Astrology and ridicule

The Guardian recently published an article by Dr Rebekah Higgitt in which she questioned whether the routine dismissal of astrology as “rubbish” by popularising scientists such as Professor Brian Cox was really either helpful or even truly scientific. The article seems to have caused quite a stir. The comments thread is full of irate sceptics accusing Dr Higgitt of giving some kind of comfort to the purveyors of arrant nonsense from a past age. But that rather misses the point of her piece, in which she repeatedly makes it clear that she has no more truck with the claims of astrology than any sceptic, no matter how fervent. Her points are different: that those who would declare the beliefs of others “rubbish” should at least be careful to know what those beliefs are as expressed by the most serious  adherents in question; should take the trouble to understand some of the history of those ideas; and should accept that the mere assertion that this, that, or the other is “rubbish” is hardly a fine example of the scientific method.

Judging by the roasting Dr Higgitt received despite her unequivocal rejection of the substance of astrological belief, I had better make it clear that I too have no axe to grind. I think astrology is not so much rubbish as utterly useless. And that is my yardstick in these matters. Regular readers will know that I have frequently argued here that the spheres of science and religion are entirely separate, or at least they should be. The question is not so much about whether or not astrology and its followers should be treated with respect, but whether or not they add any value.

Astrology is not a religion. It is not a faith. Faiths have value not to the extent that they try and compete with science as alternative ways of understanding how the universe works, but to the extent that they satisfy the existential need that most of us have (and I would argue we all have, albeit not always explicit or consciously articulated) to understand why we are here, how we should live given that we are here, and what our personal futures may hold. The latter is not about trying to find out what things might happen to us, what events we may be a part of, but rather what our ultimate destiny might be. And deciding that this last may be nothing more than being once more a random part of the carbon cycle is a perfectly legitimate, if inevitably slightly depressing, conclusion to come to. When faiths expand their area of concern to providing unevidenced alternatives to scientific discovery, then they become proper objects of ridicule and incomprehension. Intelligent design is a classic example. In my judgement the design might be intelligent, but the believers are not.

Astrology has no existential value to add. It does not describe a moral framework. It has no eschatology, nor any symbolic narrative of origins that might enable someone to establish meaning in their life. It is simply an alternative version of causation to that offered by science, but unfortunately without any of the data to support it. In that narrow sense it is indeed rubbish: it doesn’t do what it says on the tin, and doesn’t say on the tin anything that could be useful.

Sceptics will of course say that I’m simply trying to offer special pleading on behalf of my religious nonsense, whilst bashing astrology which is no more nonsensical than my faith. However, just as is argued by Dr Higgitt, it’s no argument merely to say, “It’s rubbish!” I’ve set out a clear distinction between astrology and faith, and my detractors should at least do me the favour of wrestling with the issues. And when astrologers argue for the same favour, I think they have a point, notwithstanding my own position that they are indeed very mistaken. Oh, and useless too. In a very respectful sense, obviously.

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3 thoughts on “Astrology and ridicule

  1. Dear Stephen
    I appreciate the thought that you have put into this. As an astrologer I would like to take the opportunity of the comment box to argue that you haven’t represented astrology appropriately. Astrology is not a religion, and yet its ancient principles have fed into all world religions, and so it is misrepresentative to describe the subject as something that stands apart from faith, or offers no sense of ‘soul-purpose’. Traditionally it was usual for the subject to be defined as *both* a natural science *and* an art, but before the materialist age natural science was expected to allow symbolic expression of Divine Purpose, since the Will of the Creator was considered to be encoded within the physical structure of the natural world, and every visual, auditory or sensual experience of it was viewed as a route to discovering the Divine Scheme and our own place within it.
    One of the reasons these kinds of debates are difficult for astrologers to engage in, is that anyone who has been enchanted by the subject (and so recognises a ‘true value’) has had some kind of inner-realisation awakened. To those ‘within’ this feels like an illuminated sense of understanding, whilst to those ‘without’ it appears to perpetuate a failure to be ojective – and so astrology comes across as a nebulous and ‘nonsense’ subject, believed in only by the gullible. But we cannot separate astrology from the practice of *divination* – a word which is not to be disrespected since it essentially concerns communication with that which is Divine: ‘the Supernatural’ which governs over but also lies within ‘the natural’.
    Ancient astrologers studied the natural word to find encoded principles and symbolic signatures which were universal, consistent in expression, and capable of revealing Universal Law (or the Divine Plan). Their discoveries were embedded into myths and generated religious creeds, but they also acted as a foundation to all subsequent scientific development, partly because ancient mathematics was led by the belief that numbers and numerical relationships demonstrate ‘qualities’ as well as ‘quantities’ (and since numerical relationships generate shape and sound, everything that we are able to observe, monitor or experience resonates to a certain ‘type’ of energy or tone).

    Modern science has separated itself from this view in order to define the physical world with an objective perspective that is free of expectation of meaning. Hence there is no longer a comfortable placement of the full scope of astrology within its boundaries. But it is never appropriate for the subject of astrology to be labeled ‘non-sense’ as some kind of absolute definition, because within its own terms its logic does in fact present much sense, and it holds a great deal of knowledge and information that is useful for practical application *and* spiritual contemplation.
    Astrologers, by experience, believe that there are many more principles in astrology that have shown themselves reliable enough to merit further scientific exploration and investigation. My own opinion is that the subject still deserves to be looked upon as both a natural science (which is seeking reliable practical information from nature’s patterns), and an art (a word which in its fundamental meaning means to find common understanding of shared experience through the use of the imagination or subjective reasoning).

    In your blog above you say that “Astrology has no existential value to add”. This strikes me as an extreme definition so I would like to counter with an example that is equally extreme, to suggest that even something as trivial and ridiculed as the daily horoscope column can hold value, as can any symbolic reference when the mind that approaches it is seeking for ‘signs’ that point us toward our destiny. A colleague, Garry Phillipson, today recalled the poignant story of psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, who was living in Vienna at the outbreak of the second world war. Garry writes:

    “As a Jew he was under constant threat, and so was hugely relieved when he was offered a visa for immigration to the United States. But then it hit him that the only reason his aged parents had not been sent to a concentration camp was his status, as head of the department of neurology at a Viennese hospital. If he left Vienna, he could well be condemning them to death. As he puts it, “While I was pondering what my true responsibility was, I felt that this was that type of situation in which you wish for what is usually called a hint from heaven.”
    When he returned home, he noticed – lying on a table – a piece of marble with a Hebrew letter engraved and gilded in it. This, it turned out, was from a tablet showing the ten commandments from the nearby synagogue, which had just been burned down. His father had picked it out of the rubble and brought it home as a sort of holy relic. The Hebrew letter was the abbreviation of one commandment: “Honour father and mother and you will dwell in the land.” Seeing this, Frankl immediately decided to stay on in Vienna.
    His comment on this is: “You are fully justified in claiming that this was a projective test, that I must have made my decision in the depth of my heart beforehand and just projected it onto the appearance of a piece of marble stone. But if I had seen in the piece of marble stone nothing but calcium carbonate, this too would have been the result of a projective test, more specifically, the expression of a sense of meaninglessness…” (p.59 ‘The Will to Meaning’)”

    Whilst astrologers would admit that this does not offer any kind of ‘proof’ for astrology, we would see it as a demonstration of why the human mind should stay focussed and objective when concerned with the need for scientific analysis, but also open, receptive, and ‘communicative’ when in the process of seeking understanding of Divine Purpose, which can sometimes reveal itself in even the unlikeliest of oracular devices.

    • Thank you for your extensive comment, and for engaging in constructive debate. I doubt very much that we will be able to come to any kind of proximity in our respective positions, but that is no bad thing in itself, and it’s always useful when those who disagree are prepared to be open rather than closed.

      My first problem with your argument is the use of terms such as “Divine Purpose”, “Will of the Creator”, “Divine Plan” and the like, as if these were universally acknowledged concepts. Obviously they are not, and so arguing from assumptions that include them is bound to lead us in divergent directions with no hope of later reconnection.

      But in truth my objections are deeper than this. As human beings it seems we have two fundamental needs: to understand how the world (and indeed the universe) works so that we can interact with it in broadly predictable ways; and to come to a sense of personal and collective meaning. In short, we have a need to understand not only “what” and “how”, but also “why”. This last is an existential imperative. My difficulty with astrology is not that it is ignorant of “what” (and you rightly point out that “serious” astrologers have a better than average grasp of astronomy) but rather that it proposes a version of “how” that is superfluous. We know from centuries of scientific study an awful lot about “how”, and astrological explanations are neither needed in addition to, nor compatible with, that knowledge. What science cannot provide, it seems to me, is any account of why the universe is as it is, nor can it shed any light on how we should live within it. My argument with astrology is that it sheds no light on this either: on the contrary, by positing a scheme of causation for which there is no evidence whatever, astrology confuses – the exact opposite of illumination.

      The example you gave of Viktor Frankl is interesting, but I’m not sure it has got anything to with astrology. There’s a strikingly similar story about the founder of the Iona Community: coming to London with little idea of what to do with his life, he saw scrawled on a goods wagon, “Return empty to Scotland”. He took this to be a “sign”, returned as “instructed” to Scotland, and founded the community that still exists. Seductive though these kinds of story are, I am personally unable to find them anything more than poetic accounts of entirely normal human decision-making. Their value is in their existential meaning, not in any causal or explanatory power.

      However, although I profoundly disagree with you, I am not fond of the kind of arrogant ridicule that was expressed by Brian Cox and many others. I have no need to bolster my disagreement with bile!

      • Hi Billy
        I don’t want to add more than I already have, and this comment is mainly to thank you for the sentiment expressed in your concluding paragraph, which is very heartening considering the ferocity of some of the arguments that are currently circulating. It probably needs to be stated that astrology does not, in fact, posit a scheme of causation. This is a point of common misunderstanding, but it is a complex issue, and your blog is not the place to enter into that.
        Diversity of opinion is not always a bad thing if it allows constructive debate to move forward.
        Good luck with your work
        Deb
        (PS – feel free to edit this ‘ps’ if you wish – if you are interested in some related discussion of why astrology is not causative, some relevant comments can be found on this page
        http://skyscript.co.uk/forums/viewtopic.php?t=5987. FYI, I also mention this blog on that page).

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