Geoffrey Dean and Arthur Mather
An abridged update of material that originally appeared in a collaborative discourse entitled "Some Philosophical Problems of Astrology", Correlation 14(2), 32-44, 1995. With 25 references.
Abstract -- To evaluate astrology as a source of meaning we need to consider several philosophical problems that until now have not been fully discussed on this website. (1) Astrologers do not agree on what their fundamental hypothesis as above so below actually means. (2) Astrology is defined as precisely not the result of any means we know of. (3) Its meaning cannot be identified except after the event. (4) Astrologers rarely describe what such an astrology predicts, or the evidence they would accept as showing it had failed as a source of meaning. (5) We see meaning in birth charts for the same reason that we see faces in clouds. In short, astrology as a source of meaning is as solid as the Emperor's New Clothes. Which is not to say it cannot be beneficial if honestly described.
Many of the associated issues have already been documented on this website. The views of modern philosophers are surveyed in Views of modern philosophers. The ideas on which astrology are based, such as symbolism and worldviews, and the philosophical problems of astrology as a source of truth, are evaluated in Concepts of modern astrology. The ways in which the astrologer (as opposed to astrology) can provide benefits or liabilities are detailed in Using astrology as a counselling tool. A summary appears in Basic statements about astrology.
But even as purely a source of meaning, astrology still involves several philosophical problems that until now have lacked full discussion on this website. The following account is an abridged update of relevant material from a collaborative discourse entitled "Some Philosophical Problems of Astrology",Correlation 14(2), 32-44, 1995. Our concern is not the various philosophies of astrology such as "astrology is a way of understanding reality", or the philosophical problems of truth and knowledge, but the philosophical problems of astrology as a source of meaning regardless of what that meaning may be. We start with definitions of astrology.
Definitions of astrology
This lack of agreement is partly, but not entirely, due to the diverse applications of astrology (horary, psychological, medical, mundane, etc). Compounding the disagreement are the many astrology books with definitions that defy classification and even understanding, for example "Astrology is an Ego Conscious attempt to differentiate and rationalize relative wholeness by observing the effects of Transcendant Order" (Palmer 1984).
The above disagreement points to disagreement on the meaning that astrology is supposed to provide, which is confirmed by the disagreement on astrology's fundamantal hypothesis.
Disagreement on astrology's fundamental hypothesis
Although astrologers disagree on what the fundamental hypothesis actually means, they agree on what boils down to its negative definition, which is the first of our philosophical problems of astrology as a source of meaning.
There are two problems here. First, thanks to research, we now have a tested explanation (namely hidden persuaders and other artifacts) for supposed astrological effects, so the above negative definition does not necessarily apply. (Here "tested" means the explanation has withstood repeated attempts to disconfirm it, for example see under Superprize in Competitions in Astrology.)
Second, even if the negative definition did apply (meaning we simply ignore the first problem), there may be causal explanations not yet known for supposed astrological effects. Which puts astrology in the awkward position of being unable to logically claim any effect as astrological. It also leaves astrology with no properties that, if falsified, would disprove it, because falsification (ie finding a non-astrological explanation) would merely mean that the effect was not due to genuine astrology. Ironically this is consistent with Rudhyar's view that astrology does not need to be true.
The problems of negative definition are compounded by the imprecision of the associated claims.
The problem with such claims is imprecision. Astrologers rarely describe precisely what their model predicts, or the evidence they would accept as showing it had failed, and they tend to remain silent even when directly challenged. For example when the several hundred experienced astrologers who were subscribing to Astrologers' Forum or Correlation were invited to nominate the evidence they would accept as showing their claims were wrong, the total response was 5, namely scientific evidence 3, none 1, not sure 1, with several refusing point blank to respond (Dean 1984).
But if no evidence can be nominated that would disconfirm the claims of astrology, whether material or spiritual, neither can it confirm them, in the same way that we cannot tell if a glass is full if we cannot tell if it is empty. Of course none of these problems would apply if astrology does not need to be true. Nevertheless suppose we attempt to avoid these problems by claiming astrology is a miracle. Does this solve anything? No, it makes the situation worse.
Claiming astrology is a miracle
Hume argued that when evaluating a person's claim you should consider "whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates should really have happened." In other words, what is more probable -- astrological miracles or the knavery and fallibility of astrologers? Or conversely, astrological invalidity or the knavery and fallibility of scientists?
Here things like winning the lottery do not count as miracles, because someone has to win, so the existence of a winner is hardly a miracle. Let us look further at the idea of astrological miracles.
Clearly none of this corresponds with the real world, at least not in the sense of astrology as a source of knowledge. But what about astrology as a source of meaning? Here we can start by considering the philosophical problems of the meaning associated with prognostication.
The problem of prognostication
However, this waiver does not apply if we insist that such predictions are possible because of some intrinsic connection between the stars and earthly events, even if like Rudhyar we insist that the connection delivers meaningful events but not observable events.
Such a connection implies that no distinction can be made between past and future events (each past event was once a future event but its particular stellar connection is fixed for all time), which means that both past and future predictions must actually come true regardless of any human action, otherwise we could not know that a stellar connection exists. But suppose the connection predicts that next week we will drown at sea, and we deliberately falsify it by staying on land. Does this reveal as illusory the supposed connection between the stars and earthly events, in the same way that a union strike reveals as illusory the supposed connection between railway timetables and train departures?
Of course some predictions might be difficult to deliberately falsify (Etna will erupt next Monday), and our motivation might be lacking in others (next week we will refrain from suicide). But if with sufficient resources and motivation we could falsify any astrological prediction -- which might only require what is traditionally the easiest of exercises, namely finding a second opinion to disagree with the first -- what would this mean for astrology? This question is usually answered in terms of the stars compelling vs inclining or signifying, discussed next.
Astrology works only sometimes
But this solves nothing. If astrology works only sometimes we have no way of knowing whether a particular meaning delivered by astrology will be useful until after the event. Nor can we tell how reliable such delivery is until after many events. And even then we have no way of knowing whether a particular meaning is due to astrology or to psychic powers or to chance or to other factors. In other words, the very concept of astrology as a source of meaning is essentially statistical.
(Of course its statistical nature might only be the result of our imperfect understanding of its workings, in which case, when a perfect astrology is demonstrated, this article may need revision.)
Statistical considerations in astrology
Since the incline-not-compel dictum does not guarantee that astrology will be a source of meaning, its meaning (if any) can be identified only by a subsequent check. Having X in your chart may or may not be meaningful. So astrology can never be an independent source of meaning. The wise client will act accordingly.
Independent reasons for belief in astrology as meaning
Instead the independent reasons normally offered are the existence of extraterrestrial effects. For example Parry (1990) argues that phenomena like the Piccardi effect and lunar effects on oysters proves that astrology is credible, which is like arguing that money exists, therefore everyone is rich. (The lunar effect on oysters may be illusory, see Quincey 1993 and Enright 1993; both strongly dispute the alleged effect.) But it is a huge implausible leap of faith from such influences to accepting astrology as a source of genuine meaning.
Argument from Personal Experience
In other words we see meaning in birth charts for the same reason that we see faces in clouds. This conclusion is supported by the previously mentioned hundreds of studies which indicate that the chart is merely a cloud in which astrologers see faces and pronounce it miraculous. Astrology thus emerges as a time-honoured cover for the operation of non-astrological factors. Nevertheless it can be seen as a useful fiction whose benefit to the client lies in the quality of the astrologer as a wise and caring person. If astrology happens to seem especially meaningful it is because it involves seeing faces in clouds of planetary gods invented by the ancient Greeks to mirror human conditions, so the faces we see are our own, for example Mars warlike, Jupiter benevolent, Saturn wise.
The same conclusion has been reached on similar grounds in other articles on this website, notably in Basic statements about astrology. We can now recognise what is at stake.
What is at stake
Such a view is perfectly acceptable as it stands, but not when justified by unsupportable claims about as above so below regardless of how well disguised by philosophyspeak. If astrologers merely claimed that "astrology is a tool that uses celestial myths to help you think about your life and destiny", or something similar, then their approach would be fairly described and attention could focus on its helpfulness unsullied by assailability, as exemplified in palmistry by Skafte (1969).
Given that astrology adds nothing to a consultation beyond non-astrological effects, there is a clear case for astrologers to ensure their clients know this, and for current practice and future research to focus on enhancing non-astrological effects, eg by attending to known correlates such as warmth, understanding, and wisdom (there is a large orthodox literature on these points, see also Using astrology as a counselling tool). Until this happens, astrology as a source of meaning is as solid as the Emperor's New Clothes.
Appendix: Disagreement on astrology's fundamental hypothesis
Gregory Szanto (1985) sees it as a link between our outer physical expression (where we have free will) and our inner spiritual nature (set by God) that allows us to achieve harmony with the universe. He states that intuition is essential because only intuition can reveal the inner nature shown by the birth chart. That is, its meaning must be allowed to rise spontaneously from where it resides in the unconscious, for example by using the birth chart as a crystal ball. He does not explain how we can resolve opposing intuitions (by appealing to other intuitions in infinite regress?), so his ideas are problematic.
Dane Rudhyar (1895-1985) is perhaps the best-known proponent of spiritual astrology. Like Szanto he sees it as a path to broad psycho-spiritual wisdom (Rudhyar 1980). But intuition, although useful, is not essential and the problem of opposing indications does not arise because none of them need to be true. The issue is not whether the indication is correct but whether it feels valid (Rudhyar 1979). Thus it is sufficient if, after studying his birthchart, a person "is able to feel a direction and purpose in his life"; astrology cannot reveal things confirmable by observation, only our potentials (Rudhyar 1936/1970:7). But what if the potentials are merely speculations that are actually untrue? Ironically, if we believe it is all foolish nonsense, then by his own rules we are right. (For an extended critique see Kelly & Krutzen 1983).
Although the need for observability is rejected by both Szanto and Rudhyar, other astrologers embrace it as part of the fundamental hypothesis. For example the Larousse Encyclopedia of Astrology (1980:19) restates it as: "The central assumption of astrology is that the positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets at the birth of an individual or the beginning of an enterprise are related in a significant and observable manner to the intrinsic character and later development of that individual or enterprise."
The relationship need not have a physical or psychological cause, in the same way that our bedroom clock does not dispatch the 8am shuttle from Heathrow even though they are related in an observable manner. Indeed Robert Hand (1987-88) argues that an astrology based on physical or psychological causes would no longer be astrology, as would apply if the full Moon caused lunacy through changes in atmospheric conditions, or if the accuracy of sun signs was due to a self-fulfilling prophecy, or if supposed planetary energies were actually measurable. That leaves spiritual causes, for insight on which we can turn to John Addey:
John Addey and the spiritual cause of astrological effects
In his posthumous work, Addey (1996) devotes a chapter to "Some Philosophical Considerations" in which he considers the cause of an astrological effect in terms of Aristotle's four causes. For example, applied to a book, the Final cause is the demand by readers, the Formal cause is its content, the Efficient cause is its author and printer, and the Material cause is its paper. Addey concluded that in astrology the Efficient causes, ie what we now call causes, were the planets, which were not "mere lumps of dirt" but "spiritual existences or substances and their influence is universal" (p.9). He noted that science mostly concerns itself with Efficient and Material causes, whereas astrology mostly concerns itself with Formal causes, ie symbolism, so "astrologers can think about life in a more satisfactory way than can scientists" (p.7). Some might not agree, see Views of modern philosophers.
To modern philosophers these Aristotelian notions are mainly of historical interest. Although astrologers may be concerned with Formal causes, the term is not mentioned in most dictionaries of astrology. They lead to a universe awash with the ebb and flow of symbolism like mixed seeds in a blender waiting to be dipped into by each new-born seed packet. The analogy is so appealing that we may miss the flaw:
Just as the idea of water does not explain why a ship should or should not float (for this we need other ideas such as relative density), so the idea of Formal causes does not explain why a birth chart should or should not match the person. So Addey's ideas of astrological causation are essentially circular -- a spiritual astrology is caused by spiritual causes -- that merely replace one mystery with another. But others have fared no better:
Is astrology chaotic?
produce. In case these few seconds are not enough, there is more on Brady after the end of the article (it is not part of the article).
Brady's analogies include the following: Just as strange attractors pull chaotic systems into repeating patterns, so chart factors pull their owners into repeating patterns. Similarly, just as bifurcations mark where chaotic systems change from one pattern into another, so chart factors can predict the patterns but not which one will be chosen. Just as chaotic systems are too complex to yield to the statistical approach, so with birth charts.
Brady claims that "chaotic astrology" requires neither a causal agent nor gods, and thus escapes from the causal/noncausal debate. But a real chaotic system involves an exchange of energy (otherwise nothing can interact) and is therefore by definition causal. Clearly Brady's "chaotic astrology" has nothing to do with real chaos, and is just another attempt to dress astrology in fancy clothes to hide the fact that nothing has actually changed. It still requires the assumption of as above so below, and is therefore open to the same philosophical problems as before.
Astrology and physical forces
Finally, as in all astrologies, the assumption of as above so below is in conflict with scientific explanations.
Conflict with scientific explanations
Plausible explanations involve factors such as perceptual and inferential biasses (we draw wrong conclusions from what we see), sampling errors (sampling variance is wrongly interpreted as variance due to astrology), and capitalisation on chance (if the number of variables exceeds the number of subjects, as it must do for any astrologer who has less than a few million clients, then a multiple correlation of r = 1.00 is guaranteed even if all data are random numbers). These explanations are explored further on this website in Artifacts in data and Artifacts in reasoning.
Of course new scientific findings might reverse this picture. But the existing scientific findings are built on a body of investigation immensely greater than that for astrology, and the evidence needed to overturn such a huge volume of work would have to be extremely powerful. This alone is a strong argument for caution when considering claims about astrology as a source of meaning.References
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