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Theories of astrology
An updated and abridged version of a discourse by Dean, Loptson, Kelly and seven others in Correlation 1996, 15(1), 17-52 with 84 references. Part 4 (theories to explain astrology's perceived value) is new.
Abstract -- Astrologers and researchers need a good testable theory to explain how astrology is perceived to work, to avoid conceptual problems, and to guide their inquiries. None of the existing spiritual, physical, informational, psychic, and magical theories are useful, being either untestable or incompatible with existing knowledge. The same defects apply to the theories of Jung, Elwell, Hand, Guinard, and Scofield. In contrast a new non-astrological theory of astrology is useful and has survived repeated testing. Explains the role of theories and how to assess their usefulness. Along the way many of astrology's internal problems are uncovered and discussed. Theories to explain astrology's perceived value reduce to astrology having the right priorities. It can give the feeling of understanding our place within the whole. Memes (any information that is copied from person to person) are a powerful new way to explain astrology's longevity and perceived value. 46 references.
Part 1. Why bother with theories?
The word theory has two different meanings. In everyday use it means an unsupported idea as in "its only a theory." But in science it means the exact opposite, namely a well-supported idea as in the theory of relativity. Both kinds of theory are explanations for how things work, and we bother with them for two very good reasons. First, explanations are better than uncertainty, even untrue explanations as when misfortune was explained by witches. Second, knowing how things work is better than ignorance. It helped us walk on the Moon.
If we want to improve astrology, we first need to know how it works. So we need an explanation to guide our explorations. If we think it works by physics, we explore physical variables like gravity. If by chemistry, we explore chemical variables like hormones. If by spirit forces, we explore seances. And so on. Without some kind of explanation we have no idea where to start.
But astrologers have never had a clear idea how astrology works or why birth charts should match their owners. To them astrology has always been an extraordinary phenomenon beyond ordinary explanation, and over the centuries they have put forward various speculations to fill the gap. But the gap may be an illusion. Astrology may have an ordinary explanation after all, so their speculations may be premature. In what follows we briefly survey the theories / explanations (ancient and modern) of astrology starting with a closer look at why they are important. To avoid confusion we will use explanation instead of theory to mean an explanation (tested or untested) of how things work.
Why explanations are important
In science we recognise that our senses often fail us. Things are often not what they seem. So we need reliable well-tested explanations. The sequence tends to be observations, explanation, tests -- and if the explanation fails, we change it for something better. Thus oxygen was better than phlogiston at explaining combustion.
The advantages of a well-tested explanation are enormous. We no longer need to record the fall of every apple, and we become more and more free of paralysing uncertainty. It helps us to ask the right questions (why do leaves fall slower than apples?) and to be suspicious of answers that have not been properly tested.
But we cannot derive an explanation of X, or even know anything about X, unless (1) X exhibits some order, and (2) the order can be discovered by observation. Astrologers claim that astrology meets both requirements, so there is no reason why an explanation of astrology cannot be derived. But what should an explanation explain?
What should an explanation of astrology explain?
Accordingly, an explanation of astrology should explain how planets etc can correspond to people, thus allowing the derivation of astrological principles. It should provide clues to issues such as: How does astrology work? How can it predict events and answer questions? Why time of birth and not conception? How can signs be relevant if not due to stars? Why ecliptic positions and not actual positions? What techniques are best? What things are not shown in charts? Must the astrologer be a good person? How essential for good results is belief in astrology? Why has research failed to find effects commensurate with astrological claims?
What makes an explanation useful?
An explanation that is testable will usually pass the other criteria as well. So we can usefully make testability our first focus. To see how it works, consider Tomaschek's (1962) suggestion that astrology might be explained by direct causation, by triggering, by the correspondence between simultaneous events, or by the unity of everything. We can see that none of these "explanations" can in fact be tested, at least not as they stand. All reduce to a circular argument -- the unity of everything explains the unity of everything. More detail is required before we can proceed further. As shown next, the same applies to nearly every explanation that has been put forward to explain astrology.
Part 2. Speculative explanations of astrology
In what follows we exclude explanations characterised by vagueness such as that of Shallis (1981), which is based on unspecified Principles whose nature is not described, and explanations that view astrology purely as a language without regard to content, which leaves nothing for an explanation to explain.
Spiritual explanations of astrology
Spiritual explanations include those of Alice Bailey (1951, based on seven rays), Charles Carter (1968, based on the zodiac as the pathway of the soul), Alan Leo (1913, based on karma and reincarnation), Dane Rudhyar (1969, based on actualisation of potentialities), and Robert Schmidt (1990, based on the Greek principles of the One and the Many). Clearly spiritual explanations can differ just like other explanations, but being spiritual they are by definition untestable. We can of course test the supposed physical implications of a spiritual explanation but this does not solve the problem, in the same way that presents under the Christmas tree do not allow us to choose between Santa Claus and an Act of God. So such explanations are not useful, which is not to say they cannot be a comfort in times of spiritual adversity.
Physical explanations of astrology
In 1657 Placidus argued that "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." He concluded that "the instrumental cause of the stars is light", so that "the stars, where they do not rise, are inactive." Consequently "we reject a secret influence as superfluous, nay, even impossible" (Primum Mobile, 1.1 and 1.4, Cooper translation).
Today there are two approaches to physical explanations of astrology. One is to stay with an extended conventional science, as in the explanations of McGillion (1980,2002) based on the pineal gland, Cotterell (1988) based on interstellar radiation, and Seymour (1990,1997,2004) based on resonance between planetary tides and the magnetosphere.
The other approach is to move beyond conventional science. Recent examples (albeit applied to astrology by astrologers and not by their originators) are physicist David Bohm's idea of implicate order, neuropsychologist Karl Pribram's idea of holographic order, and plant physiologist Rupert Sheldrake's idea of morphic resonance.
Two earlier explanations that were once popular among certain astrologers are those of Charles Muses (1919-2000), a mathematician and philosopher, and Arthur Young (1905-1995), founder of the Institute for the Study of Consciousness. Muses's explanation is described in his 1985 book Destiny and Control in Human Systems. It is based on what he saw as the structure of time, in which lines, circles and helixes in time express the relationship between macrocosm and microcosm. Young's explanation is described in his 1975 book The Geometry of Meaning. It begins with the twelve measures needed to describe a body's motion, force and power, which can be matched to signs. Thus acceleration = Aries, mass control = Taurus, and so on through moment of inertia = Pisces. This of course was before sign effects had been disconfirmed. More details of each explanation can be found in Mishlove (1993).
Ironically all physical explanations involve two problems. First, precise details are missing about how things like "Moon opposition Saturn indicates problems with your mother" are explained. The links with say seasonal effects may be clearer, but this no more explains astrology than does getting up with the sun or having barbecues on moonlit nights. So they boil down to leaps of faith. Second, in principle all physical explanations must fail because there is often nothing for physical forces to act on. As when the subject is a company or a country or a question, or when actual planetary positions no longer exist as in progressed charts and returns.
Until such problems have been overcome, physical explanations remain circular -- astrology is explained by the kind of thing that, if it worked, would explain astrology. One possible but little-explored solution is to move the focus from physical forces to information content, where people respond to coded cosmic signals.
Information theories of astrology
The issues to be addressed are: how much information is in the heavens as shown in the birth chart, and how quickly can that information be transmitted from the heavens. Because the heavens are always on the move, the information to be transmitted is more like a frame of movie film than a fax. Speed is crucial. For our present purpose the means of transmission (physical or nonphysical, causal or noncausal) is not a concern.
The information content of a message or picture or birth chart can be measured by the number of yes/no instructions or bits (0s and 1s) needed to construct it. If we have N equally-probable symbols, the number of bits required to select any one of them is log2(N). Thus to select a sun sign would take log2(12) = 3.5 bits. For more than this the calculation gets complicated. Planet and house positions to the nearest degree would require about 1500 bits, whereas to select a chart meaning from a pre-existing set of all possible meanings (total about 10186) would require about 620 bits, a notable saving over 1500.
To receive this information there has to be some kind of carrier wave, for example without sound waves you could not hear what your astrology teacher is telling you. A wave whose frequency range is B cycles per second (this is called the bandwidth) can carry something like 6B bits per second. For example in human speech the transmission rate is about 10 bits per second.
The highest frequencies available in the heavens are planetary diurnal frequencies of around one cycle per day or 0.00001 cycles per second. So the transmission rate cannot exceed 0.00006 bits per second. To transmit 620 bits would take 620/0.00006 seconds or around 120 days, far too long to match the traditional moment of birth. Even selecting one sun sign out of 12 would take 3.5/0.00006 seconds or around 16 hours.
To put it another way, if the birth moment is taken to last for one second, to receive 620 bits during that second would require a minimum carrier frequency of 620 cycles per second, or slightly above octave C. The heavens would be singing a baritone song. Since no such frequency seems to be available, information theories of astrology seem as unpromising as physical explanations.
Psychic explanations of astrology
First, like everyone else, astrologers certainly have intuition, the unconscious processing of previous experience that pops answers into our minds, so we know without knowing how (and also without knowing we could very well be wrong). But what matters here is not intuition but psychic ability, which unlike intuition has no scientific explanation. Careful tests have shown that astrologers do not have useful psychic abilities (Dean & Kelly 2002), nor for that matter do leading psychics (Boerenkamp 1988, details are given under References).
Second, such explanations put astrology firmly in the field of psi and therefore expose it to the same problems. Problems such as the absence of criteria for deciding whether psi is present or absent (Alcock 1981,2003), the severe incompatibility of psi with the findings of neuroscience (Beyerstein 1987, Kirkland 2000), and its negative definition (psi is what remains after all known normal explanations have been eliminated, so where does that leave normal explanations not yet known?). In effect they replace one mystery by another and are therefore not useful.
An alternative psychic model has been proposed by Guinard (1993-2003), where our psyches resonate with the planets and pops the results into our minds as unspecific symbols and archetypes, so no special psychic ability is needed. But Guinard insists that his model is untestable (what matters is that astrology is meaningful), which is not useful.
Magical explanations of astrology
Ancient Hermetic writings contain eloquent examples of magical correspondences: "The macrocosm has animals, terrestrial and aquatic; in the same way, man has fleas, lice, and tapeworms. The macrocosm has rivers, springs, and seas; man has intestines. The macrocosm contains breaths [winds] springing from its bosom; man has flatulence. The macrocosm has Sun and Moon; man has two eyes, the right related to the Sun, the left to the Moon. ... The macrocosm has the twelve signs of the Zodiac; man contains them too, from his head, namely from the Ram, to his feet, which correspond to the Fish" (from MacNiece 1964:126).
There are three problems here. First, 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. The same piece of sky means one thing in the West and another in the East. Indeed the astrologer Dale Huckeby (2003) argues that symbolism is too flexible to be useful. It allows an easy accounting of virtually any outcome at any time using any chart, so the match between chart and outcome is nonfalsifiable.
Second, it is impossible to specify any two things that do not show some kind of correspondence. Lewis Carroll's raven and writing desk are alike because both begin with an "r" sound and both cast shadows. What should surprise us is not a correspondence but the lack of it. According to Huckeby (2003) the solution is a return to observation, to look for patterns, to see what repeats over the years as the transits repeat. He asserts (wrongly) that science cannot explain astrology, and speculates that astrology is no more than an evolved sensitivity to planetary cycles (precisely what signals are being detected is not stated).
Third, our chances of being correct are not good. No longer do we believe, as Aristotle did, that death can occur only at low tide. 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 worthless that in Western education today they survive only as an example of fallacious reasoning.
In short, no explanation based on magical correspondences has much hope of attaining the usefulness we need here. Even if a specific claimed correspondence ("Dragon's Tail on the Descendant indicates a dwarf") could be tested, which is never easy because in astrology everything depends on everything else, the outcome (success of failure) would tell us little about magical explanations in general.
Three examples of explanations based on magical correspondences
(2) Elwell's (1987) cosmic loom theory of astrology proposes two realities, one seen by us and the other seen by astrology. Our reality groups together things like dew, ice, water, humidity and steam, all to do with H2O. Astrological reality groups together things like cold, old age, bones, lead, discontent and responsibility, all magical correspondences to do with Saturn. Such apparent diversity is woven together on the cosmic loom, hence the name.
(3) Scofield (1993) proposes a testable model where the planets represent the various stages of human development. For example the personal planets Moon, Mars, Mercury, Venus represent ageas 1-2, 3-4, 5-12, and 13-19. However, his model explains nothing -- it merely re-arranges symbols.
The above explanations reduce to "astrological effects are explained by astrological effects", which is not useful.
Clock and time quality explanations of astrology
The role of clocks and timing emerged first in the ideas of Carl Jung (1931:154), who suggested that "time, far from being an abstraction, is a concrete continuum which contains qualities or basic conditions ... In other words, whatever is born or done in this moment of time has the quality of this moment of time." The last may be the most popular quotation in all of astrology. Jung later replaced time quality with the idea of synchronicity, see next section.
Jung stressed that time quality "does not establish anything except the tautology: the flux of things and events is the cause of the flux of things, etc." (1976:176). It also implies that the quality of a given moment is the same everywhere, thus allowing the so below to be inferred from the as above. But as argued by Roberts (1990:98), it is absurd to believe that the quality of time throughout billions of star systems, some possibly with planets sustaining life, is synchronous with what our solar system is doing. So the quality of time has to be localised, on which point neither Jung nor astrologers offer guidance. If the quality on earth is highly localised then the relevance of the outer planets (perhaps all the planets) could be denied.
Furthermore, if each moment of time really does impress a quality upon whatever is born or done in that moment, then everyone should tend to laugh or cry in unison. When it rains here it rains there. Throw a large number of dice at the identical moment and all should show six. Similarly the silicon crystals grown today should differ from those grown yesterday. But such things are not observed. Time quality as conceived by Jung does not seem to exist.
Jung's synchronicity as an explanation of astrology
Nevertheless, synchronicity differs from ordinary coincidence in being deeply meaningful, acausal (one event cannot conceivably cause the other), highly improbable, and intensely emotional. It cannot be evoked on demand (1976:541) and occurs only in archetypal situations, which tend to be crises ("death, sickness, accident, and so on" 1976:537) that are so overwhelming that victims "find themselves compelled by fear to utter a fervent prayer: the archetype ... is constellated by their submission and may eventually intervene." As might be expected, synchronicity "is a relatively rare phenomenon" (1960:938n).
Jung presents no calculations to support his views about coincidences. In fact the number of events to which we are exposed is so huge that the probability of experiencing a dramatic coincidence is quite high. So there seems to be no reason why meaningful coincidences should involve synchronicity.
And how coincident is coincident? Jung starts by saying the outer event is simultaneous with the "momentary subjective state" (1960:850). Later he changes his mind, saying that the inner state coincides with a "(more or less simultaneous) external event", or even a "future event that is distant in time" (1960:984). So simultaneity is not essential. Koestler (1974:95) comments "One wonders why Jung created these unnecessary complications by coining a term which implies simultaneity, and then explaining that it does not mean what it means."
Note the problems for astrology: (1) Simultaneity is not essential. (2) Synchronicity is facilitated if the chart reader is in the grip of intense crisis-type emotions, but even then it may not appear. (3) Synchronicity arises from the reader, not the chart. In other words synchronicity as defined by Jung is not relevant to astrology. If it was, every hit would require the reader to experience intense archetypal fear, anger, joy, sorrow, love, hatred, etc, in rapid succession. No reader or client could stand it.
What we need is testability
Addey's theory of harmonics
Later, using a computer, it became possible to apply Addey's methods to artificial populations to see if his methods recovered what was known to be there (Dean 1997). Unfortunately they did not. Addey's findings were most likely an artifact of small sample sizes, incorrect expectancies, and improper procedures, which leaves his theory with no secure basis.
Reversed explanations: As below, so above
Part 3. An ordinary explanation of astrology
As we have seen, there are many speculative explanations of astrology. By contrast, there is only one ordinary explanation. It explains astrology by the failure of astrologers to control non-astrological factors, which are then mistaken for genuine astrological effects.
Non-astrological factors include 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 possible chart variables exceeds the number of subjects, as it must do for any astrologer who has less than a few million clients, then a perfect match between chart and client is guaranteed even if all data are random numbers). Non-astrological factors have been explored in thousands of studies and dozens of books but they are consistently ignored by astrologers. None of the factors are mysterious and none of them require astrology to be true. For further discussion see Artifacts in reasoning on this website under Doing Scientific Research.
This ordinary explanation immediately lays to rest many puzzles. It explains why neither astrologers nor clients seem able, under blind conditions, to tell wrong charts from right charts, and why tens of thousands of Western astrologers can disagree with hundreds of thousands of Eastern astrologers over what the same 12 pieces of sky mean.
It also leads immediately to testable predictions such as: There will be mutually incompatible techniques that are nevertheless seen as valid by their users. Subjects will be generally unable to distinguish authentic readings from controls. Judgements by astrologers using authentic charts will be no better than those using control charts. The more biasses and artifacts a technique contains the more effective it will seem. No predictive technique including horary will consistently perform better than chance.
In short, such an explanation meets all our requirements. It explains the observations, improves on existing explanations, suggests new areas for testing, and does not contravene existing knowledge. No other explanation comes close. It has also been put to the test, see next.
Attempts at disconfirmation
To make the situation quite clear: "The non-astrological factors which could apply are surprisingly numerous and in principle are sufficient to explain how astrology seems to work. Examples are universal validity, gullibility, belief, and statistical artifacts. There are many others. The aim of each entrant will be to demonstrate that non-astrological factors are in fact not sufficient, and that the only genuine explanation of how astrology works is the reality of astrological effects" (1983:209).
Details were published in astrological journals in eight countries and probably reached 250,000 readers in the USA and over 5000 elsewhere. More than 60 intentions to enter were received from a total of 14 countries and were pleasingly diverse: roughly one third involved personality, one third involved events, and one third involved other areas such as discrimination, synastry and horary. Subsequently 34 actual entries from 7 countries were received, of which 16 did not address the required topic and 3 had produced only negative results. Of the remaining 15 entries only one was successful, but this was a fake entered to test the allegation by Dennis Elwell that the prize was unwinnable because appropriate tests could not be designed and the panel of eight judges was not impartial.
Disconfirmation could of course be achieved by any study in which non-astrological factors are controlled. There are now well over 100 such studies (including over 50 Vernon Clark studies) involving thousands of charts and hundreds of astrologers, but none have produced a convincing disconfirmation. Appeals to the Gauquelin findings hardly count when there is no Gauquelin effect for half the planets, or for signs, or for aspects, or for the 99.996% of the population who are not eminent, and there is likely contamination from social artifacts anyway, see The Gauquelin work 2. Artifacts vs puzzles on this website under Gauquelin.
In other words the ordinary explanation of astrology has resisted repeated attempts at disconfirmation and can thus claim to be the first successful explanation of astrology. Of course it may or may not survive future attempts at disconfirmation, but until then it seems premature to consider other explanations.
Part 4. Explanations of astrology's value
So far the aim has been to explain how astrology works. We now move from explanations of (perceived) truth to explanations of (perceived) value. Previously the issues included things like how does astrology work and what techniques are best. Now the issues include things like: Why has astrology been popular for so long despite its internal disagreements? What is its perceived value? What matters most -- the client, the problem, the technique, or the astrologer? Must the astrologer be a good person? How essential is belief in astrology? How can the value of (a demonstrably untrue) astrology be improved?
For clues we can consider sun sign astrology. Although every controlled test has shown it to be untrue (people with sun sign X are no more X-ish than other sun signs), it is the most popular kind of astrology in the Western world. Its easy commercialisation explains supply but not demand. If we can explain why sun signs are so popular despite being untrue, it might help in explaining the popularity of astrology proper.
Explanations for the popularity of sun signs
To put this another way, sun signs have personal utility (they address our favourite subjects, namely us and our relationships, in a positive and nonjudgemental way), social utility (they help us talk about ourselves, creating closeness, and nobody is left out), simplicity (they require only a birth date and are easy to learn), perceived validity (they are perceived to be mostly true) and availability (only the weather forecast is more pervasive).
All of the above reasons are plausible, and although their relative contributions have yet to be established, an explanation would most likely embrace all of them. Such an explanation can be simply stated -- sun signs are popular because they are simple, cheap, fill a need, and seem to work. No other system comes close. How well does this apply to astrology proper?
Explanations for the value of astrology
In short, this explanation says that astrology has value because it seems to have its priorities right. It can give the feeling of understanding our place within the whole. The same applies to religion and pop psychology in all their forms, even though they often disagree and cannot all be right. Note how this explanation does not require astrology to be true, and how our explanations of value have nothing to do with the explanations of truth surveyed in Part 2.
Explanations of longevity
Memes and memeplexes
A memeplex is a group of memes that are passed on together. Memeplexes form whenever a meme can replicate better as part of a group than it can on its own. As before, its only aim is to replicate. The most successful memeplexes are those that supply untestable explanations for human predicaments (why are we here?), and include reinforcing tricks such as coercion (wrongdoers are punished), reduction of fear (believers will be saved), altruism (good people believe), and dogma (this explanation is The Truth). There is clearly a good match here with any religion, and with astrology and divination.
Memes in astrology
"These memes are successful because they seem to explain the client's experience and include all the right tricks. The fear they prey on is the fear of uncertainty and of making the wrong decisions in a horribly complex world. People typicaly go to psychics when they are their lowest ebb and want guidance. This means they are all the more likely to fall for claims of higher powers or of special insight. The "illusion of control" also works in favour of these memes. Stress is reduced when control over a situation is increased -- and if real control is not possible, an illusion of control will do. Many experiments have shown the power of this illusion." (1999:183-184)
In many cases we could of course argue that some memes spread because people are gullible. But nobody designed astrology to suit gullible people. Instead, countless astrology memes competed out there in the marketplace, and the most successful ones (the ones with the best tricks, namely a Barnum reading plus a pseudo explanation based on astrology plus a suggestion to read your horoscope every day, hanging together as a sun sign memeplex) kept getting copied and ended up as the most prevalent astrology we have today.
Memes and longevity
Imagine two memes. The first is a statement "Leos are generous." The second is a belief "I believe Leos are generous." The question is, which meme will fare better in the competition to get into as many brains, books, and television programmes as possible? Answer: the second will. A statement will be passed on only if it is relevant, which may occur only rarely. But people (especially if influential like parents or church leaders) will press their beliefs on others regardless of relevance. In this way some memeplexes, true or false, important or trivial, will survive better than others.
We can now see why astrology has lasted so long, and has perceived value, despite disconfirmation of its claims. It survives because people talk about it. It survives falls from grace because so much publicity is already out there. It survives and is believed for the same reasons that a religion survives and is believed -- by rewarding belief and punishing disbelief. Compatible memes are accepted, incompatible memes are rejected. Validity (as opposed to perceived validity) and the explanations of truth covered in Part 2 have nothing to do with it.
But astrology and divination memeplexes do more than survive. "They exert phenomenal power in modern society and are responsible for the movements of vast amounts of money. They shape the way we think about ourselves and, perhaps more importantly, they cause many people to believe things that are demonstrably false. Anything that can do all this deserves to be understood" (Blackmore 1999:184).
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Muses CA (1985). Destiny and Control in Human Systems: Studies in the Interactive Connectedness of Time (Chronotypology). Sceptre, Berkeley CA.
Phillipson G (2000), Astrology in the Year Zero (London: Flare Publications). With 135 references including 32 critical works. Explores issues via interviews with astrologers and scientific researchers.
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