Great Philosophers and their Starsigns
Another look at the ancient debate over the scientific credibility of the devilish science
What we’re supposed to think:
|‘Science has shown us through measurement, observation and experimentation that there are four forces in the Universe: electromagnetism, strong interaction, weak interaction and gravitation. For reasons too detailed to go into in this article, none of them can impact humanity purely from the positions of the stars in the sky or how aligned the planets are.’|
|Dr Mark Thompson, astronomer|
What you’re not to say:
|'In the early stages of the human mind, these connecting links between astrology and biology were studies from a very different point of view, but at least they were studied and not left out of sight, as is the common tendency in our own time, under the restricting influence of a nascent and incomplete positivism. Beneath the chimerical belief of the old philosophy in the physiological influence of the stars, there lay a strong, though confused recognition of the truth that the facts of life were in some way dependent on the solar system. Like all primitive inspirations of man's intelligence this feeling needed rectification by positive science but not destruction...'|
|Auguste Comte, Cours de Philosophie Positive, Vol. III, 1836)|
Philosophy has long had a dislike of astrology. It is, after all, irrational. And one of the most surprising, some would say alarming, facts about Ronald Reagan is that, as soon as he became the President of the United States, he appointed a personal astrologer to help him take decisions. But then, for thousands of years, all the Kings and Queens had their personal astrologers to do much the same thing. These were experts that they consulted on important state matters, such as when to invade the neighbouring country, when to harvest the crops - or how best to bring up baby.
Reagan had acquired the habit of consulting an experts in the Occult Arts when he was but a humble actor in California, doubtless the process helped him decide which role in which film he should accept - and we know where that ended: ‘Breakfast with Bonzo (1951)’. But once he took high office, the role of astrology became even more in important*.
Reagan consulted his personal astrologer, Joan Quigley, about the personality and inclinations of other world leaders, and used these insights to help him assess the prospects of meetings succeeding. It seems, for example, that the stars looked favourably upon one Mikhail Gorbachev, the then leader of the otherwise Evil Empire, and hence Reagan was encouraged to attempt the rapprochement that in due course led to the end of the Cold War. In fact, the timings of all policy initiatives had to be squared with the movements of the cosmos, and White House staff were instructed to liaise with her in all their plans. She was responsible, in short, for the success of all that Reagan did. And these days, Reagan is counted as a pretty successful President, although that judgement is itself by no means necessarily a very scientific one.
Of course, Ronald Reagan came in for a bit of stick for consulting astrologers. Just as, more generally scientists and attached pundits love nothing better that to mock more humble folk who follow their forecasts in the newspapers and magazines.
Typical of the scientists opposed to astrology is one Mark Thompson, a writer and astronomy presenter for a TV show. Penning a little piece for a newspaper, (Astrology Rubbish? Don't Get Me Started, Daily Mail, Oct 29, 2010) he launches several torpedoes against the astrological dinghy.
First out, that claim that according to astrologers there are 12 signs of the zodiac. Wrong! Boom! There are 13 signs of the zodiac, reports Thompson, adding sardonically, ‘Ophiuchus is the 'new' one yet for some curious reason I have never come across an Ophiuchian!' Likewise, until 1781, there were only five planets known to affect us in the minds of astrologers: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Now there are three more! Oh no, two more, since in recent years the astronomers decided they were wrong to have ever counted Pluto as a planet as it is very small and appears to be really just another asteroid.
Even allowing for a moment the traditional twelve signs of the zodiac, there are problems. Mark was born in July which astrologers would say means that when he was born the sun was in Cancer. But they’re wrong again. Boom! Originally yes, the sun would have been in Cancer when the star/sun charts were produced about 2000 years ago. But in reality, the wobble of the Earth on its axis - which astronomers call "precession" - has led to them being all out of sync.
'In fact, says Mark cheerily, “when I was born, way back in July 1973, the Sun was in Gemini. News Flash: you're all reading the wrong star signs! All those astrology columns you've read that seemed spot-on were a fluke. Surprising eh?”
Let's pause Dr Thompson there. Just think, what are the constellations? They are patterns in the starts that we see from Earth. The constellations are in reality made up of stars in very different positions in the universe. Typically, some of the stars are relatively close, and some are a long way away but may be rather larger and brighter. Some of the ‘stars’ may actually be distant galaxies! And the resemblance of the stars to anything like a lion let alone ‘a goat with a fishes tail' is well, nil. So where the planets are in relation to these imaginary, wholly human constructed collections of bright points of light remains and may as well be wholly human constructed. Anyway, it cannot make any difference to the claims of astrology where the 'physical' zodiac is. Because there is no physical sense in which the signs are really there in the skies.
Mark then moves onto more philosophical arguments, saying that if there is some mystical force (other than the fundamental four above) affecting our lives from the planets, then clearly distance is no object for this force as it doesn't matter if a planet or star is near or far. And yet there are 'hundreds of exoplanets orbiting other stars?' And over 200 billion stars in the Milky Way! 'Surely that 'force' would also be affecting us. Thankfully it doesn't, otherwise we would all be running round as complete loonies with all these 'influences' flying at us from all directions.' Boom!
'As you can tell, I'm not fond of astrology’, he confides in closing. ‘It's all about telling people what they want to hear and we fragile humans' wanting something to believe in.' And that's bad, of course.
What makes astrology bad
Mark is not alone. For many educated people, nothing better illustrates the gullibility and foolishness of the masses, and the need for the lead of a scientific elite than the continued activities of 'unlicensed' specialists in the influence of the stars and planets on human affairs. They don't seem to remember, or want to be told, that for a thousand years, Universities taught astrology as one of the core subjects, and that it was part of a sophisticated system of medical knowledge involving the different parts of the body and different herbs.
Even if that founding figure of sensible science, Isaac Newton, was brought upon a diet of esoteric knowledge, in which astrology ranked as one of the great studies of mankind, even if astronomy profited from the mystical approach of Pythagoras, even if that the best of modern medicine is borrowed from herbalism; and that chemistry is a side-shoot of alchemy. Even if, in short, in Paul Feyerabend's words, everywhere science is enriched and sustained by unscientific methods and unscientific results, today astrology is firmly fallen out of favour with philosophers, let alone scientists. Little remains of the subject other than the superficial popular and psychological forms, yet astrology, like many of the now much derided esoteric studies of the distant past, still has the potential to inform and underpin our understandings of the universe. Because thousands of years of thinking are contained in those ancient astrological myths and legends. Science is just a blip in this long history...
Astrology's origins are lost in antiquity, but it is usually said to have originated in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) before spreading, via Babylon, to the Greeks. The Ancient Greeks learnt avidly of the new studies in science and mathematics, and similarly of the interest in the 'patterns' in the heavens. It was the Greeks who developed the methods of personal horoscopes, a skill then borrowed by the Romans, whose Latin names for the signs have been used ever since.
That said, one rather compelling argument heard against astrology is that some of its practitioners, people who compose astrology columns for daily newspapers or magazines, don't actually 'do it'. Instead of carefully checking the positions of the stars and planets each day, these astrologers simply write stuff off the top of their heads, or ask other people 'in the office' what they would LIKE to be their horoscope for that day, or week. Such glimpses behind the scenes look pretty damming, upsetting even for those who have up to then found a lot of thought-provoking insight into their most personal secrets in the relevant column. Yet even here, the astrological beast that is slain is nothing more than the 'stalking horse' one of supposed physical cause and effect. Although occasionally astrologers mutter about possible physical mechanisms for planetary influence, be they changes in the Earth's magnetic fields, or be they still more mystical 'quantum ones', really astrology is not about that. It is about mystical correspondences. It is no less unlikely that someone could randomly generate wise advice for an astrology column than they could do so using those out-of-date zodiacal charts.
Astrology in the Petri dish
Mystical correspondences are difficult to test in laboratories. Yet even if we allow that astrology's workings are too mystical to be examined, far less understood, by scientists, the same cannot be said of the question of whether their predictions are accurate or not. Here, scientists are on their home ground. And indeed there have been many such scientific studies. Throughout the closing decades of the 20th century, researchers tracked more than 2,000 people - selected as they were of them born within minutes of each other. According to astrology, built upon the principle that our human characteristics are moulded by the influence of the sun, moon and planets at the time of our birth, the subjects should have had very similar aptitudes and characters.**
The researchers patiently measured no less than 100 different characteristics, including occupation, anxiety levels, marital status, aggressiveness, sociability, IQ levels and ability in art, sports, mathematics and reading, and then looked for any evidence that people born under the same stars shared certain characteristics - as astrology would seem to require, if its forecasts are to make any sense.
Naturally, inevitably even, the scientists failed to find any evidence of similarities between the "time twins". They gleefully reported this in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, which is apparently where such studies belong, adding that: "The test conditions could hardly have been more conducive to success ... but the results are uniformly negative."
Summing up the findings, Geoffrey Dean, a scientist, based in Perth, Australia, where the constellations are all different anyway, and a renegade former astrologer himself, said that the results undermined the claims of astrologers, especially as they typically work with birth data far less precise than that used in the study. "They sometimes argue that times of birth just a minute apart can make all the difference by altering what they call the 'house cusps,'" he said. "But in their work, they are happy to take whatever time they can get from a client."
The president of the Astrological Association of Great Britain, doubtless using his secret powers to see the causes behind events, accused Mr. Dean of seeking to "discredit astrology". But he needn't have worried, because anyway, all this is old hat. Astrology first heard and shrugged off that problem centuries, nay thousands of years, ago. Even the Ancient Greek philosopher Carneades (219-129 BCE), had noted it, adding that if the crucial date for the influence of the stars on humans was the moment of conception, as opposed to birth (which, at least at the time he was writing, is necessarily always at least a few minutes apart) then the irrelevance of astrological influences for twins is even more marked. It was already clear back then that there was no answer to that, but equally, since Carneades was a philosopher who picked holes in everyone's claims to knowledge, and generally insisted that no certainty was possible about anything, in a sense he left astrology humbled but no more unreliable than any other study.
And sure enough, astrology quickly recovered from this blow to its prestige and was sufficiently influential that a few hundred years later, the Church needed to charge its top philosopher, Saint Augustine, with the task of attempting to discredit it. Augustine fell to with customary zeal and thoroughness. But his task was complicated as first he had to square frequent Biblical references to the stars (for example, guiding the wise men, who, more embarrassing still, were in fact astrologers, to Bethlehem) with warnings elsewhere in the Bible that astrologers are evil people who belong in the category of sorcerers and witches.
It was truly a formidable exercise for any philosopher, and his solution was in effect to allow the trappings, but outlaw the substance. God did indeed use the heavens to send messages - but humans could not tell the future 'in general', by looking at the stars. At this point, Saint Augustine gratefully resurrected the twins argument as evidence that the claims of astrologers were false. And not only false. Worse! In trying to read the future, people sinned grievously. It was with this guidance in mind that Dante depicted the poor astrologers burning in the Inferno in a particularly painful way. He has them with their heads twisted viciously round, so that they can only see in the one direction - backwards.
Other Church fathers (Jerome, Eusebius, Chrystostom, Lactantius, and Ambrose) all joined in the Crusade against astrology, and the great Council of Toledo prohibited it for all time. Many other critics, in all ages, followed Augustine’s lead. By no means all of these were particularly devout, of course. Actually, astrology is one of the few things that religious folk and irreligious scientists can agree on. As the 'Dark Ages' lightened up a bit, Roger Bacon , Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, William Fulke), John Chamber and Sir Christopher Heydon ) published critiques. By the end of the Renaissance in Europe, there was such a good market for parodies of astrology that even respected writers like Jonathan Swift and Benjamin Franklin had a go!
Of all the Renaissance voices, Pico Della Mirandola is one of the most respected ones. And sure enough, his demolition of astrology rested upon a (re)discovery of the 'twins problem'. Actually, it seems that he had a particular grudge against the science, as he had once been advised helpfully by astrologers that he would die before the 33rd year of his life, due to Mars and the direction of his ascendant. Naturally he was pretty mad about that! And so he discredited their methodology. On the other hand, as some astrologers took unkind pleasure in noting, that unfortunate feature of his horoscope did indeed turn out to be fatal in his 32nd year. That's the story, anyway, and indeed it's a fine story to frighten scientists with, but equally, as has been pointed out, even if the story if true, the prediction is still not really within the proper scope of astrological judgement.
Science and religion combine to combat heresy
Such dire predictions of not only individual misfortune but collective human doom helped Christianity rebadge the ancient stud as a devilish folk art. But as with many other devilish folk arts, even as it condemned the pagan practices, it embraced other traditions of astrology with the other hand. That’s why each Christmas the Church celebrates the 'sign' of the star over Bethlehem and has decorated its most important religious sites (in their masonry, stained glass windows and paintings) with numerous astrological symbols and motifs. That’s also why, six centuries on, the dates of popes' coronations were determined by the zodiac; aristocratic prelates employed their own personal astrologers; and signs of the zodiac appeared all over church furnishings, tiles, doorways, manuscripts, and baptismal fonts. Such hypocrisy is worthy of science itself!
So there was plenty of scope for a new rediscovery of the 'Twins problem' by science proper, in 1975, this time by a group of '186 leading scientists', including 19 Nobel laureates. These worthies signed a statement called 'Objections to Astrology' which also revealed the problem to a still regrettably unenlightened world.
In a preamble to their critique, the scientists explained their motivations. They had asked themselves why people believed n astrology and concluded that it must be that in uncertain times many long for the comfort of having guidance in making decisions. ‘They would like to believe in a destiny predetermined by astral forces beyond their control. However, we must all face the world, and we must realise that our futures lie in ourselves, and not in the stars.'
The 186 were ‘especially disturbed by the continued uncritical dissemination of astrological charts, forecasts, and horoscopes by the media and by otherwise reputable newspapers, magazines, and book publishers’ saying it could only contribute to the ‘growth of irrationalism and obscurantism.' The statement was organised by three experts in particular: Bart J. Bok, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona; Lawrence E. Jerome, a 'Science Writer' from California and Paul Kurtz‚ Professor of Philosophy at Buffalo, all regular 'skeptics' in the American sense of people who believe uncritically in the march of science and try to make money out of books discrediting all forms of esoteria and alternative medicine.
Lawrence Jerome, for instance, quickly followed up the petition with a 1977 book called Astrology Disproved, which offers as reasons why astrology cannot be true, things like the good scientific fact that: 'Correspondence is not causation: no matter how powerful a coincidence, there is no necessary causation behind it.'
But astrology is divination. Where tea leaves fall in the bottom of a cup does not 'physically' affect my future either. However, it is quite possible that there could be some significant correlations. Possible, but unlikely. One would need a tea-leaf expert to know. Or there's the ancient Chinese art of throwing yarrow sticks and seeing how they fall - the I Ching. There is no possible way, gravitational or otherwise, that certain arrangements of yarrow sticks could influence events on Earth. But the claim is that certain patterns in the sticks reflect certain patterns in the universe. Patterns that ultimately we are part of. But listen to the positivist (everything real can be measured) mindset, plodding relentlessly though its irrelevant critique:
•Astrology is based on your time of birth, but if there is any planetary influence at all, shouldn't it be at your conception?
°There is more gravitational influence on a child at birth from the attending doctor than from all the stars and planets combined.
°Astrology is based on a Ptolemaic, earth-centred, universe and was left high and dry after the Copernican, sun-centred, model was adopted.
Yet in the style, typical of those attempting to nail astrologers, Lawrence Jerome goes on to debunk his own idea of astrology by causation rather than the astrologers’ idea of mystical correspondence. 'Astrology is out of sync with the stars', he complains, and the sun passes through those 13, not 12 constellations, on different dates and for different durations that traditional astrology claims. The odd thing about this 'scientific' debunking is that if , as he and the other signatories all insist, there is no causal relationship between the constellations or the wanderings of the planets 'through them', then there is no significance in the 'actual' position of the stars either. Linking the two is, well. irrational. But then that problem is, as they pointed out, spreading.
* As revealed in Kitty Kelly's biography of the 'Reagan Years'
** But that's a study with only 2000 people. Surely still room for doubt? Yet Danish researchers used computer analysis and statistical methods to study possible astrological connections between over 15,000 individuals.