Can we think outside our culture: My Chinese horoscope

I have been preoccupied with my Chinese horoscope for over a decade. One of its revelations touched on something I instinctively felt was true, but to this day I continue to resist believing it. Why is that?


The story starts with my sense of being a little different, odd, abnormal (I so dislike that last word). I assume many people feel this way, but since it’s not the first thing they’ll tell you about themselves, we’re left to wonder just how relatively peculiar we are. In my case – as I wrote earlier – it was undoubtedly this feeling that attracted me to the idea that I have a choice about how I see myself. Society may label me odd, but if I see society’s values as temporary and highly contingent, then the problem is society’s, not mine.

But am I really free to choose? I was born and raised in a modern, Western, rational, scientific culture. My ability to think about rationality and the autonomous individual is embedded in the very language I use to think. So ingrained, for example, is my desire to appear rational that, before talking about my Chinese horoscope, I feel a need to defend, justify, or otherwise absolve myself from appearing otherwise.

Evidence (more or less) for my rationality

I consider myself a rational person. I was a math major as an undergraduate. In my freshman year I took engineering and physics. I talked an adviser into letting me take an upper-level class for which, as a freshman, I was not intellectually prepared: Philosophy 140, Introduction to Logic, taught by Willard Quine. There was a heavy emphasis on science and technology when I was in school, and I drank the Kool-Aid.

I had a strong desire at that age for life to be logical and for questions to have definitive answers. The humanities were too nebulous for me. Fortunately this was in the days of “liberal education” requirements, so I was forced — and later freely chose — to study things like literature, fine arts, history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. Exposure to the humanities did not immediately modify my need to maintain an unquestioning faith in rationality.

When I blog about medicine at The Health Culture, I write about scientific medicine. It’s true, I’ve argued that medicine is not a science the way physics is a science. But that doesn’t mean I think people should consult faith healers rather than medical professionals when they have cancer. No way do I think that.

My objections to today’s medicine do, perhaps, have something to do with an excess of rationality. Scientific medicine has become reductionist to the point of excluding the living, breathing patient. Doctors have lost touch with their ability to provide the comfort and solace that were formerly an important component of the healing process – the compassionate listening that could help patients deal with the distress that accompanies illness. I’ve written about the physician as humanist and the value of a liberal education for doctors.

Okay, I do have a few other criticisms of medicine, but they mainly center on things like what happens to medicine when it becomes profit-driven. Or how unfortunate it is that the medical model of disease makes it difficult to address the social determinants of health. But I don’t question the scientific nature of what goes on in the laboratories of academic research centers (unless, of course, they’re funded by pharma, in which case the science itself can be distorted).

So, if I believe in rationality and science, how can I value something like a Chinese horoscope? Isn’t that like saying I believe in astrology?

No stars in my Actions Palace

My Chinese horoscope was read (interpreted) by a highly respected scholar of Chinese philosophy and culture, Robert Fenwick. I was impressed. The reading turned out to be so accurate and incisive about so many things — including something I’d resisted acknowledging all my life — that I was forced to pay attention.

The part I’ve resisted has to do with motivation. The arrangement of stars at the moment (and location) of my birth indicates that there will never be any “motive force” that tells me to follow one course of action rather than another. There are zero stars in my Actions Palace.

Evidently this is highly unusual. Stars in the Actions Palace give people a sense of how to live their lives, and most people have something there. Robert said things like “This requires that you think of yourself as different from most other people.” And “You’re somebody from a different universe, from almost everybody else you see.”

An odd way to live

The idea that I lacked motivation and a sense of direction to my life was not something I wanted to believe. I live in a highly competitive culture where you’re supposed to be motivated, competitive, and ambitious. That’s what school, work, sports, and hoping-to-be-a-celebrity-when-you-grow-up are all about.

And it’s not as if I’m a slacker. You would not be able to discern a lack of motivation from my résumé. But it’s also true that when I heard this, I knew exactly what it referred to. It explained something I’d noticed all my life: I repeatedly fall into the next episode of my life – whether it’s education, employment, a relationship, or an intellectual passion — without the need for a motivating decision on my part. I change jobs, careers, and interests by instinct, not by reason. To say I “lack motivation” fails to capture the subtlety of just what this feels like.

In telling me that I lacked a “motive force,” Robert assured me that this was actually a good thing. I should stop fighting it and just accept it. This advice has alternately been a great relief (at least to contemplate) and a difficult thing to do. To lack drive, motivation, ambition, and a competitive nature in contemporary American culture is not ideal.

Inescapable cultural roots?

I’d like to believe the self is flexible, contingent, and socially constructed. And that by recognizing this, I can choose to believe that, while I may be odd by society’s standards, that doesn’t have to bother me. But even without the social pressure to conform – which is huge – my very ability to understand the world is so deeply rooted in my culture that it’s no wonder I have trouble believing it would be okay to lack motivation.

I was born and raised in an American culture steeped in individualism and the rationality of science. These two things have cultural roots that go all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Western natural philosophy saw the world as composed of separate and discrete objects, categorized according to properties they had in common. In the physical world, this ultimately led to Western rationality and science. In the mental world, this led to Western psychology’s concept of the self: We are each separate, discrete and independent individuals, not interrelated selves as East Asian cultures believe.

Cultural values get implemented through the pressure to conform socially. There’s a passage in Carl Elliott’s Better than Well that I’m fond of quoting. He’s talking here about physical appearance, but the underlying dynamic speaks to the question I’m asking: Are we free to choose how we think of ourselves independent of our socialization and acculturation?

You can still refuse to use enhancement technologies, of course – you might be the last woman in America who does not dye her gray hair, the last man who refuses to work out at the gym – but even that publicly announces something to other Americans about who you are and what you value. This is all part of the logic of consumer culture. You cannot simply opt out of the system and expect nobody to notice how much you weigh.

Consumer culture is the driving dynamic, yes, but on a very basic level, it’s also simply a matter of being a member of a society that you inescapably imbibe from birth.

Becoming best friends with my stars

There’s no happy ending to this story. I haven’t resolved my dilemma simply by identifying and writing about it – although that’s a possibility I hold out for the future. For me, a happy ending would be to accept the advice Robert gave me when he explained what it means to have no stars in my Actions Palace. The lack of “motive force,” he said, the inability to feel “I really want to do that,” can be one of my best friends. It means I have the power, everywhere in my life, to be on vacation. No one can make me feel that I must be doing any one thing in particular. I‘d been assuming my problem was not accomplishing enough. It turns out my problem is just the opposite: accepting that I don’t have to want to do anything.

The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness? (Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

Related posts:
The sociology of knowledge
The problem is you
The physician as humanist
Is a liberal arts education good preparation for being a doctor?

Image source: Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads


Alastair Matheson, Corporate Science and the Husbandry of Scientific and Medical Knowledge by the Pharmaceutical Industry, BioSocieties, 2008, 3, pp 355-382

Carl Elliott, Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream


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