Friday, May 30, 2014

Astrology, Science and Non-Rational Means of Knowing



Don’t get me wrong, I love astrology. But in the context of our wider culture, it understandably seems specialised and improbable. I don’t think it can ever be mainstream, because even as astrologers we have to suspend our disbelief due to modern astronomical knowledge: the main factor is that nowadays the Earth is commonly held to orbit the Sun (though with motion being relative, it can be argued either way); then there are the thousands of other objects circling the Sun that logically need incorporating; the signs are seasonally based (so that eg Aries symbolism is associated with Spring), yet astrology seems to work equally well in Australia; and the solar system itself is known to be part of vast Galactic cycles within cycles.

These problems are not necessarily insuperable, but you’d need quite a different astrology to make it all hang together. And we seem to have voted with our feet. The old system works, and we are by and large staying with it, even though its intellectual foundations are, for a modern, virtually non-existent.

And this lack of foundation, which I think needs to be squarely faced, points to what is really going on: astrology works through non-rational, divinatory means. That is its real strength and foundation.

And the system we use has the strength of having been built over thousands of years. Tradition is a funny thing. Even nonsense, such as parts of the Old Testament, gain credibility through being old. Old mistakes. Even the good stuff becomes wrong through being set in stone and worshipped. In this sense tradition easily disempowers.

But used in a ritual way, as a means to direct experience that lies beyond the literal, a sense of tradition seems to add power. That is why you get atheists going to church services: they may not believe the theology, but the ritual itself, the evocation of the numinous, still works.

And astrology as we use it has all that. In its own terms, the system is consistent and deeply thought through. And it has the added power of having been used for so long, which is a divinatory point: if you wanted an explanation, you could say a field builds up around a tradition, or the symbols within it, all those thousands or millions of human intentions building up over time.

The much younger Tarot has power for the same reason. The symbols have accrued something, you hold a card up and you feel something stirring within, a power takes hold.

These powers were a natural part of life until the modern age, whether through spontaneous omens, direct communing with the Other World, or a gift for reading the entrails of guinea pigs. We are the first society that has had to defend the very existence of these powers.

And that is the other reason that astrology isn’t mainstream: the non-rational doesn’t have much of a place, is even under attack. Yet it is our most valuable means of knowing.

I had the idea for this piece through thinking about what would be an appropriate divination system for the modern age, in the sense that it would take modern forms of knowledge into account and could be widely accepted.

I don’t think I have an answer. But ideally, it would build upon the old forms and so bring that sense of age and tradition with it. With astrology and tarot, we are dealing with archetypes, patterns of energy that are perennial, so there is something in those traditions that will always be relevant.

The main problem, though, is not whether astrology as used is dated, but that non-rational means of knowing do not have credibility, are even seen as risible (as an academic colleague of astrologer Geoffrey Cornelius said, they are ‘one mumbo short of a jumbo’). Even the term non-rational is a concession to modern ways of thinking, as though the rational is the main thing. Whereas the rational needs to be a support for the non-rational.

Some of the ideas behind science are very imaginative. Quantum reality. The Big Bang. Multiverses. Dark Energy. Relativity. Evolution. When you get down to basics, to what is ultimate, science seems to tell some great stories. They tell us they are facts, but who has or ever will see any of the above? No-one, for they are great products of the imagination, and that is why they have wide cultural appeal.

Even mathematics, the ultimate arbiter of reality, what is it? It is about balancing sets of arcane symbols. If the symbols balance, then an idea is real. If they do not balance, then it is not real. And this principle has real world applications. Where have we heard that before? Astrology, of course, which matches configurations of symbols with real world events. Mathematics in this sense is none other than high magic.

So behind science lies a great deal of imagination and even magic. It is just not recognised as such. But what we have are some powerful imaginative ideas supported by a rational framework. Which I think is how any system of knowledge works. The non-rational, in other words, lies at the very centre of science, just as it does with astrology, tarot and other means of divination, and around it you have the rational justifications.

When I think about Quantum theory or multiverses or dark energy, I don’t think maths - I feel these ideas, they have a power for me. If I saw them on Tarot cards, they would speak to me. And I think that gives me a truer relationship to these ideas than someone who thinks of them purely rationally, but who surely has an imaginative relationship to them which, whether or not he/she knows it, is primary.

So in any cultural resurgence of the non-rational, it is not a matter of adding it on, but of seeing that it was there all along, at the heart of things.

There are 2 MA courses in the UK run by astrologers, at St David’s and at Canterbury. How do you approach the non-rational in the context of academia? A tricky and controversial question. But the course at Canterbury (Myth, Cosmology and the Sacred), which is run by Geoffrey Cornelius amongst others, explicitly seeks to affirm and explore non-rational means of knowing. I am delighted by this uncompromising approach, albeit concerned, for the same reason, that it can endure.

Below are links to Geoffrey Cornelius (author of The Moment of Astrology) speaking in 2 parts on Limits of Rational Discourse in the Realm of the Daemon. http://youtu.be/R6eu2JggYvM  and http://youtu.be/qr-3GZ7wStg

And a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"The whole world is an omen and a sign. Why look so wistfully in a corner? Man is the Image of God. Why run after a ghost or a dream? The voice of divination resounds everywhere and runs to waste unheard, unregarded, as the mountains echo with the bleatings of cattle."

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Fundamental science is the other side of the fundamental religious coin. The edicts have changed but the pronouncements of absolute truth remain.

Moira said...

Thanks for your continuing articles that speak to the validity of astrological skepticism, as continue to confirm this work we do isn't merely a figment of shared imagination.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting article. And yes, i agree: "Some of the ideas behind science are very imaginative".
I will recommend your website.

Anonymous said...

Just to say that I find your interventions on R. Wisemans blog an absolute breath of fresh air compared to the usual astrology-free disussions there.

Please ignore the chubbs who plainly dislike you and keep on commenting.

http://richardwiseman.wordpress.com/

Verdex