Pluto and the Underworld of Scientific Knowledge Production

A Slovakian visual artist, András Cséfalvay, recently invited me to submit a video for inclusion in his upcoming exhibition in Prague focused on the cultural significance of Pluto (my video is embedded below). Back in 2006, Pluto was demoted from its planetary status by the International Astronomical Union. Following the flyby of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in 2015, the scientific and popular controversy over Pluto’s classification was reignited in part because Pluto proved to be more lively (i.e., geologically active) than astronomers had assumed.

Shortly after I accepted Cséfalvay’s invitation, a group of planetary scientists led by Philip Metzger (a physicist at my alma mater the University of Central Florida) published a paper that wades right into the center of the conflict. According to Metzger, “The IAU definition would say that the fundamental object of planetary science, the planet, is supposed to be defined on the basis of a concept that nobody [no planetary scientist] uses in their research.”

Pluto finds itself caught in the middle of a clash of paradigms: many (not all*) astronomers stand on one side arguing that the defining characteristic of a planet is that it clears its own orbit of other objects (Pluto does not), while on the other side planetologists like Metzger classify planets based on their spherical shape.

Metzger explains: “It turns out [sphericality] is an important milestone in the evolution of a planetary body, because apparently when it happens, it initiates active geology in the body.”

Metzger goes on to say that the IAU definition is too sloppy, since if taken literally, there would be no planets at all in our solar system (none of the bodies orbiting our Sun fully clears its own orbit).

So what is Pluto? Scientifically speaking, I think the planetary scientists have come up with a better classificatory scheme. As a process thinker, I agree with them that the best way to understand the essence of a planet is in terms of its evolutionary history. But my interest in this debate is more philosophical. I think about this controversy in the context of an interplay between the ontologies of multiple paradigms. For astronomers, Pluto is a mere “dwarf planet”; for planetologists, Pluto is a geologically active planet; and for astrologers, Pluto is Hades, Lord of the Underworld, the archetypal power of death and rebirth.

Inferno Giovanni da Modena
Giovanni da Modena’s 1409 fresco “The Inferno” depicting Dante’s vision of Hell.

Having been influenced by the work of Bruno Latour (in this case, see especially An Inquiry into Modes of Existence), I see the philosopher’s role as akin to that of a diplomat. I ask: is it possible to translate between a plurality of paradigms and to avoid the need to collapse our view of Pluto into Newton’s single vision? Can Pluto be a telescopically-enhanced point of light in the sky, a geologically active planetary body, and King of Hell all at once?

I also think about this debate as it relates the transcendental conditions of knowledge. For Kant, a table of twelve categories and our fixed intuitions of space and time delimits what we can know. The mind structures a priori everything we are capable of knowing about Nature. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union acted as a sort of institutionalized enforcer of transcendental limits, establishing the classificatory rules that the rest of the community of knowledge producing scientists is supposed to obey. Archetypal astrologers transmute the transcendental approach even more radically, replacing Kant’s twelve categories with the ten planetary archetypes (the Sun and Moon are included along with Mercury through Pluto). These cosmically incarnate archetypal powers condition each individual knower, stamping each of us with a unique planetary signature at the moment of our emergence from the womb. The participatory epistemology underlying the archetypal cosmological paradigm implies new conditions of experiential access to reality. Our knowing is mediated not just by mental categories, but by archetypal powers inhabiting Nature as much as mind.

Metzger’s et al.’s recent scientific paper is titled “The Reclassification of Asteroids from Planets to Non-Planets.” Here’s the abstract:

It is often claimed that asteroids’ sharing of orbits is the reason they were re-classified from planets to non-planets. A critical review of the literature from the 19th Century to the present shows this is factually incorrect. The literature shows the term asteroid was broadly recognized as a subset of planet for 150 years. On-going discovery of asteroids resulted in a de facto stretching of the concept of planet to include the ever-smaller bodies. Scientists found utility in this taxonomic identification as it provided categories needed to argue for the leading hypothesis of planet formation, Laplace’s nebular hypothesis. In the 1950s, developments in planet formation theory found it no longer useful to maintain taxonomic identification between asteroids and planets, Ceres being the primary exception. At approximately the same time, there was a flood of publications on the geophysical nature of asteroids showing them to be geophysically different than the large planets. This is when the terminology in asteroid publications calling them planets abruptly plunged from a high level of usage where it had hovered during the period 1801 – 1957 to a low level that held constant thereafter. This marks the point where the community effectively formed consensus that asteroids should be taxonomically distinct from planets. The evidence demonstrates this consensus formed on the basis of geophysical differences between asteroids and planets, not the sharing of orbits. We suggest attempts to build consensus around planetary taxonomy not rely on the non-scientific process of voting, but rather through precedent set in scientific literature and discourse, by which perspectives evolve with additional observations and information, just as they did in the case of asteroids.

It struck me that this line of inquiry may have profound implications for the future of astrological theory and practice, specifically the way we understand the difference between the ten planetary archetypes and the indefinite number of asteroidal archetypes. Does the unique geophysical history underlying planet formation correlate with a uniquely potent and living archetypal signature (that of a planetary god or goddess), such that astroids and dwarf planets (i.e., non-spherical bodies) must be treated more as underdeveloped demigods or shattered spirits? My limited exposure to astrologers who foreground asteroids suggests they would bristle at the idea of them being less archetypally significant than planets.

Or, if Pluto is a dwarf planet or an asteroid, perhaps that says something profound about the evolutionary power of these chaotically orbiting fragments of rock and ice. They are reminders of the violent history of our solar system, of the fact that tremendous destruction (i.e., an entire eon composed of nothing but mega-collisions between orbiting bodies, appropriately referred to by geologists as the Hadean) prepares the way for the miraculous emergence of more or less orderly living worlds.

In any event, this whole dispute between astronomers and planetary scientists about the status of Pluto has me wondering what experts in a third and for too long marginalized paradigm, astrology, can contribute to the conversation.

Here’s the video I submitted to Cséfalvay for his Prague exhibition:

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*For example, Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich, the Chair of the IAU committee that voted to demote Pluto, disagreed with his own committee on this issue.

Lectures on Timothy Morton’s “Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People”

Process and Difference in the Pluriverse
(opening lecture)

My Spring course at CIIS.edu finishes up this week with a set of modules on Timothy Morton’s book Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (2017). Earlier in the semester, we read works by Plato, William James, Catherine Keller, William Connolly, Bruno Latour, Anne Pomeroy, and Donna Haraway. Below, I am sharing a series of lecture fragments about Morton’s book, as well as a panel discussion formed around the course topics.

Bruno Latour’s “Facing Gaia”

I’m sharing two lectures recorded for my online course this semester, Process and Difference in the Pluriverse. In these two modules, we are studying Latour’s recently translated book Facing Gaia.

Chapters 1-4:

Chapters 5-8:

 

 

Process & Difference in the Pluriverse, an online course at CIIS.edu

A trailer for my course being offered this Spring at CIIS.edu.

PARP 6135 Process and Difference in the Pluriverse will explore the ethical, social, political, and ecological implications of process-relational philosophy. You could call it a course in applied or experimental metaphysics. We will read and discuss texts by radical empiricist William James, revolutionary sociologist WEB DuBois, pluralist political scientist William Connolly, process theologian Catherine Keller, philosopher of science Donna Haraway, Gaian sociologist Bruno Latour, and object-oriented ecocritic Timothy Morton. Each in his or her own way brings the process orientation down to Earth by articulating it’s relevance to the struggle for social, economic, racial, and ecological justice.

I hope this course provides a space for us to imagine a more symbiotic future together. I doubt there will be any answers that emerge from what we study together, but I do hope we will get closer to asking the right—that is, the life enhancingcreativity engendering—questions. My goal is to infect your political passions with process-relational ideas, to invite you into the role of philosopher-activist. Activism becomes philosophical (in the process-relational context explored in this course) when it affirms an ethos rooted in relational alterity and creative becoming. Such an orientation provides an antidote to the neoliberal ethos rooted in private identity, property ownership, and wage labor.

Bruno Latour’s Gaian Political Aesthetics

Excerpted from Waiting for Gaia.
“…it became possible for scholars to follow with the same instruments that allow us to trace the production of science (search engines, scientometrics and bibliometric tools, maps of the blogospheres), the people, lobbies, credentials, and money flows of those who insisted on making it a controversy. I am thinking here of the work of Naomi Oreskes or of James Hoggan. How interesting to see the connections made between big oil, cigarette manufacturing, antiabortionists, creationists, Republicans and a worldview made of very few humans and very few natural entities. If it is cosmograms against cosmograms, then let’s compare cosmograms with one another. That’s what politics has become. Let’s pit the worlds against one another since it is a war of worlds. I tried to introduce in philosophy the word composition and ‘compositionism’ just for that reason. Not only because it has a nice connection with compost, but also because it describes exactly what sort of politics could follow the path of climate science. The task might not be to “liberate climatology” from the undue weight of political influence (this is what Texas governor Rick Perry claims: scientists are in it for grant money and the opportunity to advance a socialist agenda that even Lenin failed to impose on the courageous Yankees). On the contrary, the task is to follow the threads with which climatologists have built the models needed to bring the whole Earth on stage. With this lesson in hand we begin to imagine how to do the same in our efforts to assemble a political body able to claim its part of responsibility for the Earth’s changing state. After all, this mix up of science and politics is exactly what is embodied in the very notion of anthropocene: why would we go on trying to separate what geologists, earnest people if any, have themselves intermingled? Actually, the spirit of our tongue has said that all along, having already connected humus, humane and humanity. We the Earthlings are born from the soil and from the dust to which we will return, and this is why what we used to call ‘the humanities’ are also, from now on, our sciences.”

“What if we talked politics a little?” By Bruno Latour

“If we are to accomplish the impossible feat of (re)composing a group from a multiplicity or, equally impossible, making a plurality obey a common order, it is necessary above all not to start with beings with fixed opinions, firmly established interests, definitive identities and set wills. This would guarantee failure, for any work of composition appears only as an intolerable compromise, even a dishonest one, and would break, shatter or annihilate wills, opinions, interests and identities. Conversely, if we set out to ‘recognize’ all affiliations, to ‘take into account’ all interests, to ‘listen to’ all opinions, to ‘respect’ all wills, we would never manage to close the circle–neither one way nor the other–since multiplicities would triumph, doggedly stubborn in their irreducible difference. The only way of making the circle advance, of ‘cooking’ or ‘knitting’ politics, of producing (re)groupings, consists in never ever starting with established opinions, wills, identities and interests. It is up to political talk alone to introduce, re-establish and adjust them. For political life to be thinkable, utterable, speakable, it is therefore necessary for agents not to have fixed opinions but to be likely to change their minds; for them not to have an identity but affiliations that shift throughout the course of the debate; for them not to be sure of the interests they represent but for their wills to waver or, by contrast, to develop as the relations of all the other agents who make them talk and whom they cause to talk, gather together, and change. We can now understand the meaning of that fragile, contradictory, meticulous alchemy that the Sophists called autophuos, and which has nothing tautological about it, despite Socrates’ irony: he who talks does not talk about himself but about another, who is not one but Legion. Nothing less than this constitutes frank, authentic political expression.
If my hypothesis is correct, we can well imagine times when political talk will disappear or at least become so strange that it would immediately be banned. I am not thinking here of the practice of censorship of opinions, of a lack of freedom of speech regarding content. No, what I am referring to is a disease infinitely more serious, which might strike the very substance of political talk. By constantly despising this type of talk, constantly judging it by the yardstick of the faithful and transparent transfer of double-click information or power struggles, we may well end up depriving ourselves little by little of all its resources, as I have shown us to have done with science and religion–like by neglecting a road network we may end up making all journeys impossible and allowing only local relations. In these matters there is no reassuring destiny, as if talk were an inherent of the political animal and we could count on the nature of things for this invaluable form of enunciation to be preserved. Invaluable and fragile, it survives only with meticulous care by a culture as delicate as it is artificial. By replacing distorted representation by faithful representation, impossible obedience by pedagogy, composition of new groups by rectilinear transfer of ‘relations of domination’, we may well finish off politics for good or, in any case, cool it down to the point of it dying of numbness, without even noticing, like a careless pedestrian lost in a blizzard.”