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”

Reflections on Jorge Ferrer’s Participatory Turn in Transpersonal Theory

I’m taking a course this semester on contemporary transpersonal theory taught by Prof. Jorge Ferrer and Prof. Jacob Sherman. Ferrer’s key text is Revisioning Transpersonal Theory (2001), wherein he tries to initiate a paradigm shift in transpersonal psychology beyond the neo-perennialist assumptions of its founders (e.g., Ken Wilber, Stanislav Grof, Abraham Maslow). In 2008, Ferrer and Sherman co-edited The Participatory Turn, which is an attempt to historically and methodologically ground the participatory approach initiated in Revisioning by applying it in the discipline of religious studies.

Here is Ferrer talking to the Center for Spirituality and Health at the University of Florida in 2006:

In what follows, I’m drawing also from Ferrer’s recent essay in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology entitled “Participatory Spirituality and Transpersonal Theory: A Ten Year Retrospective” (2011).

Ferrer mentions what some evangelical Christian’s have begun calling the “scandal of pluralism”: the scandal being that the explosion of contemporary spiritualities raises the issue of how any one of them in particular could provide a fully accurate depiction of the ultimate nature of reality without implying that all of the others are off the mark. The perennialists get around this issue by suggesting each spirituality represents a different path up the same mountain. Their’s remains a universalist picture of religion, since one spiritual system can be measured relative to another based upon how high up the mountain it is. Despite the many faces of the mountain, and the diversity of paths winding up its slopes, there is only one peak: the perennialist judges each system according to the same altitudinal standard. Against the perennialist’s universalism, Ferrer, argues that the peak is a regulative principle used to guide cocreative inquiry into “the mystery,” rather than a ready-made position one can claim to have finally discovered for oneself. Ferrer therefore doesn’t reject universalism entirely, but adopts what he calls “a more relaxed spiritual universalism.” Pluralism leads inevitably into a performative contradiction, since the claim that all systems are relative is itself a universal claim. Ferrer suggests that the only way beyond the self-defeating contradiction of pluralism and the self-congratulatory exclusivity of universalism is to cultivate a form of spiritual judgement based upon pragmatic and transformational–not just ontological or metaphysical–criteria. I’ve so far proceeded with the working assumption that spiritual systems are primarily or exclusively concerned with metaphysics, with “providing an accurate depiction of the ultimate nature of reality.” This leaves out the practical, embodied, and indeed participatory dimensions of spirituality, those focused not just on the theoretical description of reality but also upon the moral transformation of that same reality. Part of what Ferrer is getting at, I think, is that we can overcome the tendency to privilege a particular tradition as paradigmatic and thereby untangle the the universalism-pluralism knot by engaging in a participatory form of inquiry open to the “dynamic and undetermined mystery or generative power of life, the cosmos, and/or the spirit.” Ferrer argues that “the mystery” is unlike the Kantian thing-in-itself, since his participatory approach “[refuses] to conceive of the mystery as having objectifiable pregiven attributes.” I become a bit confused here, since this seems to be a misreading of Kant, who would have agreed with this refusal in principle, even if in practice he offered some hints as to the nature of the supersensible (e.g., in the Critique of Judgment, he posits the idea of a purposeful organization of things as a regulative guide). Despite Ferrer’s professed resistance to characterizing the thing-in-itself in any way, he also goes on in the same essay to say: “I take the view that the mystery, the cosmos, and/or spirit unfolds from a primordial state of undifferentiated unity toward one of infinite differentiation-in-communion.” This perspective could be read as an inevitable result of Kant’s transcendental idealism as it was taken up and elaborated upon by thinkers like Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling. Schelling’s organic philosophy, wherein a living and creative cosmos is the ongoing revelation of an infinite spirit, seems especially similar to the view Ferrer expresses above. Rather than pretend we can or should say nothing about the ultimate nature of reality, I think it is possible to preserve its essential mysteriousness while also engaging in the metaphysical and moral work required to effectively describe and transform it.

Ferrer’s comments in the above videos about the “pride of mind” are important. I certainly agree with him that education in the United States and Western world generally is almost exclusively intellectual, neglecting the vital energies of the body, the empathic wisdom of the heart, and the inspiration of the spirit. Philosophy education in particular might benefit from an understanding of the poetic basis of mind, the way in which language and verbal consciousness are rooted in song, and as such, emerge out of the breathing (spirit-imbued) body. The mind need not be in control of the body from a position beyond it; rather, the mind can be understood to be the life that moves through the body, analogous to the way wind passes through an aeolian harp. Mind, then, is not isolable from the body, but neither is it locally produced by the body. It flows through. When its flow is blocked by bodily trauma (e.g., when one of the harp’s string’s is snapped), thinking also becomes disfigured.

Much has been made of the confrontation between Ferrer and Wilber (HERE and HERE, for example). I’m just beginning to read the relevant material, but so far it seems to me that the differences between the two are real but largely overplayed. Ferrer tends to lean more toward a kind of pluralistic openness to “the mystery,” while Wilber tends more toward inclusivist perennialism. I am uncomfortable with aspects of Wilber’s developmental scheme, since it makes it all too easy to dismiss critics as being simply less developed than oneself. However, I do think consciousness can only be understood as an evolutionary process, that something like the historical dialectic described by Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit is unfolding upon the earth. I am uncomfortable with such Western-centric schemes as they currently exist only because it seems there are multiple evolutions of multiple consciousnesses.

An essay on the history of participation by Becca Tarnas

Here is a link to my partner Becca’s recent essay on the ecological significance of participatory theory. She offers a great summary of and reflection upon a chapter by Jacob Sherman in The Participatory Turn (2008):

Full of Gods: Divine Participation for an Ecological Era