Lately I’ve been thinking more about… astrology.
I’ll admit, there’s a silly kick I get from being a twin who happened to be born into the Gemini sign.
But beyond that, I never understood the attraction to astrology.
As a kid I would read daily horoscopes in the newspaper, and they seemed pretty obviously phony to me even then. Like the fortunes in a fortune cookie: randomly distributed, and depending on gullible readers who’ll believe them. No matter what happens to be written.
By the time my career path entered the realm of scientific research, superstitious practices like astrology were barely a thought to me.
…Yet now, it’s that “barely a thought” dismissal of something regarded as worthless that has recently been bugging me. It now seems so callous and smug.
But also unwise. Maybe even dangerous in a way.
People who scoff at astrology don’t simply declare that it can’t accurately predict the future. We usually take it further, into a narrative about Human Progress:
“We’ve moved on from these primitive superstitions,” we scientists say. “Let’s work to advance humanity rather than dwell on the ignorance of the past.” Basically, astrology is a relic of the Dark Ages, and we humans should put our focus on building upon the wealth of knowledge that we have cultivated since the Enlightenment.
It is undeniable that we humans have learned so much about how to explain, predict, and control the world around us. Advances in technology and medicine in recent centuries have immensely improved quality of life in so many ways. And all that is thanks to our constantly expanding body of knowledge, which is itself based on the careful testing of evidence.
That’s the “elevator chat” version of the Human Progress narrative that got me into science in the first place. It’s hard to argue with it, especially because the results of the progress are so easy to observe.
But, more and more, I think we are sometimes susceptible to being blinded by the light of human progress.
For most of my life, I’ve lived in a city. And when you live in or near a city, you rarely ever stop to notice the stars in the sky at night. You usually can only see a few at a time anyway, and they tend to be fairly dim.
But a few times in my life I have seen the night sky far away from the lights of modern civilization, as most humans throughout history probably would have seen it.
And in those times the stars were absolutely majestic. Wondrous to behold. Literally awe inspiring. Almost magical. And that impression was simply the result of being away from artificial lights for one night!
The more comfort, security, stability, and certainty that you strip away from a person’s life…it’s easy to imagine how much more powerful and meaningful to a person’s life those wondrous stars would become. They are sources of light to cut through the darkness of night. They have regular movements and positions in the sky that lend a sense of certainty and reliability to what can be chaotic and dangerous surroundings.
In fact, astrology rituals may be one of the first systematic attempts by humans to explain and control the material world based on observable patterns. Certainly the first that accumulated and carried on across regions and cultures.
Yes, it’s true, their assumptions about what the stars meant for human fates were inaccurate. But without those early efforts to systemize, understand, and control that which was mysterious, we probably wouldn’t have the system of knowledge and technology that we all currently benefit from.
Astrology was in fact one the seeds of thought that eventually helped to give rise to science.
So yes, I do think our casual dismissal of such beliefs is definitely smug. Our self-satisfaction with humanity’s current state of knowledge is not only unearned (how much did we personally contribute?), it’s also ungrateful to the innovators of the past, those giants upon whose shoulders we now stand upon.
Take for instance, Sir Isaac Newton.
Would most people today say that they are smarter or more important for human progress than Isaac Newton? Probably not. He is revered as one of the fathers of the Enlightenment, rightfully honored as a genius. Yet Newton himself spent much of his life thinking quite seriously about alchemy, about the elixir of life, and the philosopher’s stone.
Who are we to get judgmental, simply because he happened to be born in a different time and place than us? If I’d been born in Newton’s town and Newton’s time, it’s more likely that I would have cried “Witchcraft!” at his ideas than actually come up with my own. We’ve no right to judge, but that smugness comes so easily.
But again, I think there’s something here that’s worse than smugness, a more insidious danger:
I think there is a failure of educated people to appreciate how the human mind operates, quite normally, in the absence of the knowledge and the comforts that many of us have enjoyed this past century. It’s as if the light of progress has dulled our perception about how humans typically think about, perceive, and gain knowledge about the world around us.
This blindness exists, to some extent, for anyone who benefits from advanced knowledge relative to some other place or era. So, pretty much everyone today has a “dimmer view” of the stars in the sky than most people did in previous generations. But I think it’s especially true of people who are well educated, and probably most true of people trained to think scientifically. Of course, there’s so much to learn, and so many problems to solve, who even has time to think about these old superstitions and bogus beliefs?
Well…I would say that this is the perfect time to be thinking about such things.
As I said before, we live in a time of continued advancement of knowledge and rapid technical innovation. And yet, more and more, our time feels like an age of information overload. Of misinformation. Of polarization and fragmentation, of relativism. Of conspiracy theories, and widespread distrust in the established institutions of knowledge.
In these times, it feels not just helpful, but necessary to think carefully about how one thinks and how one knows.
How do we know what’s true these days?
And if we think we know what’s true, what do we do about it?
How do we work effectively to build a better world, where we can share and benefit from that knowledge?
I don’t have good answers to those questions, but I have a feeling that our being blinded by the light of progress can keep us from ever getting to real solutions. I think it’s very important to try to take different perspectives, and try to see things in a new light…if you will.
The stars may not control our fates, but how we see, what we notice, what we prioritize, and how we comprehend the world around us, these are all in fact shaped by some factors that are beyond our control, such as one’s time in history, or one’s early education opportunities.
From now on, the stars I see at night can at least remind me to focus on things that I may have been so casually looking down upon, or dismissing, or ignoring, or simply not seeing. Even if it’s not for me, it’s worth seeing in a new light.
From such guidance can come a real… fortune… of insight.
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