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The Concepts of Modern Astrology
Ivan W. Kelly
An expanded 2001 version of an article published in Psychological
Reports 1997, 81, 1035-1066.
Abstract -- Most research reviews are concerned with empirical findings. This one takes astrological concepts, the ideas on which astrology is based, and submits them to expert critical thinking. It covers recent shifts in astrological ideas, how astrologers avoid dealing with criticism, and the problems associated with (in turn) the fundamental assumptions of astrology, the origins of astrological ideas, modern psychological astrology, astrological world views, astrological symbolism, non-falsifiability, and magical influences. To be plausible astrology needs sound ideas with sound origins, and sound methods for verifying those ideas. But none of the possible origins of astrological ideas (revelation, paranormal, analogy, observation, theory) are plausible. Astrologers can explain away wrong chart interpretations by blaming the symbolism, chart factor, method, data, astrologer or client. They can also dismiss the interpretation as misguided (it used to be visible events, now it is invisible inner meaning). So astrologers could never know if astrology was wrong or which of their explanatory theories could actually apply. Central ideas such as "as above so below" and "interconnectedness" and the "whole chart" are too poorly developed to amount to anything useful. There is little agreement on basic issues and on how to resolve differences among astrological techniques and ideas. Astrological symbolism is unsystematic and based on metaphors, analogies, verbal associations, and mythology, which are developed in different ways by astrologers with no clear way of evaluating them. The philosophies and worldviews associated with astrology are underdeveloped or poorly described. Consequently astrology does not have, and never will have, the resources to put its house in order. Astrology seems quite unlikely to deliver anything beyond what non-astrological factors (eg cognitive and perceptual biasses) can account for. With copious quotes from leading astrologers and nearly 250 references.
This critique of the concepts of modern astrology is long and detailed. It looks first at the awareness of problematic concepts, recent shifts in astrological ideas, and how astrologers avoid dealing with criticism. It then looks at the problems associated with, in turn, the basic ideas of astrology, the origins of astrological ideas, modern psychological astrology, astrological world views, astrological symbolism, non-falsifiability, and magical influences. My conclusion is that astrological concepts are deeply problematic from beginning to end, and that astrology will never have the resources to put its house in order.
1. Awareness of problematic concepts
Since Newton, the views of astrologers and scientists have become increasingly opposed. Astrologers today still hold that the connection between celestial and earthly phenomena is so strong that knowing the heavens allows us to explain and/or predict the earthly happenings. But scientists and philosophers disagree. The terrestrial and cosmological sciences, including the life sciences and social sciences, even though no less interested in extraterrestrial relations with earthly events, do not provide any support to these realms of our existence as advocated by astrologers (see Kelly & Dean 2000). Note 1
Memo to reader: Notes need not be referred to as they occur. They can be read more conveniently, and without loss of relevance, as a whole at your leisure once the main text has been read.
Furthermore, the symbolism, mythology, analogies, metaphors, and verbal associations that underpin astrological claims are fraught with very problematic methodological issues. For one thing, much of astrological lore conflicts with what we have discovered about the solar system. The planet Venus is associated with aesthetics, love, and an individual's sense of internal harmony. However, we now know that Venus is more like Hades with its blistering high temperatures, lava-covered landscape, and sulphuric acid clouds. It is even hotter than Mercury, although twice as far from the sun.
The point is that most of the symbolism modern astrologers use was created in times when the then astronomer/astrologers had no idea whatever about the physical characteristics of the planets. There is little worldwide agreement on central tenets of astrology, let alone agreement on how astrological issues can be resolved. Surveys of research into astrology have provided no evidence that astrology does work, at least not in the way and to the extent claimed by astrologers.
Facts are hard to find
Leahey & Leahey (1983) note that "Most popular works on astrology today do not even attempt to defend it but simply teach their readers how to use it" (p.39). Similarly, Nias & Dean (1986) note that "nobody should be surprised to learn that the hardest things to find in astrology are facts" (p.357). But if you know where to look they can certainly be found.
Emergence of critiques
Then in 1955 Michel Gauquelin published his landmark L'Influence des Astres, the first rigorous study of astrological claims, with generally negative results but with what seemed to be provocative exceptions (Gauquelin 1955). The research interest that Dean and Mather (1977) stimulated led to the foundation in 1981 of Correlation, an international peer-reviewed journal devoted entirely to scientific research into astrology, followed in 1982 by Astro-Psychological Problems, oriented more to Gauquelin interests.
Today there is a scholarly research base that covers most of the basic claims of astrology. Even sun sign columns have been tested (Dean & Mather 2000). The outcome from all this, in what probably amounts to well over two hundred person-years of research, is almost uniformly negative (Dean, Mather & Kelly 1996). Unfortunately, much of this work is neither widely known nor easily accessible.
Critiques since 1980
Reviews of the arguments of astrologers include Kelly, Culver & Loptson (1989), Dean, Mather & Kelly (1996), Dean (1997), and Kelly (1999, 2000). Theories of astrology (including Jung's synchronicity theory) are critically examined in Dean, Loptson & Kelly (1996) and Dean, Ertel, Kelly, Mather & Smit (2000). Descriptions of the Gauquelin work include Gauquelin (1983 1988), Ertel (1992) and Dean (2000), for the most recent description see this website under Gauquelin. The cognitive and perceptual biases that can underlie belief in astrology are briefly reviewed by Dean (1992) and in detail by Dean, Kelly, Saklofske & Furnham (1992), and Dean, Kelly & Mather (1999).
The social-psychological reasons for belief in astrology are described by Durant and Bauer (1997), Lindeman (1998), and astrology along with other paranormal phenomena in Goode (2000b). Recent critiques of the occult that cover astrology include Couttie (1988), Hines (1988), and Neher (1990). There is of course an extensive and ongoing literature on the history of astrology, for example ancient astrology (Baigent 1994; Barton 1994; Stewart 1996), medieval psychology (Kemp 1990), pre-19th century astrology (Tester 1987, Spencer 1997), and 19th century astrology (Curry 1992). The recent scholarly journal Culture and Cosmos edited by Nick Campion is an important contribution to the history of astrology across the world.
Why the present article?
2. Recent shifts in astrological ideas
Classical (traditional) astrology was associated with prognostication and relatively specific, testable hypotheses about planetary configurations and human activities (Barton 1994: French 1996: Genuth 1997; Grafton 1998). Until the twentieth century, astrologers have held that the stellar connection mainly reflected actual outward human behaviour, but today among the influential group of psychological astrologers there is the tendency to put main weight on Jungian archetypes and (usually psychoanalyic) structures underlying personality. To appreciate the shift in claim, consider first the view of Charles Carter, who was the leading British astrologer in the mid-twentieth century:
Practical experiment will soon convince the most sceptical that the bodies of the solar system indicate, if they do not actually produce, changes in: (1) our minds. (2) Our feelings and emotions. (3) Our physical bodies. (4) Our external affairs and relationships with the world at large (1925, p.14).
Although every birth chart was different, and many astrological factors had to be assessed (often with mutually conflicting indications) it was conceded that there was an observable, relatively specific something in common that should be exhibited by people with a particular planetary configuration in their birth chart (horoscope). As the Dutch psychologist Jan van Rooij points out:
If one takes 100 people with the sun in Aries, they should have something in common, irrespective of other astrological factors. And this commonality should be different from the common factor in 100 people with the sun in Taurus, irrespective of additional factors (1994, p.55).
On this basis we should not expect to see the influence of a particular factor on a particular person. But examining large groups of people should allow commonalities to be detectable, if they exist.
Astrology does not deal with quantities that can be objectively measured ... the [birth] chart depicts the structure and dynamics of consciousness ... [it] shifts the emphasis from predicting outcomes to interpreting the meaning of outcomes as they relate to the inner life of the person (1993, pp.7,8,9).
Further, "astrology only plays a role in the mental plane and does not express itself consistently or systematically in events or behavior" (Terpstra 1994, p.42). Here Carter's direct connection with outward behaviour and external events is played down. Instead the emphasis is with theoretical psychic structures that are symbolically connected to the planets. Note 2
In the latter half of the twentieth century, many astrologers thought scientific investigations could confirm many of the claims of astrology. Since the 1950's many studies were conducted by both astrologers and researchers sympathetic to astrology. The picture that emerged out of this research, as pointed out, was mostly bad news for astrology. But negative studies, even when they are cumulative, have been explained away and dismissed in many different ways by astrologers, such as the stars incline but not compel, or the astrologer or the technique is not infallible, allowing them to maintain their belief in astrology whatever the evidence or criticisms (see Kelly 1998).
3. Dealing with criticism the astrological way
Reactions to bad news in the astrological camp include ignoring it, moving the goalposts, retreating into metaphor, invoking subtlety, being dogmatic, blaming faulty methods, and assuming the truth. In more detail these strategies are as follows:
Ignore bad news
For example this tack is taken by John Anthony West in his The Case for Astrology (1991) where he says "Since the aim of this book is to present the positive evidence, intimate details of the bulk of the negative evidence do not really concern us" (p.234). But nearly all the evidence is negative or not commensurate with astrological claims, so West's deliberate suppression of it is irresponsible (Dean 1993). A visit to any astrology bookstore will quickly confirm that research into astrology is rarely cited and when it is, it usually only involves a distorted presentation of the Gauquelin findings (Kelly & Saklofske 1994) Note 3 and an outdated reliance and misinterpretation of studies examining alleged lunar effects on human behaviour (see Kelly 2000, for an analysis of astrologers' misconceptions regarding lunar studies, and Kelly, Rotton & Culver 1996 for a recent review of lunar effect studies). Note 4
Retreat into metaphor
If that doesn't work, Cornelius et al remind us that we can always interpret astrological symbolism in a metaphorical way, for example, "Sigmund Freud was born on a different continent but within minutes of Robert Perry (sic). Freud discovered the unconscious and Perry (sic) discovered the North Pole" (p.131, see also p.96). Hence, these time-twins were both discoverers! Note 8 If interpretations encompassing both literal and symbolic (including metaphorical) are equally admissible with astrological claims, then we cannot fail to find a fit between the horoscope and the person. The positive side to this is never having to admit you are wrong, the negative side saying very little of import.
Similarly, after finding no relationship between gender dysphoria and astrological factors, Anderson (1997) tells us "Somewhere the astrological signature must exist predicting that at some time during the native's life this devastating upheaval will take place" (p.106, italics mine). Since it is difficult to prove a negative in such cases, this position can be maintained indefinitely.
The posture that more sensitive tests are needed also contradicts the supposed ease with which astrological connections were first recognized. As Perry (1993) tells us of the ancients, "the partial if not complete validity of astrology was self-evident to anyone willing to attempt a serious study of the subject" (p.3). This contradiction is in need of explanation. Furthermore, appeals to the self-evident have not been very fruitful guides to truth in the history of ideas.
Blame faulty methods
it is Heka, Magic, the Principle of Correspondences that sees to it that Divine Inspiration (Will or Intention), made manifest in the planets, transmits itself ... in subtle frequencies and amplitudes. These in turn produce fluctuations in electromagnetic or geomagnetic fields ... as yet not clearly understood or specifically identified but whose existence is acknowledged. These fluctuations are physical in a sense directly analogous to the fluctuations in the air, the sound waves, that the ear interprets as music, or the eye interprets as color. In this case, those fluctuations represent celestial harmonies, and they manifest on earth as "meaning". The study of this meaning is astrology.
West's "direct analogy" between hearing and vision and astrological meaning is deeply flawed. The dissimilarities between the two things being compared are far more significant than any similarities. We have a great deal of knowledge of sound and colour waves. For example, we know about the receptors involved, and the areas of the brain associated with these senses. On the other hand, we have little idea what the phrase "fluctuations representing celestial harmonies" means, nor can we identify methods which would allow us to reliably distinguish different fluctuations from the planets and asteroids, let alone understand how the frequencies and fluctuations would relate to hypothetical planets, nor identify what receptors are involved.
magical system is a closed system. We are invited to believe that it is true, not because it connects up with other things which experience has shown to be true, but by some inherent truth of its own which will have it that the planet Saturn symbolizes contraction whereas Jupiter symbolizes expansiveness (p.413).
While, in general, astrologers give the impression that claims about zodiacal signs, houses, planetary aspects, and so on are empirical statements (that is, claims capable of being rejected or modified by research or theory), to most astrologers such claims actually function as necessarily true claims (Kelly 1998). The truth of central astrological tenets are themselves never in doubt.Note 10
4. Problems with the three basic ideas of astrology
Here I examine three basic ideas of astrology, namely as above so below, the interconnectedness of things, and only the whole chart is meaningful. I will look at each in turn. Other ideas such as those about what the birth chart actually indicates, will be looked at later.
Idea 1: As above so below
The basic notion of astrology is as above, so below. It's been elaborated to mean a lot of things, many of them goofy, but its basic meaning is that the heavenly pattern is reflected in the individual, as if the horoscope is somehow embedded in the person. It's just assumed that there is an identity between the natal pattern and the person.
Traditional astrology usually adopted the notion that the relationships between celestial and terrestrial affairs was a causal one. As Placidus said in 1657, "It is impossible for the efficient heavenly causes (as being so very far distant from things below) to influence sublunary bodies, unless by some medium or instrumental virtue ... the instrumental cause of the stars is light", and "the stars, where they do not rise, are inactive", so astrologers should "reject a secret influence as superfluous, nay, even impossible" (pp.1,3).
Most modern astrologers reject this causal approach Note 11. Perry (1994) tells us that the relationship between people and their birth charts is only correlational. The astronomical bodies reflect human life experiences rather like a mirror reflecting a landscape which has to be interpreted. But there is much disagreement over the kinds of celestial configurations that are relevant, and how they are to be interpreted.
Disagreement is the rule
Signs are shaky
[The zodiac signs] rest on shaky foundations from the modern point of view. How in heaven do twelve 30 degree sectors of the ecliptic, measured from the vernal equinox but named after now-far-distant constellations, impart any qualities at all to the planets, houses, parts and nodes which we view against their backgrounds? Do they do so in fact, or is this wishful thinking? Some astrologers justify the signs (taking, usually without explanation, the sun in the signs as their exemplar) as shorthand for seasonal characteristics. But this implies that their order should be reversed in the southern hemisphere, which seldom happens. And what, in any case of horoscopes for equatorial latitudes, where seasonal change is minimal, but where, of course, astrology was invented?
Even though the Western Zodiac has lost its connection to the original sky (and cannot simply be reduced to a seasonal effect), the people born within Western zodiac are signs still said to display the personal characteristics associated with the original constellations. The sidereal signs have the same meanings as for tropical signs, eg Aries is aggressive in both systems, but the piece of sky to which this meaning is applied is not the same. So one side can believe a certain piece of the sky means intense, while the other side can believe the same piece of sky means relaxed (this is Scorpio vs Libra).
Disagreement on houses
Disagreement on planets
Idea 2: Interconnectedness
But astrologers do not have a monopoly on interconnectedness. It is our familiarity with other notions of interconnectedness that gives initial plausibility to the more problematic astrological notion. In the 1600's, Newton hypothesized interconnectedness in his statement that every body in the universe attracts every other body. Evolutionary theory emphasizes living organisms and their environments are constituted of interconnecting webs, and that life shares the same chemical basis. Astronomy acknowledges that all matter in the universe is interconnected in the sense that all matter is made of star stuff from the Big Bang. Human beings are interconnected biologically in that they share the same DNA structure, history and the social sciences show we cannot be isolated beings because we share culture and a heritage, and increasing economic specialization ensures that we are interdependent on others.
None of the above notions imply or even support the astrological idea of interconnectedness, which is from a perspective that refers to symbolic connections between heavenly bodies and terrestrial events mediated through interpretation based on notions such as mythology (Mercury was the messenger of the Gods, so Mercury rules body systems that function as messengers), literally taken metaphors (the rings of Saturn represent constraint), analogies (red Mars represents blood and aggression), and idiosyncratically chosen associations ("If you want to activate Mars energy, wear red" -- Phillipson 2000, p.67).
None of the previously mentioned notions from the social or natural sciences suggest in any way that symbolic planetary configurations (which are often unconnected with actual configurations) have a strong relationship to earthy events, nor that the planetary configurations at one's birth have any lasting effect on our lives, nor that the symbolism of astrology is universal for people over time and space.
Idea 3: Only the whole chart is meaningful
Where does the whole chart end? With ten planets, twelve signs, twelve houses, midpoints, Arabic points, nodes, aspects and whatever other astrological concepts may be used, it is simply impossible to interpret a "whole chart". When astrologers claim that they use the whole chart, they only refer to the fact that they use more factors than just one. Nevertheless, no matter how many factors they may use, they always use a restricted number of factors, and therefore only a part of the horoscope. They never use the whole chart. But then the question becomes how many factors would be considered, and which factors? ... Suppose that I consider as many as 20 factors, then undoubtedly an astrologer will come up who claims that I should use 21 factors (p.56).
The decisions of astrologers regarding what to include in their charts seems entirely arbitrary. Some astrologers use asteroids in birth charts. As Hand (1981) points out, size of an astronomical body is unrelated to astrological effectiveness, therefore "[t]he disaster is that there are thousands of asteroids and other minor bodies orbiting the sun, and using present-day astrological techniques there is no way of accounting for all of them in a chart" (p.93). Other astrologers use hypothetical planets such as Vulcan and Lilith that have not been detected by astronomers (Hand 1981, p.95). There is no evidence that astrologers using asteroids or hypothetical planets are more insightful or more successful counsellors than those using "incomplete charts", or than non-astrologically oriented psychotherapists or even lay therapists (Dean 1985; McGrew & McFall 1992).
How can different sub-sets give the same meaningful whole?
Perry (1995a) stated "every planet and every sign of the zodiac is influenced by the whole in which it is embedded" (p.34). But if one astrologer's whole chart and another astrologer's whole chart involve factors that are different in type or number, the end result must (according to Perry) be open to question. It is as if we thought we were talking about the same thing, but upon investigation found that I meant Volkswagen, while you were referring to Cadillacs.
Having it both ways
For example, Wolfstar (2000) explains the problems that Harrison Ford and his wife are having as due to "the troublemaker Uranus", also known as "the divorce planet", because "Over the past year, transiting Uranus has been opposite Harrison Ford's Mars ... this is the major tension leading to separation from his wife." If the Harrison Ford marriage relationship problems were not happening, Wolfstar and other astrologers would have no difficulty finding astrological factors that indicate contentment.
Now you see it, now you don't
Safety in numbers
5. Problems with the origin of astrological ideas
A legitimate query here concerns how astrological connections are established. For example, why do astrologers say that "The Full Moon in Taurus is a good time to attend to the thyroid gland" or "Avoid travelling when the planet ruling your ninth house is making an unfavorable aspect to another planet" (Stariq 2000), or "Women travel on their Mars lines to meet men" (Phillipson 2000, p.99), or "Neptune is associated with universal love, spirituality, dreams, and drugs" (Equinox astrology site 1999)? Most astrologers write as if astrological tenets are based on a form of "inductive empiricism", a basis where correlations between heavenly events and terrestrial events have been observed in everyday practice. Elwell (1999, p.24) says "This process of observation, refinement and confirmation, is how astrology built up over centuries."
To make it easier in examining this contention, let us initially consider a relatively straightforward astrological claim, and examine how astrologers explain it. According to traditional astrology, the planets are associated with certain character traits, for example, Uranus is associated with originality and independence. How did astrologers discover this? What is the origin of this claim? Gauquelin (1980) and Startup (1981) have described five possible origins that are taken seriously by members of the astrological community. In what follows, I will describe each of these origins, relying heavily on the insights of Startup to examine them critically:
Origin 1: Revelation by a higher intelligence
Origin 2: Psychic means
which particular psi ability is to be invoked? Surely telepathy is no good here since, prior to the establishment of the typology, there was no one's mind to read. Clairvoyance is equally dubious since it is difficult to imagine what state of affairs could have been paranormally perceived which was not available to ordinary perception. That leaves precognition ... but this would presumably require that the ancient astrologers somehow saw the results of modern investigations which were themselves, in turn, inspired, albeit indirectly, by the "insights" of the ancients (Startup 1981, p.26).
There are other problems. What is the "it" we are detecting by paranormal means? Some "force" emanating from the celestial object? How do the items detected paranormally relate to items detected by normal perception? (For example, if we detect all sorts of paranormal "rays" around us, how can we tell that they are coming from what we visually perceive as Mars?). How do we know that there is a correlation between the normal and the paranormal item? By paranormal means? -- That's doubly question begging! By normal means? If so, then why could not we have noticed the paranormal item through normal channels?
Origin 3: Analogy with planetary appearances
The idea here seems to be that the originator(s) of the planetary typology started out with the simple theory that the planets influence human personality and then to discover what these influences are, they took note of the gross appearances of the planets and interpreted these appearances analogically in terms of personality characteristics. Francoise Gauquelin gives a typical explanation of how the ancients were supposed to have thought: "the large and brilliant Jupiter suggests power, the red Mars suggests fire and war, the light blue Venus suggests tenderness, the ashy yellowish Saturn suggests remoteness and old age, etc." (pp.26-27).
Startup contends that these analogies were unlikely to have been the source of the personality characteristics associated astrologically with the planets:
Each of the planets has many characteristics visible to the naked eye, so how were the Babylonians to know which were the relevant ones? ... Venus (and other planets to some extent) varies a great deal in visible brightness and yet is not thought to be changeable in character. The sun, and also the moon, are glaringly different from the planets in appearance and yet the temperaments attributed to all these bodies are of much the same order. Jupiter is comparatively large and bright and brightness may perhaps suggest power but [to the naked eye] Venus appears even larger and brighter (Startup 1981, p.27).
Also, the portrait of the very ancients that astrologers profess to admire as scholars is unflattering:
It requires us to believe that the learned men of Babylonia proceeded in a completely unsystematic, inconsistent manner. It suggests that the planets were judged by a hotch-potch of different types of characteristic, the Moon was judged by its phases, Mars by its colour, Jupiter by its brightness or size, Saturn by its apparent speed and so on (Startup 1981, p.27).
While knowledge can evolve by a hotch-potch of experiences, for example, Chinese popular herbal medicine likely evolved by a variety of less than systematic experiences, such claims can be investigated and demonstrated by the very kinds of studies eschewed by most astrologers (Allen 2001).Further, what are the mechanisms analogous to natural selection that separate poor astrological techniques and hypotheses from better ones? As the astrologer McDonough (2000) complains:
Is there anyone ... that isn't confused and overwhelmed by the plethora of techniques in the astrologer's bag of tricks? ... Why do we have such a massive, confusing mess of factors to deal with? Because there has been no way to toss anything out.
Origin 4: Observation
The stargazers of antiquity systematically recorded their observations of heavenly movements and correlated these with observable events on earth. Through ongoing inductive analysis, these early explorers gradually reached certain conclusions as to the meaning of the variables in question and passed these down to succeeding generations (p.2).
Similarly, Harding (2000, p.29) says:
I need no theory of the birth chart in order to interpret it, merely an awareness that people with Mars in X and Venus in Y tend to present in various ways. ... Ultimately, I have to explain my ideas about the world in terms of how the world is. I might have some amazing idea about the relationship of Mars and Venus, but my "proof" will lie ... only in the positions of the planets themselves and what is said and done by people who were born at certain moments.
On one popular form of this scenario, the ancients, in the process of gathering data on both celestial and terrestrial affairs, began to notice a relationship between manifestations of personality and the activity of the planets. These personality characteristics associated with certain planets were also noticed to be similar to those attributed to certain gods. On the basis of these similarities, the ancients began to match the gods' names with the planets. As Startup (1981, p.28) points out, this assumes a primitive, inductivist (theory-neutral observational) model of science.
However, observations, even low level ones, are not completely theory-neutral because what we believe influences (at least to some extent) what we see. While statements about the presence or absence of a dog under the bed involve a minimal amount of theoretical content, statements about the presence or absence of neutrinos presuppose much more theory. In the case of personality, why would one look for associations with the planets in the first place and not elsewhere? If all ancient peoples had theory neutral access to the world around them, we would expect a great deal less diversity of belief about the world.
Indeed, from this hypothesis, it would be peculiar if only the Babylonians (and nobody else) had noticed their particular personality-planetary relationships that are supposed to play such a large role in human life! Another problem is that the second fundamental claim of astrology says that astrological factors cannot be examined in isolation, because everything affects everything else. So by definition isolated planetary connections with human activity could not have been observed in the first place.
Origin 5: Theory
The Babylonian gods "existed" long before their names were also given to the planets. The Babylonians theorized that the planets were the gods, or symbolized the gods, and therefore had the same influence over the terrestrial affairs that the gods in their pantheon were supposed to have. Thus, to discover what influences each of the planets had, all they had to do was to find the correct pairing of god and planet ... In this account, observation was used to check the appropriateness of the god-planet pairings that were proposed and, where the initial pairings proved unsatisfactory, it may have promoted a new round of conjectures and observations (Startup 1981, pp.30-31).
As Startup stated, a serious problem here is that "each horoscopic factor gives off only a weak signal which is embedded in noise ... [so] it is not clear how such checks could have been made" (p.31). One suggested way around the problem is to appeal to what Startup calls a "societal noise filter". Perhaps there were groups of astrologers who studied, in detail, just one of the planets and "also fed back the results of their thoughts and observations to the group which discussed their ideas at length" (p.32). Over time, these restricted groups, so the argument goes, gradually filtered out the wheat from the chaff. Startup pointed out that this seems to have some initial plausibility since many early cultures may have used such a process to learn about things like antibiotic remedies before people knew why and how they worked. There is, however, a large jump between making observational connections about using molds to treat infections and pairing complex personality attributes with planets and gods.
In addition, even false theories can have a long life of their own when they serve political interests and are backed by powerful factions. Astrologers have, throughout history, used their art as a propaganda tool for various political factions. For example, the 17th century astrologer William Lilly wrote pamphlets attacking Charles 1st by selecting whatever celestial factors suited his purposes (Geneva 1995). This flexibility of interpretation of astrological symbolism, and capacity of multiple denotation has allowed astrologers to play any side in the political arena, and so guarantee patrons and the survival of astrology.
Lack of documentation
What numbers are we dealing with?
This still leaves a huge variety of celestial patterns to consider in separating out astrologically effective from astrologically ineffective combinations. And by huge I do mean huge -- because even at the most basic level there are ten planets (for convenience, astrologers count the sun and moon as planets), each of which can appear in twelve signs and twelve houses, and make nine kinds of aspect (conjunction, semi-sextile, sextile, semi-square, square, sesqui-quadrate, trine, quincunx, opposition) to each of the other nine planets.
However, the total combinations per planet is not simply 12 x 12 x 9 x 9, nor is the total combinations per ten planets simply 10(12 x 12 x 9 x 9) or about 1040. This is because any given combination of planets-in-signs immediately limits the possibilities for houses and aspects (for example, two planets in the same sign cannot occupy opposite houses or be in opposition), and because some planet-in-sign combinations must be discounted (for example, Mercury is never far from the Sun, and the outer planets move too slowly to allow every combination except over thousands of years).
Instead, the total is more like 1028 combinations, the exact figure depending on geographic location, house system, and the time period. This, of course, is just for the most basic astrological factors: many astrologers would use more factors, often many more, for example, axes, midpoints, retrogradation, and asteroids. Indeed, one American astrologer (without giving details of her calculation) claims that the number of combinations is 5.39 x 1068 (Doane 1956, p.1). This makes 1028 seem puny. But to print out even 1028 combinations each reduced to just one line of description would still require a stack of paper roughly as heavy as the earth.
Complexity makes observation impossible
We cannot escape from this dilemma by focussing on just one or two isolated factors, because our second fundamental principle (use only the whole chart) forbids it. But even if we do break the rules and look at isolated factors, we still have problems. Suppose we find that, out of all these 1028 celestial combinations, people born with the sun in Aquarius aspecting Saturn in the 12th House are reserved, but those with the Sun in Aquarius aspecting Saturn in the 11th House are outgoing. In the general population, people who are reserved or outgoing are common, but those with any particular planetary configuration will be relatively rare. The mismatch in occurrence makes our finding lack any clear meaning. Even then, our problems are not over.
The same astrological factors are supposedly associated with many different things, including both positive and negative sides, which can be expressed in all sorts of differing ways. For example, together Mars and Neptune can indicate altruistic urges to perform good deeds, or, frustration and rage (Vaughan 2000b). Our interpretation of the meaning of factors in the horoscope is also qualified by other more earthly factors like the person's sex, level of maturity, age, culture and so on. Furthermore, the same planetary configurations can mean different things depending on whether we are talking about a human being, a dog, a company, a country, or an idea. So we have complexity laid upon complexity, laid upon complexity.
The extreme implausibility (some would say impossibility) of the ancients being able to correlate such diverse, complex, amorphous, aspects of reality together into one comprehensive package should reinforce our skepticism about astrology having any kind of basis in observation, and, on the same grounds, astrological claims could not have been refined over time by any empirical procedures. Note 15
6. Problems with modern psychological astrology
Here I come back to the shifts from tradition associated with modern psychological astrology. In the new psychological, the central relationship between celestial patterns and human beings is not with outward, observable patterns of behaviour and tendencies but rather with the unobservable, inner life of a person, or what Perry called the "psychic structure which underlies personality" (Perry 1995b, p.123 ; see also, Perry 1988). Much of the following will be based on the writings of astrologer-psychotherapist Glenn Perry since he is one of the most prominent and representative spokespersons of the psychological astrology school.
Perry (1999, p.2) contrasts traditional event-oriented astrology and psychological astrology as follows:
A strictly predictive astrology ... implies that one's fate is more or less fixed and that one's ultimate good lies in avoiding pain and maximizing pleasure. Whereas psychological astrology assists individuals in discovering how they are creating their own fate, predictive astrology merely describes fate without relating it to the inner, psychological life of the person. From this perspective, events have no meaning beyond being "good" or "bad". To say that they are "karma" from past lives, to be suffered and endured (or perhaps avoided through the cosmically informed counsel of one's astrologer), does little to help people live more constructively in the here and now. I believe that fate can be positively altered through a process of internal healing and integration. The real meaning of events is that they constitute "feed back" that reflects back to the individual where s/he is at in terms of health and wholeness. And their real value is that they stimulate growth in precisely those areas where the individual most needs to change.
Further, it is not the job of the astrologer to tell clients what to do since planetary configurations provide:
an opportunity for learning rather than an occasion for evasive action ... [and] one of the core meanings of the opportunity it affords -- no, requires, [is] increasing one's trust in an inner source of knowing, I take that away by recommending a specific course of action. I do him a great disservice. I steal his choice, for it would be interfering in his fate to predict an outcome ... The important thing is not what is going to happen, but how he accommodates [to it] ... I believe our value as astrologers lies less in telling people what to do than in encouraging them to trust themselves and the Universe (Perry 1999, pp.2,3).
Perry (1999) further tells us astrologers should help client achieve a "greater realization of their potentials [as revealed in the birth chart]" (p.4) and thereby "best harmonize with the universe" (p.1). How do we know when the individual has achieved this? When they are in a state of "health and wholeness" (p.2).
Other ways may be better
Farha (2001) points out that most astrologers do not have training in crisis management or related fields, and neither are there astrological national standards that provide a baseline of ethical practice as exists in fields like counselling, psychology, social work, or other human services. Further, the providing of constructive council for living in the here and now, and the providing of meaning, along with ways of stimulating self-examination are very arguably more effectively done by practitioners in the emerging field of philosophical counselling (see Marinoff 1999; Raabe 2001; Le Bon 2001). Given that many of the issues clients deal with are existential or spiritual:
Philosophers are typically far better trained philosophically than their counterparts. They are therefore better able to help a client when it comes to clarifying her thinking, avoiding both logical and procedural mistakes in reasoning, ethical decision making, values clarification, questions about the meaning of life, and the development of a sound and reasonable personal philosophy (Raabe 2001, p.277).
The astrological notion of potential may be more narrow than that advocated by humanistic philosophers and psychologists. While our potentials may, from these other perspectives, be limited to some extent by our genetics and cultural opportunities, the astrologer adds a further limitation, namely, the potentialities "promised" in the natal chart. The astrologer Cornelius (1998, p.10) criticises this notion as follows:
If you're born says this school of thought, with a very powerful Saturn, then you have the potential for certain experiences [opportunities] of a Saturnine nature. Remember, however, that this is a velvet glove fatalism because you're still fated to have been born with a Saturn potential! This approach hasn't really solved the problem.
Problems of the inner psyche
A horoscope symbolizes the complex, evolving nature of consciousness ... the depths of personality ... the dynamic relations between psychological drives. For example, Sun square Saturn symbolizes a conflict between the need for self-expression and the need for self-control (Perry 1995b, p.124).
Zodiac signs symbolize general, "fundamental human needs, or motivational drives, inherent in the human condition" (Perry 1988, p.1), whereas the house positions and planetary aspects symbolize a particular individual's "map of consciousness" or "inborn personality structure" (Perry 1988, p.2,3). Note 16 The extreme problems of accounting for the relations between celestial factors and observable, relatively specific outcomes postulated by the traditional astrologer are further exacerbated by the psychological astrologer's additional conjectures.
How do we know these things?
the need of a [zodiac] sign can be inferred from the behavior which is characteristic of that sign, eg., Leonian pride, creativity, and amiability evidence the universal human need for validation of perceived identity (Perry 1988, p.2).
It is difficult to see how it follows in the first place from the characteristic behaviours of a sign that one intrinsic motivational factor ties them all together, and even if the case could be made, a further case would need to be independently made for the particular human drives postulated by Perry. He never clearly sets out how he arrived at these conclusions. No sets of studies of a quantitative or qualitative nature are discussed, nor is there any kind of an appeal to any careful examination of the astrologically symbolized behaviours by independent astrologers or psychologists to determine what one might infer from them.
Perry elevates psychological astrology to Biblical miracle status by further informing us that the dynamic relations between various psychological drives symbolized by the horoscope are "fluid and changing, varying in accord with situational specificity, developmental age, emotional maturity, and level of psychological integration" (1995b, p.123; 1994, p.34). Further, "unlike the boundaries of physical objects, the contents and processes of consciousness involve meanings whose boundary regions are fuzzy ... Meanings are indefinite, arbitrary, relational and culturally embedded" (Perry 1995a, p.34).
The fuzziness claimed by Perry would be one more reason why the astro-connections would be, at best, exceedingly difficult to establish, and one more reason why astrology becomes even more unfalsifiable.
How could psychological astroloy work?
Nowhere does Perry attempt to articulate the intrinsic nature of his version of the non-physical mind. While the notion of "soul" is a central part of many astrological positions, we are left with vague mental images of a non-physical, internal poltergeist that acts in equally mysterious ways, on the neurological structure and behaviour of human beings. It is far from clear how the postulation of a soul/non-physical mind can contribute toward clarifying and informing our understanding of central notions such as purposive behaviour, values, internal self-causation, meanings and creativity, over that offered by contemporary models consistent with materialism (such as those offered by Crick 1994; Flanagan 1992; Penrose 1994; Searle 1992; Dennett 1996) Note 17.
How does the mind come into it?
Based on outmoded ideas
Further, the above psychic structure is based on psychoanalytic and humanistic psychological theories that since the 1950's have come under very heavy criticism. Note 18 Psychoanalytic processes and concepts, alluded to by many psychological astrologers, have been described as nonfalsifiable because they are consistent with any physically possible human behaviour. In addition, the coherence of the theory is questionable, along with the controversy over its therapeutic effectiveness (eg see Crews 1998; Grunbaum 1993; Spence 1994; Esterson 1993; Kerr 1993; Macmillan 1991; Webster 1995; McGinn 1999; Coiffi 1998). If the psychological structure symbolized by the planets and their interrelationships are problematic, the rest of the theory is on shaky ground. Note 19
What about cultural effects?
If these cultural variations exist, as some philosophers and psychologists contend (e.g Nisbett, Peng, Choi & Norenzayan 2001; Stich 2001), a problem arises how the same planetary configurations can reflect diverse reasoning patterns, psychological process, or human natures. The views of many psychological astrologers seem to assume that any divergent thinking or psychological differences among cultures can be reduced to the psycho-dynamic mechanisms popular in their circles. Note 20
The same [planetary] combination can express itself in a whole range of ways. For example, Uranus in hard aspect with the midpoint of Sun and Moon may produce a Napoleon or a Hitler, but equally it may produce a Margaret Thatcher, a Spike Mulligan, a Martin Luther or a particular [spiritual, caring] astrologer [such] as Dr Zip Dobyns (p.52).
Similarly, Perry claims that psychological astrology does not predict specific behaviours or life outcomes but rather "predicts qualitative experiences of consciousness that can be reflected in a variety of manifestations" (Perry 1995a, p.34; 1994, p.34). He affirms that "The meanings of the parts may be stable, [but] the emergent qualities they produce when combined are not [because] real people are changing, evolving entities that are far too complex to type or tag with a few simple key words" (Perry 1993, p.7).
In other words, according to Perry and Harvey, the birth chart accurately shows our underlying subjective processes, but as to their outward manifestation, astrologers can only guess at a range of possible happenings. The inner psychic state is shown in the birth chart, but after that just about anything goes. As Perry said, "we all have the potential to behave in any way that is humanly possible, and we frequently do" (1995a, p.36).
Miracle of faith
This miracle of faith is further complicated by the lack of consensus on basics within the psychological astrology school itself: "there is probably no uniform psychological approach to astrology" (Perry 2000). Note 21 Clients seeing different psychological astrologers would be provided with different considerations of potentials and likely varying descriptions of opportunities for growth and change. Note 22 Further, the reader should not come away with the impression that psychological astrology has not gone uncriticised by other astrologers. Thoughtful critiques from within astrology of many of the problematic notions of psychological astrologers can be found in Harding (1992) and Elwell (1999).
7. Problems of astrological world views
Traditional astrology emphasizes the prediction of events, the association of relatively specific, observable outcomes with astrological factors, sometimes with the world view that planets are transmitters of physical influence. Thus the clients of the famous 17th century astrologer William Lilly expected predictions and decision making, not psychology and religion. Such a traditional orientation is not adverse to experimental investigation. A main problem of this approach, as Perry acknowledged, is that the vast majority of studies have not supported such claims (Perry 1995a).
Further, there is little prospect that plausible physical linkages will be discovered that explain astrological associations with human activity (Perry 1995a, pp.26-33; Culver & Ianna 1988; Crowe 1990; Nhgre 1998). For example, no proposed physical explanation can explain, in advance, how Sun-Jupiter contacts symbolize expansive, optimistic beliefs rather than something else, how Scorpio can symbolize secrecy rather than something else, or how the 2nd House can symbolize possessions rather than something else, or how hypothetical planets and impossible planetary configurations can be encompassed in charts.
Perry states, that even though studies relating astrological configurations with specific observable outcomes have failed, this poses no difficulty for psychological astrology since it is concerned with the "inner life" of an individual, which cannot be adequately tested by modern, materialistic, scientific methodology. Besides, he claims, astrologers already have independent experiential (clinical) evidence that astrology works Note 23 (Perry 1995a, pp.14, 26).
What is the astrological worldview?
Similarly, Harding (2000, p.17) tells us, without providing any specifics, that "The claim can be made that the scientific worldview is so completely different from that of the astrologer, that science simply cannot engage with the astrological model at all" (This claim simultaneously exists alongside the rush in the astrological community to associate astrology with the latest scientific theories -- see Note 18).
But what is this astrological worldview? Is it the Aristotelian worldview held by many ancient astrologers? The neo-Platonic view held by astrologers like Plotinus? Is it the worldview of Dennis Elwell's (1999) Cosmic Loom, where our reality groups together things like dew, ice, water, humidity and steam, all to do with H2O, whereas astrological reality groups together things like cold, old age, bones, lead, discontent and responsibility, all to do with Saturn. (Elwell does not say how he knows his Saturn group is correct.) Such apparent diversity is woven together on the cosmic loom, hence the name.
Or is the astrological worldview associated with a hierarchy of "planes of being and existence", as portrayed by Negre (1998)? Or, following Cornelius (1994, 1998), should astrologers return to ancient Mesopotamiam ideas regarding omens and spirits? Or are the psychological astrologers who content that astrology is just a projection of unconscious archetypes on the right track? Clearly there are many astrological worldviews, which point I will return to later.
Further, what do expressions like "different ways of viewing the world" and "completely different" entail? Does astrology provide an alternative account of human origins, and is it associated with its own models of the origin and workings of the universe than contemporary scientific models? Surveys of Western astrologers themselves do not indicate that they subscribe to any particular worldview. They seem no different than any other group in society (see eg Elliot 1993).
Paradigms do not help
Vagueness adds to confusion
Further, Perry explains, this will involve a return to beliefs that were common in pre-scientific cultures in which a "world soul/consciousness" was immanent in all parts of the universe. The universe, so conceived, involved a hierarchy with parts interconnected by "sympathetic resonances". Astrology played a large part in such worldviews because it gave people a symbolic language "for understanding the various meanings and correspondences of natural phenomena" (Perry 1995a, p.15; also 1993, p.2).
On Perry's transcendent perspective, the "Universe has intentions for us" and "there is an underlying intelligence that organizes the infinity of things happening in the universe". This "organizing intelligence" or "greater consciousness is always assisting us in the unfoldment of our innate capacities -- growing us, as it were, so that we can become more fully conscious of our true identities" (Perry 1999, p.1,3) Note 25 It is not clear how Perry knows this, it seems unlikely that he has direct, unmediated access to the divine mind. Many might even agree with Perry's general notion about an "underlying intelligence" and yet deny that astrology gives us insight into its intentions for human beings (see Bourque 1997; Ankerberg & Weldon 1989). Note 26
Evasion adds to confusion
Diversity of worldviews is problematic
Societies that did possess what we would recognize as a form of astrology were associated with both worldviews and astrologies that differed radically and were contradictory in many fundamentals, including, their conceptions regarding the nature of ultimate reality and the transcendent, whether the transcendent can be known or is ineffable and unknowable, the basic hierarchical structures within the postulated transcendent realities, the modes of divine activity (and whether the divine nature was personal or nonpersonal), the nature of the self, the destiny of human beings, and so on.
Furthermore, astrologies in the East have closer ties to theological systems than modern Western ones. There is also a larger concern in the East with removing negative astrological effects in ways that would not be considered possible by many Western astrologers. For example, in India, many people visit astrologers to soften the blows of horoscopic fate; "On Sundays many worshippers come to the temple to request that [the goddess] Kali remove the evil astrological influences of the two shadow planets, Rahu and Ketu" (Malville & Swaminathan 1998, p 9). Hence, general statements that astrologers believe in a "spiritual or transcendent reality" rather than subscribe to a naturalistic view of the universe, masks a myriad set of conflicting philosophies. Note 27 To which pre-scientific or ancient astrological worldview do astrologers like Perry advocate we return ? Note 28
Contradictions between East and West
In India there are also a number of astrological systems which conflict both with each other and with Western approaches. [See Premanand, Bhatty & Risbud (1993) for an overview and critique of Indian astrology]. "In Western astrology the general tendency is to regard the North Node as benefic and the South Node as malefic. In Hindu astrology the general tendency is to regard both Nodes as malefic" (Dean & Mather 1977, p.259). In the Dasha-paddhati system the names of the planets are written in a sequence that is not only arbitrary from a Western astrological perspective but is also not related to any physical characteristics of the planets or their distance from the earth. Each planet is alleged to have a certain period of influence over the destiny of people. These periods vary from 6 years to 20 years.
Each planet takes control over a person's destiny in the order specified by the system and the duration assigned to them. The sequence of the planets is the same for all people provided you are following the Vinshotiari 120 year system. On the other hand, if an astrologer uses the Ashtottari dasha system, the last four planets appear in a reversed order and together have a different duration of 108 years. During one's lifetime , the same planet cannot take charge of your destiny again, unless you live for more than 120 years (or 108 years) (see Risbud 1998 for a critique of these systems). These two systems cannot both be correct, but this seems to have had no effect on their acceptance by astrologers and clients.
Differences with the Americas
Finally, astrology in Mayan life was closer to the astrology of India and traditional Western astrology than Perry's version in that the central focus was divination and prophecy (Aveni 1992; Danien & Sharer 1992).
What disagreement implies
The serious problems that arise due to these differing notions are precisely analogous to those issues that arise with religious diversity around the globe (see Hick 1997 for an overview of these critical questions).One cannot presume that the differing notions can be referring to the same ultimate reality (like different fingers pointing to the same moon). The different astrologies throughout the world (over both the past and present), are connected with very different ideas about fundamental reality and its complexity that cannot be side-stepped with general talk like "Astrology unites us with a living cosmos. In a conscious universe, people and planets are woven into the same seamless web of being" or "there is an immanent divine guiding intelligence" to the universe (Perry 1991, p.8; and 1999). Clearly not all the conflicting views of the divine and transcendent can be true, and neither can the different views of human nature and destiny or the conflicting astrologies associated with them. Note 29
The preoccupation of astrologers with sham enquiry rather than proper enquiry has fatal consequences, simply because they assume that astrology is inexplicable except in terms of a transcendent worldview. But such an assumption is unwarranted because astrology is readily explicable in terms of cognitive and perceptual biasses, everyday artifacts of human judgement that in an astrological context look and feel like astrological "effects", which then wrongly persuade astrologers and their clients that something mysterious is happening (Dean, Kelly & Mather 1999).
Furthermore, on the basis of these artifacts alone, we can predict that modern astrology will be characterised by (1) disagreement on almost everything, (2) agreement that it works, and (3) failure to work when artifacts are prevented. Which is exactly what is observed (and by contrast is exactly what is not observed in the sciences). For more on these artifacts see Artifacts in reasoning on this website under Doing Scientific Research.
8. Problems of astrological symbolism
It was argued earlier that the correspondences claimed by astrologers were not based on observation, as a number of astrologers have claimed. Rather, the connections are established on the basis of word associations, mythological associations, a variety of cultural symbolic notions based in turn on a plethora of conflicting theological and occult beliefs, and idiosyncratic word play by individual astrologers.
Other factors are the influence of authority and tradition. Authority because an astrological master said so, and tradition because it has been done that way for hundreds or thousands of years. The end result being the chaotic state that characterizes astrology with no agreed upon methodology to separate valid notions from less valid or invalid notions. In this section we will explore these symbolic notions.
For example, the medieval astrologer-physician William of England, appealed to the magical doctrine of "like affects like", as have astrologers of all periods. Hence, he argued, "the sun and Mars affect red bile (because all three are hot) and the moon and Venus affect phlegm (because they are cold)" and "Should the hot and dry Mars be causing a disturbance of the blood, then when Mars moves into a house that has a disturbance of the chest, the patient will spit blood" (French 1996, p.478). Note 30
The astrologer Davidson (1963) tells us, "Without the sun there would be no life. It is the driving force behind the whole solar system. It represents Will Power, Vitality, Leadership, Creativity" (p.29) and "The rings of Saturn symbolize the limitations imposed by Saturnian action that operate as a harsh external discipline until we have learnt to discipline ourselves" (p.32). In mythology, Mercury is referred to as the "messenger of the gods", therefore, by simple analogy, "Mercury rules the body systems that function as messengers or conduits for communication, [such as] the central nervous system, the endocrine system, and the respiratory system" (Gailing 2000).
No systematic method
Whenever a newly discovered astronomical body is found, the attribution of its earthly connections is not based on the results of published investigations with extensive public discussion to establish its relationships with worldly affairs. Rather, if the name can be identified (eg by looking it up in dictionaries of mythology) and could be plausibly related to existing planetary mythology (not difficult), then the result will be long articles in astrology journals by authors surfing the mythology wave, where readers will be moved to tears or to outrage by the beauty and insight of the connections.
Examples of Pluto and Chiron
It is difficult to imagine that astrologers would ever inform us that a planet named "Pluto" would be associated with love of life and fellow human beings, sensitivity and pleasure (like Venus)! Similarly, Hand (1981) remarked "(Chiron) is believed by many to have a connection with conscious-expanding teachings and with initiation into higher consciousness" (p.94). In the case of Chiron, as with Pluto, these relationships are those we would expect astrologers to attribute to them if they were based to a large extent on mythology (Culver & Ianna 1988).
The orbit of Icarus is between the sun and Jupiter. This containment surrounds Icarus with the irradiation of the Sun and the expansiveness of Jupiter. Icarus' orbit is in and crosses the orbits of Mercury, Venus, the Earth and Mars. Being in those orbits gives Icarus a smattering of the restlessness of Mercury, the sensuousness of Venus, the earthiness of the Earth and the self-assertiveness of Mars" (Press 1993, p.196). Note 31
What happens with modern names?
A popular modern astrological doctrine maintains that newly discovered planets are inevitably given appropriate names [from which the correct terrestrial relationships can be inferred], even though the names are bestowed by astronomers nowadays. This is usually taken as one more example of synchronicity (p.33).
Asteroids without classical names have a special kind of importance, again based purely on symbolic considerations. Here we enter the realm of "personal name asteroids". Press (1993, p.212) concludes (after much uncontrolled research), that if an asteroid has your name , or something close to it, then its position in your horoscope describes your relationship to yourself (whatever that means). If an asteroid has the name of another person (eg asteroid #3085 is called Donna), then its position in your horoscope (birth chart) describes your relationship to that person. This would seem to imply that your relationship to all the Donna's in the world would have much in common.
Further, the validity of these symbolic connections are not determined by empirical investigation, or coherence with established scientific theory, but rather by the prestige of the astrologer, the creativity of the astrologer in stretching the symbolism to encompass the interests of the readership, and the ability of the astrologer to tell a good story. Hence, different astrologers will arrive at quite different symbolic interpretations of planetary positions and terrestrial events, and each will be convinced of the validity of their own perceived connections. If by chance the astrologer finds an empirical study that will support the claims, it is touted as "scientifically supported", but a lack of supporting empirical research will have no effect on the perceived validity of the asserted symbolic connections [see any issue of The Mountain Astrologer, the Astrological Journal, or the astrological website Stariq 2000).
9. Problems of non-falsifiability
The foregoing section on symbolism indicates how astrologers can claim that the testing of astrology is almost impossible, while simultaneously claiming that their daily experience (i.e. testing) confirms everything. Although there are specific astrological traditions, the flexibility of symbolism allows almost any outcome to be viewed as confirmatory. Consequently, a main problem with the testing of astrological claims is that there are no clear-cut results that would be considered problematic for astrological theory.
In fact, the behaviour of astrologers, indicates that there seems only one overall "theory" in astrology, namely as above, so below, or the claim that there are (unspecified in advance) correlations between the positions of the heavenly bodies and earthly events. Astrologers call Uranus the divorce planet (see Wolfstar 2000), but neither Uranus nor any particular conjunction or transit with Uranus need play a role in any particular divorce or even most divorces. In fact, almost any other planetary conjunction or transit could, with a little stretching, be interpreted to play a role in a divorced couples chart, making everything "explainable" in astrological terms. If we found Venus square Saturn in the majority of divorced people's charts, this would make astrological sense.
And so would Sun Square Mars, which stands for will power, aggression, etc. An expression in daily life would be lots of arguments, strife, the will of one partner to dominate over the other, and so on, hence, "No wonder these people got divorced." Note 32
An example of nonfalsifiability
If the uncovered relationship was very different, for example, victims and car thieves avoided sharing the same signs, or had opposite signs, or one group had odd signs and the other even signs, or one group had male signs and the other group female signs, the study would still be described as "an argument that zodiacal signs influence career choices" (p.47). On the other hand, if the study had found no relationship of any kind between the signs of the participants, this would still not be a problem for astrologers. The negative findings would be criticised by astrologers for testing isolated factors and ignoring the qualifying effects of other factors in the horoscopes, or it would be argued that sun signs are too crude to pick up such subtle effects and planetary conjunctions and transits would have been more informative. Ironically, it could be criticised as not testing any recognized textbook claim. Note 34
Even specific claims are nonfalsifiable
10. Problems of magical influences
Magical or unknown influences are appealed to whenever astrology is in difficulty. Earlier in this article the problem of including all the asteroids in the birth chart/horoscope was described. Hand (1981) points out that astrologer Eleanor Bach "solved" the problem by using just the first four asteroids to be discovered. Hand (1981) justifies this arbitrary choice by informing us that:
One way of defending the use of the first four to be discovered (rather than the four largest) is to say that the effect of celestial bodies is in some way related to human consciousness of them rather than to their physical properties. As the first to be discovered they no doubt made a greater impact than the thousands later to be discovered (p.93).
We are left in the dark as to what the "some way related" and "greater impact" are intended to mean here. What about people who have never heard of the first four asteroids? (The same problem applies to the use of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto! Up to the discovery of Uranus in the late 1700's, astrology had Saturn as the outer planet). Does this mean the asteroids cannot be used in constructing their charts, or does the awareness of academics of their existence cover for the rest of us? No doubt another set of special rules can be devised by astrologers to "solve" this problem. For example Goodman (1971) says that new asteroids work from the very first moment they are discovered by astronomers. Such speculations have the great advantage of requiring no argument and the disadvantage of saying nothing. Some of the grave difficulties of magical correspondences as explanations are described by Dean, Loptson and Kelly (1996):
First, magical correspondences are arguments from analogy, which can be expressed in the form object X has properties A and B, object Y has property A, therefore Y also has B. John Smith is tall, therefore John Brown is tall ... The inference is vivid and quick, and therefore (as in astrology) agreeably seductive, but our chances of it being correct are not good ... No longer do midwives open the door to ease a painful labour. No longer do alchemical ideas appear in chemistry courses. In fact, magical correspondences have been so spectacularly unsuccessful that in Western education today the doctrine survives only as an example of fallacious thinking. Second, it is impossible to specify any two things, no matter how dissimilar, that do not show some kind of correspondence. A raven is like a writing desk because both begin with the "r" sound, both caste shadows, both contain quills. A speck of sand is like the Empire State Building because they have the same colour, both contain silica, and have a large number of atoms.
The point is, how can we distinguish a magical correspondence from other correspondences? The books do not tell us. Third, we have no immediate way of choosing between opposing magical correspondences. Black cats were lucky to ancient Egyptians but unlucky to medieval Europeans. The moon was male to the Babylonians but female to the Greeks. ... Is Mars unfortunate because red = blood (war), or fortunate because red = blood (life)? Who can believe any magical correspondence when it is so easily denied by another? (pp.28-29).
Other criticisms of magical thinking can be found from a philosophical viewpoint by Thagard (1980) and Vickers (1988), and from a psychological perspective by Zusne and Jones (1989).
The accounts put forward by astrologers to justify their postulated celestial relationships with outward behaviour/activities of human beings (traditional astrology), or inner structures of consciousness (modern psychological astrology), are problematic and implausible in the extreme. Astrology as presently practised by most astrologers, in its multifaceted and contradictory variations (all of which claim truths that allegedly transcend time and space) is not a reliable source of information about ourselves.
These conceptual problems do not lead astrologers to revise the conceptual basis of astrology or extend it in ways that would allow them to learn from failures, as is routine in orthodox disciplines (Mayo 1996). Rather, they are dealt with by using metaphors that lead nowhere and by applying ad hoc hypotheses that are not independently testable. Chance confirmations are readily seen as support, and routine failures are just as readily explained away by the complexities of astrology, hence the general indifference of astrologers to negative evidence (Mayo 1996, pp.280-282; Kelly 1998).
The failure of physical explanations for astrology, and a determined blind eye for the notable success of psychological explanations such as cognitive and perceptual biasses (Dean, Kelly & Mather 1999), have led astrologers to adopt transcendental worldviews. But instead of providing rational arguments for these worldviews they invoke vague spiritual or occult convolutions and vague references to modern physics, the last in order to appear up-to-date and fashionable. These convolutions (eg "animating spirits", "sympathies", "pure consciousness", "resonant bonds of vibratory frequencies", "psychic anatomy") have no useful explanatory value. We are left with a disparate set of ideas taken out of context from various ancient and often incompatible worldviews without any coherent interlocking metaphysics. The difference from the coherent and well-tested explanations provided by psychology (which exactly predict the astrological situation) could hardly be more marked.
Birth chart interpretation is based on a chaotic mix of physical symbolisms, word associations, analogy, mythology, tradition, and the idiosyncratic contributions of individual astrologers. There is little agreement on what factors should be included or ignored in a chart, how they should be combined, how their importance can be determined, or how conflicting claims can be resolved. It is clear that astrology does not have the resources to deal with its anomalies, nor is it ever likely to. It has nothing to contribute to other disciplines except fallacious arguments and sophistry. Astrology is part of our past and has undeniable historical value, but astrologers have given no plausible reason why it should have a role in our future.
AcknowledgementsI want to recognize the significant contributions of Geoffrey Dean and Suitbert Ertel to this manuscript. In a myriad of ways they contributed to a more readable and accurate article. I also thank for their comments: Rudolf Smit, J.W.Nienhuys, Mogens Winther, Anthony Aveni (on Mayan astrology), Dale Beyerstein, Peter Loptson, and M.S.Risbud.
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