S.K. Arun Murthi teaches philosophy of science. His areas of research include epistemology and metaphysics of science, Indian philosophy and political philosophy.
Vasudevan Mukunth’s article, ‘How Much of a Problem Is an Astrology Workshop at IISc?‘, urges us – rightly so – to think about what will eliminate one’s vulnerability to beliefs in astrology. The reason why such superstitious beliefs take root, even among the so called educated, is due to a fear of an uncertain and insecure future. And this fear makes one forsake evidence and meaning as a guiding principle of our thinking. This, among other reasons, makes one vulnerable to astrology.
Peter Achinstein, a philosopher of science, has written a book titled The Book of Evidence. The book delineates the different conceptions of evidence and meaning analysis, particularly with respect to the relationship that an experimental observation has to a scientific hypothesis. Whatever the concept of evidence that Achinstein was trying to describe, the idea of evidence seems to be lacking in the obscurantist beliefs of astrology. The idea of meaning also seems to be absent.
If astrology is about how planetary positions influence humans, then what exactly does the ‘strength’ of a planet mean as far as humans are concerned? This is not made clear. Meanings in such cases have to be made clear in empirical terms – by deriving meaning from observational correlations.
For example, there is a certain astrological concept called shukra asta, a period of around two months or more during certain parts of the year. According to astrological traditions, no auspicious ceremonies are to be performed during this period.
An internet search revealed that, according to astrological texts, planets come very close to the Sun at certain times of the year. As a result they lose their brightness, or lustre, with respect to the Sun. This is symbolic of a planet losing its strength, resulting in shukra asta (Sanskrit for ‘combustion of a planet’). The implication for astrology is that shukra asta robs the beneficial effects of the planet.
From this, we can infer that a planet’s strength stands for the intensity or brightness of its light, and such strengths or brightness symbolises certain good and bad effects for human lives. However, this explanation is puzzling because no planet has a light of its own. It only reflects the light of a star. Thus, to speak of the brightness of a planet being blunted because of its proximity to the Sun is empirically meaningless.
There are many people who have been exposed to school-level science and who attempt to provide a rational defence of astrology. Their superficial argument of how planets influence human beings, stemming from an evident lack of understanding, goes typically like this: Planets (in astrology, this includes the Sun and the Moon) influence Earth. Therefore, they influence water bodies that, in turn, influence the lives of living beings. This is essentially an appeal to Isaac Newton’s and Albert Einstein’s laws of gravity.
But this is demonstrably naïve. Of course, the gravity due to one object influences every other object – but the assumption is that these objects ought to be quite heavy for their effects to be perceptible. Second: the attractive force between two massive bodies is a physical force. So the question arises: how can the gravitational force exerted by a planet be able to affect out love lives, matrimonial prospects, business affairs, etc. – in other words, the typical issues that astrologers deal with? Can astrologers or astrological texts establish a literal causal relationship?
The flyer for the workshop proposed in the IISc campus (which stands now cancelled) described astrology as “a scientific tool for individual progress”. Individual progress is a matter of human activities (such as those listed in the previous para) and aspirations. Other animals that we inhabit our Earth with do not have to bother with these things and so astrology does not matter to them. Then again, this is precisely the point: how can there be natural influences on our socially constructed practices and behaviours, the evaluation of which is also socially constructed?
For example, to be successful at something is to achieve a specific set of outcomes that our society has evolved. So planets guided by natural laws can’t have any say in whether a person will achieve those outcomes. In fact, any such connection in this context will either be completely alien to us or, of course, simply meaningless. The astrological texts that do claim to make this connection will have resorted to metaphors. There is, as a result, a complete lack of meaning and evidence.
Such analytical demand for meaning and evidence is usually met by appealing to something unquestionable, such as a tradition. However, the excuse of a tradition is easily invoked as a shield whenever beliefs like shukra asta are threatened by rational sensibilities. If a tradition is taken as ground for belief – a ground where neither reason nor empirical thinking operate – then tradition becomes connected to ignorance, such as is the root of all superstitions some people adhere to in the name of tradition. It is time that a society guided by such baseless traditions works to right itself, and that TV channels stop airing nonsensical programs on astrology.
Tradition is mostly a construction of beliefs that have been handed down over a period of time in oral or written forms. Unfortunately, very little of the knowledge that is passed down bothers to remember the rational or empirical components involved in the original construction of the beliefs. This is the thing about tradition that people clinging to outdated and irrational notions fail to understand.