A Natural History of Monstrous Nonsense (part 4)

A Natural History of Monstrous Nonsense (part 4)
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  A   N ATURAL H ISTORY OF MONSTROUS NONSENSE ( PART 4);  MAGIC MODELS AND PROGNOSTICATIONS   Nick Jones Bournemouth and Poole College Bournemouth Dorset BH1 3JJ A BSTRACT   This paper examines the influence that magic models and prognostications have had on historical events of the 16  th   and 17  th   century. Furthermore, the popularity of magic models are analysed through the criteria of ‘two logics’  . It is shown that magic models continue to exist in domains as diverse as medicine and education. It is concluded that it is necessary for educators and intellectuals to hold firm to the necessity for evidence, test and uncertainty. “Astrology, though beginning as a system of explanation, thus ended as one which held out the prospects of control. Like other kinds of magic, the astrological election was a formula to which men might resort at moments of impotence and uncertainty, when all other human agencies had failed.”    Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic,  1971 1.0:   I NTRODUCTION   When a clock face is gazed upon the very act of reading the time owes an intellectual debt to ancient Babylonian culture. It was the Babylonians that introduced the sexagesimal (base 60) number system arguably developed as a product of ten digits on a pair of human hands and six features upon the human head (two ears, two eyes, one nose and one mouth). The sexagesimal model of measuring time is a construct that has a pivotal role in the systems and structures of modernity. However, before the beginnings of industrialisation, time would have been better understood in terms of seasons, life span, religious observances and celestial change. Being able to read the time or having access to a clock would have been inconsequential for most inhabitants of human history. An ability to read signs that foretold future events, the causes of disease and the whereabouts of guilty parties would arguably be more advantageous than methods for merely measuring time. It is no surprise that the formulations of models to illicit that sort of information were pursued across all global cultures  –  the battery of techniques used to that end are from here on referred to as methods of prognostication  . Whereas the scientific method as a model for increasing knowledge as to how the universe works has emerged over the last four centuries, alternative models of comprehending reality have been operating for much longer and derive legitimacy not from test or proof but from a different criterion, belief in mythos  . Therefore, the question arises: do any modern prognostications derive legitimacy from magic models and if so, to what extent does such monstrous nonsense influence the decisions of individuals and the institutional nodes that interconnect and manage social progress? It is the bold endeavour of this paper to address that important question using the resource of history to throw light on some of the questionable practices and claims of modernity. 2.0:   A STROLOGICAL MODELS AND PROGNOSTICATIONS   Astrology has its srcins in Babylonian culture which has undergone modifications and developments from Greek, Roman and Arab influences, the latter playing an important role in the Middle Ages preceding the Enlightenment. “Despite refinement in detail, the astrology known to sixteenth and seventeenth-century Englishmen was recognizably the same subject as that expounded by the Egyptian Ptolemy 1  (A.D. 90- 1   Claudius Ptolemy’s work the Almagest was an authoritative work on astronomy which remained influential until the acceptance of the heliocentric model of the solar system. The Tetrabiblos by   168) in his Tetrabiblos   in the second century A.D [1]. The Tetrabiblos   argues that astrology is about understanding nature and it is for that reason that religious authorities tolerated its practice and why it formed part of an educated man’s training in the liberal arts during the medieval period. Moreover, the Renaissance universities would teach astrology and incorporate its intellectual structures into literature, art, metallurgy and medicine. The decline of interest in the Tetrabiblos   in the late seventeenth century coincides with the nascent Royal Society of Great Britain which attests to the slow but crucial paradigm shift in how the intellectual classes in London and elsewhere were moving away from ancient fiat and towards reproducible methods that produced tangible results. Astrology in the medieval period developed four main areas of specialisation: 1.   General predictions  –  weather forecasting, future crop yields, war prospects, longevity and political change. These are predictions that place emphasis on natural and social change. 2.   Nativities  –  map of the sky when an individual is born. This was problematic on technical grounds because many people would not be able to state exactly hen they ere orn. If the indiidual’s birth date was known accurately then the astrologer would be in a position to calculate annual forecasts. 3.   Elections  –  this could only be calculated after the nativity. This procedure was concerned with studying the map of the sky to determine the optimum moment to perform an action. Tendencies unoered through an indiidual’s horoscope could be compared with future heavenly movements to establish the most propitious moment to marry,  journey, fight, cut nails or bathe. 4.   Horary questions  –  this technique is not to be found in the  Tetrabiblos  but contrast remains a central work to the discipline of astrology. developed later from Arab adaptation. By consulting the map of the sky when a question was put the astrologer would seek to deduce an answer. This technique was allied to medicine and it would be expected for an individual seeking such consultation to bring urine recently voided. Nativities dealt with prognostications based on birth, horary questions dealt with prognostications based on the birth of a question from the mind. It was the established doctrine from Marcus Manilius’ epic poem Astronomica   written in the 1 st  century A.D., that parts of the human anatomy were governed by different signs of the zodiac. Even 1500 years later most physicians conformed to this model and it had evolved in idiosyncratic ways linking stages of disease to celestial mechanics. “By casting a figure for the decumbi ture, or moment when the patient felt ill, and by resolving a question on sight of the urine, the astrological doctor claimed to diagnose the disease, prescribe the treatment, foretell when the sickness would reach its crisis, and prognosticate its eventua l outcome.” [2].  Figure 1 provides a textbook illustration of how the medieval and Renaissance physician would link the zodiac to the governance of particular organs or zones of the body.   Figure 1: The human body and its governance by the zodiac. [3]. 3.0:   A LMANACS   Modern diaries contain the calendar, religious festivals and other miscellaneous details that range from the monarch’s birthday to the lunar cycle. The almanacs of the 16 th  and 17 th  century were prototype diaries with some similarities and differences. Typically almanacs comprised of three separate sets of information: astronomical events (conjunctions, eclipses, etc.), calendar and prognostications. The prognostications were predicated upon astrological forecasts of the notable events of the year. From weather forecasts to favourable days for blood-letting were provided for the year and even auspicious bathing dates. The 17 th  century brought forth many species of almanac with some containing ephemerides   which were tables showing the daily position of heavenly bodies throughout the year. The inclusion of these tables is significant because it enabled the educated layman to caste horoscopes for himself. Moreover, illustrations similar to figure 1 would be further included enabling self-sufficiency in the diagnosis and the treatment of ailments. The success of these new species of almanac permitted further specialisation based upon the astronomical meridians of particular towns. Both Aylesbury and Saffron Walden had almanacs written for the inhabitants of those towns. Other species of almanac were more concerned with prognostications in matters of politics, disease and fortune. Moreover, some almanacs even carried advertisements for medicine and mathematics tutoring. Skepticism arose in some quarters due to the inaccuracy of weather forecasting and when comparing the contents of different almanacs produced by different authors the prognostications did not match. Earlier examples of skepticism with a regal flavour can be found. The Great Comet of 1577 did not intimidate Elisabeth I whom despite advice from courtiers that she should avert her eyes from the sky famously replied, Iacta est alea   (The dice is thrown). Perhaps this was an expression of fatalism, ergo, what will be will be but it is further possible that she was unmoved by the superstitious zeitgeist. Figure 2: The Great Comet of 1577 seen on 12 th  November from Prague. [4]. In contrast, the solar eclipse on Monday 29 th  March 1652 caused panic across the populace.   Educated and wealthy Londoners gathered their belongings and fled the city and workers refused to work due to their fear of what was to come. Nothing bad happened and it could be argued that this event marks the beginning of a decline in the populaces trust in prognostications and provides a warning to the modern reader that the history of intellectual thought is not necessarily characterised by progress. 4.0:   E LIAS A SHMOLE AND W ILLIAM L ILY : In 1645 Elias Ashmole enrolled at Brasenose College, Oxford, to study natural philosophy, mathematics and astrology. As a Royalist living in London at a time of imminent revolution, the opportunity to study at Oxford was a form of retreat from the loci of danger. Astrology was still taught as part of the quadrivium and the advantage of foresight resonated with the climate of uncertainty prior to the interregnum (1649-60). Ashmole would have been impressed by the machine like order of the sky. The celestial display of mathematical order would have impressed upon him the validity of Greek mathematics which had resurged due to the Italian Renaissance. Neo-Platonic thought brought with it a natural magical system that had its antecedents with Plotinus (1st century A.D) who had in turn resurrected thought systems from Plato. Plato in turn had built upon the work of Pythagoras and the Egyptian mystic Hermes Trismigistus whose sacred philosophical doctrine had arrived in Florence and was translated by Marsilio Ficino in 1463 for Cosimo de Medici just prior to Cosimo’s death.  It would be reasonable for Ashmole to try and reconcile celestial mechanics with prognostication and to then use it to his advantage. The readings he gave were pro-Royalist and became a propaganda weapon which was kept in check by a pro-Parliamentary astrologer named William Lily who produced readings that gave counter forecasts. Lily was regarded by his supporters as an “English Merlin” and is indeed noteworthy as having significant political and social influence. However, with the restoration of Charles II (1660) it was clear that his predictions had fallen flat and so did his reputation. It is interesting to note that despite opposite allegiances that Ashmole and Lily became close friends and defenders of astrology. Ashmole, unlike Lily became interested in a new pro  ject called the ‘The Royal Society  of Great Britain ’. For  med 1660-61, Ashmole became a fellow in 1663. As a Royalist and a natural philosopher, Ashmole became a key figure in this emergent institution that today exemplifies the best of reason and intellectual endeavour. Moreover, the alchemical texts he collected were of equal interest to Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton who were also negotiating old thoughts with new. It was through this intellectual negotiation that the scientific revolution (1500-1700) moved natural philosophy from the mystical to the mechanical which opened the way for the industrial revolution to come. 5.0: The Two Logics Having considered both the rationale and influence of magic models upon the 16th and 17th century populace and noted the endurance of ancient conceptualisations such as the Babylonian sexagesimal system used to quantify time and space, it is instructive to consider the extent to which these models are mere curiosities of past stages in intellectual development or remain influential upon modern thought. It is the case that the best ideas from the scientific revolution (1500-1700) have evolved and expanded to provide the medicine that is commonplace in the developed world today but there remains evidence of spell working and indigenous ritual practices in countries such as Tanzania where albino men and women have been abducted and killed for body parts used in healing magic. It is reported that 72 albino people have been murdered in Tanzania since 2000. This demonstrates that the illumination of the scientific revolution still remains elusive in peripheral regions that suffer from a poverty of education. [5]. Even in 2014 there still appears to be instances where magic models are accepted instead of scientific models. In order for this to occur magical systems must negotiate two postulates to survive. Let these postulates be called Logic 1 and Logic 2. Logic 1: Evidence reveals truth. Logic 2: Faith reveals truth. Scientific inquiry is predicated upon Logic 1. Methods of verification and doubt permeate every detail until there is sufficient reproducible evidence to formulate a physical law and even then that law is a temporary statement awaiting improvement. There are limited requirements for Logic 2, only that it is a statement of faith that all the laws of physics are temporally and spatially invariant, that is to say that they apply always and everywhere. However, it should be noted that such faith is contained within the scope of test and reproducible results and this seems to be a reasonable axiom. Magic models are predicated upon Logic 2. Faith is a remedy to the uncertainties that arise from   doubt. Logic 1 can be clumsily applied enabling the development of fictional correspondences between mutually exclusive phenomena (e.g. movements of planets and future life events). Objects of divinity or magic ritual are permitted to overcome the fiat of physical laws with the faux validity of such claims evidenced by non-reproducible miracles or spells. Can these ‘logics’ hel p explain why magic models continue to hold influence and to what extent these magic models share characteristics with modern concepts? If this simple model is accepted, it can be reconciled with Dawkin’s theory of memes  where a meme acts as a unit of thought and shares the same survival instincts and dynamics as genes. Nature abounds with examples of species that have evolved their own collective set of behaviours that allow their genes to survive and propagate. Termites, bees, ants and human populations have formulated their own internal logic which manifests itself from migratory patterns to secure resources and safety to social structures and hierarchy. The imperative is gene survival. The ‘two logics’ can be seen as two competing species of meme that are manifest in the practices of the minds in which they are contained. The longevity of the meme carrier is an important factor but more than this is the ability of the meme to be transmitted and received. The reason why scientific medicine has trumped magic is due to its successfulness since the 1920s. The consequence of this is greater longevity and productivity which then invests in education enabling these memes to migrate to new fresh minds. Magic models reside in minds which have not been exposed to the elegance and consistency of the ‘first logic’. This may be due to  living in geographical peripheral regions where exposure to education is minimal or because the magic memes of the ‘second logic’ have a dogmatic hold on the mind of individuals who are not free to think contrary to their cultural norms. 6.0: The Problem for Liberal Education and the Intellectual: Liberal education provides a framework in which the ‘first logic’ is free to migrate to as many minds as can be reached but is also tolerant of the ‘second logic’. The problem for liberal education is the extent to which dogmas arising from the ‘second logic’ can be entertained without threatening the primacy of the ‘first logic’.   It is clear that ‘magic laden’  ideas do not perish but adapt in order to survive. Horoscopes, alternative medicine, faith based schools and learning styles attests to the prevalence of magic models in the UK. Indeed, this is less concerning than the case of Tanzanian ritual medicine but the appetite for certainty and control provides fertile ground upon which dogma grows and with it the retreat from reason. Dogmatic ‘magic memes’ cannot be eradicated because the wish to do this would be dogmatic in itself, however, the necessity of the ‘first logic’ frees modernity from many of the relic absurdities which were commonplace for our ancestors. The case of Ashmole and Lily attest to the usefulness of magic models to produce faux-knowledge which in turn is used to authorise political actions in the fulfillment of propagandist destiny. The ‘second logic’ is a resource of social power that can be utilised to hold others by its influence. This can be further contrasted to the ‘first logic’ that provides freedom of thought but with it a toll of doubt and uncertainty. Almanacs provided a resource of certainty but these were nonsense. Astrology and its division into specificity (e.g. Horary Questions) were also nonsense. It is the case that some practitioners of the art in the 16 th  and 17 th  century may have understood astrology as a legitimate part of natural philosophy but any such claim of legitimacy from modern practitioners is absurd. In the 1970s a pedagogical tool emerged called Learning Styles   and this method became commonplace in UK classrooms from 2000 onwards. This technique wears the garb of empowerment and actualizing natural destiny through eliminating teaching barriers to a student’s  learning but at its core this model shares common absurdities with natural magic. Learning styles are predicated on sympathies between fixed categories of being in the world (e.g. student as visual learner) and the teacher as magus casting individual lesson plans on when and how to confer knowledge and skills and thus remove barriers to triumphant destiny. There are clear connections between these practices and those used by Ashmole and Lily. The illusory promise of control from learning styles is the same as astrology. When uncertainty is considered a weakness and doubt a barrier to progress the conditions are perfect for the ‘s econd logic’ to dominate   and subordinate the ‘first logic’ . This tendency is forgivable in the unsophisticated domains of history and the peripheral regions of modernity but is unforgivable and tragic when it permeates education in a liberal Western democracy. Educators have the responsibility to act as ambassadors for reason and evidence based knowledge as well as to participate in debate as to the limits of what is known and how to know more.
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