theory is a legitimate science because it does not use real world values and therefore it cannot tested. Testing is the test of science. Bird song dialects are certainly real but what is the science that studies them? Is it linguistics, ornithology, psychology, musicology, or sociology? Modern science tends not to fit the old pigeonholes.

Why should science waste the immense literature of astrology? Wouldn't it be interesting to follow up on the few tantalizing bits of astrological evidence found so far? Is there some fear that science would somehow lose integrity if it ventured into the part on the map that is marked “Here be dragons”? Is there no way to study dragons, or even if there be dragons? Why would anyone not want to go there?

Is astrology a sort of Pandora’s Box that might, or might not, contain dreadful unknown stuff, and ought not to be opened for scientific inquiry? We see astrology proscribed with such labels as pseudoscience, superstition, occult, and remnants of the dim past. Is nothing ever learned from the dim past? Maybe the box of astrology, like a cursed tomb, should just lie where it is, undisturbed.

Then again, maybe astrology doesn’t need science, because astrology is technology and has always taken care of itself. Since the beginning of civilization, technology has been successfully used to build bridges, arm armies, cure diseases, grow crops, and navigate the deserts and seas, all before the arrival of what we call science. Technology was developed from whatever worked best. 

Without the aid of science, ancient mariners read the subtle signs in their environment that let them know how to best catch the winds, currents, and tides. They learned from their experience and discipline where the channels and shoals were, how the weather would change, and how to steer from one destination to the next. They developed practical techniques, and did not need formal laws and theories. Similarly, astrology developed as a technology and continues to develop to this day, with techniques being added, abandoned, and re-examined. Does astrology need to be anything more than collection of techniques for reading subtle signs?

Why read subtle signs? Isn’t it true that paying heed to subtle signs and recording them is the most effective way to prevent problems and assure success? Is there any better means of adaptation and survival? Why ignore early warnings and wait until problems become obvious and unavoidable? 

A concept in chaos theory known as the butterfly effect suggests that the subtle flap of a butterfly’s wings in Africa can stir the wind with an effect that can accumulate the force of a hurricane when it reaches the Caribbean. Powerful effects had to begin somewhere. But why stop at the butterfly? Where did the wing flap begin? Was it due to some urgent necessity within the butterfly? Going even further, was it perhaps something that might have issued from the quantum realm? What exactly is the quantum realm, where does it begin and where does it end, and how can it possibly affect things that we experience in our everyday world?

Quantum effects can be illustrated by the famous Schrödinger's cat thought experiment. This experiment involves another sort of box that Pandora might have been tempted to open. In this experiment a cat is placed in a box with an isotope that has a known probability of decay. The decay of the isotope will be detected and this will trigger the release of a poisonous gas, which will kill the cat. Observers would need to open the box to determine whether the cat is alive or dead at any point during the experiment. Without observation, the cat is said to be in a state of superposition, also referred to as a wave function, meaning all possible states at once, with a probability calculated for each state.

This thought experiment illustrates that the quantum realm of microscopic radioactive decay, though extremely subtle, can affect the familiar macroscopic realm in which we live, and that there are limits to what science can and cannot predict. Science can predict the state of a large number of Schrödinger’s cat boxes with a high level of certainty but it cannot predict a single case with certainty. The concepts of superposition, uncertainty, and observation in this thought experiment have interesting implications for astrology.

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