15 October 2016

Attending a lecture by Richard Tarnas

The following is a slight revision of some comments I wrote to a friend about attending a lecture by Richard Tarnas at the local C.G. Jung society. Tarnas is the author of Cosmos and Psyche. If you're not familiar with him, he is a Jungian, but more particularly, he has a whole theory of history based on his own particular interpretations of astrology. The lecture was interesting, but not impressive, at least not to me, as a basis for any reasonable basis to adopt his "world view."

Tarnas subtitles his book "Intimation of a New World View," which is an example of a Jungian "synchronicity," (coincidence), because I just read Sean Carroll's rather less flamboyant book, The Big Picture, with the same aim, albeit from an entirely different perspective. I'm pretty sure Tarnas would say that Carroll's is really just the "old world view," but I don't actually think so. Just one example. Tarnas played a clip during his lecture in which John Cleese satirized a white coated scientist and he pointed to a model and said something like "we have just discovered the gene... just here (pointing)... which causes people like me to believe that the world is completely susceptible to measurement and mechanistic explanations, even though Quantum Physics proved in the 1920s that that is impossible." It was funny; typical Fawlty Towers Cleese mode. 

But, in all seriousness, as you'd know from reading Carroll, that's not really accurate. There is nothing in quantum physics that affects an empirical analysis of the world. Quantum physics is entirely consistent with a scientific worldview, that treats truth claims as testable propositions which must undergo and survive rigorous attempts at falsification before they can be accepted as working versions of "truth." It is, in fact, precisely the refusal to accept predetermined thinking that led scientists to accept that, however counterintuitive and strange the world appears to be on the micro level, experiments and the rigorous logic of the theory than predicts their results compel the conclusion that it really is that strange (although some of the details, especially of the sort of "meta theory," as opposed to the math and experimental demonstrations, remain controversial, even among those very few in the world who are capable of understanding the issues in depth). 

What fundamentally bothers me about Tarnas's world view is its lack of consistent derivation from nature. There's no fascination, or even mention, of the scientific discoveries of the last half century of what Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune (he hardly mentioned Neptune, wonder why?), Uranus and, just recently, Pluto, actually are, which to me is far more interesting than the seemingly arbitrary "archetypal" associations, which come from human history and culture, that are attached to these planets and their supposed natures. Uranus is a gaseous planetary body that formed naturally about 4.5 billion years ago. 60 years ago we knew hardly anything about it other than its celestial mechanics (orbital data) and that. Now, it is a world. We have images. We know a good deal about its actual nature. Why is this not even relevant to this "new" world view? What about this actual place, that really exists, is a "trickster" (as claimed), and why? These questions aren't even asked; the correlations are claimed but not explained, and the data for them is, well, let's just say, hardly universally accepted. 

Just saying (as he did during the lecture, at least twice), that "there are more things in heaven and earth, [] than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (from Hamlet; Hamlet was chiding the unimaginative Horatio), seems to me just an acknowledgment that science is incomplete (hey, we knew that), rather than a valid or insightful critique of its methods. Nor does it really address or distinguish the things that have found their way into the category of "so well and consistently demonstrated that they can be accepted as elements of truth," which include things like the photoelectric effect, General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and the Standard Model, at least as it pertains the the particular array of politics that make up the ordinary matter and energy that we are made of. The rather nebulous descriptions of synchronicity, archetypal "energies" (a loose use of a word that in science has a very precise, and quantifiable meaning), etc. do not, it seems to me, amount to knowledge of anything; they are, rather, poetry, or metaphor; soundings of the mind into the unknown. We should not draw conclusions from dreams, even though, as limited beings and not gods, we have no choice but to continue to dream them, since there clearly is so much we do not know. Which just brings us back to the "more things in heaven and earth." Sure, that's right. But imagining a system based on creating patterns in the mind and then looking for ways to match those patterns to events is not a methodology that results in valid conclusions. This is, in fact, why traditional civilizations like China and the Central Asian/Arab Islamic civilization of the Middle Ages, while they flourished and produced great accomplishments, failed to develop a true scientific method. Science IS rigorous submission to falsification. That's the essential element that leads to progress in separating the wheat of actual correspondence to what's real from the chaff of spinning stories without being able to ensure that they are grounded in reality. It was not Chinese astrologers who discovered the Cosmic Background Radiation. It was Western science. The fact that traditional views (astrological correlations, traditional cosmologies, traditional explanations for the origin of the Earth), while having interesting cross-cultural consistencies, are not, in fact consistent or independently verifiable, is an indication that their primary value is as culture, and literature, not as a basis for drawing conclusions about nature. 

(For a critique of Tarnas from someone who actually agrees with him about the importance of a new-agey "holistic" relationship between humans and the "cosmos," see this.)

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