Paul Feyerabend’s defense of astrology, part II

AstrologyWe have began looking at the famous (or infamous, depending on who’s talking) episode of philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend’s “defense” of astrology, in response to an anti-astrology manifesto put forth by skeptic Paul Kurtz and co-signed by 186 scientists, back in 1975. This episode is the occasion for a recent paper by Ian Kidd, to which I have been invited to write a response by the journal Social Epistemology.

Kidd’s goal is to “explore the relationship between epistemic integrity, virtue, and authority by offering a virtue epistemological reading of the defences of non-scientific beliefs, practices, and traditions in the writings of Paul Feyerabend.” The author suggests that “the defences [of non-scientific practices by Feyerabend] are more fully understood as defences of the epistemic integrity of scientists that take the form of critical exposures of failures by scientists to act with integrity.”

Another way to put this is that Feyerabend was calling the scientists’ bluff: while they liked to portrayed themselves as the open minded defenders of reason, they were in fact acting as close-minded dogmatists by dismissing notions that they had failed to investigate for the simple reason that they knew, a priori, that such notions were false. In acting this way, the scientists who signed Kurtz’s anti-astrology manifesto, in Kidd’s interpretation of Feyerabend’s view, acted unvirtuously, betraying the very same high ideals they said they were defending.

My first response to Kidd begins by acknowledging that he has a point:

“Feyerabend can be credited with identifying a real problem with modern science, which he did not name, but which has only grown substantially since: scientism. The infamous episode that triggered Feyerabend’s wrath, the publication of a ‘manifesto’ against astrology back in 1975 that was high on authoritative tone and low on arguments was the prelude to what has become a barrage of scientistic claims overstepping the epistemic authority of science, pronounced by major public figures (Stephen Hawking, Stephen Weinberg, Lawrence Krauss, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye ‘the science guy,’ to name just a few) and largely directed at delegitimizing the humanities and establishing a sort of scientific imperialism on all human knowledge and understanding.”

After pointing out (with references) that astrology is, in fact, a pseudoscience which has been seriously investigated and have been found wanting, I ask the obvious question:

“What was Feyerabend trying to achieve, exactly? ‘What he was criticising was the negative intellectual attitudes evident in the unfair derogation of astrology by the authors and signatories of the Humanist statement’ (says Kidd). That is, he had identified an early example of what is nowadays considered scientism. But it is the hallmark of a virtuous person to be wise and recognize what sort of approach works best under whatever circumstances one happens to be operating. When Kidd says ‘typically a person tries to provoke others for some principled reason, such as trying to get others to take seriously a new idea, or to rethink a deeply-held conviction’ and ‘the use of radical alternatives can afford new and otherwise unavailable forms of empirical and theoretical critique’ one simply has to ask what Feyerabend was thinking. Provocation, even (perhaps especially) for principled reasons, rarely works as a psychological technique, especially with an already highly self-important social cast such as that of professional scientists. And radical alternatives are fine if they are credible and constructive, but astrology, voodoo, homeopathy and the like [all, at some point or another, defended by Feyerabend] are light-years away from being either.”

Moreover, “Feyerabend himself incurred in the vice of epistemic recklessness, and we see the results of his attitude (and that of so many of his followers in academia) today, with rampant denial of climate change, the anti-vaccination movement, AIDS denialism, and so forth. All of which is costing us in the hard currency of actual pain, suffering, and death.”

Interestingly, Kidd contrasts Feyerabend’s approach with that of Michael Polanyi: “What seemed, to non-scientists, to be reactionary dogmatism was, in fact, a spontaneous evaluation both generated and justified by a tacit sense of plausibility. Polanyi concluded that since that sense is historically informed, collectively supported, and a product of practice and discipline, those scientists were right to trust it.” And I think Polanyi had a good point indeed.

Then again, so did Feyerabend, who Kidd interprets as maintaining that “the citizens of democratic societies ought to be able to critically appraise the authoritative institutions that influence their lives. [But] The predominant epistemic authority of those societies — namely, the scientific institution — can only be understood and appraised by those already initiated into it — namely, by scientists. If this worry holds true, then democratic control of science is impossible, a view that Feyerabend attributes to Polanyi … [he] emphasises that the general public cannot ‘participate in the intellectual milieu’ in which scientific judgements are made because, to do so, they would require initiation into the tacit dimension of science.”

The issue of trust, and of who’s watching the watchmen in a democratic society is both important and complex. By the end of my response I suggest one possibility:

“Some of the best critiques of the excesses of science in recent years have come from philosophers of science, people who know enough of the science to smell baloney when its likely to be there, and yet whose interests are not aligned with those of the scientific community. Add to that group those of historians and sociologists of science, who are also well positioned to point out science’s own limitations and tendency to overreach, and we have a more vibrant, more diverse conversation going on. That may still not satisfy radicals like Feyerabend, but as his own failure to achieve his stated objectives clearly argues for, it’s the best chance we have.”

Kidd was then offered by the editor of Social Epistemology to reply to my reply, and I in turn to reply to his reply to my reply. I will address that second round of the discussion in the next post, tomorrow.


113 thoughts on “Paul Feyerabend’s defense of astrology, part II

  1. Garth,

    The actual reason we live in a constant state of war, in this day and age, is because money is “manufactured” by buying public debt and the largest source of public expenditure, on the Federal level is “defense” spending. It’s Keynes’ “digging a hole and filling it back in,” writ large.
    Ask yourself, if the Federal Government wasn’t 21 trillion dollars in debt, with Federal treasury notes being considered the safest form of savings, where would “capitalism” be?

    Everything else is largely scapegoating.


  2. Which isn’t to say tribalism, the many functioning as one, wasn’t been a cause of conflict in previous times, though that is a bit like saying individuality is the cause of interpersonal conflict. Occasionally goals conflict, but that is a consequence of having goals in the first place.

    Today though, we function as one by being part of this global economy, with the hopes that lead and fears that herd us being fairly abstract, to those not on any actual fault line. Even those actually being crushed underfoot, or those doing the actual crushing, are pieces in some larger process, but then that is eternal, just like having group identities.


  3. Garth, Do you identify with any particular group of people, or as an individual in the global economy, or some some other relationship to society and the planet?


  4. michaelfugate: I got diverted from this thread by episode iii (and very glad I ducked that outburst of hostilities) but failed to respond to your very simple and fair query:

    “Is what astrology does, testable in any way?”

    A wonderful question getting me to think, thank you. I guess the attitude here is that astrology is like a betting system, that can be taken to the track and tested. But now I wonder if I might justly say “Was there no gravity till Newton and Galileo put it to the test?” In my first stages of enchantment with the subject I tried to devise and execute some ‘tests’, and studied up on the strikingly small literature. Some of it is now readily available, tendentiously misreported on overtly skeptical sites, and with at least an attempt at objectivity in places like I refer you to one example of a typical style of atrological test here: [ ]

    There are substantial methodological and conceptual difficulties; the unavoidable universalist implications of a general definition of astrology cause any test of astrology to be a test of astrology and something else. Feyerabend’s paper points to some attempts. A theory of astrology will have to deal with its impalpability.


  5. Brodix,

    “The actual reason we live in a constant state of war, in this day and age, is because money is “manufactured” by buying public debt…”

    Ah but in order for the money dudes to run the world they need an opiate of the masses. You and I seem to be in agreement that capitalism, debt, $$$$, is the main problem in our world. But the money powers are kept in place by manipulating the masses through religion, nationalism, racism and other forms of tribalism. Money interests will own the world so long as they have us divided into competing tribes and continue to manipulate us through our tribal nature.. To focus on anything else “is largely scapegoating.”

    “Garth, Do you identify with any particular group of people, or as an individual in the global economy, or some some other relationship to society and the planet?”

    I identify only as a human. Citizen of the world. I have no affinity or loyalty or special connection to any race, ethnicity, religion, country, language, etc. Just a human trying to make life better for other humans. For now, I feel that pointing out this problem of tribalism is the best thing I can do even though it makes me a vile person in the minds of the tribalists.


  6. No, garth, what makes you vile is your obnoxious, nasty characterization of things that really matter to people with whom you are talking as consisting of “unga, bunga, bunga” thinking.

    Nice try though in whitewashing your incivility. Unfortunately for you, everyone can go and read what you wrote.


  7. Garth,

    The problem I have with your position is similar to my views on the scientists knocking astrology, without considering how the premises, if not the conclusions, are foundational to the scientific process in the first place. It is like trying to imagine a house without a foundation.

    How can you make life better for other humans, when you don’t see any benefit to what most of humanity identifies most strongly with? You can’t solve a problem simply by dismissing it, though that is often a popular method to try.
    For example, you might feel yourself most strongly connected to the world, if not the universe, as a whole. I, for instance, would be the exact opposite. Mostly my strongest connections are to my own place and time. There are reasons for this. Not to go into too much detail, but I inherited my parents house and a significant part of the farm, which sits on land a fairly distant ancestor, also named John Merryman, won in a card game in 1714. Most of the intervening generations lived within about 10 miles of here. On a professional level, I work with race horses and they are also very here and now oriented and so I have to be as well. So for me, even tribalism would be too broad a circle to really get my mind seriously around. My immediate world is very physically and emotionally dense and when I get out of it, I get overwhelmed by the physical, emotional and psychic density and detail of every aspect of the larger world.
    Now I can understand the essential premise of being a “citizen of the world.” In many ways those categories of religion, nationalism, ideology, etc. are way to broad and shallow to have much meaning for me either. Yet I both sense and understand why many people do attach to these networks of community and purpose.
    So I’m not so much arguing with you, as to point out the inherent subjectivity of any particular life and point of view. As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Your argument is like saying we should all be networked, without there being any nodes, other than the individual and that is just not how it works. We all need to be rooted into reality, not just atomized points of reference. In fact, it behooves those at the top of this power structure, that we not have any bonds, beyond commerce and media. We might form counterweights to their power.


  8. Massimo:

    When my family’s religious traditions are characterized in terms of the sounds made by apes, it tends to upset me. I know, I’m strange that way.

    Not sure what sort of reply you would expect to that degree of incivility.


  9. Dan,

    I think you are taking Garth too seriously. Yes, his comments are often in poor taste, which is why I ignore them. Also, please remember that I often simply skim comments because I just don’t have the time, so occasionally something that I should have caught slips through. As I’ve explained a number of times, moderating is a tricky art, since one has to balance the need for open, even challenging (and therefore sometimes offensive) behavior with the ideal of fostering a community of rational thinkers who engage in constructive dialogue. I apologize for my failures in this respect, in doing my best.


  10. Dan brought his family into this not me. I never said a thing about Dan’s family. That he is trying to use his family as a human shield here to is no surprise to me. I’m calling “tribalism” primitive. If Dan wants to throw his family in front of that bullet and claim it was aimed at them that’s his trip,

    Yes there are people who believe one should never insult a person’s deeply held beliefs so as not to upset them. I’m just not one of those people. Ban me. Trying to give ideas and traditions the same cloak of protection from criticism that we afford to race and ethnicity is a low ploy in my view.


  11. Garth, I don’t personally object to the use of labels like “tribalism” to label religious traditions. I do think that your onomatopoeic addition was rude and could have been avoided.

    And please stop “daring” me to ban you. I’ll decide whether and if. You’ll know.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Brodix,

    “How can you make life better for other humans, when you don’t see any benefit to what most of humanity identifies most strongly with?”

    Most of humanity has been brainwashed from birth into ancient cults and tribes through childhood indoctrination. It’s child abuse in my mind so staying quiet is not an option. The evidence seems clear that people actually do not need this thing you say they so strongly identify with. They have just been brainwashed into thinking so. People are escaping this ancient ignorance by the millions thanks to those speaking out. That’s how we can make life better for them and everyone else. By speaking out.


  13. “Most of humanity has been brainwashed from birth into ancient cults and tribes through childhood indoctrination. It’s child abuse in my mind so staying quiet is not an option. ”

    Right, you’re not insulting anyone’s family. You’re just talking about generic, non-specific people.


  14. Dan,

    I don’t think saying that religion is about cults brainwashing people is beyond the pale. Sure, a religious person can take it as an insult, but then again most people take criticism of any sort as insults.

    That said, the Dawkins-inspired “child abuse” line is sheer nonsense, in my opinion.


  15. Massimo:

    To equate “religion” with “brainwashing cults” is unserious at best. Episcopalians are a brainwashing cult? Reform Jews are a brainwashing cult?

    But yes, it was the statement that I and everyone else who has raised their children in a religious tradition have engaged in “child abuse” that i was mostly focusing on.

    Insult after insult. Slander after slander. Makes civil discourse quite difficult if not impossible. But, it’s your living room not mine. I don’t allow such people in to begin with.


  16. Garth,

    What really are they escaping too? The suburbs? Globalism? Democracy? Capitalism? Technology? Social atomization? Car culture? Drugs? Rat race? Science? Revolution(s)?

    Yes, you can break any box open, theoretically, but how do you not end up in another box? Just keep moving faster and faster? What direction(s)? Won’t that create a rut, if done blindly? Follow the light? Just don’t get burned.


  17. It depends on how you look at freedom of religion. Some people seem to think that the freedom in question ought to be granted to the religion itself, rather than to individual people. I think that the freedom should be granted to individual people to choose their own religion, or no religion at all, including children, who I don’t see as the property of their parents. Lets not be ridiculous and try to suggest that children raised in religious homes freely choose their own religion. The religion of their parents is indoctrinated into them and ends up becomes something they have to mentally escape one day if they want to experience true freedom of thought and religion or no religion.

    Some of those lucky ones who escape end up balling their eyes out when they meet Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris at a book signing because their books helped these people to deprogram themselves from their childhood indoctrinations/parents lying to them. It’s pretty hard to make the case that individuals experience freedom of religion in a world where almost every religious person just happens to be the religion of their parents. The idea that children raised to pray to, and thank God for their food, and shelter, and everything else good in their life, from the age of 3, are then fully free to just chose their own religion when they hit, what, 12? 14? 16? 18? 24?

    Ironically, and sadly, because of the nature of religion, the only people who actually end up having true freedom of religion are those raised in secular households. So yeah, I’m sorry if it makes those who raise their children in a sectarian religious tradition feel insulted, but I consider it a violation of freedom of religion via the most powerful form of coercion, parental childhood indoctrination.

    The asininity of thinking that the major religions that dominate our world today are popular because they are so awesome and comforting and helpful is just stupefying. They are cults that could not would not survive without the practice of childhood indoctrination.


  18. Brodix,

    “What really are they escaping too?”

    They are escaping from traditionalist thinking to free thinking.


  19. Garth,

    You really shouldn’t equate every belief with its more extreme manifestations. It is like saying every conservative is a Nazi, or every liberal is a politically correct statist.
    I have often argued the central premise of monotheism, an all-knowing absolute, as Pope John Paul 2 succinctly described it, is flawed. An absolute is a pure, unadulterated state, not an ideal. If there is a spiritual absolute, then it would be the most elemental essence of consciousness/sentience, from which its biological manifestations would rise, not an ideal of knowledge and wisdom, from which humanity happened to fall. Knowledge is a quite subjective and selective process of distilling signal from the noise and editing it to uses we find helpful.
    Basically it conflates oneness, i.e. the network, with one, i.e. the node.
    And as I’ve also often argued, this object oriented way of thinking is distinctly western, which is why “gods” are not that important to eastern philosophies/religions, while “spirits” are.
    As I see it, one of the main reasons Judaism is not particularly absolutist in its religious practices, is because it is tribal. That the people and the community are every bit as important as the conceptual premise of a universal deity being reflected in them.
    Christianity and Islam are more universalist in not being tribal, so what moderates the absolutist tendencies are other reasons. Probably that Christianity was both a story of failure turned to success and filtered through Greek philosophy, while Islam was originally very politically successful using absolutist, black versus white doctrines in conquering a large section of the Eurasian continent, it had somewhat moderated with age, before the west poured trillions of dollars of oil money into its more backward and fundamentalist sects. It would have been as if in order to take coal out of the Appalachians, the coal companies had poured hundreds of billions into the local clans and they gave much of it to build up their churches. Then you would have had a far more authoritarian religious culture in this country, than there is.
    So when you have a problem with others belief systems, rather than simply dismissing the more prevalent and/or obnoxious aspects directly, it is always wise to peel back the layers and take into consideration why they are the way they are.
    For example, epicycles arose from people observing the sky directly and assuming their point of view to be objective, as most people are wont to do. The problem was solved by looking at it indirectly and understanding the anomalies and realizing we, none of us, you included, don’t have an objective view of reality, no matter how foolish we think everyone else is.


  20. Garth,

    What I find “asinine” are some of your fundamentalist New Atheist pronouncements, which are clearly uttered without knowledge or serious thought. But I’m a Stoic practitioner, so I’ll refrain from insulting you…

    Liked by 1 person

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