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Moment Supreme
Why astrologers keep believing in astrology

Rudolf Smit

Translated and updated from the original Dutch article in Skepter, March 1993.

Abstract -- For ten years the author was a professional astrologer and teacher of astrology. In his experience astrologers are generally nice, caring people. They become interested in astrology, and stick to it despite the overwhelming empirical evidence against astrological claims, because horoscopes seem to correctly describe a person's character and circumstances. This discovery is an unforgettable Moment Supreme, ever returning with each new horoscope, which makes astrologers go on believing in astrology. So they see no need for scientific research. But astrologers also make astrology nonfalsifiable, so the Moment Supreme is an illusion. When the author pointed this out, he was immediately seen as an enemy of astrology. Nevertheless a small but increasing number of astrologers accept that the horoscope is just a tool, not a source of information. Clients are helped less by the astrologer being a good astrologer and more by the astrologer being a good person. Nevertheless Mayer (1984) found that, despite his best efforts to use the horoscope only as a tool, "some clients continue to use it in a deterministic manner". He concluded that horoscopes should not be used for clients who believe in cosmic correspondences. As an experiment, the author tried reading horoscopes where their owners were told the reading was merely an exercise in looking at astrological symbolism. Amazingly, there was still a Moment Supreme, and they went away quite happy. Most likely this was because the interaction was helpful and rewarding, if only because both author and client focussed on any meaningful statements and ignored the rest, just as would occur when talking to a neighbour or priest. To skeptics this kind of "astrology" might be more acceptable than believing in untrue cosmic correspondences, but it might not invoke as strong a following. More research is needed. Five references.

For ten years I was a professional astrologer and teacher of astrology. During that time I met many interesting people. For example I once met a novice astrologer who, in deadly earnest, asserted that "if you have seven planets in the 7th house, you will marry seven times". When I pointed to the horoscope of movie star Elizabeth Taylor, who already had her fifth or sixth husband but whose 7th house did not contain a single planet, he wasn't impressed. "The exception proves the rule", he said. I too wasn't impressed. It seemed that the novice astrologer didn't want to know that this was a rule known only by its exceptions.

Believe me, the life's path of an astrologer is not strewn with roses. He (more often a she) seldom earns a good living with astrology, and is somewhat of a social outcast, being tolerated rather than respected by a society that is is expected to be tolerant. But certainly for skeptics this tolerance is often accompanied by a gnashing of teeth, for they tend to see astrologers as weird people who do weird things.

Arguments
But are astrologers truly that weird? I don't think so. In my experience they are generally nice, caring people. But because of their dubious position, i.e. being tolerated rather than respected, they tend to go off the rails in their defense of astrology. For example Kelly et al (1989) looked into the arguments used by astrologers to underpin their belief in astrology. Those arguments, followed by Kelly et al's comments in parentheses, are briefly as follows:

1. Astrology has great antiquity and durability (so has murder).
2. Astrology is found in many cultures (so is belief in a flat earth).
3. Many great scholars have believed in it (many others have not).
4. Astrology is based on observation (its complexity defies observation).
5. Extraterrestrial influences exist (none are relevant to astrology).
6. Astrology has been proved by research (not true).
7. Non-astrologers are not qualified to judge (so who judges murder?).
8. Astrology is not science but art/philosophy (not a reason for belief).
9. Astrology works (the evidence suggests otherwise).

Astrologers know most of these arguments only from hearsay and have not thoroughly thought them through. But the most important argument is the last: Astrology works! Because it is here where personal experience comes in, which for the average astrologer is a thousand times more persuasive than the results of scientific studies into astrology.

Philosophy
Furthermore, this list of nine does not answer the question of what made astrologers interested in astrology and why they insist on sticking to it. An answer to this question is especially relevant for those skeptics who seem incapable of understanding why astrologers cling to astrology when empirical studies seem to show that astrologers cannot corroborate their claims. The skeptics argue that facts are facts, and that astrologers are crazy to keep on ignoring them.

It is not that simple. Astrology for astrologers can hardly be compared to a business in, say, making clothing buttons where you could stop overnight. For them, as it was for me, astrology is an ideology, a philosophy of life. And believe me, to relinguish astrology is about the same as losing one's purpose in life. So when the facts forced me to do a U-turn, I was overwhelmed by a mental crisis that took a long time to overcome. But at least I can discuss this matter with some justification.

Moment Supreme
In my experience nobody becomes an astrologer just like that, as if by an effort of will. Instead it just happens, in the sense that you will simply encounter it one fine day. For example most astrologers tell how they started by meeting quite by chance someone who was already doing astrology. At the time none of those not-yet astrologers was immediately prepared to attach some value to it, but of course they were curious. So there came the unavoidable request: please, cast my horoscope! The (amateur) astrologer was very willing to comply with their request. And lo and behold, to their unspeakable astonishment, their horoscope analysis seemed to correctly describe not only their inner being but also the circumstances in their life. Now, that is an unforgettable moment. And it is that Moment Supreme, ever returning with each new horoscope, which makes astrologers go on believing in astrology.

So strong is the experience that, sooner or later, astrologers let go of any critical sense. For them astrology has become an inexhaustible source of knowledge and of great personal support. Just like devout Catholics who derive their security of existence from their religious beliefs, so do astrologers derive their security of existence from astrology. They feel how their lives and those of others are governed by the planets in their personal horoscopes, wherein simply everything is written -- their character, relationships, destiny, everything.

Stopwatch
Furthermore, if the astrologer is incapable of extracting certain information from a horoscope, this is held to be the fault not of astrology but of the astrologer. He has not progressed far enough in his skills. Or maybe the birth data is not precise enough for the purpose. Or maybe the manifestation of the horoscope is not typical. And so on.

Since astrology is said to govern everything, the horoscope does not limit itself to people. As long as one knows a precise time and the place where it happens, then one can cast a horoscope of any thing, animal, or event. For example the birth of your dog, your cat, the signing of the deeds of your house, the setting up of a shop, or the inauguration of a president of the United States. As for the last, thousands of astrologers will duly use a stopwatch to exactly time the moment of "so help me God" on which they will then base the horoscope of the goverment period of this new president.

But the horoscope does more. For many astrologers, in particular for the more esoterically inclined, astrology is the embodiment of the principle that "all is one and one is all". Such astrologers feel part of a greater whole, the all. Believe me, it is a wonderful feeling. For skeptics it may be easy to dismiss this all-ness, this feeling, but then they most likely have not had that feeling. And they most likely forget that even great and critical minds have fallen for astrology, albeit after some hesitation and after, for those times, critical scrutiny.

Psychology of the astrologer
In the 1970s Geoffrey Dean and Arthur Mather, compilers of the now classic Recent Advances in Natal Astrology, were convinced that astrology was a worthwhile area for empirical investigation. But in the course of time, during more than twenty years of careful work, it became increasingly clear to them that astrology did not usefully live up to its factual claims. Indeed, after a number of euphoric years, I too was beginning to feel that there was something truly amiss with astrology. It happened too often that doctrine and practice were not concurring. Many astrologers had already discovered this but had found (spurious) solutions to the problems, each new solution being even more ingenious than before. As a result the number of techniques had increased, but so had the number of contradictions.

It was in those times -- when I happened to be president of the Dutch Society of Practising Astrologers -- that I was confronted with the psychology of the astrologer. In my naivity I believed that my fellow astrologers would wholeheartedly endorse critical research into astrology. After all, how else could the quality of astrology be improved? But their endorsement didn't happen.

Instead I encountered indifference and passive, later even active, resistance to my proposal. It was asserted loud and clear that astrology and science are a bad match. It was also asserted that astrology does not need to be proven scientifically because it proves itself over and over again on a daily basis. So why all my fuss about critical research?

Inconsistencies
My fellow astrologers admitted they had encountered inconsistencies now and then. But it was not a problem, because you would simply choose a different technique, of which there is a rich arsenal. Or you rectify the chart's birth time. After all, plenty of rectifying techniques are available, even though they often strongly disagree with one another and are sometimes hours different from the officially recorded birth time.

When I pointed out that these strategies did nothing to resolve the original inconsistencies, my fellow astrologers usually viewed me with glassy eyes -- and that was that. Except they were beginning to consider me an unruly guy. They cherished their own ideas and were quite happy with them; what they found confusing were the facts I confronted them with. So they preferred to stick their heads in the sand. There was cognitive dissonance between their belief that astrology is perfect and its evident inconsistencies, but this dissonance was ignored or explained away. Of course this is not a condition occurring only amongst astrologers, but they do seem to be especially prone to it. A telling example is given by David Hamblin (1982), an astrologer who later became chairman of the UK Astrological Association:

If I find a very meek and unaggressive person with five planets in Aries, this does not cause me to doubt that Aries means aggression. I may be able to point to his Pisces Ascendant, or to his Sun conjunct Saturn, or to his ruler in the twelfth house; and, if none of these alibis are available, I can simply say that he has not yet fulfilled his Aries potential. Or I can argue (as I have heard argued) that, if a person has an excess of planets in a particular sign, he will tend to suppress the characteristics of that sign because he is scared that, if he reveals them, he will carry them to excess. But if on the next day I meet a very aggressive person who also has five planets in Aries, I will change my tune: I will say that he had to be like that because of his planets in Aries.

Hamblin complains that this makes astrology nonfalsifiable. It gives astrologers an inexhaustible reserve of easy explanations for even the most difficult of inconsistencies. And this is indeed how things go. Astrologers are masters at making persons fit their horoscopes. Because astrology cannot be untrue, it has to be true, hence they make it true. Just like Procrustes, the mythological innkeeper who made sure his guests would exactly fit their beds by either stretching them or chopping off their legs. Since astrology has to be true at all times, astrologers find it necessary to ignore unwelcome facts, even if those are produced by their own kind.

Home computers
By the end of the 1970s the first home computers had come on the market. I was quick to purchase a Commodore PET for which the first astrological software in the Netherlands had become available thanks to the great efforts of my fellow countryman Wim van Dam. Thus it became possible to investigate and test a great number of horoscopes. I focused on astrological prediction techniques and discovered, much to my chagrin, that most of the claims in astrological textbooks had virtually no substance whatsoever. I remember a sample of 72 people who had died in traffic accidents, which I tested using four different predictive techniques. With one fairly unknown technique the results were highly significant statistically (later I was to suspect that this was caused by biased data sampling); the rest gave only chance results.

Now, let me call this Technique A; the other three I call B, C and D. When I announced my results before a large group of astrologers in the Australian city of Melbourne, which thus shattered their three beloved predictive techniques, their reaction was perplexing to say the least. The advocates of method B immediately claimed that they always hit the mark but not with methods C and D. But the advocates of method C claimed they always hit the mark, but not with methods B and D! When I pointed out to them that maybe now and then they had indeed hit the mark, but like most people they tended to remember only the hits and forget the misses, I apparently kicked a sore leg. So among my fellow-astrologers I was soon considered a dissident.

Kill the messenger
I even received a more or less official reprimand when I told those same astrologers about my small research project into the character and lives of twins. Most twins will be born shortly after one another and will thus have virtually identical horoscopes. According to astrological theory they should therefore have virtually identical characters and circumstances in life. But I discovered that this is not the case. For fraternal twins their characters and circumstances could differ enormously despite their very similar horoscopes. Of course, those Melbourne astrologers were not very happy with the facts I was telling them. From that moment onwards, whenever I asked a critical question, one of the older committee members always tried to muzzle me with "so, you don't believe in astrology, eh?"!

It did not end there. Amazingly, soon after this article was published in 1993 in the Dutch skeptic journal Skepter, it was translated into English by astrologers and circulated as evidence of how I was now an implacable enemy of astrology! Which is a good example of how intolerant astrologers can be towards the slightest hint of unwelcome news or even (as in my case) simple reporting. For them absolutely no rocking of the boat is permitted even if it means killing the messenger.

Tool for helping
All these incidents have convinced me that astrology is a belief system. Astrologers have found in astrology a substitute for a religion. It gives them security and meaning in their lives. So it is understandable that they do not want this snatched away from them. However, it is remarkable that, despite an enormous diversity of techniques and insights (which in established religions can lead to mutual denunciation), astrologers tend to unite behind a consensus model of "astrology is alive and well and all systems work". This unity in diversity makes it possible for astrologers to reject or ignore criticism, simply because it is the only way for them to survive.

Of course, we all tend to react against evidence that threatens our world view. So it would be easy to think that any attempt to make astrologers relinquish their astrology will be in vain. Nevertheless a small but increasing number of astrologers have accepted that astrology is not a source of factual knowledge. Instead they hold that astrology is a remarkable inspirational source for helping their fellow human beings. That is, they hold that the horoscope is a wonderful tool for promoting therapy by conversation. It helps people find what today can be very elusive -- a caring person to talk to.

Celestial inkblot
In this modified astrology, what matters is the astrologer not the astrology. Clients are assisted less by the astrologer being a good astrologer and more by the astrologer being a good person. The horoscope indications are no longer important because the horoscope is now just a tool to help therapy by conversation. It is like a celestial inkblot, not a source of information.

As far as I know, one of the first people to formally explore this approach was the US psychotherapist Dr Michael Mayer (1984), whose work won the AA prize in 1979 for the most valuable contribution to astrology that year; his work was later summarised in Correlation when I was its editor. But despite using the horoscope only as a tool, Mayer found that "some clients continue to use it in a deterministic manner", so he felt it should not be used for clients who believe in cosmic correspondences.

More research is needed
Quite possibly such clients are reinforced to have such beliefs because of the insistence on accurate birth data. Hence to receive therapy by conversation, and their Moment Supreme, they still have to believe in something that is untrue. (Jacques Halbronn's article Astrologer meets client: Tricks of the trade on this website shows how astrologers can take advantage of this.) As an experiment, I recently tried reading horoscopes where I warned their owners in advance that there was no factual truth in astrology. I warned them that the reading would be an exercise in looking at astrological symbolism, that's all. The result might seem insightful but in reality would be only make-believe.

All of them agreed to this in advance. Amazingly, there was still a Moment Supreme, and they went away quite happy! This might have been because my reading was free of charge. Or because they kept a secret belief in cosmic correspondences. Or because, even when told the scientific facts, they did not care. Or simply because the interaction with a caring person was helpful and rewarding, if only because both of us focussed on the meaningful statements and ignored the rest,

To me the last reason seems the most plausible. It seems no different from the way any reasonable person might act in a similar exchange with a neighbour or priest. In this sense astrology hardly enters the picture -- what matters is the counsellor. So astrology itself effectively disappears, being reduced (as Weidner 2002 puts it) to "a useful kind of fiction, which may be used by individuals as a tool to organise their life." Similar views are presented by Halbronn in his Astrologer meets client. To skeptics, belief in useful fictions might be more acceptable than belief in untrue cosmic correspondences, but it might not invoke as strong a following. More research is needed!

References

Kelly IW, Culver R & Loptson PJ (1989). Arguments of the astrologers: a critical examination. In SK Biswas, DCV Malik and CV Vishveshwara (eds). Cosmic Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, New York. 45 references.
Dean G, Mather A & 53 others (1977). Recent Advances in Natal Astrology: A Critical Review 1900-1976. Analogic, Subiaco WA.
Hamblin D (1982). The need for doubt and the need for wonder. Astrological Journal, 24(3), 152-157 (Summer 1982).
Mayer MH (1984). The Mystery of Personal Identity. ACS, San Diego. For a concise summary of his exploration see Correlation 17(2), 64.
Weidner C (2002). Astrologie -- eine nutzliche Fiktion [Astrology -- a useful kind of fiction]. Zeitschrift fur Anomalistik 2, 197-204. In German. With four critical commentaries and author's response 205-217.

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