Understanding Astrology: A Question of Belief
Dr Garry Phillipson
Understanding Astrology: A critical review of a thousand empirical studies, 1900 – 2000 (Dean, Smit, Mather & Nias, 2022)
The appearance of Understanding Astrology by Geoffrey Dean and his co-authors provides an opportunity to evaluate the strength and weakness of the contribution 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 that 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, my aim is to keep this brief by cutting through to what I see as the fundamental issues.
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.2
The strength of their contribution, I suggest, has been to question assumptions and raise uncomfortable questions for astrologers. Thus the ‘astrology world’ thought experiment prompts practitioners to ponder what their craft is, how it works, and where it is headed. It must surely be uncomfortable for anyone who believes astrology to be an exact science to be faced with such absurd, dystopian consequences. It seems sufficiently clear that such a state of affairs does not exist, nor, so far as one can tell, would ever be likely to exist. This embodies, in microcosm as it were, the contribution made to astrology by Dean et al.’s work. Their critique of a scientific conception of astrology has been an invaluable stimulus to astrologers to re-think their subject. In the twentieth century this dovetailed with the account of astrology as meaning- and person-oriented, particularly as it emerged in the work of C. G. Jung and its application to astrology by 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’.3 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.’4
This introduces the weakness of Dean et al.’s critique, which can also be seen through the ‘astrology world’ example. That thought experiment demonstrates that an astrology which functioned as an objective and reliable information service is an absurd notion. Nevertheless, it is the model of astrology that Dean et al have insisted on, and have continued to test. 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 pointed toward 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.5 But since 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 a very 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. Understanding Astrology concludes in every case that these approaches must lack any basis in reality since they do not admit of objective, statistical analysis. In such cases the practise 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…’.6 This presumably carries the authorial imprimatur, since not only is it included but it is 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’.7 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. Since Dean et al have already argued that materialism probably cannot be investigated ‘as it is more a metaphysical view than a testable hypothesis’, it is not clear why they consider it reasonable to take the materialist position, as espoused by Stenger, to be part of an argument that could – in their own terms – be persuasive.8
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.9 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, ironically and somewhat bizarrely, ‘Begone you filthy materialists’.10 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’.11 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 has to be treated as a sacred cow (if I might switch the analogical religion) 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’.12 It is no doubt the case that these terms have been used as invective at some point, but surely a balanced analysis would still need to consider if and how the terms might impinge, rather than – in effect – attempting to preclude their use in polite conversation. 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 the issues to which the word points, rather than to carp at it being used all.
Dean et al quote Bertrand Russell: ‘what men [sic] want is not knowledge but certainty’.13 They expand on this by remarking, ‘hence the popularity of superstitious beliefs – they reduce uncertainty regardless of their factual truth.’14 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 recent 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.’15
The point at issue here is that the tenor of Dean et al.’s work gives an impression of thorough analysis backed by the authority of science, whereas it seems to rest on beliefs such as materialism and faith in science’s omnicompetence 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.
1 Also with Cygnea van der Hooning, Wout Heukelom, and with special acknowledgement to Ivan W Kelly. Since the makeup of the authorial team has changed from time to time, in what follows I will refer to ‘Dean et al’ as the authors of each text, with the full list of authors included in footnotes.
2 Geoffrey Dean, Arthur Mather, Suitbert Ertel, Ivan W. Kelly and Rudolf Smit in: Garry Phillipson (2000), Astrology in the Year Zero (. Flare Publications, p. 151.
3 Geoffrey Cornelius (2003) The Moment of Astrology: Origins in Divination (2nd edn.). The Wessex Astrologer), p. 62 (In the 1st edn. [1994. Arkana/Penguin] p. 66).
4 Cornelius, p. 62. (This passage is only in the 2nd edition of the book.)
5 Understanding Astrology, p. 678.
6 Stenger quoted in Understanding Astrology, p. 654.
7 Understanding Astrology, p. 3
8 Understanding Astrology, p. 18.
9 Garry Phillipson (2019). Astrology as Heresy in Contemporary Belief. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 13.1, pp. 12 – 30.
10 Understanding Astrology, p. 18
11 Understanding Astrology, p. 18.
12 Understanding Astrology, p. 338.
13 Understanding Astrology p. 80, p. 852. For an oft-repeated 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.
14 Understanding Astrology, p. 90.
15 Bertrand Russell (1921), Philosophy for Laymen. In Unpopular Essays. George Allen and Unwin. P. 43. Original emphasis.