Thursday, July 15, 2010

Why Astrology Shouldn't Work

The whole point about astrology is that it ‘shouldn’t’ work. That is why it’s so wondrous. It catapaults us into a different sense of how the universe works, a universe that has its mystery and charm back. This is half the reason that readings can be so powerful: it’s not just that what is said is true, it’s also how the hell can the astrologer know this about me?

I’ve spent quite a lot of time struggling with the fact that astrology ‘shouldn’t’ work. A simple demonstration of this is the zodiac, the various signs in which we find the planets. Several thousand years ago these signs were all declared to be thirty degrees each, yet nature is of course not regular like this. And then the signs have slipped along the ecliptic by 23 degrees since then, so that what we term 10 Pisces, for example, is in fact about 17 degrees Aquarius.

So the signs are pure hokum. Any notions of ‘energies’ and 'vibrations' (the last refuge of a New Age scoundrel) are out the window. And yet the signs work, and work very well.

The planets themselves can be a bit misleading, because they are real bodies in real places, and their relationships to each other do tell us a lot about ourselves. This can lead us to conclude that astrology is somehow rational, that there is a subtle physical relationship between the astronomical bodies and ourselves.

You even get astrologers who try to iron out the ‘irrational’ bits – i.e. the signs – and just stick to the planets and the asteroids. But this is to miss the point. The fact that the signs work when they are hokum needs to be faced, because it tells us a lot about the nature of astrology and indeed all divination systems, which is that we are dealing primarily in symbols. We may need to be able to put the meanings of these symbols in a rationally coherent form, but their fundamental function is not rational: their function is to awaken the imagination, our sense of an expanded and meaningful universe; and to awaken the intuition, our sense of knowing that precedes sense-based evidence.

It is the same with Tarot. There is no ‘reason’ a bunch of symbols picked out blind should tell us anything useful. But they do, and they are the ‘right’ symbols; you can easily imagine cards that would not have been appropriate for that person. Why the 'right' symbols should turn up, whether in astrology or tarot, is a mystery to be lived with and to be awed by. We could of course call it the Law of Attraction or something, but that just beguiles us into thinking we have an explanation when all we have is a name and a description.

The imagination and intuition precede the rational mind, though it is easy to forget this. The sense-based, ordering mind performs a very necessary function, but it also has a tendency to think it is in control, and that reality can be reduced to its terms. This is the Scientific Materialist Fallacy. When life is very busy, as modern life usually is, it is natural to think of the imagination and intuition as at best adjuncts to our advanced rational endowment, which has been so successful at bringing material benefits and improvements and a certain type of understanding.

So astrology, tarot etc remind us of how the universe really works, precisely because they ‘shouldn’t’ work. Reality precedes rationality. Reality is to be felt and wondered at, and then thought about.

If someone asks you to explain or justify astrology, I think the honest starting point is that there is no reason that it should work, and that we don’t know why it should work, but for some weird reason it does.

The logical fallacy that astrology’s debunkers are prone to is that astrology doesn’t work because it can’t work. The problem is not that astrology is non-rational but that its opponents are irrational. These are 2 different things. The non-rational is that aspect of things that cannot be described by the sense-based reasoning process. To be irrational is to ignore inconvenient evidence. (By the same token, it is irrational for astrologers to ignore the fact that the zodiac signs are hokum.)

Astrology doesn’t work because it can’t work. This is the assumption going on in the mind of many people who dismiss it. What you’re up against is religion, in the sense of metaphysical beliefs that are not open to question. It is the religion of scientific materialism, which perhaps produces a higher proportion of fundamentalists than Islam or Christianity. In these cases there’s no point trying to convince people, because they can’t listen to evidence.

What’s great about astrology is that it’s not a belief system. Astrologers have all sorts of beliefs, and it doesn’t stop them being astrologers. Astrology is practical, you can see it working. Of course, you can create a belief system around it to do with rays of energy and harmonies of the spheres etc if you want to. But I think it’s most helpful and honest to remain in that slightly uncomfortable place where you admit that you don’t know and can’t know what’s going on, but which also therefore occasionally opens up a sense of the unknowable and mysterious nature of the universe.

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Anonymous said...

Excellent article. Richard Dawkin's only defence would be to falsify his birth data so that his chart would come out wrong.

barbara b said...

I wonder how useful you find the house systems(s) re: personal or mundane strology? Are the quadrants sufficient to call up material to work with? bb

Barry Goddard said...

I find the Houses very useful, but I don't know how the different systems work.

darren said...

David Cochrane approaches his astrology from a very scientific/testing perspective, and hes found that the signs/houses are almost irrelevant in comparison with the aspects between the planets in a chart, and how these play out in various frequency harmonics.

As someone said before, Dawkins is not a 'real' scientist, hes a biologist! And I've also noticed that most of the people who are fanatical materialist skeptics are of a certain 'type'. They are often also into magic tricks (eg James randi). Something interestings going on there, I think!

Anyway, I see more and more bridges being build between science and astrology. For example, have you read Bernadette Brady's book 'Astrology: A place in chaos'? It points out the similarities between astrology and chaos theory. e.g. those fractal patterns in which patterns that appear on a large scale spontaneously are also repeated/echoed on a smaller scale.

darren said...

by the way, I wasn't suggesting that David cochrane was 'right'. but just thought i'd throw that bit of info into the conversation!

Matthew The Astrologer said...

Bless you for this! Of all the questions I've asked skeptics over the years... and I've brawled with so many... the one that they have the least satisfying answer for is "okay, if it's 'pseudoscience'... why does it work?"

Answer? Beats me. But it works.

Anonymous said...

DR, you have a great point.I've had a few try to push my buttons to explain how astrology works. The mystery is inside us as are the planets and their vibrations. The house system can give you insights and confirm what's being revealed in other areas. There are so many places to view things in a chart at so many levels, sometimes too much info.It's important to stay connected to the unconsciousness and view how the subconscious transfers this information. My clients(and yes non-believers) are shocked what comes up and I explain it to them how this information is there based on their intentions and blue-print.I offer suggestions and focus on behaviors at first. Check out Paul Foster Case.It will give insights to say the least. This system (astrology) is viewed from this physical world, but it's even more powerful at the other levels we're living through. Now I've said it. All those years doing Qigong has transformed me.I'll leave it at that. Great point DR!

Lynn Hayes said...

Great post and much more thoughtful than my usual "I don't care how it works, it just does" routine. Thanks DR!

Kenna J said...

An astronomy teacher of mine taught us that astrology is bunk because you can give a false astrological personality assessment to almost anyone and they'll think it is true about them. It made me wonder which parts of all the crazy astronomical information he was giving us would withstand having its veracity being evaluated by a random person on the street. Since when do we evaluate any science that way?