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:


*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.

Participatory Spirituality in an Evolving Cosmos

Here’s my talk from the INTERSECT: Science & Spirituality conference in Telluride, CO earlier this summer. It’s titled “Participatory Spirituality in an Evolving Cosmos”

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

Process and Difference in the Pluriverse
(opening lecture)

My Spring course at 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.

“Retrieving Realism: A Whiteheadian Wager” published in IJTS

Retrieving Realism: A Whiteheadian Wager (PDF)

Published in International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, Volume 36, Issue 1 (2017)

Abstract: This essay argues that the organic realism of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) provides a viable alternative to anti-realist tendencies in modern and postmodern philosophy since Descartes. The metaphysical merits of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism are unpacked in conversation with Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor’s recent book Retrieving Realism (2015). Like Dreyfus and Taylor, Whitehead’s philosophical project was motivated by a desire to heal the modern epistemic wound separating soul from world in order to put human consciousness back into meaningful contact with reality. While Dreyfus and Taylor’s book succeeds in articulating the problem cogently, its still too phenomenological answer remains ontologically unsatisfying. Whitehead’s process-relational approach invites philosophy to move closer to a real solution.

Organic Science in Schelling and Whitehead

A lecture from last week’s class Brief History of Western Thought on Romanticism and the crisis of modern science as it played out in the organic nature philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead.