Scepticism as article of faith

Individualism is a dirty word in the social network to which I’ve had access (at least in theory) since having done postgrad studies. Because, in general, this network is nothing if not politically correct. And to be PC in this studious (studied?) middle-class milieu is to be concerned about human rights, land rights, women’s rights, gay rights (and more or less in that order): a lot of rights for a left-leaning individual (oops, that slippery word). Other taboo, if not downright dirty, words or concepts might be, thinking off the cuff, spirituality, reincarnation, god/goddess, soul, karma… and, of course, astrology. Because when I said ‘individual’, I really meant ‘intellectual’.

We in Oz pride ourselves on our education system (‘Oz’, because this land where we live is nothing if not mythical, and nowhere more so than in our own minds). So when I say ‘left-leaning intellectual’, affluence is implicit – these days we have to pay, through the nose, for higher education. (Though you can hit the government for a loan; in fact, I spent years saving for an MA then borrowed the entire sum anyway, because voluntary repayment within the time limit got me a 10% discount. Go figure.)

A gifted artist I’ve known for decades, who I’ll call Dr J (to denote academic status), recently confessed that they (here, I use the grammatically loose ‘they’ to neutralise gender, Dr J’s attitude being common to both women and men; as well as to include the cultured collective who share Dr J’s view), yes, they weren’t too comfortable or sure about astrology or any system… and didn’t know anything about it.

This ingenuous yet typical admission, with its implicit complexity, deserves what I’d guess it rarely gets when it arises: a suitably complex response. First, there’s the issue of not being too comfortable or sure. This ambivalence might imply a desire to keep an open mind, or just hesitance to commit to a position on an un-researched topic, or understandable confusion re the nature of astrology (the reduction of which to mere sun-sign prediction is a relatively new, 20th-century phenomenon), or even a vague, subconscious fear of anything unchristian or pagan. Just as the scars of the Holocaust will last for centuries if not millennia, the Inquisition, with its witch-hunts etc., still resonates at a collective level, endlessly inspiring literature, theatre and films. Even children raised in our multicultural climate by atheists must contend with a dominant Christian ethos. Astrology (and/or anything like it) is shunned by both the Christian right and its antithesis, the Dawkins-enabling (if not applauding) intellectual left, which dissociates itself from anything overtly suggestive of ‘belief’. This relegates astrology to the fringes of psychology (the mainstream of which is in bed with ‘Big Pharma’ and neuropsychiatry), if not even further beyond the pale, to the white-light culture of the New Age (or the ‘Magic Happens’ brigade, to quote a friend of mine). When compared with such extremes as smugly scoffing rationalism and mantra-chanting capitalism, unsureness about a body of knowledge might even signify sanity.

The next issue in Dr J’s disclaimer concerns systems. Is this what astrology is? Yes: a symbolic system based on precision knowledge of our solar system and star groups beyond. So Dr J’s unsureness re systems implies the existence of different orders of system. Some, e.g., nervous and ecosystems, are physical, hence observable; others, though more abstract – e.g., monetary and measuring systems – have physical products or consequences; while astrology, like a system of philosophy, is wholly abstract when questionably (in astrology’s case) split off from its physical basis.

Clearly, Dr J was not referring to any system. Any number of recognised systems, and the orders within them, are customarily taken for granted (to do otherwise might signify genius, rebellion or madness). Dr J is therefore referring to unrecognised systems. But unrecognised by whom or what? In whom or what has Dr J invested authority? Doctors who assess theses, not faeces? Obscure French philosophers? Dictionaries? General-knowledge encyclopaedias? The media?

As for not knowing anything about a given system, though theoretical knowledge abounds in countless texts on astrology, practical knowledge is gained through observation. If I can know through the evidence of my senses that the tides ebb and flow twice daily, the Moon* grows to fullness every 29½ days, and the Earth’s slow axial wobble adjusts its exposure to the Sun*, producing our seasons, then I can also believe these things happen. But my knowing is based on watching and measuring; ‘belief’ isn’t needed. On the other hand, if I’m uncomfortable with the idea that the Moon pulls the tides (the highest and lowest of which occur under the new and full phases) or the idea that the Moon affects me with my over 50% H20 composition, then it stands to reason that my judgement may be skewed by some unexamined belief.

According to Psalm 93:1 and Ecclesiastes 1:5 in my 1772 King James Bible, ‘the world alfo is eftablifhed, that it cannot be moved’ and ‘The fun alfo arifeth, and the fun goeth down, and hafteth to his place where he arofe’. In 1633, with the authority of the Church dependent on taking the Bible at its word, it wasn’t PC for men of professed faith to credit scientific observation, so the Catholic Church, uncomfortable with reports of a solar system, of which it knew nothing, defended its myopia by trying Galileo, defender of sun-centredness, for heresy.

Sun-sign columns do in-depth astrology a great disservice, ensuring by their twelve different flavours of one-size-fits-all predictions that no-one with a logical bent will bother to investigate further. It’s as if the mainstream press is waging an anti-astrology campaign, making a regular mockery of it. Why are these loosely suggestive psychic-porn columns so popular? Maybe for the same reason that we feel compelled to celebrate the solstice and equinox under the religious guise of Christmas and Easter? Sacred festivals are OK if they provide an excuse for a holiday, preceded and followed by a profane orgy of shopping. Likewise, ‘fortune-telling’ is OK if it affords a brief spell from reality. ‘Oh, I’m so bored… What do my stars say?’ They say, ‘Open your eyes / Be uplifted / Take the first step / Take control. Call 1900… That’s right: spend more money. Like phone sex, it’s substitution – ‘sex’ for intimacy with others, ‘the stars’ for intimacy with oneself.

Maybe if universities offered degrees in Astrology, Dr J might find the subject more comfy to discuss. Not that I’m proposing it should be institutionalised. How’s that for a word with multiple meanings, some of them grimmer than others? And is it mere coincidence that our language doesn’t draw clearer distinctions, or is it due to our need for euphemisms? Astrological terms can be too loosely used; but human-induced global warming (or ecocide) gets called ‘climate change’. Two or three decades ago, only cranks ‘believed in’ such change. Now that it’s begun to threaten unfettered Western consumption, the notion has turned into hard science and gone mainstream.

(* If upper case applies to planet/brand/street names etc., then why minimise these?)

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1 Response to Scepticism as article of faith

  1. Turiya says:

    Imagine if Astrology was institutionalised? We may have some wisdom shining through and leading the way more gently… I also learned that smugly is spelled with one g!
    Also loving your artworks that lead your body of writing.
    Art still has a lovely place in your literary life I am glad to see!
    Love and amore!

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