Aveni, Anthony. Conversing With The Planets: How Science and Myth Invented the Cosmos.

 

Aveni, Anthony. Conversing With The Planets: How Science and Myth Invented the Cosmos.
New York: Kodansha International, 1994 (Originally, Times Books, 1992).

Aveni is identified on the dust jacket as a Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology at Colgate.
The unusual combination is telling: he uses his astronomical and anthropological skills in a way
which demonstrates that the efforts of ancient man to understand the heavens, whether in
Babylonia or Mexico, was designed to seek order, to construct a world in which they felt safe.
The methods of the Mideastern or Mayan astronomers were designed to construct an order, to
find a harmony in the events of the world around them.

Mine is not a book about silly ideas, but it is dedicated to exploring the context - the cultural as
well as the natural environment - in which a variety of explanations about the behavior of the
planets have been framed. Whether we find revealed likeness that are still valid is less important
to me. More important is the mental process of scientific discovery has not changed. We create
order and unity by bringing together seemingly unrelated phenomena and concepts. If we look
only at whether the results of science are right or wrong in an absolute, nonhistorical sense, we
run the risk of believing that any ways other than our own of understanding and explaining nature
have no value, that they never were part of structured and meaningful thinking, that they had no
context worth examining. And this reduces the possibility of understanding the origin of our own
modern scientific concepts and exactly how they differ from those espoused in faraway places
and remote times. (p. 10)

He is interested in this question: "Is the universe already there - a single entity filled with matter
and radiation both seen and unseen and governed by a fixed and everlasting set of rules waiting
out there for us to discover, or are there infinite ways to piece the cosmos together?" (p. 13) He
continues: "Scientists usually opt for the first alternative. The seem united in their goal of
uncovering nature's perceived underlying truths. But mythologists offer us another alternative.
Placing a far heavier burden on the human mind, they suggest that there may be many answers,
each valid in an appropriately understood framework, to the question How does nature work?"
(p. 13)

He goes on to explore the ways in which Greek, Mayan Babylonian and Aztec people discovered
relationships between things they saw in the sky and events that happened in the world of
everyday life. It is tough to do because we frankly "have a hard time taking ancient systems of
thought and worldviews seriously." (p. 14) Yet, he insists, the ways in which these ancients saw
their world was not devised irrationally or thoughtlessly. Their ways of constructing a total
scheme for understanding is worthy of attention.

The question posed is this: are scientists correct? It is objective, socially neutral and the only
acceptable road to truth? Or, are there many roads to truth? Is science just one way of making
sense? That is the nub of this presentation. The author makes clear that he leans towards the
many roads to truth.

There is a very clear statement here of the scientists' creed and it is attributed to Sheldon
Glashow:

We believe that the world is knowable, that there are simple rules governing the behavior of
matter and the evolution of the universe. We affirm that there are eternal, objective,
extrahistorical, socially neutral, external and universal truths and that the assemblage of these
truths is what we call physical science. Natural laws can be discovered that are universal,
invariable, inviolate, genderless and verifiable. They may be found by men or women or by
mixed collaborations of any obscene proportions. Any intelligent alien anywhere would have
come upon the same logical system as we have to explain the structure of protons and the nature
of supernovas. This statement I cannot prove, this statement I cannot justify. This is my faith. (p.
213)

This is a creed. It is a faith. And there is no sense arguing with true believers. So, he does not
argue and he does not confront: he tries, rather, to explore pathways to somebody's else's version
of truth - whether we believe it or not. His challenge is nothing more than an exploration of what
other's believe. It is here that his anthropology come to bear on his astronomy: can we
understand the constructions of other peoples? After all, the ancients had the "same real heavens"
with which to deal as we do. We see the heavens in a way that is not like their system; can we
learn to see as they did? When we do we discover an embedded sensory base for much of the
story line that makes up ancient mythology. "It is our loss if we choose to disregard celestial
mythology as purely nonscientific superstition." (p. 43)

It's important to note this: he offers a dramatic and productive example of constructionism by
analyzing astronomy in several cultures. Cultures fabricate, construct, their views of the heavens
using the same empirical data (that's constant), but the imagery and the allegory are very
different. Scientists, naive realists, would like to believe that all men know the same world but,
unfortunately, this world is not exhausted by one's knowledge. There are different knowledges
which may be constructed using the same data.

Aveni believes the Big Questions are universal: "How is the world organized? Where do we fit
in? Where did heaven and the underworld come from? What happens when we get there? How
do the inhabitants of unearthly realms behavior, and can we learn anything about them while we
are alive? The same basic questions, only the names of the players get changed as ideologies are
passed on and slowly transformed from culture to culture." (p. 57) Since these questions are
universal, all cultures attempt answers and the answers produced are different answers. The ways
in which satisfying answers are produced are diverse. All cultures do not start with the same
world and merely append different labels: rather, the labels produced to describe the world are
different and the resulting universe is different.

"At mid-nineteenth century, science lived in a dream, poised on the edge of believing that, in
principle, it would determine all that could be known about the universe - the position of every
material particle at every point in time, past, present, and future. Ours was still a Cartesian
universe. Feelings of confidence ultimately gave way in the twentieth century to the realization
that a portion of nature always will remain hidden from us, veiled in uncertainty and chaos.
Quantum mechanics was the tar baby that mired us in the reality that the very act of measurement
interferes with what we seek to measure. Today no one will argue that observer and object are
inseparable in the subatomic world, but the suggestion that the same could be true on a large
scale is scientific heresy." (p. 212)

Face it, Aveni is a heretic to his astronomy. And most important he tries to show that the
successful empiricism of diverse cultures - all those studied had a very clear idea of the heavenly
movements of the planet Venus - the successful prediction of planetary movements is no proof of
the constructs in which the numbers are contextualized. Understand this: all these cultures had
knowledge of the planet and constructed tables with which priests and others could predict the
occurrences in which they were interested. Successful empirical demonstration of the utility of
the tables is no proof of anything.

But Aveni is a loyalist to his anthropology: the constructs of faithful scientists, he explains, are
another mythology, a scientific mythology which shares its place with other myths.

And all the old school-tie-buddies of the Scientific Establishment are not likely to enjoy this
relativists' interpretation of its myths. They doubtless prefer the certainties of the 19th century
and will probably only be dragged reluctantly into the 20th as the rest of us enter the 21st.

This is a delightful interpretation. Professor Aveni has done a excellent job of fusing his sciences
and both are richer for the integration.