Can We Take Astrology Seriously? — What Do These ‘Charlatans’ Believe?
This is part of a series of articles I am publishing on Medium Can We Take Astrology Seriously? These were previously an unpublished book I wrote some time ago, Homage to Patric Walker. This article is chapter 2, which follows the Introduction, part 1 and part 2, and chapter 1.
Turning then to the second question from the previous article, how does Astrology work, let’s examine the views of the professional astrologers. There are lots of them because, despite all the hostility, Astrology is flourishing. Many books on the subject are written and sold; at the time of writing I have ten of them in front of me, most of them chosen at random merely because they happened to be in my local library (the groupings will become obvious below):
1. Fortune-Telling by Astrology, by Rodney Davies, Aquarian Press, 1988
2. The Elements of Astrology, by Janis Huntley, Element Books, 1995
3. Astrology Revealed, by Paul Fenton-Smith, Simon and Schuster, 1997
4. The Astrologer’s Handbook, by Frances Sakoian and Louis Acker, Harper Perennial, 1989
5. Teach Yourself Astrology, by Jeff Mayo and Christine Ramsdale, Hodder Headline, 1996
6. Discover Astrology, by Cordelia Mansall, Aquarian Press, 1991
7. The New Compleat Astrologer, by Derek and Julia Parker, Mitchell Beazley, 1984
8. The Modern Text Book of Astrology, by Margaret Hone, L.N. Fowler, 1978
9. The Knot of Time, by Lindsay River and Sally Gillespie, Women’s Press Ltd., 1987
10. Principles of Astrology, by Charles and Suzi Harvey, Thorsons, 1999
They are all intended for beginners. It seems to me that it would be appropriate, given that, to put it mildly, it is a highly controversial idea that the position of planets at birth relates to human personality, to find some discussion as to how the authors believe Astrology works. Yet this is not always the case. As Peter Roberts says: “On the whole, astrologers are not much given to theorizing. The prevalent attitude is summed up by: ‘It works, so what does it matter how it works’ ”¹.
Rodney Davies, for example, makes no attempt to explain. His book is of the type that would attract most hostility from rationalistic scientists. He describes the origins of Astrology in what would now be called the highly superstitious beliefs of the Sumerians, and proceeds directly to later astrology without any qualifying statement such as: ‘of course true astrology is based on much firmer foundations’. And in his last chapter he accepts as literally true the Gospel of Matthew’s story of the star and the Three Wise Men from the East, without even mentioning in passing the possibility that it may have a symbolic meaning, or even that the story might be a fabrication².
In the next three books (2,3,4) no mention is made of the issue; Astrology works, it is just assumed — “Mercury in the 10th house means such and such”. It is as if the authors are oblivious of or indifferent to the question.
In the next group (5,6,7,) the question is at least addressed. Whilst reading these texts two things struck me as being significant. Firstly, although they may speculate, on the whole the astrologers themselves do not know how it works; they must have had experiences which persuade them that Astrology is true, and yet, in general, they are as mystified as everyone else as to how this effect is achieved. Thus Margaret Hone says: “Astrology does not pretend to explain the modus operandi. It only studies the results as it can assess them” (p19).
The Parkers point out that one of the principal objections is that “the mechanics of astrology are either totally unknown or totally incredible… Few astrologers will pretend to be able to answer this question squarely”. They are not unduly concerned by this, however, for they add: “From the strictly scientific point of view, it is not really a valid objection to say that one cannot understand how something works — a demonstration that it does work is enough. Obviously, however, an accurate account of the mechanics… would be the biggest step towards a true understanding of it” (p51).
The second striking point is that there is not a consistent body of thought to which we can apply the name Astrology. Just as within political parties and churches, where members share the same name, there are often widely different opinions, so too in Astrology there are two main schools, which for the sake of simplicity I will call the ‘scientific’ and the ‘spiritual’ — the former looking for physical, causal links, while the latter believe the answer lies elsewhere. (There are further subdivisions within them.)
The two schools are clearly acknowledged by the Harveys: “Most objections to astrology come from individuals who can think only in terms of physical, material causes. Anyone who has worked in astrology for any length of time knows that astrology has to do with an algebra of meaning and consciousness rather than purely of matter”. They then add: “All that said, there are still some astrologers who can only feel comfortable with material causes” (p20, p22).
Unfortunately the problem is made even more confusing by the fact, so it seems to me, that some astrologers, under pressure from the hostile scientists, are not sure which camp they are in. This ambiguity contributes greatly to the conflict between astrologers and scientists, a vicious circle which needs to be broken before any serious progress can be made in the debate. The problem, as I see it, is as follows: scientists, often with good reason, think that astrologers of the scientific school are claiming a physical effect, and therefore demand proof of it. Astrologers of the spiritual school, feeling under attack, in order to placate the scientists, go on the defensive and speculate about possible answers that they do not really believe in, and for which there is no evidence, which leaves them open to the scientists’ ridicule because of the far-fetched nature of some of these explanations. For the scientists of course there is only one astrology, because anyone who believes in such rubbish is “mystical”, that is to say, demented.
I believe that there is evidence of this factor at work in books 5, 6 and 7. For example, Cordelia Mansall makes a pertinent observation that although “it is popularly believed that we are directly affected by the planets in our solar system, it comes as a surprise to many people that this is, in fact, a view held by only a small minority of astrologers”. She then continues: “However, there may eventually be proof of an actual effect”. She suggests the following candidates as possible contributors: atmospheric ionization, natural rhythms of existence, sequences of heightened sunspot activity, “interlinking biochemical reaction between the cosmos and the trace elements in our bodily systems”, the “possibility of the discovery of another more subtle source of energy. Perhaps it is linked with gravity” (p13)³. Unfortunately, if such things were proved, this would, according to her, contradict the current beliefs of most astrologers. When she releases herself from the pressure to find a physical reason and talks about what she thinks is the real meaning of Astrology, she is far more convincing: “Astrologers are in the privileged position of being able to witness the cycles of nature occurring on earth through the mirror image of the planets’ cyclic motions. These cycles are the patterns of being and are symbolic in concept. Why such a correlation should exist is not yet known. It is arguably theological” (p15), for which term we can perhaps read ‘spiritual’ or ‘esoteric’.
Jeff Mayo and Christine Ramsdale, while admitting that we do not know how Astrology works, assume that there must be a physical explanation, although they do not sound especially convinced of it: “Can we ever know how our individual personality can be linked to those great cosmic bodies hurtling at incredible speeds around the Sun, and synchronized to a time-scale? I believe the link may be found to be within the billions of cells that each of our bodies comprise. The single fertilized egg or cell with which you and I began our physical life was programmed with its instructions. It knew, even before the succession of divisions into a system of specialized cells, what each cell had to do to construct the eventual child-to-be-born. It is as though each cell is inspired with a divine intelligence; that each cell contains the essence of our Creator… The creative system of cells extends beyond man to the Sun, planets and distant galaxies. Each cell has its central nucleus, brain, controlling intelligence. The Sun is the heart or nucleus of the solar system. The galactic centre is the nucleus of our galaxy. And so with all stars and galaxies of stars. Astrology teaches the interdependence of all life” (p2).
The Parkers do discuss the issue of how Astrology works (p48 et seq.). They describe the history of the split between Astrology and astronomy, how science made great strides in its ability to predict, and how Astrology needed to make similar progress. “It should be evident not only that astrology worked, but also that there should be some plausible explanation of why it worked”. We can therefore see clearly how the debate arose; Astrology had to justify itself to science. The Parkers duly oblige. Even though they are familiar with, and seem to be sympathetic to, the work of Carl Jung and his principle of synchronicity, which he calls acausal, they nevertheless seem to attach importance to establishing causality. “In our search for a causal link between man, his activities and those of the ‘upper world’, we are bringing traditional aspects of science to bear on the question: ‘Why does astrology work?’ Is it due simply to the bodies; is it due to their light, to their invisible radiations, or to some other emissions or vibrations which are completely unknown to us?” They then run through a number of possibilities: rhythms of life, cycles whose periodicity may vary between hours and decades, complex of waveforms, radiation, biological clocks.
The next two books (8 and 9) do not discuss the issue in detail, but this is because they are sure of their position, and perhaps think that their readers are familiar with the material. Margaret Hone, without making overtly spiritual statements, clearly does not believe that any principle of causation is at work: “(When faced with the question) ‘how can such far-off planets influence the actions of ourselves?’ (the new student’s) best reply is that he believes in no such thing, but that he observes that ‘certain traits of character and certain types of events appear to correlate (her italics in this quote) with certain planetary relationships. He will be wise to drop the word ‘influence’, which implies direct action, but at the same time he must point out that an astrologer uses many words colloquially, knowing full well what they mean to him” (p15).
River and Gillespie are clearly in the spiritual school. A statement typical of their approach is as follows: “Central to astrology is the idea that to understand the cosmos we must also understand the self, that each person is a universe in miniature” (p7). I shall be discussing this idea in a later chapter.
Only the Harveys (book 10) address the question head on. They openly admit that the basic claim of Astrology is extraordinary, but discuss the objections and the physical theories, and make this interesting distinction: “the laws of physics…describe the material causes of things, (whereas) astrology is concerned with those metaphysical laws that describe the formal causes of things. Whilst some early astrologers certainly thought in terms of physical ‘influences’, the philosophers thought in terms of the cosmos as ‘a living body of ideas’ ” (p4). They also conclude that: “Of all studies, astrology demands a philosophy and framework of thought that embraces both physics and metaphysics, the temporal and the eternal, the manifest and the unmanifest, the observed and the intuited, the material and the formal” (p24).
This “philosophy and framework of thought” to which they are referring will I hope become clear as my text develops. Before I turn to my own investigation, however, I would like to make two preliminary observations in order to outline some concerns that I have. This will hopefully allow us to be more open to all possibilities.
1) Although we should be grateful to Gauquelin for his enthusiasm and dedication in spending thousands of hours tackling such a difficult subject, and to Eysenck and Nias for their courage in supporting him and exposing the prejudiced attitudes of the scientists (discussed in the previous article), I still have reservations about them. I will describe later — in Appendix 1 — the prejudice apparent in Gauquelin’s early work. Eysenck/Nias also claim to be very open-minded, but are nevertheless closed and prejudiced without even realising it, and this in two areas. They say, for example: “We know much less than we think; let us keep an open mind on all questions”⁴, and: “Throughout this book, we have tried to work with as little prejudice as is humanly possible” (p20). Yet, although they are open to the possibility that ‘serious’ astrology might be true, they are very prejudiced against sun-sign (newspaper) astrology, without even considering the possibility that there might be something in it: “We must distinguish serious astrology from the columns in newspapers and magazines that pretend to make predictions applying to everyone whose birth falls under a particular sun-sign — what your future holds if you are an Aquarian or a Sagittarian, or whatever. The best that can be said for this sort of thing is that it provides harmless amusement — harmless so long as you do not take it seriously” (p12). Gauquelin is even more caustic: “But is it, in any case, really honest to reduce astrology to nothing but the practice of the charlatans of sun-sign astrology? We must not confuse commercial astrology and cosmic influence”⁵.
2) The authors are also clearly biassed against what I am calling the ‘spiritual’ school. Eysenck and Nias make much of defending Astrology against the attacks by prejudiced scientists, yet their own approach is excessively scientific. The very title of their book is revealing: Astrology, Science or Superstition? This idea is pursued later: “The purpose of our book, then, is to decide if astrology…. is just mystifying nonsense, or constitutes the beginnings of a science” (p13). The implicit assertion in this statement is: if something cannot be proved to the satisfaction of science, then it is untrue, (and anyone who believes in it is mentally unbalanced). This argument is not impressive. If someone asked a group of scientists to devise an experiment to prove or disprove the existence of God, they would laugh and say that such an endeavour is outside the realm of their expertise, that science cannot address such questions, and yet any reasonable person would say that it is still possible that God exists, even if they do not personally believe. Unfortunately many scientists allow the absence of provability to lead them into unreasonable and dogmatic stances, denying even the possibility. It is clearly possible that Astrology might fall into the same category; it might be irrational and therefore not capable of scientific verification — neither science nor superstition — yet nevertheless valid. Margaret Hone makes the point in these words: “Astrology is NOT A SCIENCE, in the modern meaning of the term, which implies that knowledge is built up through the proving of theories by the repetition of experiments which have the same results, from which certain laws may be formed. The ‘results’ of astrology are often not (her italics) ‘the same’ in outwardly assessable meaning, but to one used to its symbolism, are ‘the same’ in their nature. Science proves by statistics. While broad principles of astrology can be proved in this way, the more the student learns, the more he will realise that statistics may be misleading in the assessment of an intricate interlacing of planetary cycles, which are constantly changing in relation to each other, and at varying rates of speed” (pp15–16).
Eysenck/Nias are themselves confusing on this point. They state: “The fact that two things tend to go together does not prove that one is causing the other”, having already stated that the idea of correspondence is currently in vogue among modern astrologers (p16 and p7). Yet their general attitude is nevertheless that Astrology has to demonstrate the causal mechanisms, (i.e. to prove itself as a science). They state: ‘With a few exceptions, Gauquelin’s results tend to be consistent with the astrological characteristics of the planets, but to say that the planets influence us astrologically is of course no explanation; it is necessary to state how they could have this effect. In an attempt to throw light on the issue Gauquelin next turned to an investigation of planetary associations with genetics — a scientifically established mechanism in personality development’ (p191). In other words, the moment there is a suggestion that Astrology might be ‘true’, they feel the need to run for cover to something that has been ‘scientifically established’, thus showing that they are not really interested in what most devotees of Astrology think that it actually is, in their words ‘mystifying nonsense’, only in what they would like it to be. They are willing to accept Astrology, but only on their terms.
With regard to the history of the debate, there are three points which, I feel, need to be made:
1) Sceptical scientists have been led to believe that Astrology states that planetary bodies have a causal effect upon human personality. They cannot be blamed for this; influential people have suggested as much. Here are three examples:
- St. Thomas Aquinas: “The celestial bodies are the cause of all that takes place in the sublunar world”.
- Tycho Brahe, in De Disciplinus Mathematicis: “Those who deny the influence of the planets violate clear evidence which for educated people of sane judgment it is not suitable to contradict”.
- Kepler, in De Stella Nova: “Nothing exists nor happens in the visible sky that is not sensed in some hidden moment by the faculties of Earth and Nature”⁶.
More recently Paul Fenton-Smith has stated: “Astrology is the study of the effect the planets have upon one another, the universe and upon human beings”⁷. (Notice how easy it is, although neither he nor Kepler actually say physical, causal effects, to assume that that is what they meant.) Yet, as I noted above, according to Cordelia Mansall this is not a view that is shared by the majority of astrologers. In order to explain these assertions it might perhaps be helpful to compare the situation to the history of alchemy, (simplified for the sake of the analogy). The medieval alchemists appeared to be trying to transform physically base metal into gold. The work of Jung and his followers has now suggested that it was an inner work, a process of psychological transformation⁸, and therefore that the alchemists were projecting contents of the psyche into the metals (although, as Jung explained, many of them did understand that they were working with inner contents). It is therefore a reasonable hypothesis that a similar process was happening in the case of St. Thomas, Brahe, and Kepler, who without the benefit of twentieth century psychological knowledge, perhaps mistakenly believed the effects to be causal.
Thus it is important to realise that Astrology, despite what its critics think, does not state per se that the positioning of the planets at birth causes the formation of human personality. Cordelia Mansall makes the point forcefully: “Rhythmic cycles (of the planets) have coincided with the life lived out by mankind on Earth. While this correlation has been accepted mainly from metaphysical or religious viewpoints in modern times, verification of it is being attempted from a rational viewpoint, upon the erroneous grounds that astrologers maintain that we are directly influenced by the planets. This misunderstanding is the usual basis for the controversy surrounding astrology’ (p61). The better approach, therefore, is to investigate whether or not there is a connection, and only then to explore whether or not such a connection is causal.
2) During the thousands of years that Astrology has lasted, there certainly have been charlatans posing as astrologers, taking money from gullible people. Gauquelin thought so; judging from the hostile language of his early work, he must have been engulfed by various nutters making extraordinary and fallacious claims for their astrological ability, which explains why he was so keen to put them to the test.
3) It is also beyond doubt that some (inferior) astrologers do come up with ridiculous statements in response to criticisms. For example, regarding the supposed difficulty in pinpointing the moment of birth during a long labour, would the head and feet be born under different signs? Gauquelin reports one response to this objection as follows: “This in fact proves that a powerful intellect may often be found in someone with weak legs”⁹ and ¹⁰. Dennis Elwell, however, turns the criticism neatly round; “In fairness, it must be added that in their eagerness to justify their beliefs astrologers are as prone as any other group to make much of whatever suits their case, and ignore inconvenient facts. They have sometimes been caught out in this, and doubtless will be again, but for a comprehensive study of selective perception one should turn to the history of mainstream science itself”¹¹.
Yet no matter how many fraudsters and idiots have practised Astrology down the ages, Gauquelin should have been intelligent enough to see that they did not represent the total of what Astrology has to offer, and therefore to separate them from the genuine article. Likewise scientists, when they criticize Astrology, although they do not realize it since they think that it is all rubbish, are also lumping together the good with the bad. Nowadays it should be thought ridiculous to assert that the work of astrologers with the intelligence and integrity of John Addey, Charles Harvey, Dennis Elwell, Liz Greene, Stephen Arroyo and others, is nothing more than at best deluded fantasies, at worst a smokescreen concealing fraud. These people do not claim to be able to make predictions about an individual’s future, despite Gauquelin’s assertion, and perhaps the general public’s belief, that the astrologer does in fact do this. Furthermore, I am sure that they would laugh just as heartily as any scientist at the ridiculous statement that I have just quoted.
To summarize, in order to investigate Astrology thoroughly, I believe that we will have to operate according to the following guidelines:
1. To be open to all possibilities, without being unnecessarily gullible.
2. Not to be pressurised by the hostility of scientists into conducting the debate on their terms. This means:
a) Not being able to prove Astrology to the satisfaction of scientists does not mean that it is invalid, untrue, that is to say ‘mere’ superstition.
b) If Astrology seems to be true, we do not have to insist on a demonstration of mechanisms of causality. We should not be seduced into speculating about spurious physical explanations in order to placate sceptical scientists; Astrology might be true for spiritual, irrational reasons and we should not have to apologise for that. Eysenck/Nias talk in a derogatory tone about “those astrologers who denigrate the scientific approach, and claim that the scientific method cannot deal with such complex and subtle theories as theirs”¹². I’ll at least consider it a possibility that these astrologers might just be right.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, and politics. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. The Message of Astrology, Aquarian Press, 1990, p89
2. He suggests that “if we can satisfactorily identify the star, it may be possible to date accurately the birth of Jesus” (p108). A star, however, is an ancient symbol for divinity, for example, the Sumerian ideogram which stands for divinity is a star. A possible meaning of the gospel story is therefore ‘a divine being has arrived on earth’, without any need for a physical star to be seen at all. Compare Marie-Louise von Franz: “A Star symbolized that part of the personality which outlasts death and after death accompanies the Sun god over the sky as a never-setting star. So the star has to do with the eternity of the uniqueness of the personality. That has been projected into a star” (The Way of the Dream, Windrose Films, 1988, p66).
If we go along with Davies, however, he suggests that the star referred to was a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces, which occurred three times during 7 BC, on 29 May, October 7, and December 4. (He explains the astrological symbolism which would make these two planets and house significant for the Jews.) He believes that the second of these prompted the three wise men to set off, and that they timed their arrival to coincide with the third (pp107–8). The Harveys also accept this suggestion (p6). However, an alternative astrological explanation was offered by the BBC1 programme Son of God on April 1st 2001. It suggested that the Star of Bethlehem might have been the appearance of Jupiter in Aries from behind the eclipse of the moon, on April 17, 6 BC, with Saturn, the Sun, and the Moon in close proximity.
3. These are the type of cosmobiological effects that Gauquelin describes in Science and Astrology — see Appendix 1 — where none of them are described as affecting personality. (This will be uploaded to Medium in due course.)
4. Astrology, Science or Superstition, Eysenck H.J., and Nias D.K.B., Maurice Temple, 1982, Pviii
5. The Truth about Astrology, Michel Gauquelin, Basil Blackwell, 1983, p8
6. quoted by the Parkers, book 7 in list, pp25, 65, 69
7. book 3, p8
8. This may seem obvious, given that physical alchemy is treated with even more disdain than Astrology. The question remains open, however, but that would a topic for another day.
9. Astrology and Science ,Michel Gauquelin, Stein and Day, 1970, p129
10. Further examples of some of the crazy things that astrologers have said down the ages can be found dotted about in Astrology, Louis MacNeice, Aldus, 1964. The astrologers West and Toonder themselves state: “A keen, critical sense has never been the general rule among astrologers”. (The Case for Astrology, Macdonald & Co., 1970, p73).
11. The Cosmic Loom, Urania Trust, 1999, p63
12. as footnote 4, p19