The sun does not rise

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The sun does not rise

Sunrise above the snow-covered city centre of Bonn, Germany. Photo by Matthias Zepper

How magical thinking haunts our everyday language, and fossilised ideas live on in even the most sophisticated science

Andrew Crumey is a novelist with a PhD in physics, and the former literary editor of Scotland on Sunday. His latest novel is The Secret Knowledge (2013).

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Would you say that astrology is very scientific, sort of scientific, or not at all scientific? The question was asked in a survey in the United States, and according to Science and Engineering Indicators 2014 ‘slightly more than half of Americans said that astrology was “not at all scientific”’. The rest, almost 50 per cent, were willing to grant it credibility, a higher proportion than in previous surveys. Perhaps that indicates a decline in rational scepticism, but an alternative interpretation suggests itself: many respondents had simply confused astrology and astronomy. It’s a common enough mistake: when the Daily Mail profiled the ailing Patrick Moore not long before his death in 2012, they dubbed him an ‘astrological legend’. One can only hope the error did nothing to hasten the great man’s demise.

As an amateur astronomer myself, I’m used to the mix-up, though to be honest, the confusion doesn’t particularly trouble me. Don’t get me wrong, I am not going to suggest there is any plausibility in the idea that the gravitational field of Jupiter can stimulate life-changing tidal forces in my head. But while the boundary between science and pseudo-science seems clear enough in theory, it’s not always so straightforward in practice. The reason, in many cases, is that both draw on the same recurring set of ideas.

I would like to propose what I shall call the principle of eternal folly. It states that in nearly every era there arises, in some form, nearly every idea of which humans are capable. Certainly, there is the emergence of new ideas: technological ones are the most obvious, but there are others, too. I do think it fair to say that Jane Austen, Beethoven, and even the occasional entrepreneur have invented radically new things. However, the vast majority of ideas are recycled – and it is when we fail to recognise this, as we eternally do, that we commit folly.

Conventional wisdom sees a transition somewhere around the 17th century between ancient ‘science’ and the genuine article we know today. Astrology gave way to astronomy, alchemy to chemistry, and the old doctrines of ‘armchair philosophers’ were finally abandoned in favour of hypotheses that could be empirically tested. Galileo’s experiments on motion are a school-room paradigm of the modern scientific method, while Aristotle’s idea that stones fall because they want to get to the centre of the Earth, and fire rises because it belongs in the sky, is typical of the unscientific approach.

The principle of eternal folly offers a somewhat different picture. In place of history seen as a progression of steps on a ladder, we could instead imagine something more stratified, rather like the escarpments of the Weald of Kent that Charles Darwin wrote about so eloquently. We envisage a cliff-face exposed by erosion; our own age is the topmost layer, but presented to us are the remains of every preceding age, and we are at liberty to pluck out buried fossils if we choose.

It is not hard to find such fossilised ideas all around us. We still say that the sun rises and sets, or that we cast a glance over a page, though we know that the Earth rotates and rays come into our eyes, not out of them. On every clear night when I set up my telescope to look at the stars, I’m confronted with this stratification of human history. I can view those twinkling lights as balls of hydrogen and helium powered by nuclear fusion, all lying at greatly different distances, or I can see them as fixed patterns on a sphere: constellations such as Libra, my birth sign. It might not be scientific, but is it any more silly than looking at a picture of mountains in Scotland and thinking of it as my homeland?

The 16th-century Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe is remembered for making celestial measurements of unprecedented accuracy that undermined the old Ptolemaic theory, but he also supplied his royal patrons with predictions based on planetary positions, and conducted experiments that might have led to the high levels of mercury found in his remains when they were exhumed in 2010. Do we call him astronomer or astrologer, chemist or alchemist? We could dismiss his astrological charts as meaningless, but his model of the solar system was flawed too: he thought the planets went round the Sun, and all of those together went round the Earth. If being right is the definition of science, then Brahe doesn’t qualify; and if agreement with empirical data is the hallmark, then there are an awful lot of present-day theoretical physicists whose untestable ideas about superstrings or multiverses possibly put them in the same category as the jocular British pop-astrologer Russell Grant.

Whether engaged in astronomy or astrology, Brahe’s mathematical calculations were much the same. We could say, though, that his astrology was based on the idea of supernatural planetary influence, without offering any explanation of what it was or how it might operate, or any evidence of its existence. The only support came from tradition: the belief that ancient people held special knowledge of the universe. In the stratified cliff-face of human thought, this is a fossilised idea that still turns up quite a lot.

It’s an idea that Isaac Newton took very seriously. A few years after publishing his greatest scientific work, the Principia (1687), he began a treatise, ‘On the origin of religion and its corruption’. From his extensive studies of Biblical and other sources, Newton believed that the first religion – preserved by Noah ‘and from him spread into all nations at the first peopling of the Earth’ – involved altars holding sacred fire, representing the Sun as the centre of the universe. In other words, Newton believed that ancient people (going right back to the Garden of Eden) were granted revelatory knowledge about the true nature of the cosmos – knowledge that later became lost, leaving people thinking instead that the Earth was the centre. The first science, according to Newton’s treatise, was the wisdom of priests:
So then twas one designe of the first institution of the true religion to propose to mankind by the frame of the ancient Temples, the study of the frame of the world as the true Temple of the great God they worshipped. And thence it was that the Priests anciently were above other men well skilled in the knowledge of the true frame of Nature & accounted it a great part of their Theology... And when the Greeks travelled into Egypt to learn astronomy & philosophy they went to the Priests.

How did this original knowledge become lost? According to Newton, the ancient temples (the Greek Prytanaea) contained representations of the heavenly bodies, and people began worshipping those, eventually seeing them as gods in their own right, thus lapsing into idolatry. So instead of history being a steady march of intellectual progress, Newton saw it as a process of loss and decay; in the Principia, he had finally been able to rediscover what the first priests must have known anyway.

Nowadays, we see Newton’s writings as falling into three main areas: scientific, religious and alchemical. Newton himself presumably didn’t see such a split: his manuscripts frequently contain mathematical notes in the middle of theological treatises. But the contemporary division is clear: the papers judged scientific are a University of Cambridge prize possession, while the rest went up for auction in 1936 and were mostly acquired by two men. The Jewish polymath Abraham Yahuda got the bulk of the religious papers, which now reside in the National Library of Israel, while the alchemical ones were bought by John Maynard Keynes.

In a lecture titled ‘Newton, the Man’ (1942), Keynes tried to fathom the ‘queer collections’ left by a man whom he considered ‘Copernicus and Faustus in one’. For him, ‘Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.’ He had ‘one foot in the Middle Ages and one foot treading a path for modern science’.

Generations of schoolchildren have learned mnemonics that colour-code light, which have as much to do with physical reality as the signs of the zodiac

Keynes took issue with the 19th-century image of Newton as supreme rationalist, and replaced it with another, based on that familiar assumption of a clear division between ancient magic and modern science. Yet this brought a new contradiction. According to Keynes, Newton’s greatest gift was intuition; the ability, for instance, to realise that a spherical mass could be treated as a point, even before he could derive the mathematical proof. Intuition, however, could be considered revelation by a more secular name, and in that respect Newton was by no means the last magician: his gift is one we willingly attribute to discoverers and innovators of all kinds – as long as their guesses are right.

Newton’s wrong guesses are, however, as interesting as his correct ones. A well-known example is his conviction that light is made of particles, not waves. What he had in mind were solid ‘corpuscles’, not the photons of modern physics, but it’s still tempting to see him as having been half right. And in trying to explain the splitting of white light into a spectrum, he came up with the beautiful notion that the width of the coloured bands matches the mathematical proportions of a musical scale. People had traditionally counted no more than five colours in a rainbow, but for his theory to work Newton needed more, so he introduced two ‘semitones’, orange and indigo, and we’ve been counting seven colours in a rainbow ever since. Generations of schoolchildren have learned mnemonics that colour-code light, such as ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’, which have as much to do with physical reality as the signs of the zodiac.

Newton’s harmonious vision was a fossil from a very deep layer of intellectual history: the doctrines of the semi-legendary Pythagoras who, apart from discovering that theorem about the square on the hypotenuse, supposedly also had a leg made of gold and could appear in two different places at once. The Pythagorean view that ‘all is number’, and that the motion of the planets was linked to musical principles (the ‘harmony of the spheres’), was also endorsed by the German mathematician Johannes Kepler, whose Harmonices Mundi (‘The Harmony of the World’, 1619) tried to explain the solar system in terms of music and geometry, and correctly proposed what we now call Kepler’s third law of planetary motion.

Galileo expressed the Pythagorean spirit in The Assayer (1623), where he called the universe a great book ‘written in the language of mathematics’, and modern physicists sustain the tradition. The great British theorist Paul Dirac, asked to explain what an electron was, reputedly wrote an equation on the blackboard, pointed to a letter in it and said, ‘That’s an electron.’ The standard model of elementary particles, brilliantly confirmed by accelerator experiments, grew out of studies of ‘symmetry groups’, an area of mathematics related to Kepler’s geometrical exercises. In each case, the idea was the same: start with a concept of mathematical symmetry and try to make it match reality.

The harmony of the spheres also has its counterpart in modern-day superstring theory, which supposes particles to correspond to those same vibrations that captivated the Pythagoreans, though, after more than 30 years of intensive study, the theory has yet to make a single prediction borne out by experiment.

Viewed in this light, Newton’s misguided intuition regarding the rainbow puts him in exactly the same camp as so many other people from all ages who have struggled to make messy reality fit beautiful theory, and have on occasion hit the jackpot. But for Keynes, what placed one of Newton’s feet firmly on the pre-scientific side of the line was his cast of mind: ‘His deepest instincts were occult, esoteric, semantic.’

Daily Weekly

‘Occult’ literally means hidden, but has various meanings in relation to Newton. On the one hand, there are his writings on subjects such as the Philosopher’s Stone, or the dating of the Apocalypse. Then there is his secretive and, according to Keynes, ‘neurotic’ personality: ‘a paralyzing fear of exposing his thoughts’. But there is also his famous comment in the Principia rejecting ‘hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical’. An ‘occult force’, in Newton’s terms, was any hidden principle not directly observable in phenomena, and his opponents claimed that his version of gravitation was itself an occult force since it assumed some mysterious ‘action at a distance’. An analogous situation was thought by some to arise in quantum theory, leading to what Albert Einstein allegedly disparaged as ‘spooky action at a distance’.

Occultism of a more literally spooky variety has likewise recurred over scientific history. A notable instance is the ‘psychic force’ proposed in the 19th century by the British chemist William Crookes. Crookes first made his name by discovering the element thallium, and is chiefly remembered for experiments where he applied high voltages to tubes containing gasses at very low pressure. These were among the earliest cathode-ray tubes: his work was the precursor of fluorescent lighting and television. He was also a pioneer in spectroscopy and radioactivity before announcing his discovery of a dubious new force in the Quarterly Journal of Science in 1874. Having invited spiritualist mediums to perform under what he considered controlled conditions, Crookes had become convinced that the phenomena he witnessed were genuine and in need of further scientific investigation. Apparently, he thought the ghostly glow produced in his vacuum tubes was a possible explanation for ectoplasm.

Crookes was fooled by a succession of mediums including Florence Cook, whose act – conducted in darkened Victorian homes – consisted of apparently materialising a ghost called Katie King, who would be seen to move around while Cook herself was generally absent. At one such session, a sceptical participant grabbed hold of the ghost and found her to be strikingly similar in appearance to Cook; he was thrown out and told that, of course, the ghost would tend to look like the medium. Crookes was invited to validate Cook’s claims, and duly did. Like those unfortunate people who give away all their money to internet fraudsters, his desire to believe outweighed his common sense.

Crookes was by no means the only scientist to endorse spiritualism. The British physicist Oliver Lodge – one of the first people to predict in 1893 what we now understand as relativistic length contraction – was a fellow member with Crookes of the Society for Psychical Research in London (both served as president), and they also belonged to the Ghost Club, a spiritualist group whose earlier members had included (less surprisingly) Charles Dickens. Crookes’ interest may have been prompted by the premature death of his brother, while Lodge later became widely known for claiming that his son, killed in the First World War, had communicated with him through mediums. One suspects their beliefs had more to do with personal need – and traditional belief in the afterlife – than rational judgement.

What Crookes advocated was an occult force in every sense; he tried to account for fictitious phenomena by speculating new laws of physics. He was by no means the last to do so. In the 1970s, Uri Geller became famous for his spoon-bending and other illusions, which he claimed to be the result of psychic powers. He attracted the attention of the British physicist John Taylor, who performed laboratory tests on Geller and endorsed his feats as genuine in a book called Superminds (1975), where he speculated an electromagnetic explanation. Taylor acknowledged his error after the Canadian magician James Randi replicated Geller’s illusions under the same conditions but, like Crookes, Taylor had spent several years seeking to explain phenomena that do not exist.

While scientific theories can become increasingly technical and abstract, the brains that struggle to interpret their meaning haven’t evolved much in the past 50,000 years

Quantum theory, with its apparent possibility for spooky action at a distance, has sparked all sorts of speculation about telepathy, remote viewing or ‘acausal’ effects: old ideas given a new twist. In 1932, the Austrian quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli began consulting Carl Jung for therapy following a series of distressing events including his mother’s suicide and his own divorce; he subsequently collaborated with Jung, and in their book The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche (1950) they proposed a ‘quaternity’ consisting of the pairings energy-spacetime and causality-synchronicity.

The recurrence of ideas over the course of history is something that Jung or Pauli would have attributed to archetypes in the collective unconscious. An alternative would be the finiteness of human imagination, and susceptibility to cultural influence. While scientific theories can become increasingly technical and abstract, the brains that struggle to interpret their meaning haven’t evolved much in the past 50,000 years. If our own brain is a kind of living fossil, it’s hardly surprising that so much of what we do with it is metaphorically fossilised too.

As well as trying to identify the first religion, Newton sought the original unit of length. In ‘A Dissertation upon the Sacred Cubit of the Jews’ (1737), Newton found it to be just over 25 inches (making Noah’s Ark more than 625 feet in length). Modern-day pyramidology maintains the tradition of finding hidden meaning in physical dimensions. In a different way, so do today’s physicists, though rather than cubits they speak of the ‘Planck length’, a unit determined by some juggling with fundamental values such as the speed of light and the gravitational constant. The idea is to combine naturally occurring quantities in order to get a ‘dimensionless’ number that might or might not have physical significance. For example, suppose your height is two metres, you can run at eight metres per second, and your age is 1 billion seconds (nearly 32 years). If you work out age times speed divided by height you get the number 4 billion, and you would get this if you used any other consistent set of units; for example years, miles, and miles per year. Hence it’s ‘dimensionless’. Does it have any physical significance? Almost certainly not, but that’s how the game works.

Paul Dirac and his fellow British physicist Arthur Eddington played it using quantities such as the mass and size of the electron; Dirac believed he could obtain the age of the universe, but his idea was judged to be contradicted by available evidence. Eddington, however, pursued what he called his ‘fundamental theory’ until he died in 1944. His book on the subject was published posthumously, and contains his derivation of the ‘cosmical number’ 204 x 2256, which he claimed to be the number of protons and electrons in the universe. History will decide whether this is on par with Newton’s erroneous theory of the rainbow or his far better one of gravity, but it is safe to say that numerical and other coincidences will continue to fascinate physicists and lay-people alike.

Personally, I shall maintain faith in the principle of eternal folly, comforted by the thought that nearly every idea that ever crosses my mind is most likely unoriginal or wrong, or both – though just occasionally our grey matter is actually capable of producing something new. A suitably humbling sentiment as I set up my telescope for another night of astro-whatever.

Read more essays on history of ideas, history of science and values & beliefs


  • Doc c

    This is a superbly written description of human conscious behavior that points to the great paradox of our existence. All of our conscious teleological activity is driven by our need to transcend our context as evolving organisms in a universe without evident purpose. That is our place in this universe - purposelessly evolving, and purposefully transcending. The cognitive style that does not seek to transcend will be post human, not human. We are by no means assured it will emerge, or that it will survive if it does.

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      • Hominid


    • G

      A universe without evident purpose? By this do you mean to say that humans don't have goals?

      1) Purpose (goal-driven thinking & behaviour) is a property of human minds.

      2) Minds live in brains.
      3) Brains live in bodies.
      4) Bodies live in the physical universe.
      5) Therefore purpose exists in the universe.

      The relative quantity of purpose as compared to other attributes of existence, is not the issue here. Transuranic elements make up a tiny proportion of the matter in the universe, but their very existence is significant: a universe with Americium, Plutonium, etc. in it, is different to a universe without those things in it. A universe with intelligent animals in it that have purpose, is different to a universe in which intelligent animals exist and have no sense of purpose, no goals.

      The animals without purpose will never reach toward space exploration. They will remain on their original home planets until the life-cycles of their home stars render those planets sterile.

      The animals with purpose will eventually begin to wonder what that 'stuff' up there is, and then seek to reach it, and then discover why it is that in the grand cosmic scheme of natural selection, they _ought to_ reach it by _going there_. In doing this, they create interstellar ecology (interactions between species in different star systems, even if at a distance of many light years and across time delays of thousands of years), something that would not otherwise exist. With sufficient technology they may learn to terraform planets, build new planets from scratch, and possibly alter the behaviours of stars.

      Not only does purpose exist in the universe, it is also physically efficacious, potentially on a cosmic scale.

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      • Hominid

        Your logic fails.

  • rudynoir

    "I am not going to suggest there is any plausibility in the idea that the gravitational field of Jupiter can stimulate life-changing tidal forces in my head."

    Correlation does not imply causation. Astrologers make no such claim about cause. I am surprised a scientist would commit logical fallacy. Well, maybe not so much. My high school science teacher said exactly the same thing.

  • fschhh

    @rudynoir:disqus :

    If astrologers say that they can predict some part of people's life just by looking at the positions of planets, then they imply that there is some sort of causal relation between these events. It could be anything more or less complex, like the gravitational field of Jupiter interacting with brains, or brains putting Jupiter where it is, or people who believe that the position of Jupiter will determine a part of their life acting in a way that makes the astrologers' prediction true.

    When scientists make wrong claims like the one you quote, I think it is because they think that beliefs such as astrology are so ridiculous that they don't need to be discussed properly. When I look at what some people in our world can believe, I think maybe we must pay attention to what we say…

    • rudynoir


      Good points, and here is what I would add.

      1. It does not have to be causal. There could be a "lurking variable" connecting the two. Just like a clock that reads 6am does not cause the sun to rise, the astrological movements of planets and stars do not necessarily cause events in your life to go one way or another. No one claims that a clock causes the sun to rise because it is known that the variable connecting the two events is time. But to someone who didn't understand time as we do, it might seem that a clock striking 6am does cause the sun to rise because the two events are correlated.

      Dismissing an argument because it seems ridiculous doesn't excuse lazy
      thinking. That just lends credibility to the opposing point of view. I think we are in agreement here?

      • fschhh

        I agree with 2.

        For 1, I think we can say that there causality between clocks and sun. Humans designed clocks to follow the sun. It does not have to be as simple as "clocks make the sun rise" or "the sun makes clocks work".

        It is what I was trying to say for astrology. The causal relation may be very complex, but astrologists imply that it exists, and in any case it seems completely strange.

        The problem here is that is not any proof that there is even a correlation and people believe it anyway. It seems much more realistic to think that astrology can be explained only by psychological phenomena like the one this article is about.

        • rudynoir

          If you destroy the clock, does the sun stop rising? If you destroy the sun, does the clock stop working? (assuming the earth is not destroyed as a result). The answer to both questions is "no," therefore there is no causation. Only correlation. Put simply, one does not cause the other. It is the third variable, the flow of time, that causes both to occur.

        • Joe

          Actually most astrologers don't consider astrology a causal mechanism at all. But most non-astrologers do, and then dismiss it because it can't prove itself to have a causal mechanism. It's a circular straw man argument.

    • joymars2

      The author would not have any argument with the remote relationships proved to be true in quantum physics, but he doesn't possess the logic to allow that there are more ways of relating than meets the eye.

      • Robert Zraick

        I have been under the impression that quantum physics is theoretical and that nothing has ever been proved. Even Einstein's Theory of Relativity is still just a theory.

        I believe that all scientific investigations must start on the theoretical level, but to talk about concepts which are theoretical when they can not be demonstrated consistently in reality is not logical. A such these theories are not proven but must exist on the theoretical level until they are proved.

        While I find quantum theory fascinating, I think it is dangerous to confuse theory with fact. I am curious now as to what quantum theory has been proven as fact.

        • Luca

          Quantum theory and General Relativity theory predict phenomena which occur in the real world and describe it faithfully. Calling them "theories" is not an admission of them being imprecise or purely speculative.

          Interestingly Newton's "laws" are wrong because they don't accurately describe reality, which is what has stimulated a discussion which ultimately led Einstein to elaborate his theories of relativity.

          I like to think that the author cunningly used the same device he ascribed to Newton whereas the colors of the rainbow become seven because as so many they would fit a beautiful theory; so does the statement of Planck's length being a dimensionless parameter, as it is called a length because of its physical units. It is supposed to be the shortest possible length in the framework of applicability of quantum mechanics. Therefore, not so much of an abstraction as the writer wants us to believe, but this minor imprecision does not mar the remainder of the article which is very interesting in how it highlights the fine line between physics and philosophy in the past.

          • Robert Zraick

            Thanks for the clarification. I am interested in understanding the relationship between scientific method and philosophy.

            My understanding is as follows:

            I do not mean to diminish the significance of theory. I just want to understand the difference between theory and proven fact.

            All theory must start with observation. Once we get past the definition of reality and can accept observation as accurate, then we can theorize as to the physical reality which caused the observed event or phenomenon.

            Something is considered proven if the physics can be duplicated in a controlled environment (like a laboratory for example) and the cause and effect is consistent, demonstrable, and duplicated with the same result every time.

            This procedure is part of the scientific method. and there are many cases when the experimentation in the lab is impossible or impractical.

            In those instances, they must remain as theory, which does not invalidate them, but does separated from proven reality.

            I hope I have that right.

            Thanks again

          • Charles

            Newton's theory of gravitation was superseded by Einstein's relativity.
            However, Newton's theory is still good enough to plot orbital mechanics in space missions
            today (using relativity would be vastly more complicated). So while
            Newton's theory is technically 'wrong,' its wrongness is much smaller than, and of a whole
            different order, than that of, for example, the discredited theory of phlogiston.

            Relativity and quantum mechanics are the two most exhaustively tested theories in the history of science, and each agrees with experimental results to an extremely high degree of accuracy. The fact that they don't agree with each other points to a possible further, "better" theory or theories. However, to say or imply that they haven't been proven is just plain wrong. This would put them in the company of string theory, which is totally unproven, where they don't belong. When and if this new theory emerges, and is proven, it is likely that relativity and quantum mechanices will still be used for some important calculations and predictions.


          • Robert Zraick

            Thanks again.
            It sounds to me, that if something has been demonstrated consistently under controlled conditions, that it become accepted ad fact rather than theory.

            But I see that everything is theoretical because proven fact can be disputed and revised, as new or resultant theory emerge and can be tested.

            My comments are only aimed at the danger of accepting theory as fact before it have been proven.

            But your explanations are really helpful.

          • Charles

            Thanks and you're welcome. Theories can be proven by experiment, and will hold sway until better theories come along that fit nature more closely. I think "fact" and "truth" are more elusive concepts, perhaps not attainable by science, and perhaps better subjects for philosophy of science than for science per se.

          • Robert Zraick

            I guess we could just keep thanking each other but I do think what you just wrote is well said.

          • Hominid

            You've gotten it right.

          • Hominid

            Discussing science in terms of 'right' and 'wrong' is nonsensical.

            Science seeks the best APPROXIMATIONS of the cause-and-effect relationships that govern the universe that exists outside the mind.

            Neither relativity nor quantism is that well 'tested' - they both FAIL (no accuracy at all) to explain critical phenomena and depend on make-believe (e.g., dark energy).

            Science is no more concerned with 'proofs' than it is concerned with 'truth.'

        • Hominid

          What's 'reality'? What's 'proof'? What's a 'fact'? You're a fool.

          • Robert Zraick

            And you are rather rude. If you need definitions of the words I use, try a dictionary.

          • Hominid

            And, you are rather full of baloney.

    • roninkai

      Astrology is a farce, you belong in the dark ages, like a child afraid of the shadowy places.
      The entire sky moves in so many directions at once, you can't "chart" it, at distance gravity has low influence.

      Had a girl once went to an astrologer and told her what she wanted to hear. The astrologer went into imense detail of the girls life, then she told her she lied. The funny thing is the charming young woman was Chinese, and they have been doing this shit long before us.


      • fschhh

        Who are you replying to? I totally agree with you…

      • mijnheer

        (1) Astronomers chart the sky, and astrologers use astronomical charts of planetary positions.
        (2) Do any astrologers claim that the gravitational field of Jupiter or other planets influences human behaviour? I think most serious (if I may use that word in this context) astrologers would reject that. Instead, they regard the sky as a kind of intricate clock with which human lives are synchronized.
        (3) Has astrology been empirically refuted? If so, then it's scientific. (See Karl Popper on falsifiability.)

    • Guest

      The scientist is still in love with modern science. The alchemist can’t separate the destiny of earth from his own, humanity's, or that of the cosmos.
      In astrology there is no cause and effect, only correspondence laid out along a labrynthine path for an experience towards transcendence of the individual and the earth itself.

      Astrology is a symbolic language requiring both intuition and an earned consciousness to allow interpretation. Most people are unwilling to pay the price of acute remonstration with their intellectual analytical mode and an ego death, to prove astrology's lucid helpmeet friendship. Worth a risk in today's hyper-rational overload of narcissism which rules the day, unfortunately.

    • Analyst

      There is always a confusion between observed fact and the ability to explain it. Man observed the rising of the sun for millenia before he could explain it but he didn't for that reason deny that it happened. Not being able to explain astrology doesn't invalidate it.
      However I don't believe that such a "science" could ever have been brought to maturity by observation. There are so many variables and permutations in the stars and the lives they are said to control. To correlate the two would require observing thousands (millions?) of lives in minute detail and comparing them to the positions of thousands of stars. (Remember you wouldn't have any constellations, planets or houses to start with, just stars). You (and your descendants) would have to start with a pretty unshakable belief that there was a correlation to keep going until a pattern emerged. And all that without computers.

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  • bgbs

    There is more to life than science speak. People have feelings and use figurative speech to make sense of those feelings. Today people write poems, songs, and novels to portray life the same way they did from the dawn of civilization.

    • jon_downfromthetrees

      All that is true. But, it is confined inside the human skull, along with all other thought and emotion. Art is created in the hope it will prompt thought and emotion in the skulls of other people.

      The reality of how the universe works is the venue of science. "Science speak" is, at best, a meaningless expression, at worst, an intended slur.

  • Paul

    I think you are confusing humans' ability to put themselves at the center of things all of the time with magical thinking and fossilized ideas. We also trend towards putting things into square coordinates and are terrible at all things polar.

    It is rather beneficial to know the way things are in relation to where we now stand.

    We tend to like maps that say, "You are Here." We use apps on our phones that show how to get from our current location to another. Maps are ever changing and evolving as roads change, as rivers courses change, and even as plate techtonics alter the landscape. But the maps are no less useful because we care about the relation to us here and now. How is a modern sky chart any less useful or somehow more magical?

    Certainly the distance to the sun doesn't change (much) in each daily rotation, but in relation to my house on the ground, the sun appears to start at ground level and raise higher into the air each day. Surely we could try to explain to our children that really all that is changing is the angle of the sun in relation to ourselves, but it is much easier to tell them that the sun has risen over our head (which it has in relation to myself). Both relations are true. Neither are magical.

    Everything is relative, obviously. Trying to say that we are stepped in mysticism because we use terms that fit our current frame is silly. Trying to explain things from the reference of an outer scope or sphere might make one sound more aloof - and sometimes has purpose and value, but for day to day uses is also a silly thing to do. And ultimately fails anyway because there is always one more enclosing scope that we failed to break out of in the search of one pure non-relative reference.

    • nico

      'And ultimately fails anyway because there is always one more enclosing scope that we failed to break out of in the search of one pure non-relative reference.'

      Well said. Most natural scientists have a very naive notion of the foundations of science. Knowing how to do science in practice doesn't necessarily tell you how to think about it and look beyond it.

      For the trolls out there, I am not implying that we should treat all things equally.

      • Robert Zraick

        Much of this has to do with philosophy rather than science. Even Descartes, a mathematician, who came up with the rather brilliant "I think therefore I am" as a foundation for attempting to resolve the metaphysical question of what is reality, failed to build upon that with a scientific method.
        Both science and philosophy are important but should not be confused.

        • Hominid

          Nope! Philosophy is BS - science worthwhile. But, you're right that BS should not be confused with science.

    • Robert Zraick

      It is easier to tell "them" things which are in accurate, rather than to enlighten them, but I would question if it is a wise thing to do.

    • Hominid

      You're discussing the inadequacy of language.

  • G.N.

    I dunno. This seems like such a non-issue, really. Let's concentrate on not shooting each-other first, then we can worry about terminology laymen use to describe the earth's rotation.

  • BT Richards

    The problem the US lies in the wholesale evisceration of science. Kill off science, vilify those who have a message contrary to your dogma or critical thinking and you eliminate those who denounce global warming, religion, fracking, and a host of other
    things that financially support the 1% oligarchy

    • doctorwu

      You must mean how Obama has eviscerated NASA...and other science funding, right?

      • roninkai

        Congress holds the purse stings, they control funding.
        Bitch at Congress, and the GOP idiots holding the country back.

  • MrKamikaze

    Humans are hard wired for superstitious beliefs Science "Fact" will never be able to counter it fully. Socially the trick is to channel that hard wiring to something more productive than blowing up ones self for a deity.

    • roninkai

      People are hard wired for personal opinions, give them facts and not fantasy to work with Tell truth—and not wish-fullness—and things may change.

      • MrKamikaze

        Since the difference between fact and fantasy are often matters of opinion i will defer to your best judgement....

        • roninkai

          Are you a writer for The Onion?
          Facts are just opinions? Go get your dictionary.

      • Hominid


    • Hominid

      First sentence relatively accurate. Second sentence wishful thinking.

      • MrKamikaze

        You don't believe in Unicorn Magic?

  • Pete

    As far as mathematics and its relationship with reality, one can be a Platonist (in the sense of believing in mathematical structures/objects, not the original Theory of Forms), and still be completely rational and adopt a naturalistic framework of the world. In fact, the majority of mathematicians and a huge portion of philosophers/scientists do exactly that.

    When we discover these patterns in nature, it means that the relationship between those physical objects has a certain structure. Mathematics seeks to describe those structures. Just saying "But we invented that pattern of symbols!!" says absolutely nothing about the deep, ontological reality of that mathematical structure itself.

  • DrPLN

    The principle of eternal folly is just another eternal folly. The trouble with this author is that he believes that he stands outside the human scene in some kind of meta-position from which he can see what he believes is human folly.

    • nico

      he's an armchair philosopher. That's what you get when you let unqualified people be historians, social theorists and epistemologists at once. Naivety.

    • Andrew Crumey

      I totlally agree that the idea of recurring ideas is a recurring idea: I make no claim to originality. And I agree that I have all sorts of troubles, but standing outside the human scene is not, I think, one of them. Folly is an inescapable human attribute that we should always seek to identify within ourselves. Then we can be tolerant and sympathetic when we see it in others.

  • NoSacredCow

    I can't help but notice the cognitive disconnect when people claim not to be superstitious, especially when they compare themselves to others, but at the same time can be adamant about their belief in "god".
    Now to be fair one must query their definition of "god" and once you do that, the goalposts get moved quite a bit.

  • joymars2

    It’s more than that we have a 50,000 year-old brain.

    It’s that we are of the mammalian class of animals. It’s not just our brains, but our entire organic system that forms our psyche. We aren’t going to become unemotional Vulcan-like Spocks very soon -- as much as we might think that's a cool idea. And something tells me that our imagination and inventiveness is particular to our emotional bodies, not just our brains.

    Despite all of psychiatry’s best scientific efforts, we aren’t getting less crazy and more content.

  • Vangelis

    This is merely an opinion on the astronomy/astrology debate: I think there is an advantage in distinguishing random patterns in the night sky into specific constellations, because it greatly simplifies our ability to hone into particular areas of space when the absence of such arbitrary and human characterizations would make it significantly arduous in navigating this infinite world. As long as one refrains from the belief that these "patterns" shape our destiny and have an influence on our lives (which is doesn't), then it still remains an astronomical pursuit.

  • polistra24

    Most of what the author calls "magical" is realistic, and vice versa.

    From the viewpoint of a HUMAN on EARTH, the sun does rise and set. You have to imagine yourself to be in some other solar system to see it any other way. THAT'S magical thinking.

    Newton's theory of harmony is a rather reasonable theory that hasn't been proved, but still seems possible. It's not nearly as magical as the pseudotheory of "global warming" which has been DISPROVED a dozen ways by ACTUAL FACTS, but still remains in the delusional thinking and speech of all fashionable people, because it's fashionable.. Or more precisely, because it's highly lucrative.

    • Mark Choi

      Actual facts? Name one.

  • Charles

    After developing relativity, Einstein spent the second half of his life in a vain search for a unified field theory. So interestingly he himself, an icon of modern science, may have been a victim of magical thinking, rejecting quantum mechanics, perhaps a necessary factor in his search, because it did not satisfy his pre-existing desire for complete physical determinism ("God does not play dice").

    He was often guided by intuition, as when a boy he imagined himself riding a beam of light and thought about the consequences. Perhaps, contrary to what I wrote above, his intuition will be vindicated in the future when the long-sought overarching successor theory to relativity and quantum mechanics may possibly involve fields.

  • rogerg

    If a poll was taken of the character types and illnesses promoted by DSM-IV, would people say they were scientific? Astrology, while relying on the heavens, is really a form of psychological typing, and in my opinion, is as scientific in many ways as the DSM character types like attention deficit disorder and the notorious pathologization of shyness - a taxonomy that doesn't really have a strong causal link with physical things. If you prescribed zoloft for some characteristic you associate with Sagittarians, I bet you could change that characteristic, but it wouldn't mean that it was really caused by the alignment of the stars. Astrology was, actually, based on an innately scientific idea - that the causes of events, including mental events, are materially caused.

  • Mark Choi

    Um, sorry, but the sun DOES "rise".
    ALL motion is relative, and to the extent that ANY object can be said to be "rising", it only does so relative to other objects, and more importantly, to a given reference frame. This is no different for the sun, and with the given reference object and reference frame (the Earth's horizon from a particular vantage point) The sun is indeed rising. Again, this is no different than claiming any object is rising. Claiming otherwise is to essentially claim the word has no meaning.

  • ChrisinCT

    Astrology contains astronomy and alchemy contains chemistry and within the time that these disciplines were practiced much of the science was correct. During the scientific era mistakes have been made and theories reevaluated, so clearly the scientific method gets it wrong now and then. How did the spiritual ideas within astrology and alchemy effect the science? Did it help or hurt the science? I think most people would quickly say the effects on science were negative. But what about the astronomer or scientist who believes in god?

  • Guest

    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    "...a performance that may some day be considered understandable, but that, in these primitive times, so transcends what is said to be the known; that it is what I mean by magic."

    Imagine what a smartphone of today would be for someone 100 years ago. Life is 3 to 4 billion years old and modern science around 300 years. To us, life should be magic.

    We can choose to see the world within the limits of objective science. Newton and his contemporaries however did not. If the unknown is infinitely greater than the known, how do you address that? Denial, intuition or magic? For all we know "primitive" ideas from some remote tribe may be more accurate to reality than modern science, we just dont realize that it is so. Science and technology make life convenient, but explain very little. A car is a transportation hypothesis that takes me from A to B efficiently given certain constraints. Its a tool, that's all.

    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    "...a performance that may some day be considered understandable, but that, in these primitive times, so transcends what is said to be the known; that it is what I mean by magic."

    Imagine what a smartphone of today would be for someone 100 years ago. Life is 3 to 4 billion years old and modern science around 300 years. To us, life should be magic.

    We can choose to see the world within the limits of objective science. Newton and his contemporaries however did not. If the unknown is infinitly greater than the known, how do you address that? For all we know "primitive" ideas from some remote tribe may be a more accurate to reality than modern science, we just dont realize that it is so.

    Science and technology make life convenient, but explain very little. My car is a transportation hypothesis that takes me from A to B efficiently given certain constraints. Its a tool, that's all.

    "That the sun will rise tomorrow, is an hypothesis; and that means that we do not know whether it will rise." The rising is an observed phenomenon of relative movement. It can be predicted, but it is still unexplained as to how it came to be and why. We know very few things with certainty, if any. This is why we cant discard old ideas.

  • Misc2

    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    "...a performance that may some day be considered understandable, but that, in these primitive times, so transcends what is said to be the known; that it is what I mean by magic."

    Imagine what a smartphone of today would be for someone 100 years ago. Life is 3 to 4 billion years old and modern science around 300 years. To us, life should be magic.

    We can choose to see the world within the limits of objective science. Newton and his contemporaries however did not. If the unknown is infinitely greater than the known, how do you address that? Denial, intuition or magic? For all we know "primitive" ideas from some remote tribe may be more accurate to reality than modern science, we just dont realize that it is so. Science and technology make life convenient, but explain very little. A car is a transportation hypothesis that takes me from A to B efficiently given certain constraints. Its a tool, that's all.

    "That the sun will rise tomorrow, is an hypothesis; and that means that we do not know whether it will rise." The rising is an observed phenomenon of relative movement. It can be predicted, but it is still unexplained as to how it came to be and why. We know very few things with certainty, if any. This is why we cant discard old ideas.

  • Roy Niles

    "Aristotle’s idea that stones fall because they want to get to the centre of the Earth, and fire rises because it belongs in the sky, is typical of the unscientific approach."

    Except that Aristotle may have been more right than wrong, as adding some element of purpose may be unscientific, but ignoring purpose may just as well be unphilosophic. Such as the possibility that if gravitational forces can be said to strategically want to move things, the things they move can possibly be seen as moving because of wanting to be wanted.

    • DS

      And how does that improve our understanding of anything?

      • Roy Niles

        It won't if you can't want it to.

  • geonomist

    So what’s new under the sun? Not much. Some ideas re-occur — as if they were behind their times — just as other ideas first appear, often without being accepted — as if they are ahead of their time. At least the re-occurence of good old ideas gives them another chance of being accepted, just as at last geonomics is gaining ground, over a century after Georgism, which which was over a century after phyiocracy, which was a century after Locke, Spinoza, William Penn, etc, and all of them were millennia after Confucius and Mencius. More at

  • Meltonmark

    This is an article designed to promote scientism. It has no other purpose.

    • Andrew Crumey

      How so? Given that I teach in a university Humanities department I certainly don't believe that science is the only valid form of knowledge. My purpose in this article, as in my novels, is to stimulate thought.

      • joymars2

        Seems like the purpose of this article was to stimulate clicks. The debate is way deeper than what you present here, mainly because you clearly have an ideological viewpoint. But mostly you come across as kind of...un-mellowed by life. Most people who stand on the soap box of scientism aren't actual scientists.

        • Andrew Crumey

          If you'd like to make a specific point then I'll happily respond to it, if a response is what you're looking for. As I've said already, my aim is not to promote scientism. Perhaps you'd like to indicate in what way I do (apparently) advocate the notion that science is the only valid form of knowledge.

          • roninkai

            Are you sure you aren't a scientismist?

            It's a legit question.

        • roninkai

          So adding "ism" to the end of a word now make is mock worthy? What are you—five?

          Just call it Science moron…

      • Hominid

        Of course science is "the only VALID form of knowledge" - the rest is wishful thinking.

    • Hominid

      Scientism is NOT science.

  • Mel

    "...while Aristotle’s idea that stones fall because they want to get to the centre of the Earth, and fire rises because it belongs in the sky, is typical of the unscientific approach."

    How so? It's based on observation and the conclusion would not be so questionable if, in translation, the words "want to get to" are replaced by "are drawn to" which is gravity, after all. Likewise, if the word "fire" is adjusted slightly, and not unreasonably, to mean "heated gas"...

    What appears unscientific is not always so if one places the proposal in an historical context and considers the limits of expression and translation.

    • Andrew Crumey

      Mel, I totally agree. The passage you quote from my essay is meant to be "conventional wisdom", and perhaps I should have put "unscientific" in quotes too, since I argue against it. As you say, Aristotle was doing science - his theory was wrong, but then so is just about every theory, eventually, once a better one can be formulated. Aristotle's theory was based on the properties of "gravity" (tendency to move towards the centre of the Earth) and "levity" (tendency to move away from it, towards the celestial sphere). A nice theory that accounted for various observed phenomena, and made sense as long as you assumed Earth to be the fixed centre of the universe (which again was a reasonable assumption in line with observational evidence at the time).

      • Mel

        "Spontaneous Generation" (rotting meat makes maggots) is another reasonable conclusion based on the observational evidence of the time. That science is never complete or certain goes to the very heart of the most damaging misconceptions which the public has about it and its uncertainty is sometimes exploited in nefarious ways by pressure and interest groups to sway public opinion. Science can't give an alternative to God so God exists. No scientist will ever say that any exposure to radiation or chemicals is "safe" therefore all doses must be unsafe. You can't fully prove that GM or iron-seeding of the ocean will be fully safe therefore its too unsafe even to conduct knowledge-gathering experiments...and I'm reminded of the hysteria which the media cultivated over the notion that the LHC might make black-holes. We have allowed the accuracy and certitude of science to be misrepresented, especially by Hollywood and mainstream media so that any uncertainty indicates falsehood and even intolerable danger.

        • Hominid

          The vast majority of people are too deficient in intellect and knowledge to grasp scientific concepts. There is nothing that can be done about that.

      • Simon_in_London

        Gravity is correct (by the way, the start of Ovid's Metamorphoses has the Earth 'gathered into a great ball, held together by its own weight' - 'suspenda ponderosa' as I recall). The mistake was in thinking of 'levity' as a force in itself, rather than simply 'having less gravity'. Likewise we tend to think of 'cold' as a positive characteristic, rather than just the relative absence of heat/energy.

  • Simon_in_London

    Our brains have evolved a lot in just the past ten thousand years. But we are evolved to successfully reproduce - any ability at rational scientific enquiry is purely ancillary!

  • Joe

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    • Hominid

      If something is immeasurable, how can you know it exists? You're irrational.

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  • Kevin Kind Songs

    The human brain, really just language, is dominated by imaginary things. No less imaginary is the sense of self and the primacy of subjective, experience, consciousness, free will, emotions, etc.

    Brain science is debunking these magical folk ideas at an increasing pace.

    The essensce of all magical thinking is the proposition of "Mind over matter." That is an empirical question which has never been proven and disproven endlessly and "mind' appears to be a myth as well. For example, no other species has it.

    nonetheless, while humans language contains mainly non-sencial statements that refer to no-things - gods, fairies, wishes, self-help, etc - human behavior is pretty sensible. there are 7B+ of our species.

    So likely magical thinking, really just everyday utterances claiming make believe things, are trivial and don't influence behavior much, if at all.

  • Ian Walker

    if you look at the bohr model of the atom you will see that newton was not far wrong in trying to adopt a 'harmonious' spectrum, and in fact it was numerology that deduced the empirical form of the rydberg equation, later put on sound theoretical basis by mosely. One of the hallmarks of the greats is the ability to see patterns where none before could, Science just means we have to make hypotheses about these patterns testable, disprovable.