Paul Feyerabend’s defense of astrology, part I

FeyerabendPaul Feyerabend was the enfant terrible of 1960s philosophy of science. His most famous book, Against Method argued that science is a quintessentially pragmatic enterprise, with scientists simply using or discarding what does and does not work, meaning that there is no such thing as the scientific method. It’s not for nothing that he was referred to as a methodological anarchist. (Incidentally, the new edition of the book, with introduction by Ian Hacking, is definitely worth the effort.)

Throughout his career as an iconoclast he managed to piss off countless philosophers and scientists, for example by once cheering creationists in California for their bid to get “creation science” taught in schools. That, Feyerabend thought, would teach a lesson to self-conceited scientists and keepers of order and rationality. But he wasn’t stupid, immediately adding that the creationists themselves would then surely become just as dogmatic and self-conceited as the scientific establishment itself. His hope was for a balance of forces, a 1960s version of John Stuart Mill’s famous concept of the free market of ideas, where the best ones always win, in the long run. (If only.)

When I was a young scientist I wasn’t too fond of Feyerabend, to put it mildly. And even as an early student of philosophy of science, I felt much more comfortable with the likes of Popper or even Kuhn (despite the famous intellectual rivalry between the two) than with the very idea of methodological anarchism. But while some people turn more conservative when they age, I guess I’ve become — to my surprise — more of an anarchist, and I have slowly, though not quite completely, re-evaluated Feyerabend.

The latest opportunity for doing so was an offer by the editor of the journal Social Epistemology to join their Review & Reply Collective and initiate a back-and-forth exchange with author Ian Kidd, who has published a paper for the journal entitled “Why Did Feyerabend Defend Astrology? Integrity, Virtue, and the Authority of Science.”

Of all things, one would think that astrology is, in fact, indefensible. (Should you have any doubt, I warmly encourage you to read this and follow up on several of the links therein.) And in fact, Kidd, argues, Feyerabend was perfectly aware that astrology is indefensible. Why then go on to write a panegyric about it?

Because Feyerabend was disturbed by what he saw as a dogmatic “manifesto” against astrology, put out by Paul Kurtz (the founder, among other things, of what was once known as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP) and co-signed — seemingly mindlessly — by a number of scientists who lent their credibility to it.

You can find the manifesto here (ironically, at astrologer.com!), together with a critical response by both Feyerabend and astronomer Carl Sagan. Surprising to find Sagan there, isn’t it?

This is, in part, what the Manifesto says:

“Scientists in a variety of fields have become concerned about the increased acceptance of astrology in many parts of the world. We, the undersigned — astronomers, astrophysicists, and scientists in other fields — wish to caution the public against the unquestioning acceptance of the predictions and advice given privately and publicly by astrologers. … In ancient times people believed in the predictions and advice of astrologers because astrology was part and parcel of their magical world view. They looked upon celestial objects as abodes or omens of the gods and, thus, intimately connected with events here on earth; they had no concept of the vast distances from the earth to the planets and stars. Now that these distances can and have been calculated, we can see how infinitesimally small are the gravitational and other effects produced by the distant planets and the far more distant stars. … Why do people believe in astrology? In these uncertain times many long for the comfort of having guidance in making decisions. They would like to believe in a destiny predetermined by astral forces beyond their control. However, we must all face the world, and we must realize that our futures lie in ourselves, and not in the stars. … [The dissemination of astrology in the media] can only contribute to the growth of irrationalism and obscurantism. We believe that the time has come to challenge directly, and forcefully, the pretentious claims of astrological charlatans.”

Now, here is how Sagan explained, in part, his dissent:

“I struggled with [the manifesto’s] wording, and in the end found myself unable to sign, not because I thought astrology has any validity whatever, but because I felt (and still feel) that the tone of the statement was authoritarian. It criticized astrology for having origins shrouded in superstition. But this is true as well for religion, chemistry, medicine and astronomy, to mention only four. The issue is not what faltering and rudimentary knowledge astrology came from, but what is its present validity. Then there was speculation on the psychological motivations of those who believe in astrology. These motivations — for example, the feeling of powerlessness in a complex, troublesome and unpredictable world — might explain why astrology is not generally given the sceptical scrutiny it deserves, but is quite peripheral to whether it works. The statement stressed that we can think of no mechanism by which astrology could work. This is certainly a relevant point but by itself it’s unconvincing. No mechanism was known for continental drift (now subsumed in plate tectonics) when it was proposed by Alfred Wegener in the first quarter of the twentieth century to explain a range of puzzling data in geology and palaeontology.”

And this is Feyerabend’s take, again, in part:

“In 1484 the Roman Catholic Church published the Malleus Maleficarum, the outstanding textbook on witchcraft. The Malleus is a very interesting book. It has four parts: phenomena, aetiology, legal aspects, theological aspects of witchcraft. … Comparing the Malleus with accounts of contemporary knowledge the reader can easily verify that the Pope and his learned authors knew what they were talking about. This cannot be said of the scientists. They neither know the subject they attack, astrology, nor those parts of their own science that undermine their attack. … [The Manifesto] shows the extent to which scientists are prepared to assert their authority even in areas in which they have no knowledge whatsoever.”

So, both Sagan and Feyerabend were attacking Kurtz and his 186 not because they were wrong in criticizing astrology, but rather because they didn’t actually criticize it, resorting instead to a medley of ad hominem and irrelevant arguments because they knew they were right. That’s the definition of dogmatism, which, in theory at the least, is not a scientific virtue.

And it is in terms of the concept of virtue that Kidd defens Feyerabend’s defense of astrology, as I’ll explain in the next post, out tomorrow.

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24 thoughts on “Paul Feyerabend’s defense of astrology, part I

  1. To continue a thought from the last post, that would apply to this one, it might seem the debate is between domesticated scientists, trained to exacting standards and focused on specific goals, or wild scientists, running off wherever instinct takes them. And/or how to cycle between adaption and adaptability.

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  2. Yes Massimo, if you’re going to trouble yourself to argue that something is BS, then you might as well do it properly. The way to do this, I think, is to establish whatever it is that astrologers believe, and then assess whether or not this seems to occur. Personally I’m a bit rusty on what it is that they believe. Isn’t it something about the time of year that you’re born, which then puts you into classifications based upon astral dynamics? Is gravitational pull suppose to be the mechanism? And isn’t this stuff associated with the “horoscope” business that you might read about yourself in the newspaper?

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  3. In my humble opinion, Feyerabend had a sarcastic approach to do philosophy; and a lot of people don’t get his sarcasm and thus take his word as literal. I believe he has some degree of reaponsibility about that, and that is why I can’t stand his texts very much.

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  4. Ancient belief in astrology rested on many rational considerations, summarised here:

    In his TV show Cosmos, Carl Sagan dismissed astrology with very poor and biased arguments (exactly at odds with his call for balanced reason in the letter quoted here, and no doubt exactly “because he knew he was right” as you say):

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  5. Also, many of the claims about why astrology is wrong, in that piece, are themselves problematic.

    Ancients weren’t as incorrect on distances within the solar system as it implies, first.

    Second, since ancients had no theory of gravity, they couldn’t expostulate how much or how little gravity had an effect on planetary motions.

    Third, and more to the point, in both ancient and modern astrology, I’ve not heard gravity cited, except metaphorically, as an influencing cause. If anything is cited (often it’s not, just assumed or whatever), it seems to be an astrological equivalent of the luminferous ether or something.

    Fourth, the manifesto doesn’t discuss how much, or how little, connection ancient and modern astrology have.

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  6. Kind of like how in the last post how Socratic insisted that “the universe wants nothing.” Probably true but how does he know that? We should probably refrain from using that kind of dogmatic language. I suspect he’s a gnu. Who knew? Mu. 😉

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  7. One of the reasons the ancients might have looked to the stars for a sense of order would be the same reason why it is considered a hard science today. They are ordered at such extreme perspective. If we were up close and personal with any particular star, the most most basic principles we could apply would be physics, chemistry, temperature/thermodynamics and then it too would get chaotic.

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  8. It seems Feyerabend was taking an anti-whiggish approach. Astrology wasn’t always an entirely incorrect endeavor. It could have been true and in some senses the sun and moon have profound effects on our biology. I remember a poll back in the 80s where a majority of people claimed to be afraid of scientists because of what scientists know. My comment at the time was that we should be afraid of scientists because of what scientists think they know. We are always going to look back on attempts to understand the universe as inadequate if not out-right wrong. Our legacy will be no different.

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  9. Sagan points out that one could substitute “religion” for “astrology” in the manifesto with no significant change to the meaning. Perhaps we could go a step further and say that astrology is a subset within the broader belief system presented by the various organized religions in the world (although most of them would certainly reject its claims of truth). Further still, we might ask whether belief itself has any place in the field of science, as practiced in the 21st century. If this is the case, we have to accept that by far the greater part of human action and mentation lies outside the province of science.

    Disclaimers: my first interest, in my teens, was astronomy, and the amount and quality of discovery in that field in the ensuing 60 years is overwhelming. Some time later, during the maddest era (1968-77), I resided in one of the maddest places (Berkeley), where four of my children grew up, and there I had more than a passing encounter with astrology. I was fascinated by the template it offered for self-analysis, with an orrery-like arrangement of planets, signs, and houses referring to specific areas of personality and character. I never for a minute “believed” in it, in the sense of believing that, say, a contour map was a fairly accurate representation of a mountain that I intended to climb, but the possibility of the usefulness of a fictionalized model in contemplation of one’s own psyche appealed to me.

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  10. This reminds me of a conversation I once had with someone who believed in astrology. I asked him why, if astrology is true, my twin brothers have very different personalities despite having the same birthday. He had an answer ready and as he kept talking, I soon realised he would have a reasonable-sounding answer for any question I could ask.

    I learned something that day.

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  11. The pre-judgment of astrology’s indefensibility is as taken-for-granted here as it was in Flaubert’s compendium of bourgeois bromides, the Dictionary of Received Ideas which appeared as the appendix to his enigmatic posthumous novel ‘Bouvard et Pecuchet’: “Astronomy, . . . in speaking of it, make fun of astrology.” Lest there be any doubt, we are ‘warmly’ encouraged to visit a notably vehement and virulent dossier of anti-astrological arguments and links.

    Paul Feyerabend was born in Vienna in 1924 and before the war he aspired to be an operatic baritone. In 1944, in the service for his country he was seriously wounded and crippled for life ending his thoughts of a stage career. It may be of significance that his first impulse of the heart was toward the arts. Later he even invoked Dadaism as a way of explaining how science may work. A if in exchange for the loss of the use of his legs he received two awards specifically for bravery: promotion to 1st Lieutenancy, and the Iron Cross.

    For a while Feyerabend was one of the reigning international glamor-boy academics, with numerous prestigious appointments. Contrary to what one might gather from casual encounters with his name thses days, he did not say a great deal about astrology. In his seminal work, ‘Against Method’ (1975), the subject is barely mentioned: the term ‘astrological medicine’ flies by, in passing footnotes both Comte and Kepler are credited with miniscule good words for the subject. True, he tauntingly placed his horoscope on the backflap of ‘Against Method’ in lieu of an author’s bio, along with a handsome and self-satisfied headshot.

    There’s only one other appearance of ‘astrology’ in the index of ‘Against Method’, pointing to the middle of the epilogue, an overtly anti-science declaration, expressed without a trace of philosophical jargon in language that cats and dogs can understand. In sum, Feyerabend calls science ‘that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution’. Although ‘astrology’ in the index, is not there on the page, as some disturbed editor, proofreader or typesetter perpetuated the cultural erasure: the ‘astrology of the mystics’ becomes the senseless ‘astronomy of the mystics.’

    Back to the book-jacket where I discovered that the Sun was in the 23rd degree of Capricorn when Feyerabend was born. Now insofar as astrology is a divinatory, as opposed to a scientific endeavor, it has much in common with simple bibliomancy. The random positions of the planetary bodies are used to point us to certain texts. A favorite text of mine is The Sabian Symbols (1969) by Marc Edmund Jones. (One thing I might say about M. E. Jones is that he obtained a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Chicago and John Dewey was his thesis advisor.) For the 23rd degree of Capricorn Jones presents us with this image: “Two awards for bravery in war”. I find Jones’s subtle, obliquely systematic commentary (which I will not transcribe), its possible interpretations vis-à-vis Feyerabend’s ideas and personality, and the experiences of other individuals partaking of the same Zodiacal degree to be data of an intriguing study of the world, full of open questions.

    I’m fire-walled out the article under discussion so I can’t comment beyond what seems obvious from the abstract. Philosophy of science fails to unite scientific theory with social and political ethics; this I would think is the principle point d’appui of Feyerabend’s work, as recklessly summarized in AM (p. 188): “ . . . late 20th century science has given up all philosophical pretensions and has become a powerful business that shapes the mentality of its practitioners. Good payment, good standing with the boss and the colleagues in their ‘unit’ are the chief aims of these human ants who excel in the solution of tiny problems but who cannot make sense of anything transcending their domain of competence. Humanitarian considerations are at a minimum and so is any form of progressiveness that goes beyond local improvements. . . . Let somebody make a great step forward – and the profession is bound to turn it into a club for beating people into submission.”

    It is not therefore enough to merely state that scientists use bad arguments, ad hominem, irrelevant or from authority because of some virus of dogmatism of which they might be cured. They use these arguments to defend their privileged livelihoods

    It would be an oversight to stop at the excerpts from Feyerabend’s letter to CSICOP, and not read the entire piece as it in all fairness as important how as why Feyerabend made a defense of astrology. There is some point in airing the specifics of Feyerabend’s defense (which expand considerably beyond the frame of the Humanist proclamation of anathema). The letter can be found online in Philosophy of Science and the Occult (1982) edited by Patrick Grim, Suny Press. pp.19-23 The Strange Case of Astrology quoted from Science in a Free Society (1978) Paul Feyerabend, published by NLB, London

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  12. OK, I had tried to post a link to Astrodreamer’s actual blog, per Markk’s comment. I don’t know if Massimo is now holding items with even just one link (If so, some of us, including yours truly, probably brought that on), or what … anyway, two clicks will take you there, and per Markk’s:

    He had an answer ready and as he kept talking, I soon realised he would have a reasonable-sounding answer for any question I could ask.

    You can read for yourself.

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  13. The signatories were, among others, Crick, Eccles, Medawar, Pauling, Urey, Wald …

    You would think that among them they could have come up with a rather more robust (and accurate) statement against astrology than that. But I guess we were more naive in those days. Well, I was just a schoolboy then, so I had an excuse, but even then I knew better about the knowledge of the ancients about the distances of the stars and planets.

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  14. Astrologers put me in mind of the Baconian approach to Shakespeare: ignore the majesty of the verse (or universe) in the attempt to winkle out some obscure message in code.

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  15. Wtc,

    That might describe much of our intellectual obsessions. Searching for secrets in the details and ignore what the big picture is telling us.
    Digitizing the analog(ue). Even the parts reflect the whole, if you know how to look, not just breaking it into meaningless digits.

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  16. Gadfly, I appreciate your efforts to bring readers to my (of late inactive) blog. I would encourage visitors there to approach the contents by the sign-groupings assembled in the right-hand list rather than reviewing the entries in the chronological but otherwise haphazard sequence that initially presents itself. A caveat: there is no attempt to demonstrate that astrology is ‘science’; rather I simply try to flesh out the characteristics traditionally attributed to the zodiacal signs using as examples the lives of well-known figures. http://www.astrodreamer.squarespace.com

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