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On the benefits of sticking to certain principles: a response to Lloyd Morain's "how Pseudo-scientists get away with it" an essay dedicated to the honest auto-mechanics of the world.

Every few years, it seems, someone comes out with a purportedly new argument claiming that astrology does not work, or cannot work, or "is" a delusion, or something along those lines. Though I have practiced astrology for over three decades and written three books (one soon to emerge) and numerous articles on the subject--as well as numerous essays, some published in ETC, addressing various non-astrological matters--I have never taken the time to respond to the arguments against astrology, partly because most of them simply recycle older arguments and partly because the people who offer them usually have not taken the time to investigate the subject with anything even remotely approaching thoroughness (and, I suppose, because one generally does not respond to arguments claiming that something one has observed numerous does not really happen).

However, I took it as too curious to ignore when a reprint of Lloyd Morain's "How Pseudo-Scientists Get Away With It" appeared in the issue of ETC containing my first published piece on general semantics ("Why Johnny Can't Make His Point," April 2008). Though much time has passed, and though I have had enough encounters with skeptics in the interim to convince me that most of them support their skepticism with untested assumptions, I have decided to offer a response, not to defend my own practices, but to make some general-semantics-related points that perhaps need making (though, admittedly, points do not seem to have needs). Despite Mr. Morain's reputation in general semantics matters, and despite Mr. Korzybski's assertion to the effect that most of our problems arise not because people do not know enough, but because they think they know much that they really don't know at all, Mr. Morain seems to know very little about matters about which he expresses great conviction. Further, in arguing that astrology, along with other "pseudo-sciences," does not look very respectable when viewed through the lens provided by general semantics, he has violated or ignored one general semantics principle after another.

Before supporting those claims, let me do what I advise my university-level writing students to do: give ground. I readily acknowledge that much astrological thinking and writing takes place at a woefully high level of abstraction. Consider this assertion, of a type that many astrologers make all too often: Cancers are emotional. The assertion does not seem to assert anything worth asserting; the template--that X's are Y--surely provides fodder for anyone intent on criticizing astrological practice. Certainly far too many astrologers make this kind of assertion (e.g., Scorpios are passionate, Leos are proud, Pisceans are mystical, etc.). The term "Cancers" refers to all people born with the natal Sun in tropical Cancer (roughly speaking, everyone born between June 21 and July 21). Just as we would have a hard time finding an informative statement about, say, what Muslims allegedly "are," for quite likely no useful attributive statement will apply to all Muslims, so with any statement about what Cancer's "are." The predicate (are emotional) could surely apply to most (perhaps all) people on the planet, for everyone apparently "has emotions" and seems to "be emotional" at least some of the time. Though we can say that Cancers "are emotional," none of us really has a clear idea of what "is emotional" refers to or how that attribution by itself serves to distinguish one person from another. Do we mean that the person acts differently than someone who "is not emotional," assuming we could find such a person? Does it mean that the person expresses emotion sometimes? Constantly? Whenever he sees a lady he considers attractive? On days that the Red Sox beat that disreputable team from New York? Here and elsewhere, the predicate "is emotional" seems to create a verbal fiction somewhat akin to is normal": it suggests that we can distinguish the emotional from the non-emotional just as we purportedly can distinguish the normal from the not-normal.

Let's admit that most astrologers could benefit from a lesson in operational prose, telling the reader what various astrological symbols (planets., signs, houses, aspects, etc.) indicate in terms of operations instead of telling us what they "are" or what they tell us about the "isness" of a person. We know that some astrologers can do this, for once we move away from psychological astrology and into the astrology of the stock market or of nation states, the astrologers rely on operational statements, for they start with operational questions. If Jupiter, the so-called Greater Benefic, turns direct on the ascendant of a corporation's horoscope, will the corporation's stock price go up? Will the company sell more widgets? Will it relocate to Tierra del Fuego so that employees can spend their lunch breaks writing poetry about the avian life allegedly so prevalent there? Does Jupiter's movement indicate success? Success for whom? And what will that "success" consist of? (1)

However, even if we acknowledge that far too many astrologers speak far too vaguely about matters impossible to measure or trace, those miscarriages, misstatements, or misunderstandings do not give us sufficient reason to reject astrology as a whole, as Mr. Morain seems anxious to do. After all, I have noticed once or twice (or maybe even more!) car mechanics misdiagnosing "car problems"; I have also noted that some car mechanics may diagnose correctly but misapply the adjustable wrench. That this kind of thing has happened uncounted times in the recent history of our automobile-bedeviled world has not thus far led me to conclude that auto-mechanics base their work on pseudoscientific principles or that I should consider the whole field as a hoax taken seriously only by the credulous or misinformed. One could offer similar arguments about doctors, stock market analysts, and thousands of other professionals doing work purportedly based on tested principles.

Mr. Morain begins his piece by committing what some will consider a cardinal sin against general semantics: he fails to distinguish between things that (allegedly) look alike but that differ in myriad ways. Despite his own warning, late in the article, against "bringing too many things together into a single generalization," he groups practices--guiding one's affairs "at least in part by the position of the stars, juxtapositions of tea leaves, configurations on the palm of the hand, magical verbal incantations, or other occult formulae," and, later, practices like numerology, psychic work, and the interpretation of names--that though apparently similar in his eyes, do not seem to have all that much in common other than the fact that some people categorize them as "pseudo-sciences." Though I do not know that Mr. Korzybski said anything definitive about astrology, I surely hope that he rolls over in his grave at this kind of practice, perhaps mumbling something to the spirits about high-level abstractions. (2)

Now, admittedly, much of Mr. Morain's article does not deal with astrology at all. He spends a lot of time telling us how any of us might do as well as a purported Himalayan sage whom Mr. Morain interprets as making statements that will appear startling and seer-like only to poor benighted souls who do not examine such matters carefully. Though I have passed out of the giving-ground section of this essay, I will admit that I have no argument with Mr. Morain's argument here, either: I fully acknowledge that some (perhaps many, some will say most) psychics do not seem to give much helpful information, or even much that would qualify as information at all. However, evidence or claims about pseudoseers (though some will prefer the terms imposters or shissters) do not necessarily indicate that real seers do not exist. (3) We should not mistake the facts (that some "seers" err or delude) for an argument (that we should consider all psychic activity as bunk). Reading Mr. Morain's essay, I find myself asking, as I usually do when reading essays that purport to debunk astrology and purportedly related practices: Why do people who in so many other arenas retain their critical sensibility suddenly cast it to the winds when dealing with subjects of this sort?

I also found myself wondering, on reading Mr. Morain's debunking of such purported seers, how seer-like activities qualify as pseudoscience. Do they qualify as science at all? Who puts them into that category? Mr. Morain leaves us in the dark on these questions.

After a slight diversion into a practice in which one apparently discerns something of the character or potentials of a person merely by looking at the letters of his name, Mr. Morain moves, lightly and deftly, and without so much as a clear transition, into his discussion of astrology. After finishing off the people who examine names, he asks, "Do pseudo-scientists, including astrologers, close up shop when their predictions turn out wrong, that is, when they occasionally venture into making specific predictions that can be checked?" From there he goes briefly into the case of one Norvel, allegedly "a famous astrologer of the movie colony," who predicted Hitler's death for the year 1940. Let us accept Mr. Morain's report as accurate; we can then ask what does it indicate. In doing that, let us put aside the possibility that Mr. Morain has cherry-picked his astrologer. Perhaps Norvel qualified as "famous"; perhaps some rated him as first rate, or at least as competent. (That I have never heard of the fellow means little, as I do not pay much attention to astrologers who gain fame in tabloids.) But Mr. Morain again seems to see a fact as an argument: that Norvel has predicted incorrectly apparently indicates that astrologers cannot predict (or, I suppose, that no astrologers can predict), an argument that might make us think again of the world's car mechanics. Furthermore, he has assumed that we should see accurate prediction-making as a sufficient criterion for the validity of astrological practice. I admit that astrologers can sometimes make startling predictions, but perhaps we should consider such predictions as epiphenomena of the art, not a measure of its reliability. (4)

Because such a statement may appear odd to those who see astrology as primarily a predictive art, we should investigate the matter further. Jung once wrote that an astrologer can speak to the "effective determinants" of a person's "fate beyond the reach" of conscious intention. (5) Though I do not accept all of Jung's terminology--I do not think that astrology has to do with "fate" as most people understand that term, so I do not think astrology points to any "determinants"--! think Jung has pointed to something of vital importance to any astrological investigation: that a skilled astrologer can give a client information about energetic elements (for lack of a better term) in his or her life that move "beyond the reach" of the person's conscious intention. These energetic elements, if they remain unconscious, will often appear as projections. Because the astrologer does not know, and cannot tell from the horoscope, how much effort the person has or will put into developing more conscious awareness of heretofore hidden factors, the astrologer should not rely overmuch on his ability to make predictions about how people will act. (Nation-states, not having what we might call a clear and active center of consciousness from which to make decisions, generally prove easier marks in the prediction department. Though they have horoscopes that respond to transits, directions, and progressions, and though they seem in all that very like people, they do not in all respects respond to the world like conscious entities.) (6)

Interestingly for one so concerned about abstraction levels, Mr. Morain usually leaves his critique of astrology at a very high level of abstraction. Other than the cherry-picked handful (and a small handful at that) of "facts" he offers, he presents not a single sentence giving serious attention to astrological methodology. He does, however, refer to a study in which sixty-seven out of a hundred "leading American astrologers" polled in 1956 "stated definitely that Stevenson would defeat Eisenhower." He tells us that Chester A. Arthur III, "a most humane astrologer," maintained that most astrologers "had falsely made the assumption that the nominee with the better horoscope would gain the presidency." I confess that I do not know what "the better horoscope" might refer to, either in connection with elections or anything else, for horoscopes do not fit neatly into the simplistic orientation suggested by the term "better." That said, I will acknowledge that some astrologers, myself included, predicted that Al Gore would defeat Bush in 2000. That might qualify as an error, as some of my friends like to remind me, though Gore did in some sense defeat Bush in 2000. But putting that aside, we should note the assumptions behind our predictions. In looking at elections, most astrologers use techniques that tell us not which candidate has a "better horoscope," but which candidate's horoscope suggests that vocational matters will improve and flourish in the coming years. In using those techniques, we usually assume that getting elected as "leader of the free world" qualifies as a positive career move. However, one could certainly argue that for Mr. Gore, the best career move consisted of losing the election and moving into the field of climate science, while for Mr. Bush, getting pitchforked into high station led, one might argue, to disgrace and tragedy. (7) surely one might argue that in his new vocation, Gore achieved enough notoriety that most people would categorize him as a success, none of which would have happened if he had won the election, while in his new job, Bush proved, in the opinion of many, a remarkably incompetent failure.

Mr. Morain argues--or, rather, claims, for he offers no substantive evidence--that people believe in the pseudosciences because of problems related to language and language structure. He seems not to want to blame the "pseudo-scientists" themselves, but rather to see them as dupes of their own language-related difficulties:
  Because of this language situation one cannot feel
  that all pseudo-scientists are charlatans. I regard
  only a minority of the fortunetellers I have known
  as individuals deliberately practicing trickery and
  deceit. The majority are well meaning and, at least
  in part, fooling themselves as well as others. (8)


Leaving this statement without support, he goes on to offer one of the standard bromides from the anti-astrology literature:
  Palmistry, numerology, and astrology were in some
  ways the attempts of the ancient and medieval man
  to attain exact knowledge. The strong persistence
  into the present of these pseudo-sciences has
  sometimes been given as an argument for their
  authenticity. (9)


He gives an example of an astrologer offering precisely this defenseand then offers further bromides as responses to arguments that reasonable astrologers do not make. Then he seems guilty of projecting, for he accuses "occultists" of doing what he has done throughout his essay:
  One of the tricks of the occultists is to lump into
  the single category of occult-mysticism all that is
  strange or as yet little understood. When a person
  objects to their verbal non-sense the occultists are
  likely to accuse him of being blind to the fact that
  there is much in life which is not yet understood.
  But as these become understood they are found to be
  explainable within the framework of the natural world.
  (11)


We can all admit that scientific investigations can often explain heretofore unexplained phenomena. But no astrologer will claim, I hope, that his work depends on something outside the natural world or something that of its very nature will always resist scientific explanation. He will claim, I think, that astrology "works" (i.e., that astrology, if wisely and correctly employed, enables a person to make accurate assertions about various life arenas, life activities, or questions) precisely because it remains embedded in the natural world. That Mr. Morain so facilely divides, at least in this passage, the natural world from some purportedly non-natural one seems to me surpassingly odd. Though I hold no brief for palmistry or the work of most psychics, I certainly see them and their work as part of the natural world, as no more "supernatural" than the meditation instructions one might receive from one of Mr. Morain's suspect Himalayan sages. (12)

It seems to me that as we investigate the "occult sciences," we should take an approach quite different from the one Mr. Morain takes. In his view, we should take a dim view of any practice not given the imprimatur of those in possession of current scientific "truths." But why rest so much weight on the "scientific truths" of a certain period? Will those "truths-always give us a sound basis for evaluating everything around us, from astrology to the fifth race at Santa Anita? Surely our present scientific convictions do not qualify as eternal, and some may not even qualify as truths. The "reputable science" of one century, or even decade, often has a funny way of metamorphosing into the bunk of the next. In the late nineteenth century, many scientists felt that they had sighted the end of scientific investigation; they felt that all had become known, or that investigators would soon uncover everything worth knowing. Now we speak of such things as dark matter, (13) subatomic particles with tendencies to exist, string theory in its various permutations, and a host of other matters not on the nineteenth-century agenda--and we at least acknowledge that our chances of knowing everything (whatever that might mean) appear slim. We would do well to remember Korzybski's recommendation that we accompany our high-level abstractions, such as scientific truth, with date subscripts.

In saying all that, I do not claim that we should see something as true or acceptable simply because unknown; I do not "attribute what is now not understood to any mystical realm," (14) and I certainly do not reject conclusions reached by scientists using sound methods. I do, however, notice many seemingly intelligent people, apparently well versed in critical thinking and even in the ideas of Mr. Korzybski, making use of astrology or other not-entirely-understood practices not because of their alleged gullibility but because they have made many hundreds of tested observations. Korzybski advised that should one discover something at odds with his ideas and theories, one should not discard the new discovery in favor of his arguments, but quite the opposite. Mr. Morain apparently prefers not to take that approach. He prefers, rather, to lump much "occult" "science" together (his own provisos notwithstanding) and to rest content with claims. This seems a shame, for after we say, along with Hamlet, that "there is much in Heaven and Earth not contained in our philosophy," we should adopt a philosophy that encourages openness and curiosity about both areas, insofar as we know where to find them or know how to distinguish one from the other.

As for astrology and its practice, I can only say that I have met with clients for over three decades, and I have had many hundreds tell me that what I said helped them greatly in their adjustment to current circumstances. Some of these people have contacted me from halfway around the planet; others have sat in my office for a discussion. Perhaps we should see them all as gullible, though many of them have long lists of educational credentials and even longer lists of extensional accomplishments suggesting at least passable competence in dealing with and evaluating their experience; perhaps, too, we should see them as misguided simply because they consulted one such as me, though in the rest of their lives they seem no more misguided than others, "scientists" included. Whatever we do, we should not act without looking carefully at the evidence. If we find ourselves in the mood to speak in general semantics terminology, we should remind ourselves of the perils of relying on maps drawn by those who have not made careful observations of the territory.

Notes

(1.) Some "psychological astrologers also speak operationally. In her various writings about the connections between astrological symbols and mythic motifs, Liz Greene has done much to tell us about the operations hidden within some astrological symbols. We often find relevant myths alive and well in people whose horoscopes have the indicated planets or signs in high emphasis. In other words, we find that the astrological symbols point to patterns of behavior--to operations or patterns of operations. I would also like to point out, in a bit of shameless self-promotion, that some years ago, I published a piece indicating that specific movements of solar arc Pluto in the United States horoscope have always resulted in operations peculiarly suited to the astrological symbolism involved. I won't go into particulars, but will gladly send a PDF copy to interested readers.

(2.) Because I should not assume that all readers will see the difference, let me point out that if we look at these practices dispassionately, without worrying about whether they yield accurate results or not, we will see that some (e.g., tea-leaf reading, psychic work, magical incantations) seem to prioritize intuition over clear method or any use of extensional referents; others, though they have some extensional referents, seem to have little in them that would qualify as scientific method. Only astrology has a clear set of extensional referents (the positions of heavenly bodies) and a clear written record of interpretation.

(3.) I met one once. His predictions seemed to me neither overly vague nor inaccurate. He did not advertise his services at all, so I did not think of him as a shyster or an imposter. He seemed to see his talent--in psychometry--as ordinary and natural. Also, though Mr. Morain seems at pains to overgeneralize about the ones called "real mystics" living in "legendary areas in or bordering on the Himalayas," he seemed to know little about the teachings of those "real mystics." I have studied the works of many such people, and have come to know more than one of them, but I have not noticed them making any claims about "superhuman powers." Perhaps in Mr. Morain's day (he published his article in 1960), it proved more difficult to find such "sages." Now one can find not only the sages but also their writings. I invite the reader to examine them, perhaps starting with the fellow people call The Dalai Lama. To my knowledge, he qualifies as a person from those superstition-beset Himalayas, but he does not seem to go about making grandiose claims about his superhuman powers. Perhaps he does so only in private!

(4.) In response to Mr. Morain's claim that astrologers "rarely make specific predictions that can be tested," I can say only that he has not studied the history of astrology very carefully. Practitioners of mundane astrology, a type of work that far pre-dates the psychological type, often made and make the kinds of prediction that Mr. Morain mentions. As I have already noted, financial astrologers still make such predictions. Many such, working privately, make a pretty good living by their practice. Perhaps Mr. Morain would attribute their success to non-astrological factors, but because he lets his facts substitute for arguments, the reader gets left in the dark.

(5.) Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1933), 208.

(6.) Some readers may notice that I describe astrology as an art, not a science. I do not wish to offer an argument defending my use of this term, as it would lead us into an impenetrable thicket of two-valued assertions about whether astrology "is an art" or "is a science" (or, perhaps, about whether it "is an art" or "is a pseudoscience"), but we should note that Mr. Morain seems to assume, without any argument whatsoever, that we should consider it a science.

(7.) Discerning readers will note that I have borrowed a phrase from Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary. Look under "Brain."

(8.) Lloyd Morain, "How Pseudo-Scientists Get Away With It," ETC, Volume Sixty-Five, Number Two, April 2008 (Fort Worth: Institute of General Semantics, 2008), 149.

(9.) Morain, 149.

(10.) He offers no reference for this quotation, so I cannot trace it to its source. I can see, though, why he does not like the astrologer's answer. Consider this one sentence from the quoted material: "... insofar as astrology is true, it cannot really be evil." I confess that I can see no meaning in this, for I do not have a clear referent for "astrology is true" (or for the implied "astrology is--or is not--evil"). Does the astrologer mean that one can sometimes (always? often? on occasion? when working with accurate data and the most tested methods?) use astrology to make accurate statements about the world? Does he mean that astrology itself reveals some kind of truth to us? Or does he mean something else entirely?

(11.) Morain, 149-150.

(12.) I have received many such instructions, but I have yet to find any supernatural elements in them. I would describe the instructions as ways to bring us back to the ordinary, particularly to ordinary mind, though we may find that the "ordinary" can sometimes seem "extraordinary," with its extra helping of ordinariness.

(13.) I intend "thing" here in the sense understood in some Buddhist schools: as something that can perform a function. We can probably say, for example, that dark matter can perform a function, either taken as a whole or in whatever sections we can measure, for scientists seem to measure its effects, reasoning backwards from the effects to the existence.

(14.) Morain, 150.

Tim Lyons' essay is a response to Lloyd Morain's article "How Pseudo-Scientists Get Away With It," which was published in ETC, Volume Sixty-Five, Number Two, in April 2008.
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Author:Lyons, Tim
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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