“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff.
We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
― Carl Sagan.
Humans have probably always liked to look up at the stars in awe – even those of us in modern generations who, for the first time in human history, live in urban centres that are so overcrowded with light pollution that our views of night-time skies are damaged and restricted.
Yet there seems to be something universal – maybe even primal – about our instinct to look upwards and gaze in wonder and appreciation of what we perceive to be scenic beauty.
I have come to wonder if there is some deep meaning behind our instinct to scan the skies. In recent years, Carl Sagan and J. Michael Straczynski have remarked that we are not only made of atoms that were forged inside the nuclear furnaces of stars, but we are star stuff with a sentient awareness of our actual existence within the cosmos.
Delenn: …I will tell you a great secret, Captain. Perhaps the greatest of them all. The molecules of your body are the same molecules that make up this station, and the nebula outside, that burn inside the stars themselves. We are starstuff. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out. And as we have both learned, sometimes the universe requires a change of perspective.”
― J. Michael Straczynski.
Our propensity for looking upward and asking questions about our place and purpose in the Universe has led to the birth of thousands of philosophies and religions. Perhaps one of the most universal manifestations of this practice – differing across cultures but seemingly ubiquitous around the globe – has been the quaint but mistaken tendency to look up and theorise that the stars and planets directly influence our daily lives. Just as they add visual grandeur to our lives, perhaps they also control our love lives, they give us good or bad luck, or they somehow influence the outcomes within our daily routines?
Astrology is a pseudoscience that has been thoroughly debunked. Dr Anthony Aveni explores twice when it was has been found wanting: the first time when Saint Augustine and early Christian leaders pointed out its inconsistencies with their religious doctrine, combined with the concurrent decline of ancient Greek and Latin learning upon which early astrology had been linked (1994, p. 170). Aveni then states that the second great debunking of astrology occurred more recently during the Enlightenment:
“Renaissance expressions of what the natural world was about echo from a tense time, when intellectuals who wanted to think and act more freely began to feel constrained by the demands of a deterministic universe… The freethinking humanists who began to shake the faith were partly responsible for astrology’s second death, for under the same roof, mathematically based astronomical theory and human practice began to seem ever more irreconcilable.” – Anthony Aveni, 1994, p. 171.
He notes how people began to approach astrology more rationally, for example asking how two different people who were born under the same astrological sign could nevertheless turn out so differently. The answer is a self-evident debunking of the whole pseudoscience.
Phil Plait summarises the human desire to find answers in astrology:
Despite the claims of its practitioners, astrology is not a science. But then what is it? It’s tempting to classify it as wilful fantasy, but there may be a more specific answer: magic.” (2002, p. 215)
Ultimately, astrology might be seen to be a wasteful distraction from finding real answers that underlie our tendency to ask big questions. Instead of seeking human answers from the stars in the sky, we should look for those same answers closer to home – in the star stuff that stares back at us when we look in the mirror.
Anthony Aveni, Conversing with the Planets: How Science and Myth Invented the Cosmos, New York: Kodansha America, 1994, pp. 170 – 177.
Philip C. Plait Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing ‘Hoax’, New York: John Wiley and Sons Inc., 2002.
©2022 Geoff Allshorn