Friday, 11 December 2015

How to Elegantly Refute Astrology with Quantum Mechanics

Most people reject astrology out of hand these days, saying that the alignment of the planets does not affect our lives whatsoever. If pressed, they would defend themselves perhaps by claiming that astrology is unscientific or stubbornly say that it is just wrong.

The idea that the alignment of the planets has no effect on us is, in fact, wrong. It is very much a scientific point of view that these sorts of celestial bodies and their positions can influence us from afar and we have known that this is the case for quite some time. A point for the astrologers. Unfortunately for astrology, the known effect of those celestial bodies is from their gravitational fields and the influence that their gravity has on us is vanishingly small. Sure, it's not zero, but it is dwarfed by the gravity from the table closest to you, and does not act at the moment of birth in particular. No astrologer could therefore point to gravity as a means of affecting your life by the alignment of planets.

But, the astrologer might come back with a certain scepticism of the science. Sure, they might say, science knows of no forces that can act at that sort of range outside of electromagnetism and gravity. Sure, there is no contribution really from electromagnetism or gravity. But that does not mean that science will not one day discover a new force which shows that the planets affect our lives in meaningful ways. So, the astrologer says, we should remain agnostic of astrology.

Sean Carroll has supplied to me the insight to finally put to bed that claim. He points out that, with the discovery of the Higgs Boson, we now know all the fundamental physics relevant to our lives. Sure, there's dark energy and dark matter - but that does not affect our everyday lives. Sure, there could be forces operating below what we can detect - but if we cannot detect them, they cannot influence us. If they could exert some kind of cause on us then we would be able to detect it. Is it really possible to make that claim?

It relies on a very simple idea: the world behaves as described by quantum mechanics and we know that if there were some other force we would have found it. In fact, the physics relevant to our lives has been condensed beautifully to a few particles and forces. We are made of the kind of stuff (neutrons, electrons, protons) that are affected by certain forces (gravitational, electromagnetic and nuclear). Could there be other forces? Definitely. But they would not interact enough with our ordinary matter to be of causal significance. Are there other particles? We know for a fact there are. But we are not made of those other particles. Nor is any of the stuff we commonly use.

Carroll explains by means of a quote from Donald Rumsfield that there are three levels of knowledge: the known knowns, the unknown knowns and the unknown unknowns. These are the things we know that we know, the things we know that we don't know and the things that we don't know we don't know. The beauty of this refutation of astrology is not in pointing out that astrology is not a "known", because we already knew that. The beauty is that we now know how far our knowledge extends and the range of our knowledge excludes astrology.

The claims of astrology are like claims of an elephant in my kitchen. I know that the microwave is there, I can see it  - a known known. I do not know whether there is any salt in the pantry (a known unknown). But despite all the things I do not know about my kitchen, I know there is not an elephant. There is no astrology in the universe. Astrology is wrong.

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