Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Astrology and Mythological Thinking

I think if someone says they don’t believe in astrology, it shows they don’t understand symbolic thinking. OK, this statement could be read as fundamentalist and intolerant, but it’s not quite like that.

Modern knowledge is based on the application of reason to what are called facts. This knowledge is scientific – it is hard, it is objective and it is ‘out there.’ But as even science will sometimes admit, you cannot separate the observer from the observed. What is seen is profoundly influenced by the mind that is seeing.

And the mind thinks symbolically, whether it understands that or not. A scientific fact or theory may seem to be just that on paper. But if it is a significant fact or theory, then our mind does something else with it. That idea acquires power, it comes to stand for something. Even the term ‘significant’ shows this: something is significant because it signifies something, it stands for something. Or let’s say ‘important’ idea instead: well that means it has an import, it implies something beyond itself. Even the word ‘understand’ means to stand under, as if we are receiving wisdom from above.

Science is deeply symbolic/ mythological. Evolution on paper can seem like a fact, but to our minds it is a story, a very big story that tells us where we came from. And it has its origin in the medieval myth of the Great Chain of Being. Or the Big Bang, the whole universe created out of nothing by a single immeasurably large explosion: we cannot possibly view that as a hard 'fact', for apart from anything, who saw it happen? it is a story that to our minds has, like Evolution, the power of Creation Myth.

Moreover, the universe is made up of invisible particles and packets of energy, whose nature and laws are fundamental to the world that humans live in and experience: does that not sound a bit like the world of the Greek gods, invisible controlling influences?
Bits of matter are magically attracted to each other and we don’t know why, but instead of being awed by it, we give it a name, gravity, as though that tells us something. And then Einstein tells us that gravity doesn’t exist, it is that space is curved around material objects. What a wonderful bit of myth-making!

There is nothing wrong with scientific ideas except the tendency to treat them literally. The reality ‘out there’ is only ever half the story, and literalism naively does not understand this.

Symbolic or mythological thinking takes both poles into account. It tells stories about events ‘out there’ but does not shy away from allowing the imagination to re-invent and contribute human meaning to those stories. Because the mind is just as much a part of the 'objective reality' as outer events are. And we mythologise anyway.
It happens to history: 9/11 is a classic example. Both the conventional account of daring, evil enemies hijacking planes and the alternative account of a secret government conspiracy make great stories, and as time goes on these explanations increasingly enter the realm of mythology, and you can take your pick which you want to believe. Conspiracy theories have considerable mythological force behind them, which is why they are so popular. Along with theories about Atlantis and alien abductions. They are modern myths.

It is a matter of acknowledging how the mind works and responding appropriately. If you think you can pare away the contribution of the imagination and arrive at ‘fact’, then the imagination will creep up behind and bite you, turning you into a literalist fanatic, whether of a scientific or religious cast, and I don’t think they are that different.

It is naïve to treat major religious figures as anything other than myth. They stand for something, and the stories around them contribute to what they stand for. If we look at the stories swirling around 9/11, which was just 10 years ago, then how can we possibly know anything ‘factual’ about these people from 2000 years ago?

Science and history work mythologically. So does politics. Politicians have to ‘stand for’ something or they won’t get elected. Advertisers understand perfectly well the power of myth when it comes to selling. Romantic love works mythologically and largely unconsciously, as we are attracted to people for reasons we know not why. And we tell stories to ourselves about our own lives.

And, to return to my original point, astrology and all divination systems work symbolically. Like all good symbols/myths, they connect ‘out there’ and ‘in here’. Astrology tells us meaningful stories about our life. To say you don’t believe in astrology is like saying you don’t believe praying to Vishnu works, or that neo- pagan ceremonies do not work.
Of course, there are plenty of people who believe these things do not work. (However, they probably act otherwise when it comes to the ceremonies of Christmas or Marriage.) But if you feel the symbols involved, then you know that these things work. I don’t know ‘how’ they work, but maybe that need to know how just reflects the modern desire to reduce everything to a mechanism.

If you're not aware that you think mythologically, then you can’t understand anything of importance. Truth has to consider both outer and inner, events and consciousness, and the imagination, which thinks in symbols, performs this function. The trick is to feel the power of symbols while not taking them literally. Feel the power of science and its ideas, even, but do not take them literally, as hard facts 'out there'.

So do I ‘believe’ in astrology? I wasn’t sure what I meant by the word believe, so I looked it up in the etymological dictionary, and it can be traced back to an ancient Germanic word ga-laubjan, to "hold dear, love”. I thought yes, that’s how I feel about astrology. On a bad day, when scientific literalism is pressing closely on me, I will tend to dismiss astrology. And I will look at it as belief in the modern sense of taking an idea to be literally true, a hard fact ‘out there’. And astrology is no more literally true than anything else. It is naive to think that astrology works by actual planetary energies influencing us, though it's quite a good story. Truth is never literal.

So I don’t ‘believe’ in astrology in the modern sense of the word believe. And if challenged about astrology, I would probably have to challenge the categories in which the other person thought, which is not an easy thing. It’s not a matter of blind belief versus experience, with astrology falling into the experience category. I loved astrology before I ever had the experience to know it worked. But that didn’t make my belief blind. It is that I was fortunate enough to have a connection to symbolic thinking and its power from a relatively young age, even though I didn’t know what it was and it took denial and many years to bring to fruition.

I don’t know if I could justify astrology to anyone else. The other day I was muttering about symbolic thinking to someone who was into Jesus, but I’m not sure it went anywhere, maybe because they took Jesus a bit too literally. To myself, it is feeling the power of the symbol that gives astrology its value. But that on its own is not enough. Hitler was a symbol that carried a lot of power for people, and still does. These are 2 different types of power, but they are both felt strongly. I know the difference, but I don’t know if I can describe it.

I think one way of looking at it is that the Hitler type symbol is experienced as external to oneself. It makes you feel stronger within, but the source is outside, and if you are used to knowing your own power (which usually takes many years), you can tell the difference. When the symbol is rigidly external (and God or Science can be experienced like this), then you feel empty within, and reliant on the literal reality of the external symbol. This is an insecure position, and to that extent leads to fanaticism. But the person in this position cannot usually see that this is what they are doing, as the surrender of authority tends to be deep and unconscious. It is the basis of religion.

And astrology can be religion just as easily. I haven’t been near the astrological ‘establishment’ for some years now. But it is divided up into authorities and wannabes and eternal disciples just like any religion, and I usually manage to say the wrong thing before too long when I’m around that sort of mindset. It’s usually in the form of someone who takes themselves and their own thinking far too seriously and who doesn’t like being contradicted!

So to conclude, the apparent paradox of astrology working when it 'shouldn't' is a fruitful one to consider. The answer, if there is one, definitely does not lie in answering the criticisms of science on its own terms, with its peculiar kind of demands for evidence. We can say from our own experience, empirically, that astrology works. But it also leads to a consideration of the very different type of thinking involved, mythological thinking. And that then leads round to the idea that ordinary thinking has a strong mythological element anyway; it is just that there is another current myth, the idea that reality can be fully described in rational terms, that confuses the issue. This is a myth both in the sense of being a falsehood, but also in the sense of an idea that has power over our minds. And I think it is the wrong sort of power.

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Anonymous said...

Excellent article!

Unknown said...

Interesting approach and good food for thought.
The mind is as rational as it is symbolic, all thoughts have a symbolic contents to them. Science is just a particular kind of knowledge that will yield a particulr kind of answers, just as faith, myth, or astrology do.

Jasmine said...

Ah.....loved it! You have a remarkable ability to make sense of things I can barly find the words for. Your last two articles have given me some much needed clarity. Thanks for the wisdom you are sharing!

Twilight said...

Thought provoking read - thank you!

When my mind gets itself into a tangle about how to think or whether I "believe" (anything) I go look at a quote of H.L. Mencken I've saved:
We are here and it is now. Further than that all human knowledge is moonshine.

Anonymous said...

when someone says "I do not believe in astrology" I say; it is not a belief--it is just an explanation of what is happening---

Alice Brown said...

Excellent article on Astrology and Mythological Thinking, I guess this one of a kind post explaining the co-relation between Astrology and Mythological Thinking so clearly. Thanks for the share...!!

Juliet said...

Great post, as always.

Anonymous said...

You really have a way of putting a point across! I'd love to think so clearly. I'm so scattered and so heavily burdened. But I appreciate this clarity. Jenni-OMG