On the Use of Science
To Measure Astrological Theory
unpublished / written January 2007
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Like many within the astrological community, I have been disturbed by Glenn Perry's concentrated critique of Evolutionary Astrology. I do not question his motivation, which appears to be aimed toward elevating the professional bar by which astrological theories are evaluated. Certainly, as we mature as astrologers, both individually and collectively, we ought to be open to valid constructive criticism from our peers. I do, however, question his assumption that for any astrological theory to be valid, it must be capable of proof or disproof according to the methodologies established by science. It is to this assumption, and not specifically to his critique of Evolutionary Astrology, that I wish to respond.
I will state at the outset that I am not a practitioner of Evolutionary Astrology, nor do I claim sufficient knowledge of it to comment on its strengths and weaknesses. I do have great respect for Steven Forrest and Jeffrey Green, and the contribution they have made to the richness of our astrological tradition, as I have for Glenn Perry. In this case, however, I cannot agree when he insists that 'for an astrological hypothesis to be testable and thus substantiated it must be capable of disproof on the basis of evidence; otherwise, it falls into the category of mere speculation'.
As reasonable as this statement might sound, our instinctual acceptance of it is only testimony to the extent to which science has established itself as the sole criteria by which truth is measured in our society. Yet, as witnessed by anyone who has ever fallen in love, been moved by music, or looked up into the night sky and marveled at the unfathomable nature of infinity, there are certain truths that science is incapable of measuring. I would argue that most of the truly meaningful experiences it is possible to have as a human being are, in fact, impervious to science's scrutiny.
To the extent that astrology is practiced with the intent of discerning the meaning to be found in life, then demanding that astrology measure up to scientific standards in order to prove its validity is an awkward position at best. At worst, it forces astrology into a conceptual straitjacket that impairs its ability to shed light on the human experience. I have outlined my reasons for believing this in great detail in my book, The Seven Gates of Soul: Reclaiming the Poetry of Everyday Life, and could not possibly repeat those arguments here. I do, however, want to discuss three of the underlying premises of the scientific worldview that specifically render it useless as a set of criteria by which to judge astrological theory.
Science’s Systematic Denial of Meaning and Purpose
First, aside from the fact that science cannot measure those experiences that are most meaningful to human beings, the very idea of meaning is antithetical to scientific reasoning. Science systematically denies the very possibility of meaning, or that anything it scrutinizes could have a purpose. At the origin of science, as practiced by Aristotle, purpose was central to scientific inquiry, but in the hands of 18th century empiricists, the entire notion of a meaningful, purposeful cosmos was expunged from the scientific lexicon. While as human beings, scientists could experience the meaning and purpose of life just like the rest of us – and certainly most of them do – beyond the 19th century, to discuss their work within the context of meaning and purpose would be professional suicide.
Scientists can talk about the physiological processes that allow our bodies to function, or the biochemical mechanisms that underlie various emotions, or the sociological conditions that foster certain kinds of behavior. But they are strangely mute when asked what it means to be human, or how an individual might find meaning within his or her experience. Defenders of science will protest that this is not the domain of science. Fair enough. But I would then ask those who make this argument to stop trying to take science where it is ill equipped to go.
If an exploration of meaning and purpose is not science's rightful domain, why attempt to apply its principles to a discipline – such as astrology, or psychology for that matter – where an exploration of meaning and purpose is the primary focus? Science simply provides the wrong set of tools for this particular job, and ought to be humble enough to acknowledge this limitation.
Perry accuses Evolutionary Astrologers of making ad hominem arguments – of attacking the arguer rather than his argument. But scientists do this all the time – particularly in relation to astrology and other disciplines that do not comfortably fit their chosen methodology. Among those who insist upon scientific proof, to call someone unscientific – as Perry has essentially done to Forrest and Green – is the ultimate insult, and in fact, an ad hominem argument against them.
Science can never prove or disprove the validity of any theory – astrology included – that speaks to the meaning of our human experience, first because it does not recognize the subject matter of these theories, and second because the subject matter is unapproachable using the tools that science provides. In Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Immanuel Kant demonstrated quite thoroughly that science could never prove nor disprove any statement about the nature of the soul, or the meaning and purpose of its experience. Since then, instead of accepting this as the rightful boundary of science's domain, science has chosen to label such experiences and the disciplines that purport to study them as unscientific, as though that were a refutation of their worth. It is not.
Science is incapable of evaluating theories that speak to the soul's experience – such as Evolutionary Astrology – because science does not admit the existence of the soul, does not acknowledge its quest as a legitimate scientific endeavor, and does not have the tools to facilitate such a quest. Thus, to apply scientific standards to a discipline that does study the experience of the soul and seeks to enable its quest is to charge the blind with the task of discussing what they see.
Science’s Inability to Comprehend Metaphor
The deeper truth is that we are all blind – which brings me to the second reason why science is poorly suited to serve as a measure of astrology’s validity. Before any of us attempt to embark on a search for truth, we should all – scientists, psychologists, and astrologers alike – be humble enough to admit that the truth we are seeking is multi-dimensional, and beyond the grasp of any one discipline. The truth is so huge in fact, that we cannot approach it directly. Instead we must use metaphors that allow us to walk around the truth, like the famous blind men around the elephant. Science insists upon facts to support its metaphors, just as Perry insists that for an astrological theory to be valid, it must be supported by evidence. But in the end, we are all just clutching at metaphors, evidence be damned.
Can Evolutionary Astrologers ever prove or disprove the existence of past lives with factual evidence? Probably not. But can science ever prove the existence of a quark, or antimatter, or the multiple dimensions of space proposed by string theory? Since Freud, psychologists have routinely discussed the unconscious mind as though it were real. But is it? Is it a fact, or is it just a metaphor that appears to be justified by the facts? Who among us can claim to have ever seen an ego, or the anima, or a psychological complex? We infer these things from what we can observe, and then we mistake our inferences for truth.
As philosopher David Hume discussed in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), there is always a gap between what can be observed and what can be concluded about what we observe that is only bridged by an intellectual sleight of hand called inductive reasoning. We can never know anything for certain; we can only infer. Though other empiricists of his day were ready to embrace inductive reasoning as a convenient way for science to draw authoritative conclusions, Hume was not so ready to given science this license. As he pointed out:
The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible; because it can never imply a contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness, as if ever so conformable to reality. That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more a contradiction than the affirmation that it will rise. We should in vain, therefore, attempt to demonstrate its falsehood. Were it demonstrably false, it would imply a contradiction, and could never be distinctly conceived by the mind.
Though Hume's point has long ago been dismissed by scientists, who feel fairly certain they can predict tomorrow’s sunrise, his point cannot be dismissed by anyone for whom the quest for meaning and purpose is central. Far more germane to such a quest than mere facts, are what the mind infers from the facts – what it believes, imagines, or perceives to be true – and this is a pivot point that will vary from individual to individual, and even within the same individual over the course of time.
Perry would distinguish between facts and beliefs – as scientists routinely do – but the line between them is thinner than most champions of the scientific method would like to believe. Not so long ago, scientists considered a number of dubious propositions to be indisputable facts – a flat earth at the hub of a geocentric universe; an homogeneous fluid called ether filling all of unoccupied space; and the health benefits of exposure to radioactivity and electroshock therapy, to name a few. Today these same propositions are called false beliefs. Last year at this time, Pluto was considered by scientists to be a planet; today it is not. Was it a change in the facts that precipitated this redefinition, or a shift in beliefs about which facts should be considered relevant?
Scientists like to think that we must start from facts and then construct our beliefs around those facts, but in the experience of the soul, the process often proceeds in the opposite direction. It is human nature to employ metaphors that facilitate our beliefs, imaginings, and perceptions about what is real, and then, and only then, find 'facts' to support our beliefs. Scientists do this routinely as a matter of course, as do astrologers, and all human beings. But then, ignoring Hume's questioning of inductive reasoning, scientists also routinely mistake their metaphors for truth, and hold to their beliefs as fact. They, in a sense, introduce their scientific conclusions as what Perry calls a 'higher order of explanation,' to which subsequent evidence must pay homage. If the facts don’t fit the prevailing paradigm, they are dismissed as unscientific. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, paradigms shift very slowly in the scientific world, even when massive amounts of evidence exist to refute the current belief about what is real.
A belief in past lives is not scientific – that is to say, cannot be explained by science. But does this give anyone the right to claim it is not a valid metaphor through which to approach the truth of the soul’s experience? Science only believes in what can be physically measured. Does this mean we must conclude as indisputable fact that life ceases to exist when the heart stops beating? Can we acknowledge that how we answer these questions depends not upon proof or disproof by facts, but upon what we believe to be true and which metaphors we invoke to serve those beliefs?
Using the metaphor of a causal universe, governed by laws that are demonstrable by physical evidence, scientists conclude that astrology itself is an invalid metaphor through which to approach the truth of human experience. According to science, because there is no physically measured effect of the position or movement of planets on human experience, there cannot possible be any correlation between them. Does this stop any of us from using astrology to explore the human experience? Of course not. It just means that in order to do so, we must depart from the realm of science – where only metaphors justified on the basis of factual evidence accumulated through the scientific method are allowed.
Indeed, our own most celebrated champion of the scientific method, Michel Gauquelin, concluded that based on the evidence, the traditional allocation of strength to angular houses and of debility to cadent houses was incorrect. Gauquelin also concluded that 'the influence of the signs of the zodiac is not confirmed by an objective study of the behavior of thousands of people – or, to put it crudely, the signs of the zodiac are valueless'. These conclusions were drawn decades ago. Yet in their wake, I fail to see many astrologers making adjustments in the way they practice astrology. Why? Because even though the facts fail to support astrology's most sacred tenets, astrologers continue to believe in their efficacy and find them to be useful metaphors.
Presumably, if Perry had his way, and science was established as the criteria for the validity of astrological theory, we would throw these ideas out. Astrology – as most of us know it – would cease to exist. I seriously doubt this is Glenn's intention. But it is the natural consequence of his insistence that all astrological theory be proven by factual evidence. For as scientific study after scientific study has shown, there is none. Or very little.
Does this mean that we should hang our heads in shame, and resign ourselves to dwelling in the world as solipsistic outcasts, stranded in the neverland of the self-sealing doctrine? No. I propose instead that we stop insisting astrology ought to be a science, and realize that what we are dealing with instead is an elaborate language of symbol and metaphor. Just as speakers of English can use their language to support any belief, so too can astrology be molded according to the beliefs of the practitioner and of the clients he or she advises. Who among us can claim that we do not project our beliefs into our practice? Is this necessarily a bad thing? No. If practitioner and client are amenable to similar beliefs, there is no good reason why astrology cannot be useful as a language through which to explore the meaning and purpose of life within the context of those beliefs.
While astrologers are just as susceptible as scientists to mistaking their beliefs for facts, astrology per se is flexible enough to accommodate almost any belief. As I see it, this is its great strength, as evidenced by the great hodge-podge of approaches to astrology and the motley crew of individuals that dwell under the same umbrella. To the extent that any astrologer – Evolutionary or otherwise – insists that there is only one way to look at a birthchart, then they are sadly failing to take advantage of this strength. By the same token, to demand that all of astrology subscribe to a belief in the metaphor offered by science, and that only those approaches to astrology compatible with this metaphor be allowed, is to seriously diminish the richness of the language that supports such diversity.
Perry takes Evolutionary Astrologers to task for drawing 'dogmatic conclusions from data that is inherently ambiguous' But life itself is ambiguous, is it not? And don’t all astrologers routinely draw conclusions about life when they interpret a birthchart. There is nothing inherently dogmatic about interpreting a birthchart within the context of a possible past life scenario or any other belief system, provided the astrologer presents their interpretation as a metaphor and not a statement of fact, and provided the interpretation takes into account the unique situation of each client.
What is dogmatic is attempting to impose a single belief system on everyone, but this is an ethical issue that should be considered on a case-by-case basis. It is not a valid reason for castigating an entire school of astrology. Seasoned astrologers learn to interpret everything in context – both within the context of the birthchart considered as a whole and within the context of the life of the person behind the chart. Seasoned Evolutionary Astrologers – I would presume – do not just concoct their past life story in a vacuum; they do so within the context of a real present life scenario to which their story serves as a fitting metaphor. This is not dogmatic. This is simply good astrology.
In critiquing Evolutionary Astrology, Perry makes a distinction between theory and practice, stating that 'efficacy of treatment is often unrelated to underlying theory. It has been well-established that a practitioner’s faith in his/her technique has a powerful impact on its effectiveness, which is why competing brands of therapy can claim equal success'. He then takes Evolutionary Astrologers to task for using the effectiveness of their technique with clients as a 'methodology' of measurement, calling it 'idiosyncratic terminology' Perhaps it is – from a strictly scientific perspective. But what really matters here? Is it important that the metaphors that we choose be scientifically validated? Or does it matter more that they are meaningful to our clients? As a practicing astrologer, I have no doubt that Perry has his priorities straight, but as a critic of astrological theory he has it backwards.
Science’s Inability to Process Subjective Truth
I suspect that this is as much a product of his belief in the scientific metaphor as it is his disbelief in past lives – which brings me to science’s third shortcoming as a measure of the validity of astrological theory. For if our clients are to provide the ultimate measure of the validity of our approach to astrology – and I think they should – then science is again, a poor model through which to measure their response. Unlike astrologers, for whom a successful practice depends upon adapting theory to individual clients, scientists feel no such compunction. Their truth is objective, consensual truth – one size fits all; what is true for you is just as true for me. Unfortunately, the soul’s experience is not objective. It is intimately subjective, and any language of metaphor capable of bringing a sense of meaning and purpose to the soul must be adaptable enough to fit the individual.
Science can tell us how the brain functions and produces awareness, but it can't talk about what awareness is for, or why one person will direct it to acts of kindness and compassion while the person next door will use it to commit murder. Science, as applied in fields like sociology or psychology, can talk about factors impinging upon the unemployment rate, or how prolonged unemployment is one factor contributing to depression, but it has nothing to say about how unemployment might be an opportunity for one individual to reorganize her life in ways that are more satisfying, while for another, it could be a wake up call pointing toward the need for an attitude adjustment.
Science at best, is capable of producing information about the aggregate – who we are as a species considered generically. Even so-called qualitative research methods are only geared toward a compilation of data, with very little of value to say about who we are as individuals. At best, science is capable of arriving at a prediction of probability that any given individual will fit the aggregate data, but is totally clueless about who the individual is. Given the subtle, subjective nature of the soul, the use of science to understand its movements is like trying to understand the flight patterns of an individual butterfly using a satellite GPS system.
To a soul, whose quest for meaning and purpose is intimately personal, and largely beyond the reach of aggregate information, this is simply not good enough. We deserve better, and as astrologers – who readily acknowledge that each birthchart is as individual as a snowflake – we have a language that potentially offers us something better. To attempt to fit astrology into a scientific straight-jacket, is to force an inherently subjective language into an objective mold. Even if we could do this – despite the fact that most scientific studies of astrology fail to produce any meaningful objective data whatsoever – it would not be very useful to the soul in its quest for a sense of meaning and purpose, nor to the individual astrologer that might hope to depend on such information to shape his or her practice.
Given that science fails to recognize the validity of the soul's quest for meaning and purpose, nor has the tools to facilitate that quest; given that science mistakes its beliefs for factual evidence and takes its metaphors too literally and dogmatically to be applicable to the quest for personal truth; and given that science collects information only meaningful in the aggregate, it provides a set of tools inadequate to the measurement of any discipline – such as astrology – for which elucidation of the meaning and purpose to be found in human experience is central.
Does this mean that we should not hold astrology to any standards at all? No. I agree with Perry that without “critical thinking, … astrology will remain forever in danger of contamination by noxious and spurious claims”. I disagree in his assumption that the best or only way to evaluate these claims is through the standard methodology of science.
As I see it, astrology is a language of symbolic logic, more akin to mathematics than to science. As a language, it has rules of syntax and grammar that must be consistently applied. It also has a vocabulary that is rooted in metaphorical associations. Houses, signs and planets, for example, must be understood within a framework that takes their astronomical facts as an intuitive springboard for metaphors that fit. Each planet has mythological associations that reproduce themselves on an archetypal level in the lives of those experiencing significant movement of those planets in their lives. Each aspect, planetary pattern or cycle, and the birthchart as a whole have a relationship to number that is qualitative and symbolic. As members of a community of astrologers we have a tradition of observation in relationship to astrological phenomena that extends back thousands of years that can be useful as a platform for observation in the present moment. All of these parameters can serve as a set of criteria against which to measure the theoretical plausibility of any astrological statement. Lastly, and most importantly in my opinion, we have the feedback of clients who constantly tell us, 'yes that rings true for me,' or 'no that doesn’t seem to fit' to help us fine tune our language and tailor it to the individual.
Instead of holding astrology to the scientific fire, we should evaluate our astrology according to its internal logical consistency and its validity to our clients. According to these standards, to make a correlation between the Moon (associated with the waxing and waning of the life force, and with memory), the nodal axis (associated with the past) and past life experience is not inappropriate within the context of a belief system that allows it. Provided this belief resonates with the client to whom it applies, it can be a useful and valid interpretation of the symbolism. Any other critique of the theory of Evolutionary Astrology can only be construed not as a condemnation of the astrology per se, but rather a clash of belief systems underlying its application as a metaphorical language. Perry may want to debate the scientific proof or lack thereof for past life theory, but the application of astrology in support of that belief cannot – in my opinion – be questioned on scientific grounds.
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