Not Written in the Stars

When Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God—in less metaphorical terms, the collapse of the Christian faith that had provided the foundations for European social life since the Dark Ages—he saw that event as a turning point in human history, a shattering and liberating transformation that would open the road to the Overman. That hope turned out to be misplaced, and it’s worth keeping in mind that any equally grandiose claims that might be made about the consequences of the death of progress will likely face disappointment along the same lines.

Even so, the collapse of the civil religion of progress marks a significant shift, as important in our time as was the event that Nietzsche announced turned out to be in his.  Like its forerunner, the death of progress promises to kick the props out from under a great deal of today’s conventional wisdom, and pose serious challenges to some of the industrial world’s most central institutions. The case I have particularly in mind here is modern science, and in particular the impressively large institutional forms that have been built up around the scientific project over the last century or so.  Those forms were achievable only because a widely shared faith in progress made resources and funding available for them, and their continued existence depends just as directly on the survival of that same faith.

A specific example may be helpful here, so let’s consider the future of astronomical observatories.  An observatory big and high-tech enough to contribute significantly to the advance of astronomy can be a very expensive proposition—the Palomar observatory outside San Diego, for example, costs over US$10,000 a night to operate—and the ebbing tide of prosperity in the industrial world is starting to make those costs hard to cover.  Here in the US, the National Science Foundation has proposed to delete the funding for six government-funded observatories, while many observatories owned by universities are facing funding cuts or closure as a result of similar pressures. 

Observatories are particularly vulnerable in this context because they don’t make a profit for anybody. At a time when computer science and molecular biology departments at many universities increasingly operate as commercial enterprises, churning out patentable products to line the pockets of professors and university administrators alike, astronomers have got to be feeling like the red-headed stepchildren of academe; no matter how excited they and their colleagues may be about discovering a new type of quasar or what have you, the discovery’s not going to make them or their university any money, and the university administration is just as aware of this difference as the astronomers are.  These days, the sciences are being sorted out into two camps, those that produce technologies useful to government and business and those that don’t; I’m sure my readers need no help figuring out which of those camps is getting the lion’s share of research dollars these days, and which is being left to twist in the wind.

At this point I’d like to take the discussion in a deliberately improbable, even whimsical direction.  It so happens that astronomers do have another potential source of income available to them—a funding source that could probably support many if not most of the existing observatories in the style to which they’ve become accustomed, and would be completely independent of government grants and the whims of university administrations alike. It would require a certain number of grad students to get some additional training, but it could be done with equipment that can be found in any observatory. What’s more, it was the funding source for several of history’s most important astronomical projects.

It’s as simple as it is elegant, really.  All that would be required is that observatory staff would have to learn how to cast and interpret horoscopes.

Yes, I’m well aware that that’s not going to happen, and in a moment we’ll talk about the reasons why, but let’s set that aside for now and consider the thing in the abstract.  Despite the fulminations and wishful thinking of the rationalists among us, astrology’s not going to go away any time soon.  It’s been a living  tradition for well over two millennia in close to its current form, and is as lively now as it’s ever been.  The rationalist crusade against it has been a resounding flop, having failed to make the least dent in its popularity; today astrology supports its own economic sector of publishers, computer firms, annual conferences, correspondence schools, and many other businesses, not to mention thousands of professional astrologers who make a living casting birth charts, annual progressions, horary charts, and other astrological readings for a large and enthusiastic clientele.

Not only could astronomers tap into this market, it actually takes a continuing effort on their part to avoid doing so.  I’ve been told by astronomer friends that observatories in the US routinely field calls from people who are a little confused about the difference between astronomy and astrology, and want someone to cast their horoscopes. Put a new message on the answering machine, teach the receptionist how to take down birth data, and that’s fixed.  The biggest and most prestigious observatories would have the most to gain—what Hollywood hunk or celebutante, for example, could resist the temptation to drop five figures on a genuine horoscope from the Palomar Observatory, complete with a glossy star field photo of the second or so of arc that was rising on the ecliptic when he or she was born?

Nor would this be anything new in the history of astronomy.  Johannes Kepler paid the bills while he was working out the laws of planetary motion by casting horoscopes; Claudius Ptolemy did the same thing more than a millennium earlier while he was writing the Almagest. (Granted, neither man was in it just for the money; Ptolemy also wrote the most influential treatise on astrology ever penned, the Tetrabiblos, while Kepler was a brilliant innovator in astrology—the Keplerian aspects are very nearly as important in the history of modern astrology as the laws of planetary motion are in that of astronomy.) For that matter, the roots of modern astronomy reach deep into the traditions of the astronomer-priests of Sumeria and Babylonia, who made the first known systematic records of planetary movements and, not coincidentally, cast the first known horoscopes.

Much more could be said along these lines, but it’s probably better to stop here, so that my rationalist readers don’t fling themselves at their computer screens in a purely reflexive attempt to leap through cyberspace and wring my neck.  Of course the modest proposal I’ve just offered has about as much chance of being taken seriously as Jonathan Swift’s famous suggestion that the Irish ought to support themselves by selling their infants for meat, and it was made in much the same spirit.  We can take it as given that in today’s America, astronomers will embrace astrology on the same day that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins fall on their knees together and accept Jesus as their lord and savior.  Nor, for that matter, am I interested in rehashing the weary debates over the validity of astrology. The issue I want to raise here is why the suggestion that astronomers might consider taking up astrology summons up so violent and visceral a reaction on the part of so many people these days.

It’s important to get past the standard rhetoric that surrounds the subject—the insistence on the part of rationalists that astrology is unacceptable because it’s irrational, medieval, and just plain wrong. Sports fandom is well up there on the scale of irrationality, and yet it’s perfectly acceptable for astronomers to be rabid fans of the local baseball team; reenactment groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism are about as medieval as you can get, and yet an astronomer who belongs to such a group faces no criticism; as for just plain wrong, your average economist has astrologers beat three falls out of three—you’ll never catch an astrologer claiming that the sun will rise in the west tomorrow morning and then never set again, while it’s par for the course for economists to insist that the speculative bubble du jour will never pop, that the laws of economics can trump the laws of physics and geology, and so on. Yet you’ll never hear scientists denouncing economics as the crackpot pseudoscience that it arguably is.

What puts astrology outside the pale for today’s astronomers and the rest of the scientific community, rather, is that the collective imagination of the modern world assigns it to the dismal past from which the surrogate messiah of progress is forever saving us. Like the Christianity from which it drew a great many of its central metaphors, the civil religion of progress has a very wide streak of moral dualism; there’s the side of the angels in white—or, rather, the researchers in white lab coats—and then there’s the side of the devils in some infernal equivalent of Madras plaid, and in contemporary culture, there’s no question about the side of the border on which astrology belongs. It’s part of the kingdom of anti-progress, the exact equivalent of the Christian notion of the kingdom of Antichrist.

The white-hot passion with which so many scientists condemn astrology and other systems of rejected knowledge thus has its roots in the identity that scientists are taught to assume by their education and their professional culture.  From the time of Francis Bacon right down to the present, scientists have been encouraged to think of themselves as laborers in the great cause of progress, leading humanity forward out of the superstitious past toward a brighter and better future of ever-increasing reason, knowledge and power.  From the 19th century onward, in turn, this is the image of themselves that scientists have by and large tried to project into the wider society, with varying degrees of success.

That kind of acting out of an ideal can be a dangerous thing to do, and civil religions rarely have much sense of the risks involved. Theist faiths with at least a few centuries of experience under their belts tend to be a good deal more cautious; Buddhist monks who visualize themselves as bodhisattvas and Christians practicing the imitatio Christi have traditional protections to keep the identification of the self with an ideal figure from spinning out of control into psychological imbalance. Those of my readers who, as I did, had the chance to spend some time around old-fashioned Communists will have seen some of what happens when those protections are neglected; the leader of the proletariat who goes to great lengths to avoid noticing that the proletariat is not following him, and melts down completely when this latter detail becomes too evident to ignore, was once a tolerably common type.

That type became much more common in the second half of the 20th century, when it started to take effort not to notice the fact that the American proletariat wasn’t going to follow a Marxist lead. In the same way, I don’t think it’s accidental that the current rationalist crusade against religion, astrology, and everything else it likes to label irrational, medieval, wrong, etc., shifted into overdrive in the final decades of the 20th century, right about the time that it first became really difficult to justify the blanket claim that progress was always as inevitable as it was beneficent. Like their theist cousins, civil religions fairly often respond to challenges to their core beliefs by moving toward the extremes and looking for somebody to blame, and the cultural politics that assigned the label of “anti-progress” to certain traditional practices such as astrology gave the civil religion of progress an assortment of easy targets once the onward march of progress began to lose its appeal.

The difficulty with such exercises in scapegoat-hunting is that they do nothing to solve the problem that drives them, and may actually get in the way of addressing serious challenges. The status of science in contemporary American society is a case in point. Not long ago, when a qualified scientist got up in front of the public and spoke about some matter of scientific fact, most Americans took him at his word.  Nowadays?  One of the core reasons for the failure of climate activism in the US is that a great many Americans know that an expert opinion from a distinguished researcher can be bought for the price of a research grant, and have seen scare tactics used to push political agendas so many times that another round of dire warnings from experts doesn’t impress them any more. When climate activists chose to rely on the prestige of science to back up a standard-issue scare campaign, in other words, they were making a serious strategic mistake, on which their opponents were not slow to capitalize.

To some extent the collapse in the prestige of science has unfolded from the way that scientific opinion has whirled around like a weathervane on certain very public issues in recent decades. Plenty of people alive today still recall when continental drift was crackpot pseudoscience, polyunsaturated fats were good for you, and ionizing radiation was measured in “sunshine units.” It’s important to the workings of science that scientists should be permitted to change their minds on the arrival of new evidence, but that necessary openness clashes with the efforts of the scientific community to claim a privileged place in the wider conversations of our time—for example, by insisting that claims by scientific authorities should not be challenged from outside the discipline no matter how many times these same authorities have changed their minds.  Add to that clash the increasingly visible corruption of science by financial interests—the articles in medical journals that are bought and paid for by pharmaceutical firms eager to promote their products, the studies whose conclusions reliably parrot the propaganda of their funding sources, and so on—and you’ve got the makings of a really serious public relations disaster.

That disaster is not going to be prevented, or even delayed, by denouncing astrologers and their ilk. Mind you, it may succeed in making astrology more popular than it otherwise would be, for the same reason that the Republican Party’s bizarre habit of defining anything it doesn’t like as Communism may yet convince a good many Americans to give Marx a second chance. Given the very real pressures being brought to bear on scientists and scientific institutions in the current environment of economic contraction and violent political partisanship, it’s unlikely that anything more constructive will be on anyone’s agenda until well after the damage is done—and it’s the bad luck of astronomy, along with a great many other sciences not currently participating in the worst of the abuses, that it’s likely to be tarred with the same brush as those who richly deserve it.

Factor in the twilight of the civil religion of progress, though, and the ethical and political crisis of contemporary science becomes something considerably larger. In a world of the sort we’re most likely to encounter in the decades ahead, in which sustained economic growth is a subject for history books, a growing fraction of Americans live in gritty suburban slums with only the most intermittent access to electricity and running water, internet service costs more than the median monthly income, and let’s not even talk about how many people can afford basic modern medical care, faith in the inevitability and beneficence of progress will make roughly as much sense to most Americans as faith in the worker’s paradise of true Communism did to most citizens of the Soviet Union in 1980 or so. In such a future, government funding for scientific research will be at the mercy of the first demagogue who realizes that gutting the National Science Foundation, and every other scientific program that doesn’t further the immediate needs of the Pentagon, is a ticket to a landslide victory in the next election.

So long as scientists keep on thinking of themselves as heroic workers in the grand cause of progress, furthermore, any attempt on their part to counter such efforts will labor under brutal limits.  The vision of futurity central to their identity is already becoming the subject of bitter jokes of the “I believe I was promised a jetpack” variety.  As the shift in the collective imagination implied by those jokes continues to spread, like the old-fashioned Communists mentioned earlier in this essay, scientists won’t be able to respond to their critics without jettisoning their traditional rhetoric, and they won’t be able to jettison the rhetoric without abandoning the heart of their public identity. That’s a trap from which very few organizations and social movements ever manage to escape.

Thus it’s uncomfortably easy to imagine a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2070 or so, say, that resembles nothing so much as the national convention of one of the old-line American Communist parties eighty or ninety years earlier—a small group of old men going through the motions of an earlier time, repeating decades-old slogans, voting on resolutions that matter to no one else on the planet, and grimly trying to pretend that history hasn’t left them sitting in the dust. In such a future, those astronomical observatories that haven’t been stripped of metal by looters and left to the wind and rain might find a second life as homes for the very rich—it’s just as easy to imagine the attendees at the convention I’ve just described muttering bitterly about the Chinese trillionaire who’s just had the former Palomar Observatory remodeled into a mansion, and boasting to reporters from 2070’s mass media about the spectacular view from his new home.

The point that needs to be grasped here is that the institutional structure of science in America and other industrial nations—the archipelago of university departments, institutes, and specialized facilities for research that provide the economic and practical framework for science as it’s practiced today—faces massive challenges as we move forward into the deindustrial world. On the one hand, the raw fiscal burden of supporting that structure in an age of economic contraction and environmental payback will become increasingly difficult for any nation to meet, and especially challenging for the United States, as it descends from its age of imperial extravagance into a far more tightly constrained future. On the other, the emotional commitment of scientists to the civil religion of progress, and to an understanding of the purpose and goals of science that only makes sense in the context of that religion, places harsh burdens on any attempt to preserve that structure once popular faith in progress dissolves.

It might still be possible to maintain scientific research as a living tradition in the centuries immediately ahead of us. In future posts, I plan on talking about ways in which that might be done, and the reasons why I think a project of that sort is worth pursuing. Still, it’s crucial to realize that nothing guarantees the success of such a project; to borrow a phrase from the astrologers, the survival of science as a living practice is not written in the stars.


On a (hopefully) more cheery note, I’m pleased to announce that my latest book from New Society Publications, Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening, and other Hands-On Skills from the Appropriate Tech Toolkit, is now rolling off the presses. Right now, since it’s not quite on bookstore shelves, it can still be preordered from the publisher at a 20% discount; those of my readers interested in making use of that offer should visit the publisher’s website and check it out.