Encounter with a Relativist

This past weekend I was out with my girlfriend at a café in Santa Barbara.  She ran into an acquaintance of hers, who turned out to be a fanatical new-ager and relativist. Soon they were talking about astrology.  My girlfriend said to her friend, referring to me, "he’s a skeptic," (which I consider to be a compliment, of course.)

But I was outed. Oh boy, I thought, here we go. I never cease to be amazed at how the more unfounded a person’s assertions are, the greater offense they seem to take when challenged or asked for documentation. I was going to try to keep my mouth shut.

But then the relativist started talking about how important astrological charts were to a person’s life. (Apparently, she partially makes her living as an astrologer.) I asked her how she thought it was possible for a distant planet to affect a person’s life on Earth.  She said.  "You know, it’s just energy waves."  I said, well, I understand gravity and I understand light.  She said, well they’re the same thing, they’re just both energy waves.  I said, no, not exactly.  Light is an electromagnetic wave, gravity is a quite different property of matter.  Gravity is a force arising from the curvature of space-time in the presence of mass.  I said to her, either way both are governed by the inverse square law, meaning that the strength of the force or electromagnetic wave falls off with the square of the distance.

Therefore, I told her I could understand how the moon could affect people, since it affects the levels of the oceans. It’s also known to affect women’s menstrual cycles, so looking at the moon as a human influence makes sense. But, I said, what about Jupiter? How does Jupiter, for example, have any influence on human life on Earth. She replied that Jupiter doesn’t have any influence on its own, it only has influence as part of a conjunction with other plants such as, say, Mercury.

I said to her, I still don’t see how any combination of planets can affect a person on Earth. We’re too far away. You haven’t provided a mechanism whereby such connection would be meaningful. There is no evidence that astrological charts have any bearing whatsoever on a person’s fortunes or outlook on life. She proceeded to get more and more flustered by the discussion, and began to bring up anecdotal evidence from her own life, and she says, she personally "knows" all sorts of people who are affected by their astrological chart, and that she "knows" that astrology is a valid science.

Then she began to challenge the fact that gravity and light are different phenomena. She said something about the "crystal at the center of the earth." She said, of course, “gravity is the strongest at the center of the earth.” I explained to her how at the center of the earth, gravity would be neutral because it would be canceled out by the pull from the the mass that would be surrounding any observer on all sides. In other words, I explained, if there was a hole drilled all away through the earth and a person fell down the shaft toward the center of the earth, they would oscillate back and forth many times, slowing down because of air resistance, and finally come to rest at the Earth’s center. She said to me, "well, you believe that." I said no. That can be determined experimentally and empirically. It is a fact.

Then she trotted out the "science is just a belief system” argument. I explained why that was not true. I explained that there was an absolute “state vector” for the natural universe. I explained how that “state vector” governs the actions and placement of all matter, and is not subject to human modification, only human discovery. I said, after all, "truth is not relative, knowledge is not relative." She got even more upset, and began to loudly assert that “Of course everyone knows that knowledge is relative” and anyway, “her truth” was not subject to discussion.

At this point, my girlfriend asked, didn’t she think that genetics had more to do with human predispositions than astrology? The astrologer replied, well, maybe that would be true if we had "all 12 strands of our DNA in place." She then began a long explanation as to how humans only have two out of 12 possible strands of DNA and that once we are perfected as a race, we will have a perfect cylinder of 12 strands rather than a partial spiral, as it is today. I rolled my eyes. If it hadn’t been for the fact that my girlfriend knew this person, I wouldn’t have continued in the discussion past the first few sentences. I consider these kinds of discussions to be sort of like trying to explain differential calculus to a kindergartner — utterly fruitless and wholly unsatisfying for either party.

Why does no one dare challenge other people’s "sacred beliefs?" Well, what if the beliefs are just plain wrong? What if "beliefs" fly in the face of physics? After all, the majority of people used to "believe" the earth was flat. Should those "beliefs" have been "respected?" I’m sorry, but new-agers have been getting away with rhetorical murder. It’s time for this nonsense to stop. It’s time for some standards of knowledge to be enforced in conversation. Otherwise we run the risk of a good portion of meaningful human discourse degenerating into gibberish. I would honestly rather have silence than converse with someone who has banished all reality from their world view.

My parting shot to the relativist was to recite the recoil argument: "Are you really sure that all truth is relative?" Yes, she replied. "Well, isn’t that, in and of itself, an absolute statement?”

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Comments (16 comments)

Topher / August 10th, 2006, 9:15 am / #1

I love the absolute argument against the relativist, these people are not only stupid, but dangerously stupid.

Omnitir / August 10th, 2006, 5:27 pm / #2

It’s simply amazing the concepts some people believe (and why is it always women that believe these ridiculous things?). 12 strands of DNA when we are ‘perfected’ as a race? Huh? And this notion of some mysterious energy flowing through the planets affecting people on Earth. If astrologers can understand precisely how this is supposed to work, and can draw up charts etc., then surely science could measure this energy? Or are only astrologers capable of detecting this energy somehow? Do astrologers power their homes and cars with this energy while the rest of us have to burn fossil fuels?

Love the site BTY. Good work.

BlackSun / August 10th, 2006, 7:43 pm / #3

Topher and Omnitir, thanks for the props.

I was reading a post over at Goosing The Antithesis. Francois talked about a possible reason for clinging to these types of beliefs: A person with little or no scientific understanding of their universe can have the same mental security as scientific naturalists feel. (Though it’s false security.) For them, these sorts of beliefs make them feel as if the world makes sense. That is until they rely on them once too many times and get smacked with a dose of reality.

Skeptico also just did a recent post in his ongoing series about astrology. That thread was talking about how all of this would be nothing more than harmless entertainment if people weren’t making life-changing decisions based on such balderdash.

This has also been my complaint about religions: Believe what you want, until it becomes serious, or you make a mass-movement out of it and try to change society or its laws. Or you fail to take needed action because you think you will be ’saved’ by some invisible force or another. These real dangers to life and freedom are what I object to most about belief.

Aaron Kinney / August 11th, 2006, 3:11 pm / #4

Sheesh I hope that encounter didnt ruin the evening! Talk about a frustrating encounter. Reality just goes in one of her ears and out the other.

ml.. / August 12th, 2006, 12:32 pm / #5


Are you aware that when you say things like,
“why is it always women that believe these ridiculous things,” it can come across as having a sexist undercurrent, at the very least? The thing isn’t always women who believe in “these ridiculous things.” However, I’ll give you this: based on surveys it is true more women than men give credence to astrology and some other psuedosciences. Since this is the case, I am likewise very curious as to why this is.

The theoretical answers could take an entire post. Perhaps differing expectations subtly planted in young girls’ and boys’ minds regarding the value of science and math might have an influence…Maybe not… One would also have to look at structural differences in the brain between males and females, particularly at the more developed corpus collosum in women. (This being the structure connecting right and left hemispheres.) This fact has different implicatons for males and females, their thinking styles and skills, with pros and cons for both . Again…a whole post could be given to this.

But back to the “always women”…have you forgotten about Ronald Reagan? Although Nancy may have been behind it… if his belief was all a front, I’d be surprised as he certainly used it in decision making.

Our local paper has a male columnist as an astrologer. And based on interviews his given, he takes it seriously..and doesn’t see it as simply entertainment.

I am in no way saying that I believe in astrology. For the record, I don’t. Like Sean says, unless a mechanism can be shown explaining how it might work, I view it at best as a tool for helping people process psychological material through the use of symbol, metaphor or archetype.

I also find it interesting that surveys aside, I have ( merely anecdotal, I know) met just as many men, who outright believe in astrology. I have also met many who, although they may deny belief early in the exchange..once I have had a chance to get beyond superficial banter, admit to having interest and belief in astrology. (ok, maybe they’re just on the make ;-)..but I doubt it,.. cause I don’t believe.) OR, perhaps men are in some ways responding to the subtle expectations to come across more “rationally” .than women.

Lastly…I would like to know why is it that, (according to most surveys) more males then females beleive in UFO’s extraterrestrial type phenomenon,alien abduction and the like? The survey I am excepting from found an equal number of men and women who beleive in UFO’s, but pointed out that this was the exception; that most surveys show a dominance of males.

I look forward to the day when we can understand these differnces and not use our lack of understanding to buoy notions of superiority of men over women or vice versa.

(To see more google Excerpted from National Science Foundation..or try

ml / August 12th, 2006, 1:05 pm / #6

I meant to say , google “psuedoscience statistics excerpted from National Science Foundation” for this article

fizure / August 15th, 2006, 12:42 am / #7

Nice blog you have here. It’s intelligent, and purdy too! I’m adding you to my blogroll in the freak chance one of the few wandering entities traveling through the timeless ether that is my blog may perhaps find themselves directed to this place instead…

Omnitir / August 17th, 2006, 4:15 am / #8

ml – I didn’t mean to sound sexist, and apologise if my comment was taken that way. I just find that generally many women believe in the pseudoscience’s, and I was wondering why this is so. It’s an interesting point you make that perhaps males are more prone to believe in UFO’s and alien type phenomenon. Perhaps there is some male predisposition towards sci-fi type concepts and hence many males find the ideas of extraterrestrial life appealing, just as many women find the notion of astrology appealing?

On the other hand, I would like to point out that UFO’s, meaning objects that fly that can’t be identified, are most certainly a very real phenomenon that have been confirmed many times by both military and civil aviation. The extraterrestrial part is obviously just speculation, though the fact that there is some level of tangible evidence to this phenomenon (i.e. reliable confirmations of unidentified flying objects) and hence it’s a phenomenon that can be measured scientifically, suggests that possibly a curiosity about UFO’s isn’t a disposition towards pseudoscience?

However, regardless of statistics of what each sex believes in, we can always find men with silly belief systems and women with sophisticated and intelligent understandings of science. Perhaps predisposition towards certain ways of thinking is largely a result of social conditioning and nothing else?

Robert / August 29th, 2006, 2:05 pm / #9

RE: Your Encounter with a Relativist
After reading about your encounter with the new age astrologer I had to laugh, thinking about you standing up in front of thousands of people and telling them how evil rock music is and how you believed so strongly in your belief system and how you had to prove to us sitting in that tent in Montana how right you were. You sound like the same guy I heard back then, you just flipped your belief system. You went from white to black and didn’t realize that there are millions of colors.
Your encounter was with someone who did not have much education or knowledge and could not possibly argue science or logic with you. Therefore I will take over in her place, I have a B.Sc. degree, was in your parents church for 6 or 7 years and have studied astrology for 25 years. Through the scientific method of trail and error I have concluded that a lot of the stuff in CUT was bullshit although not all, some was very good and enlightening and opened my eyes to many interesting ideas and thoughts and I enjoyed those years overall, it was kind of like living in Disneyland, or being in a movie, a very Neptunian experience, to put it in an astrological way. After 25 years of astrology I would say it is the most amazing science on this earth and it proves itself over and over again and fills me with awe every time I experience things in my life and when I observe it in others and I can watch the astrological correlations at the same time.
At this point I have to say the rest of the new age stuff about DNA strands and the centre of the earth being a big crystal is a pile of bullshit, just like the ideas your mother tried to get us to believe about the hollow earth and aliens living in there or that black holes were centres of evil.
You wondered how the planets might affect us being so far away and that gravity is a force arising from the presence of mass, or a planet. Sean you should study some astronomy sometime and if you did you would realize that about 10% of the mass in the universe is made up from visible celestial objects and that almost 90% of the mass of the universe is composed of “dark matter”. This dark matter has shaped the universe as we know it and without the gravitational pull of dark matter, the galaxies, stars and planets would not have formed. Given the fact that astronomers know very little about this dark matter and how it controls the universe and are just beginning to understand it, how can you say the planets and Sun and moon do not affect us they flow through this dark matter which must affect us and maybe is a part of us? The point is you do not know how the planets affect us, know one does, we can only put forth a hypothesis, and yours is that they have no effect on us, and mine after 25 years of observing them daily, is that they do have an effect on us.
Now don’t take my word for it, lets bring in some others with far greater knowledge and intelligence than me. Lets starts with Kary Mullis. Dr. Mullis received a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1993, for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Dr. Mullis earned a Ph.D. degree in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1972 and wrote a book titled, “Dancing Naked in the Mind Field,” published by Pantheon Books in 1998. In his book he has a chapter titled, “I am a Capricorn” where he explains how he found astrology and did some tests to prove it and he concludes that it should be used by all counsellors as it is an effective and valuable tool for understanding oneself and others. He concludes the chapter with his birthday and time and tells us we can know far more about him from his birth data than from reading his book.
Next we can look at Gunter Sachs. He is a Swiss mathematician and multi-millionaire industrialist and is better known for his skills as an investor and industrialist, and in the last years as head of an institute that researches the claims of astrology. He has always been “passionately interested” in astrology and its connection with mathematics. He commissioned major research into astrology using large samples, and came up with results that overturned some prejudices. Sachs set out to test the assumptions off astrologers by gathering a team of scientists and statisticians which, over two years, analysed the lives of nearly one million men and women. “In every case, there were significant results, way beyond what is explicable through mere coincidence.” he is quoted as saying by the Daily Mail newspaper on November 6th, 1997. To facilitate the research he set up the “Institute for the Empirical and Mathematical Examination of the Possible Truth of Astrology in Relation to Human Behaviour”. Then, using established statistical techniques and with help from the official statistics office in Switzerland (where the authorities have recorded the date and hour of birth of every citizen since 1875 his team gathered statistics on every aspect of human life.
Michel Gauquelin was a French psychologist and statistician who, along with his first wife Françoise Schneider-Gauquelin conducted very important statistical research on astrology from the beginning of the 1950s to the present day. Up to his death, he tried first and foremost to show the inanity of astrology, in reaction to his father, who was an enthusiastic defender of the practice. Although he always remained highly critical of astrology in general, his attitude towards its existence changed as his studies progressed in the study of the diurnal cycle, which is related to the astrological houses. “Subsequent results only confirmed and amplified my initial discovery about the physicians. On the whole, it emerged that there was an increasingly solid statistical link between the time of birth of great men and their occupational success. … Having collected over 20,000 dates of birth of professional celebrities from various European countries and from the United States, I had to draw the unavoidable conclusion that the position of the planets at birth is linked to one’s destiny. What a challenge to the rational mind!” (Neo-Astrology, 1991)
Last but not least I call Richard Tarnas to the stand. Richard Tarnas, author of The Passion of the Western Mind and Cosmos and Psyche, is a cultural historian and professor of philosophy and psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and founding director of its graduate program in Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness. He graduated from Harvard with an A.B. cum laude in 1972 and received his Ph.D. from Saybrook Institute. From 1980 to 1990, he wrote The Passion of the Western Mind, a narrative history of Western thought which became a bestseller and continues to be a widely-used text in universities throughout the world. His second major work, Cosmos and Psyche, challenges the basic assumptions of the modern world view with a new body of evidence that points towards a new perspective on the human role in the cosmos. Based on thirty years of research, Cosmos and Psyche is the first book by a widely respected scholar to demonstrate the existence of a consistent correspondence between planetary movements and the archetypal patterns of human experience, also called astrology. Cosmos and Psyche suggests a new possibility for reuniting religion and science, soul and intellect, ancient wisdom and modern reason in the quest to understand the past and create the future.
From “An Introduction to Archetypal Astrological Analysis” Richard Tarnas writes;
“From this point of view, the birth chart is not the randomly allotted prison-structure of our inexorable fate, but can be seen rather as defining the basic structure of our potential unfolding–suggesting the personal gifts and trials that we have chosen for this lifetime to work with and evolve through. Astrology illuminates the fundamental archetypal dynamics that profoundly condition our lives, which is not to say they absolutely determine our lives. Because our personal response to life always contains an element of unpredictability and potential freedom, and because astrology gives a greater understanding of our basic archetypal complexes and their timing, then a knowledge of our birth chart and transits can significantly increase the range of options, flexibility, and intelligence with which we approach life. The study of astrology can be extraordinarily liberating.
Finally, the issue of causal mechanism, or why astrology works: It seems unlikely to me that the planets send out some kind of physical emanations that causally influence events in human life in a mechanistic way. The range of coincidences between planetary positions and human existence is just too vast, too experientially complex, too aesthetically subtle and endlessly creative to be explained by physical factors alone. I believe that a more plausible and comprehensive explanation is that the universe is informed and pervaded by a fundamental holistic patterning which extends through every level, so that a constant synchronicity or meaningful correlation exists between astronomical events and human events. This is represented in the basic esoteric axiom, “as above, so below,” which reflects a universe all of whose parts are integrated into an intelligible whole.
From this perspective, the planets themselves are not “causing” anything to be happening in our lives, any more than the hands on a clock are now causing it to be 7:30 PM. Rather, the planetary positions are indicative of the cosmic state of the archetypal forces at that time. The fact that the planets constantly seem to indicate these things with such accuracy simply suggests that the cosmic order is much more profound and pervasive than our conventional beliefs have assumed. But the relationship between a specific planetary pattern and a human experience is best seen as one of meaningful correlation or correspondence, not one of simple linear causality.
There is, however, a sense in which causality does enter into the astrological perspective, and this is in the sense of archetypal causation (comparable to Aristotle’s concepts of formal and final causes). While the physical planets themselves may bear only a synchronistic connection with a given human experience, that experience is nevertheless being affected or caused–influenced, patterned, impelled, drawn forth–by the relevant planetary archetypes, and in this sense it is quite appropriate to speak, for example, of Saturn (as archetype) “influencing” one in a specific way, or as “governing” certain kinds of experience.
But why should the cosmos have established a systematic correspondence between planetary patterns and archetypally patterned phenomena in human lives? There are many possible answers to this question, not the least of which might point toward a kind of intrinsic aesthetic splendor in the universe, an overflow of cosmic intelligence and delight that reveals itself in this continuous marriage of mathematical astronomy and mythic poetry. But in more pragmatic, human terms, my sense of astrology is that the constant coincidence between planetary positions and human lives exists as a kind of universal code for the human mind to unravel, so that we can better understand ourselves and our world, rediscover our deep connection to the cosmos, and be more complete human beings.”
Thank you Richard Tarnas, I rest my case.

BlackSun / August 30th, 2006, 12:18 am / #10

Robert, thanks for your thorough analysis. You raise many excellent questions, and I will respond to them in a future post.

Here it is:

Jake the dragonsnake / September 3rd, 2006, 2:05 pm / #11

Astrology is not based on knowing how things work, but on observing that they work in a certain way.
If you want to know how it works, how Jupiter influences a persons life, I recommend reading whatshername - of the theosophical movement - Bailey. She basically explains it as follows; the bodies do not directly influence humans, but they represent fields of radiation that penetrate the entire cosmic fabric.
Now I know this doesn’t sound very substantial, but then again, neither does the claim that what we don’t understand doesn’t exist. You use gravity as an example in your discussion. But did you consider that gravity is also only an assumption? I mean we can empirically observe that something like it exists, because things fall down and attract each other. Like with astrology, when someone has Mars conjunct Mercury he is very argumentative, and when he has Saturn oppose his Sun he has identity problems, and when he has his Sun conjunct the galactic center his eyes are more radiant than others. Never fails. But what causes it? Gravity is as much a mystery and therefore unscientific as astrology. It’s both based on empirical observation, not on understanding of a mechanism.

Jake the dragonsnake / September 3rd, 2006, 2:08 pm / #12

By the way, I hit on this page in search of material on the astrological Black Sun. I have it in a prominent place in my chart but there is no information I can find relating to it - only that it is the ‘hideous God’ Bafomet. What does the Black Sun of your journal refer to, if I may ask? I’m puzzled..

BlackSun / September 3rd, 2006, 11:57 pm / #13

Hi Jake,

Here is how we can differentiate astrology from gravity:

Here is an earlier post, describing what Black Sun represents to me.

Thanks for your comment.

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