77. Adorno: The Stars Down to Earth?

The new version of the show Cosmos, like the old version, shows many cases of mistaken astrological thinking being replaced by empirically verified astronomical evidence.  For many people these advances are welcome. Certainly those who think scientifically will not accept that the stars determine our fate and that we can generate individual prophecies by understanding their cosmic relationships. But could it be that certain implications of a common scientific understanding of the stars land us in a position similar to the astrological one regarding fate? Consider this suggestive passage by Theodor Adorno from his essay The Stars Down to Earth (Routledge, 1994, pp. 157-158):

“The astrologist, as was pointed out in our brief survey of magazines, is very anxious to present it as a science. It may be mentioned in passing that…extreme empiricism, teaching absolute obedience of the mind to given data, “facts,” has no principle such as the idea of reason, by which to distinguish the possible from the impossible….modern science, which has replaced more and more categories which once interpreted events as though they were meaningful, tends to promote a kind of opaqueness which at least for the uninitiated is hard to distinguish from an equally opaque and non-transparent thesis such as the dependence of the individual human fate on stellar constellations.”

Empiricism is the view that all knowledge comes from sense experience; a common thesis accepted by many scientists. In many cases, scientists committed to empiricism are also committed to materialism (reality is nothing but matter in motion) and determinism (every event is the necessary outcome of previous causes). I think Adorno is pointing out that if we accept “extreme empiricism” and these related views then we lose the kind of possibilities relevant to us; we end up facing a type of star destiny as well. Let’s look at bit more closely at this claim.

If the common scientific view of the world is correct, then it is most likely the case that we are determined or necessitated to act the way we do by our genes, the chemicals in our brain, the social influences around us, the laws of nature, etc.  The so-called “choices” we make are illusions since our actions are the necessary outcomes of previous causes just like a boulder rolling down the hill is the necessary outcome of previous causes. There would be no free will since free will assumes possibilities from which to choose and in a determined universe there are no possibilities—only necessities. We wouldn’t be able, as Adorno said, “to distinguish the possible from the impossible”.

And with the loss of freedom we would lose what he referred to as “the idea of reason”. One way to understand this claim is to note that reasoning is in large part a matter of justifying our claims: a matter of deliberating, choosing a possibility from among many, and then trying to give logical reasons for why we believe the way we do. But if we are all determined there are no possibilities from which to choose and no free will to make the choice. Indeed, it seems hard to see how there could be such thing as reason-giving that proceeds in accordance with the rules of logic, meaningful truth claims, and the relations between these claims; rather, there would only be physical cause and effect relations that proceed in accordance with the laws of nature and meaningless matter in motion (for a defense of this view go here).

People used to look up at the stars and see them as meaningful: they were signs from an intentional being of some sort, symbols of important people, events, or concepts, purposeful guides to follow, reflections of our dreams, fears, and hopes, and so on. Of course, Adorno points out that, far from being a world of freedom and meaning, living under the stars is a “disillusioned” world in which human freedom is negated. Luckily such a view about the stars turned out to be false. But don’t people rightly continue to see themselves and people around them as intentional agents with freedom? Don’t they rightly see themselves and others as agents who express themselves in constellations of signs and symbols that are meaningful reflections of fears, hopes, and dreams? Don’t they rightly see themselves and others as possessing an inner life that can be more or less revealed in degrees of “transparency” rather than sheer “opaqueness”?

To be sure, science is not a set of beliefs but a method; and it may not be the case that science requires the above “isms” or the currently popular implications of them. However, some philosophers and scientists these days argue that concepts such as freedom, choice, beliefs, intentions, the self, truth, falsity, and even logic fall under the heading of “folk psychology” rather than anything factual.  These thinkers hope that folk psychological concepts will be superseded by descriptions of ourselves consistent with the image of the world sketched above.

But if Adorno is right then this agenda of “modern science” against folk-psychology would instill those much-mocked astrological views back into our lives in another way. To be sure, fate is not the same thing as determinism; but we might have the same result: a loss of freedom and a replacement of the idea of reason with an opaque mass of meaningless matter. Determinism and materialism would have, as Adorno put it, “replaced more and more categories which once interpreted events as though they were meaningful.”

Certain conceptions of modern science, in proudly overthrowing the astrological vision of the cosmos, would have dragged the fate of the stars down to earth.

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