The Residue of Failure

May 25, 2004

Book Review
Philip J. Davis

The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky: Astrology and the Art of Prediction. By David Berlinski, Harcourt, New York, 2003, 352 pages, $27.00.

The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky is a serious, yet absolutely popular, presentation of the position of classical astrology within the history of human ideas. Sounds like heavy cake? It might be, but David Berlinski is a masterly writer, a great storyteller, and a great stylist. And he has selected and arranged his material so that he can be skeptical, ironic, funny, wise, sarcastic, pungent, hard hitting, philosophical, or metaphysical as the case demands.

The fundamental point that Berlinski wishes to drive home is that astrology, as conceived, altered, fine-tuned, and practiced over millennia by brilliant and intelligent theoreticians and experimentalists, is a failed science. The history of science displays many failed theories and even more failed experiments, each of which has left a certain residue.

The basic hypothesis of astrology is that the sun, the moon, the planets, the stars affect our lives. This cannot be denied, but the question then becomes how and in what way and to what extent. There is no doubt, for example, that the existence of Mars and its orbital motion has affected the lives of the employees of NASA who are engaged in probing this planet. And it affected the lives of all the astronomers, including Kepler, who tried to explain its retrograde motion.

Apart from this observation, which is a bit forced, classic astrology's products include answers to questions about the future of individual lives and of their enterprises. Should I marry so and so? What would be a felicitous time to set out on a trip? Will I become rich? Will the battle be won? These are the sorts of questions that contemporary normative science, and by that I mean the Newtonian-Maxwellian-Einsteinian-quantum theoretic variety, cannot deal with or even scoffs at. I doubt that even Laplace's Demon, to whom the future is an open book, could set up the initial-value ODEs that would determine where I misplaced my glasses yesterday. Buying an eyeglass beeper would probably be more efficient than indulging in horary astrology. Yet these are human problems, and we would like answers to them; this is a partial explanation for the persistent popularity of astrology of all sorts, down to and including the stuff that gets printed in the daily papers.

One might gather from Berlinski's subtitle---Astrology and the Art of Prediction---that the book will offer how-to-do-it advice. The publisher may indeed sell numerous copies to aspiring astrologers. Berlinski has included a fair amount of material relating to the constellations and the "houses" in which the planets may dwell from time to time; their conjunctions, oppositions, quadratures, trines, and sextiles; the combination of the exact moment of a person's birth and the location of the planets at that moment; and the connections of the zodiac to body parts or to traits of character, but I doubt that the information would be sufficient to a reader looking to set up an astrologic consultancy of the classic variety.

Through the presentation of an entertaining mix of personalities---some famous in the history of mathematics, some obscure and very oddball indeed---their writings, and their accomplishments, Berlinski scans the scene from Babylon westward. Unfortunately, he makes no mention of Indian or Oriental astrology, and he focuses largely on authors of major works on the topic, e.g., the Tetrabiblos of Ptolemy (2nd century A.D.), the Harmonicum Mundi of Kepler (1571-1630), the Christian Astrology of William Lilly (1602-1681). He covers selected episodes in the history of astrology, from the days of the ancient Near East to a recent flap about the so-called Mars effect, the claim that great athletes, more often than ordinary folk, are born when Mars is in certain positions. Associated with the name of Michel Gauquelin in France, the Mars effect is much less politically loaded than the statistical conclusions about intelligence raised by Herrnstein and Murray in The Bell Curve, yet the statistical methodologies applied to it have caused a good deal of controversy during the past half century. Biostatistician Marvin Zelen (an old colleague from my National Bureau of Standards days) got into the act by suggesting that certain statistical tests be made on subsets of Gauquelin's data.

Berlinski, who has a PhD in mathematics and a strong taste for philosophy, has interlarded his book with a number of philosophical/metaphysical questions. As hinted in my opening paragraph, he is interested in the intellectual residue of astrology:

"In the case of astrology, its principal intellectual residue is that it has suggested questions that contemporary physics cannot even today deal with. . . . The systems of intellectual impulses that made astrology possible have by no means perished; and having for so long sustained the astrologers, these impulses are now sustaining others."

The remainder of this review is devoted to these questions.

What is a science, and what constitutes a failure of a science? The late Thomas Kuhn, coiner of the multivalent term "paradigm change," was among those who recently considered these two questions in great depth. Kuhnian and anti-Kuhnian studies have become a cottage industry.

Agreeing with Berlinski, I would say that astrology is a science, because it displays certain hallmarks of a science: It has hypotheses, a metaphysical and theoretical background that draws on natural phenomena, and it has rules, mathematical algorithms, frequent comparisons of prediction and actuality, experimentation, fine-tuning. Moreover, wide applicability is claimed for it. Is it a failed science? Yes, insofar as its batting average, while not zero, is low. Of course, some of the prognostics of astrology may emerge as self-fulfilling prophesies, which helps matters along. It has not failed insofar as its popularity ratings are high and you can use it to make money (and even write books!).

To accept that current scientific theories may be ephemeral, to be discarded and replaced by something better or something entirely different, even though they have produced results that are accurate to four or more decimal places, is an indication of scientific maturity. An acquaintance with failed theories of the past can lead both to humility and to strength. A science may have failed, but its close study can reveal certain permanent engagements of the human intellect.

What is action at a distance? How is it possible without an intervening medium? Albertus Magnus (1206-1280) had much to say about this. What is a sign---or an omen---and what is a cause? What is an effect? This gets close to the question of the nature of induction. Ancient theorists backed off a bit, saying that the "stars incline but do not compel."

What does it mean to say that the future can be changed? (Didn't Einstein once write that the past/present/future was an illusion?) Some say that insofar as the future can be known, it can't be changed; and insofar as the future can be changed, it can't be known. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who commented extensively on astrology, agreed with this.

But let's see how signs of various sorts shaped up in ancient Mesopotamia:

"One thing is to be kept in mind: The gods send the signs; but what these signs announce is not unavoidable fate. A sign in a Babylonian text is not an absolute cause of a coming event, but a warning. By appropriate actions one can prevent the predicted event from happening. The idea of determinism is not inherent in his concept of sign. The knowledge about the signs is however based on experience: once it was observed that a certain sign had been followed by a specific event, it is considered known that this sign, whenever it is observed again, will indicate the same future event. So while there is an empirical basis for assuming a connection between sign and following event, this does not imply a notion of causality." (From Hermann Hunger and David Pingree, Astral Sciences in Mesopotamia.)

Signs considered as abstractions are explicated in contemporary studies in semiotics that themselves border on information theory. Is a piece of information a sign? A reason for taking action? The foreign and domestic policies of governments often founder on the ambiguity built into the interpretations of signs.

What is meant by the word explanation? (Cf. Ring Lardner's quip: "Shut up, he explained.") Many scientific explanations seem to boil down to just this. As questioners keep probing, deeper and deeper, asking why? why? why?, physicists bring out their often sung mantra "Don't ask why, just ask how." Modern theorists and their philosophers now gloss over such questions by talking about "models" rather than theories, hence avoiding the question of the ultimate truth of what they derive. But questions of "why" seem not to go away, and attempts to answer them are often productive.

And what of prediction itself? We rely on prediction every minute of our lives. It is both possible and impossible. We believe that it's possible when we see that it's raining and put on a raincoat. We have confidence in the predictions of the solar and lunar eclipses for the year 3004 (although chaos theory says that we probably can't know whether it will sleet in Philadelphia on New Year's Day of that year). Sanguine (an adjective that's a neat etymological residue of astrology) applied mathematicians put a dot over vectorial x every day of the week, thereby setting up predictions of what will happen millions of years from now. They hope that their conclusions will serve some purpose for someone somewhere---if only to get themselves grants or spreads in the Sunday supplements.

If prediction is impossible, implying free will, what chaos! Why bother preparing supper? And speaking of free will, I read recently in The New York Times that some neuroscientists are attempting to bring emotions, moral sense, even the feeling of free will under the umbrella of the Newtonian/Laplacian viewpoint by attributing them to the special nature of human brain circuitry. This looks to me suspiciously like an oxymoron. And then theologians and metaphysicians get into the act. If prediction is possible, then there is no free will. And this conclusion is rejected because it reduces the actions of God to the wielding of a rubber stamp.

Berlinski does not attempt strong answers to all the questions that he finds inherent in astrology as an intellectual discipline. He is too honest and enjoys his own ironic stance too much. The gut details of classic astrology are now thought bizarre; the engagements of great scientific names who pursued and massaged these details avidly are papered over. What abide are the philosophical questions raised by humans in their desire to know the future.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be reached at philip_davis@brown.edu.


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