Astrology in the Era of Uncertainty
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What we say we know for sure changes every day, but no one can miss now the alarm in the air. Our question is, ‘What is out there, just beyond the end of the road, out beyond language and fervent belief, beyond whatever gods we’ve chosen to give our allegiance to? Are we waiting for travelers to return, to tell us what they saw beyond that line? Or are we now to turn our heads, in order to better hear that call coming to us from that other country?’
Barry Lopez (1)
For those of us who have heard the call, and been blessed to discover astrology’s unlikely and sometimes seemingly magical ability to shed intuitive light on some inscrutable aspect of our lives, we take it as a given that astrology “works,” although it has not been easy to say exactly how. Trying to explain astrology to a skeptic, to someone whose only exposure has been the daily horoscope, to an intelligent, open-minded agnostic, or even to a true believer, is not easy.
Is astrology a science? An art? A language? A belief system? A religion? A philosophy? A kind of proto-psychology? A branch of metaphysics? A spiritual practice? A socio-cultural phenomenon? Is it some combination of these possibilities? Or is it something else entirely? Is astrology “the most persistent hallucination which has ever haunted the human brain,” as Belgian archeologist and historian Franz Cumont once declared it in disgust? (2) Or is it “the algebra of life,” as seminal astrologer Dane Rudhyar once proudly proclaimed it? (3) Those of us who are convinced of astrology’s value, because we have experienced it for ourselves, know we are not hallucinating. But what are we doing when we glean information from a birthchart? Can we actually say?
Astrology’s Sad Scientific Track Record
Those who have been most serious about attempting to answer this question have generally approached astrology with the intent to prove it scientifically. This is understandable, since achieving scientific validation has been the gold standard in a world that is dominated by science. But such efforts have failed miserably and may have done more harm to astrology’s credibility than good.
In the 1950s, when Michel Gauquelin, John Addey and a tiny handful of others were beginning their research, there were few studies available that had put astrology to a scientific test. By the turn of the twenty-first century, there were at least 100 studies published in psychological journals and 400 in astrological journals, “equivalent to about 200 man-years of scientific research.” (4) Some of these studies were conducted by scientists; some by astrologers; some were obviously biased; some were not. In nearly every single case, astrology has either failed the test to which it was put, or its studies have been dismissed by critics for any one of a number of possible errors in research design or implementation.
Although many astrologers might disagree with this assessment, and would, in any case, probably be justified in dismissing the biased claims of skeptics like Geoffrey Dean and company, the mainstream consensus remains that, in the face of existing evidence, “astrology is . . . diametrically opposed to the findings and theories of modern Western science.” (5) Or, alternately, as summed up by astrologer Sirman A. Celâyir:
. . . astrology is too elusive and complex to be tested on the spot. However, even when all tools (e.g., sample data and astrological software) are readily available and no time constraints are set, astrology is still not able to provide the type of evidence, pattern, and proof which specialists in other fields present at technical conferences; nor the type of meticulous derivation and empirical support which appear in technical journals. (6)
Meanwhile, astrology’s detractors continue to nitpick those few studies that have shown promise, finding sampling errors or other “artifacts” that negate statistically significant results, or if all else fails, negating positive results because “it is important not to confuse significance with utility.” (7)
At the same time, scientifically-minded astrologers continue to press their case, pick apart existing studies, (8) (9) rework the statistical analyses to reinforce their arguments, (10) and/or insist that with better, more sophisticated, less biased research models, we can still prove the validity of astrology scientifically. (11) (12) (13) I, for one, do not believe this is ever going to happen, not because I don’t believe astrology has value, but because I don’t believe astrology is a science. This is an admission that I will argue in this book gives astrology an advantage over science where a study of the human soul (or psyche) and the possibility of an ensouled universe is concerned.
Meanwhile, as the debate rages, scientifically-minded astrologers and skeptics often cite the same studies as evidence, while drawing entirely different conclusions. Where critics see no credible evidence that astrology is factually true, astrological researchers see cumulative confirmation.
According to Geoffrey Dean in Tests of Astrology, published in 2016:
. . . the outcomes from these hundreds of tests are quite consistent – they deny that astrology is a source of factual truth . . . (14)
According to Patrick Curry:
Over the past fifty years, scientists and astrological researchers are discovering a growing body of objective evidence of correlations between celestial positions and terrestrial life. These statistically significant results have been published in peer reviewed journals (including Correlation, a specialist astrological journal). Ironically, some of the strongest evidence has come from experiments backed by skeptical groups including CSICOP. (15)
Both sides are presumably looking at the same studies, but apparently not seeing the same thing. Some of this back-and-forth is simply the nature of scientific research, in which the results of any experiment are considered to be tentative until they are replicated or refuted by other researchers – and in this vein, debate can continue nearly indefinitely without final or definitive conclusion.
On the other hand, despite protestations of neutrality on both sides, one would have to be rather naive not to assume that each side has an agenda that biases their approach to research. Astrologers who care about establishing astrology’s credibility on scientific grounds are obviously trying to prove something they already believe to be true. Those who have taken it upon themselves to “debunk” what they consider to be a pseudoscience have already decided that astrology will fail before they design their experiments, and lo and behold, it does.
While there may be a few sincere researchers out there, in some remote corner of the universe or in some alternate reality, who have not yet made up their minds about astrology, and can genuinely claim to be neutral, this is a contest that is largely predetermined in a realm beyond the exercise of science, where pre-established opinions determine what can possibly be true and what cannot. This is a contest that astrologers cannot win, no matter how much research we do, because in the end, it is really not about the research at all. Ultimately, it can be argued that the history of astrological research on both sides is a battle of confirmation biases, in which prior beliefs and prejudices predetermine outcomes. Astrologers who are determined to prove that astrology is a bona fide science will never concede their point; those who believe astrology is a pseudoscience will reject all research that suggests otherwise, regardless of how scientifically impeccable it might be.
The one piece of research that has broken through this impasse and stood the statistical test against an unrelenting half-century onslaught of critique and analysis is the celebrated Mars effect, first documented extensively by Michel and Francoise Gauquelin in 1955. (16) These results have subsequently been replicated and confirmed by additional experiments, conducted by the Gauquelins themselves, (17) as well as by other researchers. (18) (19) Twenty years after Michel’s death in 1991, however, Gauquelin’s legacy remains shrouded in controversy, sadly fading into indifference, despite a lifetime of prodigious effort. As one of his more respectful critics, German-born British psychologist Hans Eysenck observed in his gently laudatory obituary:
There can no longer be any doubt that Michel Gauquelin did discover something; questions remain about its importance. The effect, while real, is modest in size; it certainly has no practical importance. (20)
To this day, skeptics continue to peck away at even this “modest effect,” looking with earnest resolve for non-astrological explanations, social or astronomical artifacts, hidden persuaders, sampling errors, unconscious biases in the collection and/or recording of data, or anything within science’s bag of statistical parlor tricks to discredit this minor triumph in the otherwise overwhelming failure of astrology in general to measure up to the rigorous standards that science demands.
The Astrological Community’s Ambivalent Embrace of Science
Meanwhile as Dean and company have noted:
Astrologers reacted to the Gauquelin work in two main ways. The first was to overstate the significance of Gauquelin’s positive results for astrology . . . The second was to relentlessly ignore Gauquelin’s important negative results. (21)
Leaving aside for the moment Dean’s extreme bias against astrology, this particular assertion appears to be true. Despite the fact that the astrological community has long claimed Gauquelin as its premier scientific champion, staunchly defending his cherished Mars effect against all attacks, few practicing astrologers have paid much real attention to the body of his work, within which the Mars effect was an anomaly, nor for that matter, have they embraced the Mars effect itself in their practice of astrology.
In general, Gauquelin was quite critical of astrology, dismissing signs, houses and aspects, (22) for example, as having no scientific validity, and at the end of a long, illustrious career, finding little to encourage future generations of astrological researchers. After nearly 35 years of investigation, he eventually came to the following dismal conclusion:
Having collected half a million dates of birth from the most diverse people, I have been able to observe that the majority of the elements in a horoscope seem not to possess any of the influences which have been attributed to them. (23)
Elsewhere, he notes:
The casting of horoscopes provides a living to thousands of individuals and provides dreams to an infinitely larger number of consumers . . . [But] since the most painstaking studies have shown the inanity of horoscopes, there should be a strong rising up against this exploitation of public credulity. (24)
Ignoring for the moment this withering general indictment, as most astrologers have, few astrologers have taken seriously the one specific discovery Gauquelin did make that can claim to have legitimately withstood the rigorous tests of scientific scrutiny. To prove this to yourself, you need only ask how many practicing astrologers you know, perhaps yourself included, who still consider planets in the angular 10th house as most relevant to career, ignoring Gauquelin’s conclusion that planets just past the Midheaven (moving clockwise) in the cadent 9th house were the more reliable significators? This was a bona fide scientifically validated discovery, one of the very few to which astrologers can unabashedly point. Yet, it has been both trumpeted as scientific validation of astrology in theory and ignored in practice. If, as a community, we are not going to take our own science seriously, what little of it there is, then how can we complain when critics call us pseudo-scientific?
If we were going to stake our credibility as a professional discipline on science, would we not, as Gauquelin did, throw out signs, houses and aspects? Would we not, as Gauquelin did, focus solely on planets in the relevant sectors, on the clockwise side of the Midheaven, as possible indicators of career – and even then, primarily for those who rise to a certain level of eminence in their profession, (25) not necessarily those who pursue merely ordinary careers?
I think most of us would have to agree that this leaves us with a mighty thin and wobbly peg on which to hang our scientific hat, despite the gargantuan amount of effort it has taken to attach it, however tentatively, to the wall; and in practice, most of us go about our work as astrologers as though it wasn’t there at all.
The fact that we, who would presumably benefit most, have not embraced Gauquelin’s science as a foundation for our work, and yet continue to practice an astrology with little other scientific confirmation, suggests that the conceptual basis of our field probably rests on something other than scientific grounds. Indeed, over 30 years ago now, feedback from readers of NCGR (the National Council for Geocosmic Research) indicated that scientific research, as proposed by Francoise Gauquelin in the wake of her separation from Michel, “does not serve the needs of the majority.” (26)
The Real Issue Underlying Scientific Research of Astrology
There is a reason why this is so that bears further scrutiny. First, while scientific validation of a particular astrological assertion might lend some small bit of credibility to astrology’s general utility as a predictive tool, any specific conclusion that might be drawn through scientific research would be of limited use to a working astrologer. This is so for the same reasons that the statistical results in general are of limited use for shedding light on individual experience; they speak only to the aggregate and not to any specific case (more about statistics in Chapter Six).
Beyond this practical consideration for actual astrologers, there are widely divergent metaphysical assumptions governing the practice of astrology and science that make them awkward bedfellows at best, and representative of antithetical worldviews at the most extreme. In my more idealistic moments, I would like to believe that there might one day in the distant future, be some kind of opening for the resumption of a complimentary dialogue between astrology and science, such as existed up until the middle of the seventeenth century. All hubris aside, that will depend upon science evolving to the point where it can encompass an astrological worldview that transcends its current capacity.
In the meantime, until these metaphysical distinctions are taken into account, the assumption made by both critics of astrology and serious astrological researchers – that astrology ought to be able to prove itself scientifically – will never be examined or questioned. However much additional research is done, astrology will fail to measure up to criteria rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what astrology is, or ought to be.
I have written about these metaphysical distinctions at some length elsewhere, (27) and won’t repeat all that here, except by way of the briefest of summaries:
Science is interested in objective truth. Astrology – at least psychological astrology – is interested in subjective truth that may only be meaningful to the person who receives it. While certain astrological statements may be true in a general way, it is the skilled application of those statements, within an individual context – both astrological and personal – that yields the most useful information, and such application may modify the general statement considerably.
Science accepts as truth only what can be replicated by others and that to some extent represents a consensus. The best astrology is that which happens in the moment of exchange between astrologer and client, and that may never happen again in exactly the same way.
Science can only really comment on aspects of reality that can be quantified. Astrologers speak to circumstances and processes that are far better understood in terms of their qualitative dimensions.
Science understands reality to be a literal, rational affair with causal links between subject and object that can be explained. Astrology is an acausal symbolic language that speaks in poetic similes, metaphors and archetypal allegories as an intuitive and imaginative point of entry into mysteries that do not always lend themselves easily to rational explanation.
Science considers time to be a linear, quantitative dimension of the physical world. Astrology considers time to be cyclical, meaningful in ways that speak to more to the actual subjective experience of what happens at a given time, rather than anything that can be quantified.
Science is concerned with the what and the how of reality, disavowing any possibility of meaning or purpose behind what it observes. The meaning and purpose within life experience is what astrology addresses, the metaphysical assumption being the anti-scientific notion that life is meaningful and guided by the unfolding of purpose.
Science requires its practitioners to be neutral witnesses to the object of their study. Astrology requires the full participation of an astrologer in dialogue with her clients, and beyond that with the symbolic field of information in which both astrologer and client are immersed. In any counseling situation, which is where most astrology is applied, one can simply not be neutral and do meaningful work.
These and other metaphysical distinctions make science and astrology two very distinct ways of understanding reality on radically different terms. Scientists do not generally acknowledge the metaphysical biases and assumptions inherent in the scientific method, but for that matter, beyond “as above, so below,” neither do most astrologers consider the metaphysical biases and assumptions inherent in their practice of astrology. Unless we do, however, any attempt to assess astrology by scientific standards is doomed to failure – not because astrology is non-scientific, although I would argue it is, but because astrologers and scientists are not looking at the same thing, or at anything, for that matter, in the same way.
A particular astrological statement can be measured as statistically significant or not, but this tells us nothing about the relevance of a particular astrological statement made at a given time in relation to a specific birthchart in dialogue with an individual client. With this understanding of the difference between science and astrology, it can readily be seen that a statement which is astrologically true – true to the symbolism and to the specific situation in which it applies – may well be scientifically false, and vice versa: a scientifically true statement may be astrologically irrelevant, or false in a specific case.
Ultimately, it is a question of apples and oranges, or more precisely, of two entirely different epistemologies, each of which makes no sense in terms of the metaphysical worldview of the other, but each of which, in its own domain, can provide a point of entry into knowing something that the other cannot. Astrology cannot measure the temperature in Seattle on a given day, account for the mechanism inside a black hole, or tell you what percentage of children under the age of 16 will contract the coronavirus. But science cannot help you explore the deeper meaning and purpose of your childhood trauma, or suggest a viable pathway into an exploration of your spirituality or track the evolution of your anger toward authority figures over the course of a lifetime. Scientific research into astrology misses the mark because it assumes astrology ought to behave like a science and provide the same kind of information that science does. These are false assumptions.
As astrological historian Nicholas Campion more succinctly notes:
The problem (with) scientific research is obvious: if scientific method requires causal mechanisms and universally testable, replicable results, then any astrology which depends on the astrologer and cosmos engaging in a conscious, psychic relationship must fail. (28)
Astrology as a Participatory Sport
The astrological observer is not a neutral witness seeking verifiable facts, but a co-creative participant in the extraction of meaning from the objective data that is science’s limited preoccupation. This capacity to facilitate the discovery of meaning from an objective map of the cosmos at a given time and place is a gift that astrology is well-poised to keep on giving, despite the fact that it fails to register on the scientific Richter scale. Even Dean acknowledges this when he says (to finish the quote shared earlier):
. . . the outcomes from these hundreds of tests are quite consistent – they deny that astrology is a source of factual truth, which is not to say it cannot be meaningful. (29)
Astrology is meaningful. Using it as a language, astrologers provide insight to their clients seeking to make sense of their lives, as part of a larger cosmos unfolding, in which they participate. This is something that science, which admits that the possibility of anything being meaningful is beyond its purview, can never do. To call ourselves a science then, or to try to be one, is to squeeze ourselves into a mold where we are inhibited from doing what we do best. Why would we want to do that, when we could instead be using all the tools at our disposal to bring meaning back into the world?
Multiple Astrologies Make for Superior Cloud Watching
Because it is participatory, astrology is, by nature, anything but a uniform discipline, measured by a science that expects it to be. Not only do we participate in a dialogue with our clients, but as Campion notes, we are also in a dialogue with the cosmos, a dialogue that can and does take any number of astro-logical forms. We ask different questions than science is prepared to answer, and we go about our quest for answers in a variety of different ways, all of which are ultimately astro-logical because they all assume the possibility of exploring meaningful symbolic correlations between the patterns in the sky and what happens here on earth.
This is an assumption that science disavows, but that forms the metaphysical bedrock on which astrology rests. Science dismisses the assumption, not because making meaningful symbolic correlations cannot be done, but because doing so takes the investigation beyond the scope of science. Science does not have the tools to investigate reality in this way, but astrology does.
Once you allow the idea that there could potentially be a symbolic correlation between celestial patterns and patterns here on earth, you also have to acknowledge, in a way science would never do, that there are many different possible ways to conceptualize this correlation. Astrologers of different persuasions see the patterns in the sky through different lenses, and they see different symbolic correlations when they look through these lenses. This is not scientific, but it is perfectly astro-logical.
Indeed, as we all know, there are and have been many astrologies, some serving for a time within a certain era or culture; others competing with each other within the same era or culture. Vedic astrology references an entirely different zodiac than Western tropical astrology, based on the precession of the equinoxes through the constellations, rather than fixed seasonal reference points. A multiplicity of house systems within Western astrology gives a shifting range of planetary placements within the houses. Traditional astrologers use only the Sun, Moon and five visible planets; most contemporary astrologers use the transpersonal planets; cutting edge astrologers use minor asteroids, centaurs, Trans-Neptunians and Kuiper Belt Objects; Uranian astrologers use hypothetical planets. Some astrologers use minor aspects; others don’t. Some use wide orbs; some use narrow orbs. Some astrologers use declination, midpoints, harmonics, antiscia and other more esoteric techniques; others don’t. Natal astrologers reference the birthchart and its derivatives; horary astrologers work with a chart calculated for the moment a question is posed. Evolutionary astrologers, shamanic astrologers, and archetypal astrologers all work with different techniques and come to different conclusions. Even astrologers working within the same basic approach do not always see the same thing in a given birthchart.
All of these discrepancies cause those who attempt to view astrology through a scientific lens to throw up their hands in despair. Indeed, critics have pounced on this inconsistency within our discipline as “evidence” that astrology is whatever its gullible practitioners think it is, but nothing that has any universal validity. Dean calls it “cloud-watching,” (30) apparently not aware that scientists who measure clouds, or anything else for that matter, are also investing their measurements with meaning that may or may not exist outside of a scientific framework.
Astrology’s Kaleidoscopic Advantage
Astrologers operate within a different framework, one where meaning arises not out there in the objective cosmos, in any way that could ever be universally accepted, but rather out of what we see when we look through a particular lens – patterns in the sky, considered not literally, but symbolically. Ultimately the lens is less important than what it reveals. Astrology reveals an entirely different order of truth than science, which ultimately is just another lens.
Personally, I have always celebrated the fact that astrology is what I call a kaleidoscopic language, meaning that it allows for a turning of the lens this way or that, and within this “fudge factor” – taboo in scientific circles – it attains a liberating flexibility that will speak to different astrologers in different ways, or even to an ambidextrous astrologer in ways that yield different insights. If the quest is for meaning, rather than absolute, objective truth, then being able to look at any question from multiple perspectives enriches the journey far more deeply than having a definitive answer with universal validity.
When astrologers make specific statements, or predictions, as an expression of factual objective truth, then the accuracy of these statements can be measured statistically – and has been, most often to disastrous results. This does not obviate the value of astrology as a superior form of “cloud watching” through which to constellate truth as a subjective work in progress – an exploration of what is true for this person in this moment. It is here that astrology offers what science in its present form cannot.
When astrology is used as a point of entry to a deeper understanding of life – as it is in most astrological consultations, or better yet, in most applications to one’s own life – it becomes a symbolic language, whose function as a catalyst to self-understanding cannot be measured by scientific standards. The quest for self-understanding itself, in fact, does not make sense at all in scientific terms. It does not matter in the least if a statistically significant portion of people with similar features in their birthchart experience such and such; nor even if a statistically significant portion of astrologers agree on what these features mean. What does matter is how the language, in the hands of an individual astrologer or anyone fluent in the language, can take an individual into the heart of their experience and allow them to extract a sense of meaning and purpose from those experiences. This is not a scientific venture.
Leaving Science Behind
Whether you believe that astrology is rightfully understood as a science or not, both stances presuppose that science is the best or only measure of truth and validity. Indeed, this has been presumed to be the case at least since the mid-nineteenth century, and as the debate has continued into the twenty-first century, we generally make the same assumption. We tacitly assume that astrology is an ancient discipline that either measures up to contemporary standards or not. I would argue it is more accurate to say that both science and astrology have evolved in ways that have caused them to diverge.
Until fairly recently, astrology would have measured up to the scientific standards of the day. In fact, for most of our history – as will be outlined in more detail in Part One of this book, astrology and astronomy have been inseparable. But science has changed and so has astrology, so the two are no longer in sync. It seems obvious to me – and hopefully will be to you as well after reading this book – that it is time to simply acknowledge this and move on. This is not the same as accepting defeat. Quite the contrary, it is release from bondage to an inappropriate idea of what we should be that has taken us to a dead end.
Critics insist that we measure up to scientific standards, and then castigate us when we don’t. Some astrologers in turn insist that astrology ought to measure up to scientific standards, and then feel inferior, or become defensive, when it doesn’t. At best, this is a self-defeating pattern that goes nowhere; at worst it is a slapstick comedy routine in which astrologers become the butt of a really old and really bad joke – not unlike the classic Abbott and Costello routine of “Who’s on First?” (31)
The confusion at the heart of the joke arises because the word “Who” is both a question and someone’s name – just as astrology is understood as both a classic textbook example of pseudoscience by most scientists, and a serious discipline, quite capable of yielding powerful insights by astrologers who know how to use it. When the answer to any question is “astrology,” a mainstream scientist will simply not hear it, and ask the same question again – ad nauseum. How long do we really want to get caught up in the spin cycle of this joke?
Why Astrology is Considered a Pseudoscience
So why do most educated people tend to take this joke seriously? In part because there is a small cadre of debunking pseudoscientists out there, beating the drum and calling the kettle black as they distort and manipulate their own science to prove a point. But also, in part, because some astrologers themselves continue to take the joke seriously and swallow the bait. If we want to move beyond this impasse, we have to see the joke for what it is, have a good laugh, and then get on with the more serious business of creating an inherently astrological approach to knowledge, one that makes sense within the metaphysical parameters of our discipline. Before we make a start in that direction, just to drive the point home, let’s take a closer look at what we’re up against, striving to be something we will never be.
According to a common current definition of pseudoscience, (32) a discipline has to satisfy the following two criteria to be declared one:
(1) it is not scientific, and
(2) its major proponents try to create the impression that it is scientific.
As far as the first criteria goes, there has been a great deal of debate about who gets to decide what is scientific and what is not, and what are the criteria by which the scientific community makes that determination. This is known as the issue of “demarcation,” and it includes not just a consideration of where science ends and pseudoscience begins, but also which disciplines are non-scientific – that is to say, metaphysical or religious or simply various organized systems of non-scientific knowledge – or as they are sometimes called, “parasciences.” (33) Demarcation also raises the question about what constitutes good science and bad science – an endless, often heated discussion that generally comes to no definitive conclusion, and in any case, is always changing as science itself evolves. This piece of the demarcation debate, for example, often marks the exchange between scientifically-minded astrologers and self-proclaimed skeptics, each of whom endlessly accuse the other of bad science.
Even outside of a fruitless exchange fueled by dueling confirmation biases, the question of whether or not a given statement, experiment, avenue of inquiry, or entire field is or is not pseudoscientific, is a tricky one to answer – particularly as will become abundantly clear in Part One of this book, because both science and astrology have been in constant flux throughout the ages. Science is a vastly different discipline than it was a thousand years ago, or even a hundred years ago – but so is astrology; and until relatively recently the demarcation between them was fairly non-existent. So, where the line is drawn now is not the absolute, definitive or final determination that fierce defenders of their particular understanding of demarcation might want it to be.
Swedish philosopher Sven Ove Hansson has suggested alternatively that instead of calling something a pseudoscience because it is not scientific, it might be more appropriate to call it that because “it is at variance with the most reliable knowledge about its subject matter that is currently available.” (34)
While this revised definition might seem to favor astrologers, who are certainly the source of the most reliable knowledge about astrology, in all honesty, we would have to ask, “Which astrologers?” since as a community, we agree about so little. In any case, the source of the most reliable information that Hansson had in mind suggesting this alternate definition was “scientists specialized in the subject-matter that the statement or doctrine relates to.” While some scientifically-minded astrologers might consider this an invitation to step up, fighting for the honor with debunking skeptics like Dean and company, at best, even the most legitimate among them face an uphill battle to prove that a “scientifically-minded astrologer” is not an oxymoron.
In the 1960s, Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper suggested that “statements or systems of statements, in order to be ranked as scientific, must be capable of conflicting with possible, or conceivable observations” (35) – a stance commonly known as “falsifiability.” By this criterion, a pseudoscience is contrasted to metaphysics in that it makes statements that are falsifiable – that is to say conceivably scientific, pending actual empirical investigation, whereas metaphysical statements are not falsifiable, but rather a matter of unprovable belief. In elaborating his ideas, Popper explicitly mentions astrology as a clear example of a pseudoscience – tellingly, along with psychoanalysis and individual psychology – because of its vagueness. (36) That is to say in his opinion, most astrological predictions are so general as to be easily confirmed – or verified – by almost anything that happens, and thus, are not falsifiable.
Why he did not consider astrology to be a form of metaphysics, or a useful “metaphysical research program,” as he did the Darwinian theory of evolution, is probably a reflection of confirmation bias in the application of his own theory than anything else. In Conjectures and Refutations, written in 1962, when astrological research was still in its infancy, he used astrology as a classic example of pseudoscience, based on its “pseudo-empirical method – that is to say, a method which although it appeals to observation and experiment, nevertheless does not come up to scientific standards.” (37) In Popper’s view, astrology was a trivial example – obvious to everyone and hastily conjured – that would make his critique of what he considered other more serious pseudosciences like Freudian psychoanalysis, Adler’s theory of individual psychology, Darwinian theory of evolution, and Marx’s theory of history, more understandable. (38)
Others have considered astrology to be a pseudoscience for other reasons. In basic agreement with Popper’s criterion, but at odds with his assessment of astrology, Hansson considers astrology to be quite falsifiable. (39) Citing Shawn Carlson’s famous 1985 study (40) and the 1988 compilation of studies by astronomers Roger Culver and Phillip Ianna Astrology: True or False? A Scientific Evaluation, (41) he concludes that astrology – potentially a science – has been duly falsified. Dean and company (the authors of two volumes of studies that, in their view, prove astrology false) would agree; most scientifically-minded astrologers would not.
Thomas Kuhn considered science to be a puzzle-solving activity, with failed predictions providing puzzles to be solved. By contrast, the failure of astrological predictions, in his opinion, is that they “did not give rise to research puzzles, for no man, however skilled, could make use of them in a constructive attempt to revise the astrological tradition.” (42) Here, I would tend to agree: most astrologers who make predictions do not re-examine those that fail, in order to refine their predictive capacity; they simply move on and make new predictions.
Canadian philosopher of science, Paul Thagard, who eschews Popper’s idea of falsifiability altogether, instead rejected astrology, because its “community of practitioners makes little attempt to develop the theory towards solutions of the problems, shows no concern for attempts to evaluate the theory in relation to others, and is selective in considering confirmations and disconfirmations,” which is, in his opinion, what a scientific community ought to do. (43)
A tiny minority of scientifically-minded astrologers are making a sincere attempt to address these concerns. Mostly failed research, vagueness, little interest in addressing ongoing theoretical or practical issues and problems, and a selective approach to confirmation and disconfirmation are all valid criticisms for any discipline intending to present itself as a science. Meanwhile, those astrologers that aren’t actively debating scientists, and even some of those, tend to get defensive when scientists raise basic questions such as:
How does astrology actually work?
How is it that two astrologers looking at the same chart come up with different interpretations?
How can so many diverse approaches to astrology – using different zodiacs, different house systems, different planets and so forth – all be valid, when these diverse approaches often contradict each other?
When our predictions fail, why do they fail?
Why does astrology continue to fail scientific test after scientific test?
While there are certainly scientists for whom these questions are merely intended to discredit or embarrass astrologers, they are not unreasonable questions for a scientist, or an astrologer, for that matter, to ask. If we don’t ask them of ourselves, do we really have a right to complain when others, assuming astrology ought to be scientific, answer them for us, and then conclude that astrology is a pseudoscience?
The other criterion for declaring any discipline a pseudoscience is that after repeatedly failing to come up with a satisfactory answer to the first criterion – that is to say, failing to prove itself scientific – its major proponents continue to try to create the impression that it is scientific. If astrologers fail to understand the metaphysical distinctions between astrology and science and keep beating their heads against the same impenetrable wall, attempting to create the impression – through subsequent research – that astrology is scientific, astrology will perpetually be judged to be a pseudoscience by scientists who also fail to understand these metaphysical distinctions.
Round and round we will go in a vicious cycle that reinforces astrology’s dismal reputation in scientific circles and adds to our own confusion about who and what we really are. As Geoffrey Cornelius astutely notes, “The more research that is done, the less we discover astrology.” (44)
Do we really need to keep this vicious cycle going? Must we prove ourselves scientific to feel OK about what we do? Or is it possible for us to go more deeply into what we do, and find our own validation according to criteria that arise more naturally from within our discipline itself, and discover – or rediscover – what astrology can become? When we plie our craft with technical skill, compassion, and a conscious intention to make a difference in our clients’ lives, we generally do. The result cannot be measured in statistical significance, but it can be measured in our capacity to shed light on the otherwise inscrutable mysteries of life, proven over and over again collectively in countless sessions with no shortage of clients, and this is worth celebrating in its own right, as a value unto itself.
The fact that people have not stopped consulting astrologers, despite the prodigious efforts of many brilliant people to convince others that astrology is rubbish, attests to the fact that it is not. This should be enough to enable us to sleep at night, and go on doing our valuable work, without having to convince the scientifically-minded that we are something that we are not.
Science’s Reluctance to Do Boundary Work
Having said that, we should all be prepared to continue to be called a pseudoscience by those who don’t really know what they are talking about. I say this because in some quarters, a pseudoscience is any doctrine that “purport(s) to offer alternative accounts to those of science or claim(s) to explain what science cannot explain.” (45) This assertion speaks to the arrogance of scientists, who want to defend their turf against all those who might infringe upon it, even when they are actually off their turf. It also exposes an important legitimate question on the scientific side of the line: how does science distinguish itself from other intellectual disciplines, other ways of knowing? Or does it? Does it instead, simply assume that all other non-scientific ways of knowing are illegitimate, or less than, or pseudoscientific?
The attempt to address this question – or avoid it – was termed “boundary work” by the sociologist Thomas Gieryn, who noted that the same scientists could at different times point to different and even contradictory aspects of their practice to promote it as science, depending on what they thought would successfully advance their professional interests to whom. This led Gieryn to conclude that science’s boundaries were variable depending upon what a given scientist wanted to prove – or in his words, “ambiguous, flexible, historically changing, contextually variable, internally inconsistent, and sometimes disputed.” (46)
It is interesting here to note that while a scientist might not be aware that she was rationalizing her opinion about where the boundary is between science and nonscience or pseudoscience, perhaps not even realizing it was nothing more than an “opinion,” this becomes evident to a sociologist observing the behavior of scientists. The demarcation problem, in fact, is really only a problem for philosophers of science or other outsiders who stand apart and observe science itself; for most scientists working in the trenches, it is routinely taken for granted that what they do is science by definition, and that what others do, who are lacking in bona fide scientific credentials, or pushing too far past the boundaries of what is generally accepted as scientific consensus, is not. By the same token, it might not be apparent to scientifically-minded astrologers – most of whom are not philosophers of science or outsiders – that they perhaps also unwittingly move the boundary when attempting to show that astrology is on the scientific side of the line, as a reflection of their own biases.
Leaving aside for the moment the impossibility of ever reconciling the extremes on either side of this ongoing boundary war, in this book I am suggesting that science’s hegemony in the debate belies a more fundamental possibility: that astrology and science are more accurately understood as alternative and potentially complementary epistemologies – or ways of knowing – neither adequately measured by the parameters of the other. Science is adept at exploring the external parameters of physical realities, and somewhat useful in exploring collective phenomena in the social sciences. It is embarrassingly clumsy in exploring the inner dimensions of the human psyche, and utterly inept at making sense of a human life. This is precisely where astrology shines on its own merits, and where trying to fit into a scientific mold would most severely neuter it.
It is also potentially where a natural boundary exists between astrology and science, one that allows astrology to function in its own domain, were not being scientific is actually an advantage. As a very wide smorgasbord of human endeavors attest daily, not being scientific is by no means the end of the road, but quite the contrary, a potential beginning for a more liberating set of opportunities for articulation and full actualization of astrology’s value on more organic grounds, that is to say according to criteria that are appropriate to the metaphysics of our craft.
As I see it, astrology shares science’s passion for observing patterns, but sees something entirely different when it does. At the same time, astrology makes room for metaphysical speculation in the way that many nonsciences do, but science doesn’t, and in so doing, opens up a space for a deeper, richer, more multi-dimensional inquiry. This makes astrology a language potentially suitable for exploring an entire range of human experiences to which science has an awkward relationship at best – love, friendship, compassion, caring, creativity, wellbeing, beauty, integrity, wonder, imagination, pleasure, purpose, identity and meaning, to name just a few.
We are all observers of our own experiences, and the best among us learn from these observations. But what we learn – in this middle ground between the outer facts of our experience and the meaning we ascribe to them as we come to understand them more clearly – will generally fall more gracefully under the auspices of astrology, particularly psychological astrology, than of science. It is my contention that to advance our discipline, we have to be strong enough to shrug off accusations of pseudoscience and get on with our own work of occupying and delineating this middle ground.
Putting Our Quest into Historical Perspective
In order to talk at all about how astrology might rightfully do this, we must first recognize that both science and astrology have evolved and changed, in some cases, in ways that would have rendered them unrecognizable to preceding eras. Nor has the relationship between astrology and science been uniform throughout their shared history, but rather a parallel development of separate, but often interdependent epistemologies, both in perpetual transition. To even address the question, “Is astrology a science?” if in fact, you could address the question at all, you must not only know who is asking the question, but in what era they were asking it.
The debate about whether or not astrology can be considered a science has been going on for a very long time, although not as long as we might imagine without the perspective of history. Although astrology is still considered by its critics to be a superstitious and antiquated vestige of a pre-scientific age; and a bona fide science by those astrologers looking for the mantle of credibility they believe science would bestow; the truth about the relationship between astrology and science is more complex and more interesting than that. Astrology and science have, for most of their history, co-evolved together, along with religious thought, political developments and the ever-mutating cultural zeitgeist in which these various threads have intertwined and differentiated.
Before we validate astrology’s contribution on different grounds, then, it will behoove us to look back to that forgotten time at the beginning of the story, when the question of whether or not astrology could be considered a science would not have made any sense to ask. Indeed, for most of our human history – that is to say, for all but the last three or four hundred years – this would have been the case.
The split between the two words, astronomy and astrology, is a feature of the modern West; in the classical world, their meanings overlapped . . . The separation between the words ‘astronomy’ and ‘astrology’ in any history which deals with the pre-modern West, earlier than the seventeenth century, therefore runs the risk of being anachronistic . . . (47)
Living as we do post-seventeenth century we will also take some time to look at the part of the story where science established itself as the dominant epistemology and disowned its older sibling. Because science’s hegemony has altered our entire culture and conditioned the collective mindset in which we consider what is truth and what is not, we will also necessarily take stock of the ways in which astrology has been shaped by science, as well as by religious, political and cultural agendas, and major philosophical schools of thought in each era. In particular, we will look at the ways in which astrology has reinvented itself in order to establish its credibility as an intellectual discipline, tried to fit into a world where it was marginalized, and has bent itself out of shape in doing so.
Lastly, we will peer into a time, one that might have actually arrived, where astrology can find its rightful place within a broader kaleidoscope of postmodern worldviews, each with a useful lens through which to understand a more complex truth that is not reducible to any one perspective, much less fundamentalist thinking, however convincingly it is presented, or dominant it might be. In reaching toward an astrology of the future, we will necessarily work toward retrieving what has been lost from the past in exchange for adaptation to the standards and conventional wisdom of preceding eras, as well as preserving what legitimate astrological advances we have made that we can truly call our own.
How Do We Know What We Know?
If we trace both astrology and science back to their roots, past the days when science was not The Lens, but just a lens, we come to a more fundamental question: “How do we know what we know?” This is ultimately a metaphysical question to which science only knows one answer, but astrology potentially has many, each one capable of leading the questioner on a quest for a multivalent truth that goes much deeper than what can be measured by the rigorous (and sometimes rigid) tools of science.
It is this possibility that we will explore in this book. We will begin at a time when neither science nor astrology existed, but both were beginning to evolve out of a human need to get some kind of a handle on this deeper question – on how we humans can know ourselves and our place within the cosmos. This is an important question that has more than one answer. Science has tried to answer it in a definitive, objective way by outside observation of causal relationships among those things that can be quantified. Astrology tries to answer it in a more subjective, personal way that serves each of us individually, as the basis for a meaningful life, filled with purpose, a sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves, and an elevated chance to participate and contribute to the greater good.
“How do we know what we know?” is a question worth asking both in general, and more specifically as astrologers – for it is here that we will get at astrology’s unique contribution to our place within a cosmos built not just of matter, but also of the meaning we ascribe to our perceptions of it and the stories we tell ourselves about it, whether those stories are factually true or not. If we can do that, we won’t have to teeter awkwardly on science’s ill-fitting scale. We can instead weigh in confidently on our own:
Is modern science – objective, socially neutral science – really the only acceptable road to truth? Would any wise extraterrestrial come upon the same logical system we have to explain the structure of the universe? Yes, argues Nobel physicist Sheldon Glasgow. At the other extreme, perhaps there are as many roads to perceived truth as there are species that could have evolved to think them up. Philosopher Mary Hesse retorts that scientific theory is just one way humans have tried to make sense of our world, one among manifold sets of myths, models and metaphors. There is nothing special about it. (48)
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31 Abbott & Costello Fan Club. “Abbott and Costello’s Classic ‘Who’s on First?’ Routine | Abbott & Costello Fan Club,” July 16, 2021. https://www.abbottandcostellofanclub.com/whos-on-first/.
32 Hansson, Sven Ove. “Science and Pseudo-Science (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy/Summer 2021 Edition),” May 20, 2021. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/pseudo-science/.
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38 McDonough, Richard. “Karl Popper’s Critical Rationalism and The Notion of an ‘Open Society.’” The Postil Magazine, March 1, 2021. https://www.thepostil.com/karl-poppers-critical-rationalism-and-the-notion-of-an-open-society/.
39 Hansson, “Science and Pseudo-Science,” 4.2.
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44 Cornelius, Geoffrey. The Moment of Astrology: Origins in Divination. Wessex Astrologer Limited, 2002, 66.
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47 Campion, Nicholas. A History of Western Astrology Volume I: The Ancient and Classical Worlds. Continuum, 2009, x.
48 Aveni, Anthony. Conversing with the Planets: How Science and Myth Invented the Cosmos. TImes Books, 1992, 18.