The Astrological Association Journal of Research in Astrology

Understanding Astrology: A Question of Belief

by Garry Phillipson

Understanding Astrology: A critical review of a thousand empirical studies, 1900 – 2020 (Dean, Smit, Mather & Nias, 2022)

An evaluation of the work of Geoffrey Dean and his co-authors, with particular reference to Understanding Astrology (Dean et al., 2022) and the thought-experiment of ‘astrology world’. It is argued that, in developing an approach whereby they might test astrology through scientific means, they have unwittingly imposed their beliefs on their subject-matter and that this undermines the value of their contribution

The appearance of Understanding Astrology by Geoffrey Dean and his co-authors (2022) provides an opportunity to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the contribution he and they have made to our understanding of astrology.1 In what follows I will focus on the philosophical issues with the work and leave an evaluation of the statistical side to others more versed in the discipline. Since Dean et al have written so much on the subject, and since I have already had more than my fair share of engagements with them, I aim to keep this brief by focusing on a fundamental issue.

‘Astrology World’
I believe that both the strength and the weakness in the approach of Dean et al is embodied in a thought experiment they proposed in 2000:

 Suppose that all the research ever done has got it wrong, and that we have a world where astrology works to the extent claimed in astrology books. Hunger and hardship have disappeared because economic trends and climate are predictable. Science has disappeared because horary astrology answers any question. So has competitive sport for the same reason. Cars and planes are hazard-free because assembly times conducive to accidents are routinely avoided. Crime, war, illness and divorce are unknown because predictable. Every person is empowered, self-actualised, spiritually enlightened, and knows their individual purpose and direction. Abuse of astrological knowledge is prevented by restricting it to those whose charts reveal due merit. This is astrology world.

If this seems somehow familiar that may be because some of these ideas have formed the basis of works of science fiction. For instance, the society Philip K. Dick described in The Minority Report uses people with precognitive ability to pre-empt crime (Dick, 1956). The issue I would like to focus on here is that ‘astrology world’ depicts astrology as it might be, if astrology were a reliable science performing as a comprehensive information service. It seems clear that astrology does not currently function in such an inexorable manner. The explanation of Dean et al is that this is because astrology lacks purchase on the real world. I want to suggest that ‘astrology world’ is absurd for a different reason.

The upshot of The Minority Report is that the predictive model starts to break down because the actions of someone who knows what has been predicted is affected by the fact of their knowing the prediction. Patrick Curry remarked on this issue when he wrote that ‘every prediction is necessarily also an intervention… this truth precludes any fantasies of perfect and complete foreknowledge’ (Curry, 2004, p. 55). I suggest that this opens the way to a different explanation of why the ‘astrology world’ model is absurd: it assumes a world of inert, unresponsive human subjects. This is at odds with the account of astrology as meaning- and person-oriented that emerged (or perhaps re-emerged) in the twentieth century through the thought of figures such as C. G. Jung and Dane Rudhyar. Geoffrey Cornelius has done much to develop this perspective on astrology’s nature, which he has dubbed ‘astrology as divination’. Commenting on a stipulation from Dean et al that astrology must be tested by excluding the subjective participation of astrologers, Cornelius remarked that this ‘begs the question of the fundamental definition of astrology’ (Cornelius, 2003, p. 62). Further, he contended, ‘something about the participation of the astrologer… must have rung a warning bell for Geoffrey Dean, because it might lead him in a different direction to the preconceptions on which he has founded a lifetime of research’ (Cornelius, 2003, p. 62).

In order to characterise astrology as a practice which can be comprehended in its entirety by science, Dean et al. have insisted on a model which effectively precludes both astrologers and their clients. The question might arise, why anyone would choose to spend time testing and discussing the viability of something which they have already, convincingly, shown to be nonsense a priori.

A Problem of Methodology
Here is the problem for the methodology of Dean et al. Their recurrent message is that astrology can and should be tested. The frontispiece of Understanding Astrology asks, ‘Why have arguments when you can have tests?’, with the word ‘test’ appearing a further 2,490 times on the following pages of the text. Yet what is, and can be, tested in their sense is an astrology that functions as if it were a celestial version of Google. Which is to say, the form of astrology whose absurdity they already have shown with the thought experiment of ‘astrology world’.
It might be objected that the approach of Dean et al is more accommodating of the vagaries of astrological interpretation than I give them credit for, in two ways:

First, there is no expectation of startling accuracy, only statistical significance coupled with large effect size, on the basis that ‘if astrologers can observe the claimed correlations then so can scientific researchers’ – along with the corollary that if scientific researchers detect no statistically significant pattern then nothing of astrological significance has occurred (Dean et al. 2022, p. 678). But since the subjective experiences of meaning cannot be included in tests of the kind intended, this does not open up the perspective of astrology as divination; only that of astrology as a science that functions in an unreliable way.

The second objection might be that Understanding Astrology cites many commentators who characterise astrology as involving dialogue or participation with something beyond the everyday human mind – something which might (for example) be characterised as God, or gods, or the collective unconscious. The claim is often made in such texts that interaction with the more-than-human locates the evaluation of significance outside the competence of the statistician. For instance, James Brockbank, in his discussion of astrology as part of a ‘Responsive Cosmos’, argued that ‘astrology is not subject to empirical verification, is non-falsifiable and is not directly concerned with accuracy’ (2011, p. 212). Understanding Astrology concludes in every case that these approaches must lack any basis in reality since they do not allow for objective, statistical analysis. In such cases the practice of astrology as a dialogical, divinatory art is (more or less) dismissed for not conforming to the hard science model epitomised in ‘astrology world’. In effect, accounts of astrology as akin to divination are thereby rejected for not leading to absurd consequences.

Materialism and Heresy
A key part of Understanding Astrology in this regard is a long series of quotations from the late Victor Stenger, in which he says that he has seen atoms with the help of a microscope and galaxies with telescopes, ‘but nowhere in those pictures do I see the slightest direct or indirect hint of gods, spirits or ghosts. These only seem to exist in the dreams and fantasies that rattle around in our heads…’ (Dean et al., 2022 p. 654; quoting Stenger 1990, p. 11). This presumably carries the imprimatur of Dean et al., since not only did they choose to cite it with approval, but it is also referenced in the index as ‘Spirits – not justified by the data’. At the conclusion of the quotations from Stenger, Dean et al summarise: ‘Unless you have conclusive evidence there is insufficient reason to believe. So unless your beliefs are sufficiently evidence-based, you should keep them to yourself’ (Dean et al. 2022, p. 654). The problem they continually fail to address is that what should count as ‘evidence’ and ‘sufficient reason’ are outside the competence of science, so that at this point the discussion would need to take a philosophical turn if they wanted to substantiate their position. Since Dean et al have already argued that materialism probably cannot be investigated ‘as it is more a metaphysical view than a testable hypothesis’ (Dean et al., 2022, p. 18), it is not clear why they consider it reasonable to take the materialist position implied by Stenger to be part of an argument that could – in their own terms – be persuasive.

I have developed a case elsewhere that a parallel can be seen between the excesses of the Christian church’s defence of its beliefs and those of contemporary advocates of scientism (Phillipson, 2019). Both, I argued, have sometimes chosen to define astrology as a heresy, which can be a way to foster and preserve the ardour of their believers. I was reminded of this by a section headed, ‘Begone you filthy materialists (Dean et al., p. 18). The gist of this is that ‘anti-materialist arguments’ allow ‘anyone who dares to criticise astrology to be dismissed as a filthy materialist with zero understanding of the spiritual nature of astrology’ (Dean et al., p. 18). The best sense I can make of this is to see it as an attempt to pre-empt criticism by weaponizing the term ‘materialism’, so that materialist assumptions could not be challenged. To attack materialism becomes, in effect, a heresy.

The impression that materialism should be sacrosanct is strengthened by references to, and quotations from, figures affiliated with the ‘New Atheism’ such as Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Stenger himself. This is in addition to references to members of CSI (formerly CSICOP) such as Paul Kurtz and James Randi, and Michael Shermer from the Skeptics Society. Other terms such as ‘scientism’, ‘reductionism’ and ‘(neo) positivism’ are mentioned at a later point in the text as ‘terms some astrologers use as invectives’ (Dean et al., p. 338). It is no doubt the case that these terms have been used as invective, but a balanced analysis would still need to consider if and how the terms might be relevant, rather than – in effect – attempting to proscribe their use. By way of parallel, an astrologer might disagree with a description of astrology as ‘superstition’ from a critic of astrology; but in such a case the way forward would be to examine what is being claimed, rather than to rage at the use of forbidden words.

Dean et al quote Bertrand Russell: ‘what men [sic] want is not knowledge but certainty’ (Dean et al., 2022, p. 80, p. 852).2 They expand on this by remarking, ‘hence the popularity of superstitious beliefs – they reduce uncertainty regardless of their factual truth’ (Dean et al., 2022, p. 90)’ The possibility that any dogmatic view (including scientism) might reduce uncertainty, and win people’s devotion on that basis, is not considered. This seems to me to be symptomatic of a lack of reflexivity in the work of Dean et al, on which basis I should like to offer another quotation from Russell: ‘What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or of ignorance.’ (1921, p. 43).
The point at issue here is that the tenor of Dean et al’s work gives an impression of thorough and impartial analysis backed by the authority of science, whereas – when analysed – it seems to rest on beliefs such as materialism and a faith in science’s omnicompetence which is sometimes known as scientism. I hope it might go without saying, however, that I respect the right of Dean et al to hold whatever beliefs they choose.

Brockbank, James (2011). The Responsive Cosmos: An Enquiry into the Theoretical Foundation of Astrology. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Kent.
Cornelius, Geoffrey (2003). The Moment of Astrology: Origins in Divination (2nd edn.). The Wessex Astrologer.
Curry, Patrick (2004) in: Willis, Roy, and Curry, Patrick. Astrology, Science and Culture. Berg.
Dean, Geoffrey; Mather, Arthur; Nias, David; Smit, Rudolf (2022). Understanding Astrology: A Critical Review of a Thousand Empirical Studies 1900 – 2020. AinO.
Dean, Geoffrey; Mather, Arthur; Ertel, Suitbert; Kelly, Ivan W.; Smit, Rudolf (2000) in: Phillipson, Garry (2000). Astrology in the Year Zero. Flare.
Dick, Philip K (1956). ‘The Minority Report’. Fantastic Universe January 1956 Vol. 4 No. 6, pp. 4 – 36.
Phillipson, Garry (2000). Astrology in the Year Zero. Flare. (2nd edition, from Sophia Centre Press, forthcoming.)
Phillipson, Garry (2019). ‘Astrology as Heresy in Contemporary Belief’. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 13.1, pp. 12 – 30.
Russell, Bertrand (1921). ‘Philosophy for Laymen’, Unpopular Essays pp. 35 – 49. George Allen and Unwin.
Stenger, Victor J. (1990). Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses. Prometheus.

Understanding Astrology was written/compiled by Dean with Arthur Mather, David Nias and Rudolf Smit. Since I will also refer to another work by Dean with a different group of collaborators in what follows, I will (in the interests of simplicity) refer to ‘Dean et al’ as the authors of both texts, with the full list of authors included in entries for the two texts in the ‘References’ at the end.

For a famous quotation, this is surprisingly obscure in its origin. From what I have been able to gather the original is ‘what men really want is not knowledge but certainty’, and it appeared, not in any of Russell’s published works, but in an interview he gave to the BBC, with the first appearance in print being: The Listener and BBC Television Review Vol 72 (30 July 1964) p. 160.