Saturday, September 5, 2009

Augustine and Astrology

As we’ve covered earlier, Christianity often gets a bad rap for its supposed detrimental effects on scientific work, particularly during the medieval period. Many contemporary thinkers similarly dismiss astrology and alchemy as worthless nonsense despite the fact that historians of science, such as David Lindberg, have shown that modern astronomy and chemistry would likely not exist (or would be very different) without these medieval precursors.

Astrology throughout the Middle Ages was not simply the horoscope and zodiac obsessed practice that we know today. It was a branch of natural philosophy dealing with the physical influence of the cosmos on the earth. Casting horoscopes, etc., was a part of astrology, but a contentious one. Many medieval thinkers criticized this part of astrology while accepting the idea that celestial events have an influence on earthly ones. And they had good reasons for doing so. For example, it was clear that the sun had a profound influence on the earth, bringing heat and light and causing the seasons. The moon also had a clear influence by causing the tides. Several Greek intellectual traditions considered the investigation of the connections between the heavens and the earth as a legitimate and rational enterprise. Interest in astrology was also in many cases the primary motivation for the expansion of astronomical knowledge. Astrology played an important role in the development of modern astronomy and was not entirely wrong in its descriptions of the causal influence of the heavens on the earth.

Also, it turns out that long before modern secularists dismissed astrology as a pseudoscience, the Christian church was its major critic. Some of the common tenets of astrology included the idea that celestial bodies were divine and could influence or determine the fate of human beings on earth. The church objected to both of these doctrines, asserting that humans have free-will and that celestial bodies were not gods that could determine events on earth. St. Augustine was the most influential of these critics, writing against “vulgar astrology” and condemning its practitioners as frauds and imposters. He did not deny that celestial bodies had some influence, but rejected the determinism inherent in astrological predictions concerning fate. Augustine's influence freed later church writers to be similarly critical of the claims of astrologers; it was common for the church to denounce them as charlatans. In short, we find the early and late medieval Christian church cutting astrology down to pretty much the same size a modern scientist would: acknowledging that celestial events have a physical influence on the earth while denying the divinity of stars and planets and their ability to determine the fate of human beings.


robert d said...

I don't think I would have used Augustine of Hippo as an example of an enlightened entity -

"Pelagius was opposed by Augustine of Hippo, one of the most influential early Church Fathers. When Pelagius taught that moral perfection was attainable in this life without the assistance of divine grace through human free will, Augustine contradicted this by saying that perfection was impossible without grace because we are born sinners with a sinful heart and will.

The debate between Pelagius and Augustine was essentially that between free will and original sin. Augustine was not successful in having Pelagius condemned by the Church. He therefore had the political powers severely persecute him.

Pelagianism was attacked in the Council of Diospolis[1] and condemned in 418 at the Council of Carthage.[2] These condemnations were ratified at the Council of Ephesus in 431."

Snapping out,


Unknown said...

Hi Robert,

I appreciate your point. I did not mean to describe Augustine as enlightened in a general sense (at any rate it would be very difficult for any thinker of that time period to be considered "enlightened" in our modern sense). My point was more narrow: I was just observing that the Christian church, including Augustine and the medieval church after him, was critical of the excesses of astrology. This contrasts with the received wisdom that religion encourages ignorance and superstition to the detriment of science.

robert d said...

“I was just observing that the Christian church, including Augustine and the medieval church after him, was critical of the excesses of astrology.”

While the Church was critical of astrology one surely can’t conclude that the reason for this was the Church’s wish to advance the cause of science. The Church was down on astrology because it detracted from the influence of The Church.

“This contrasts with the received wisdom that religion encourages ignorance and superstition to the detriment of science.”

It is unclear what you mean by “superstition”. If one substitutes astrology for superstition then I would object. I know of no corpus of work which supports the claim that The Church encouraged the study of astrology or any other “occult” study. If one substitutes religious dogma for superstition then I would agree with the statement, but then have trouble finding the claimed contrast.

Throughout history The Church has continually endeavored to maintain the status quo, impede the rate of change. Science has been the antithesis of this, with its incessant desire to accelerate change. An objective criterion to measure the utility of either of these countervailing force has yet to be established.

Obiter dictum : I originally came to this site via a search on Miller – Urey. Your critique was best of breed by a wide margin.

Life is good,


Unknown said...

"While the Church was critical of astrology one surely can’t conclude that the reason for this was the Church’s wish to advance the cause of science."

Agreed. Natural philosophy was always secondary, and subservient, to theology. On the other hand, for over a dozen centuries no one organized and supported natural philosophy more than religion (both Christianity and Islam).

"It is unclear what you mean by “superstition”."

I guess I am reacting to the T. Huxley's and D. Dennett's of the world, who invariably seem to lump religious belief, superstition, and ignorance into one group. In this case, we have the early Christian church espousing an opinion probably very similar to their own.

"Throughout history The Church has continually endeavored to maintain the status quo, impede the rate of change."

Not true. See Ferngren's Science & Religion. The historian Ronald Numbers has described this idea as "historically bankrupt." The myth that science and religion are always in conflict was invented by Draper and White in the late 1900's.

"I originally came to this site via a search on Miller – Urey. Your critique was best of breed by a wide margin."

Thanks. I'm glad you found it useful.


Unknown said...

Oops. The above should read "late 1800's."

robert d said...

Thought you might find this interesting - (Something I posted elsewhere.)

The debate is not that Life evolved from common stuff but how this evolution took place.

With respect to Path I find the concept in the large to be uninteresting. However, the area of great interest is the timing of the Path. Has there been enough time for this or that trait to have emerged via random mutation, et. al. ?

Behe, “The Edge of Evolution” – (2007) – develops an ingenious example using P. falciparum. He uses historical data to determine the probability of just 2 amino acids, in P. falciparum of mutating via random selection. He comes up with a very large number for the wait time - 100,000,000,000 years.

Behe’s study is countered by “Waiting for Two Mutations: With Applications to Regulatory Sequence Evolution and the Limits of Darwinian Evolution” – Rick Durrett and Deena Schmidt (mathematics needed here)- (2008). Under different assumptions this study comes up with a shorter wait time of – 216,000,000 years.

Behe counters with – “Waiting Longer for Two Mutations” – (2009).

Who’s right? For what comes next it doesn’t make any difference, both studies yield large numbers.

Evolutionary theory contends that Man diverged from chimpanzees 3 – 6 million years ago. I am contesting neither of these assertions. Biology states that chimpanzees and Man are very similar. I am not contesting this. But regardless of how similar, the difference in chimpanzees and Man is a lot more than just 2 proteins.

Predictive Experiment –

1. Determine the difference in the proteins in chimpanzees and Man.
2. Determine the chance of this happening by random mutation, et. al.
3. Compare to the 3-6 million year divergence estimate.


It is acknowledged that no matter how large the probability of an event occurring, it can still happen on the first trial. However, for this to have to happen many. many, times in a row casts some suspicion on the process

Life is good,

robert d said...

How come you haven't been blogging recently? Run out of interesting stuff?

Part of an article I am working on that I thought you might find interesting.

Origin of Life Debate - Part I

The conundrum of consciousness is the concept of something from nothing. We are all fairly certain that we and our surroundings are real but the how, why, where, who, and when are not obvious. That we can ask questions about our existence is in itself a wonder. That we have actually made much progress in these areas is amazing.

With respect to the Origin of Life Debate there are two camps – Intelligent Design & Evolutionary Biology. It is very unfortunate that the Intelligent Design camp is infested with kooks. However, recently, PhD bearing individuals with a well developed sense of academic rigor have been joining the Intelligent Design camp. For the first time the contenders in the ring are well matched. No longer can we be blinded by science.

Simplistically we have

Intelligent Design - Help

Evolutionary Biology - No Help

Evolutionary Biology is what we were all taught in biology class – Darwin + genetics. To the camp's credit they have worked hard and made amazing progress. However, as more and more of the details of life and evolution are revealed by this hard work, it is becoming more difficult to explain how all of this complexity arose solely by chance ( No Help), i.e. random mutation.

Origin of Life Debate - Part II

The first 2 tenets of Evolutionary Biology, common descent and natural selection, have withstood all attack and are well supported by the data. The real problem with Evolutionary Biology is its insistence, now to the point of dogmatic, that all organic change can be explained by the mechanics of random mutation.

While random mutation coupled with natural selection does seem to work in the small, much like sandpaper to smooth the rough edges of change, there are major conceptual problems with using this random mutation with natural selection paradigm to explain major biological changes.

To get an idea of the problem consider-

Homo Sapien

1. 23 (haploid) chromosomes
2. 32,185 genes
3. 3,079,843,747 bases (DNA bases A,C,T,G)
4. Homo sapines diverged from chimpanzees 6 million years ago.
5. There is a 3% difference in the genetic makeup of a homo sapien and a chimpanzee.
6. 3,079,843,747 x .03 = 615,968 (number of different bases, in the correct order, that would have to manifest via random mutation and natural selection for homo sapiens to be different from chimpanzees.)

For decades random mutation has been beating the public into submission with its billions and millions of years. Unfortunately, for Biological Evolution, millions and billions of years are light years away from the time necessary to induce large structural changes in Life.

There is not an Evolutionary Biologist today that would sign a document as follows -

"I believe that the 615,968 base changes necessary to distinguish a homo sapien from a chimpanzee occurred solely by random mutation and took only 6 million years."

Life is good & interesting,


Unknown said...

Hey Robert,

I don't think I've run out of stuff yet, just been out of time for a while. I've finished a big project, so I may start blogging again.

Interesting article. I agree that the origin of life in particular poses the strongest problem for materialist theories. The issue of time that you raise is interesting. At first, the discovery that the earth is 4.6 billion years old was seen as an important step in providing evolutionary processes time to work their magic. We now know however, that life probably first appeared on earth around 3.9 billion years ago, right after heavy bombardment of earth ended. In other words, life appeared as soon as it possibly could have. The billions of years to work shrank to a few million years.

Have you read Shapiro's Origins: a skeptic's guide to the creation of life on earth?

bairdduvessa said...

heh i finally agree on something with "the church" i can't stop laughing