How Astrology Works

(This is the introduction to my new book ‘How Astrology Works’,  published by Perrault on January 7th, 2019)

As a professional astrologer of over twenty five years, the subject of ‘how astrology works’ has always fascinated me. However, according to scientists like Richard Dawkins astrology is ‘demeaning and cheapening’, at least if one must get one’s fun from ‘this kind of thing’. He makes it sound like some unspeakable perversion: ‘this kind of thing’, evidently, not something one would wish one’s neighbours to find out about. It’s also not something to be broached among rational, sane and intelligent people. I used to mention my profession to people when they asked what I did for a living. Some thought I was getting confused with astronomy (‘you couldn’t possibly mean astrology – that’s for idiots’); others went quiet for a moment and said blankly: ‘Ah … I see,’ then tried to change the subject. The most astonished reactions came when I told them I was actually qualified. ‘Yes, I see. A diploma. In that subject. Really?’ I’m sure other astrologers have encountered something similar: not everyone takes it seriously. Probably it’s not their fault, and this book is meant to address this deficiency!

In this book, I’ll deal honestly and accurately with sceptical claims that ‘astrology cannot work’ and go some way towards showing how it really does work. This latter may prove an impossible task, but I’m willing to try. Impossible because – and this may as well be admitted straight away – astrology isn’t founded on any ‘mechanism’ known to science. In other words, science (namely astronomy or classical physics) can – at present – find no material cause in the Universe that would suggest bodies in our solar system directly influence human nature. Since empirical science (that which uses testable physical evidence as the final arbiter) seems to be the only discipline these days considered ‘authoritative’, the only discipline that could apparently have the final say on such a matter, then already the astrologer would seem to be on shaky ground. 1

This may not be the most convincing way to begin a book about ‘proving’ astrology, but the intelligent astrologer has realised that, once the correlation between the birth chart and the events in one’s life is established, he or she is dealing with a much bigger metaphysical picture: that some correspondence must exist between the ‘planets’ and the human psyche. A link that calls forth the very way we look at reality itself; one that goes beyond the reductive and narrow frame of reference entertained by most of astrology’s critics. It is this larger frame of reference that I wish to address.

Though some eminent psychologists have spoken favourably about astrology, what people in general want to know is if there’s any killer evidence for it – if science can say, once and for all, that there’s ‘something in it’. So: is there any scientific proof for the subject? Well, the answer has to be both ‘yes’ and ‘no’, the reasons for which soon become clear. The reductive techniques science calls upon for proof don’t really apply to astrology, though I hasten to add that there is what can reliably be called scientific evidence for astrology in statistical form, from when a battery of tests was carried out (in the late twentieth century) by the French academic Michel Gauquelin. For example, he discovered a correlation between the birth charts of emiment sportsmen and the position of Mars at the time of their birth, which gave the world the so-called ‘Gauquelin Mars Effect’. Hardened naysayers, accustomed to rejecting astrology in toto, simply don’t know what to make of Gauquelin’s results, obviously because – if they are significant within science – they can’t ignore them.

The point is that this correlation discovered by Gauquelin amounted to statistically significant percentages (i.e. ‘more than chance’ results) when the findings were assessed. But what happened later – and what tends to happen with such ‘controversial’ discoveries – is that the means and methods for gathering data and producing results were not only questioned, but rejected (along with, need one say, accusations of bias on the part of the experimenter). I’ll look in detail at this issue later since, for those who want to know what science makes of astrology’s veracity, the Gauquelin materials are about the nearest we’ve come to scientific proof.

The ‘Mars Effect’ also has its own Wikipedia page, which brings me to the subject of the popular online encyclopaedia itself, in particular, how it influences the general image of astrology. There is nothing essentially ‘wrong’ with Wikipedia, it being a marvellously idealistic project to pool collective knowledge and learning for everyone’s benefit. It’s free, and with an account one can even (in principle) edit its pages to ‘improve’ on it – and there’s the rub. On the website of the British astrologer Robert Currey we find that,

‘anyone interested in pages on what Wikipedia term ‘fringe’ topics: those relating to astrology, the paranormal, metaphysics, faith/spirituality or alternative medicine or on atheism or scepticism (US spelling skepticism), will find editing is a closed shop controlled by a small group of editors. They are supported by at least two editors working full-time patrolling, editing and deleting these pages while claiming to be scientists. Under the cloak of anonymity, they each make up to ten thousand edits per year to ensure that scientism prevails, bad science is white-washed and inconvenient evidence is suppressed … Most refer to themselves as ‘rational sceptics’ or rationalists. However, I have not found that they are particularly rational or interested in evidence or practice critical thinking in the manner of genuine sceptics … Since most of their knowledge of fringe subjects is acquired from the biased perspective of sceptical publications like the Skeptical Inquirer, conferences and books, subjects like the paranormal, religious belief, astrology and alternative medicine appear objectionable..’2

Such beliefs as Currey cites must be suppressed by ‘those in the know’, hence the behind-the-scenes editing at Wikipedia by the bunch of ‘guerilla skeptics’, as the piece calls them. One important point made above is the mention of ‘scientism’. This is not science at all, at least not in the true spirit of scientific enquiry, which is to simply to know. Scientism is the naïve belief that science can answer all of the Big Questions about life, and this includes human psychology in all its eternal, subtle complexity. Where certain problems still remain unsolved in science, those with unlimited faith in it simply say, ‘don’t worry, we’ll have the answers in another ten years.’ (Usually, the ten years elapses and the problem science can’t solve remains unsolved.)

The ‘guerilla skeptics’ (or what I prefer to call Dishonest Sceptics) have an agenda to maintain – they want to reassure themselves that their world view (derived mainly from orthodox science) is the ‛correct’ one. Whatever threatens this is either ignored or, if it won’t go away, it must be destroyed. Hence the rather aggressive, or patronising, reactions to astrology. The eminent American astrologer Robert Hand writes:

There must be a reason why scientists … take the time and energy to denounce astrology. What prevents these obviously intelligent people from adequately researching the subject they wish to condemn? The answer, I think, is that astrology threatens the conceptual structure through which they are accustomed to view the world. Astrology can’t be right; for if it were, then the metaphysical basis on which most scientists operate today would be wrong. Conversely, if the basis on which most scientists found their structure is right, then astrology must be absurd.3

Psychologists have a name for when one’s conceptual structure of reality comes under threat: cognitive dissonance. ‘How on earth can I possibly absorb this new theory when it’s so repugnant and destabilising? No, astrology must be rubbish!’ Then there are more subtle approaches from sceptics who, on the surface, take an impartial view, even looking dispassionately at the claims of ‛superstition’ and ‘fringe beliefs’. However, when one reads between the lines it becomes clear such sceptics have already made up their minds about the ‛truth’.

We find something of this in Michael Shermer’s book, Why People Believe Weird Things. Shermer is – according to Wikipedia – the ‛founder of The Skeptics Society, and editor-in-chief of its magazine Skeptic, which is largely devoted to investigating pseudoscientific and supernatural claims.’ In a chapter called, ‛Why Smart People Believe Weird Things’, he cites biochemistry professor Michael Behe, author of the 1996 text, Darwin’s Black Box, as an example of just such a smart person. Shermer notes that Behe’s book ‛has become something of a bible of the “Intelligent Design” movement.’4 For the uninitiated, Intelligent Design is the view that certain aspects of nature seem to have been organised by some kind of intelligence. (At the molecular level, certain parts of nature only function as an orchestrated whole, and need all their components in place to work, at all. Hence they couldn’t have evolved piecemeal by evolutionary ‛random mutations’. Behe calls this ‘irreducible complexity’.)

It isn’t my purpose to discuss whether or not irreducible complexity has any merit – I’m only concerned with Shermer’s approach. Rather than discuss Behe’s evidence (from microbiology), Shermer simply dismisses the whole thing as a ‛weird’ belief. Hence, whilst ignoring Behe’s actual arguments, he can appeal to our common sense (on the one hand) whilst taking advantage of our ignorance (on the other). For, obviously, Intelligent Design must be Christian creationism in a new disguise, right? (And what right-thinking person can accept that a Christian God literally created the Universe?) However, the general public is likely to be unaware of the various technical arguments for irreducible complexity.

Ergo, despite Professor Behe’s academic prowess, he’s reduced to one of those smart people who believe in those weird things we shouldn’t take seriously. (Which – presumably – must also include astrology.) But hang on … the sleight of hand Shermer has pulled here needs to be exposed, for the debate over ID comes from within science itself – it is not ‛creationism in a cheap suit’, as some sceptics have labelled it. It is not an attempt, in other words, to get Christian beliefs in through the back door. Moreover, the theory cannot be easily dismissed; it represents a real challenge to neo-Darwinism, the ‘new’ Darwinism. As Professor William Dembski (another ‛smart person’ cited by Shermer) points out, some Darwinists have reacted with

‛a refreshing willingness to engage in civil debate. Unfortunately, many prominent Darwinists have taken a different tack [and] have tried by every means available to avoid an open contest of ideas with intelligent design. They’ve distorted our arguments to the press; pushed journalists to stop covering the intelligent design controversy; tried to get ID scientists fired; and even sued a school district that dared to mention to students that an alternative theory—intelligent design—existed.’5

And ID seems to be making headway, too, as Dembski adds that,

‛the researchers developing the theory of intelligent design (design theorists) have a growing program of scientific research and are now publishing research supporting intelligent design in the peer-reviewed mainstream scientific literature, especially in the biological literature. A related indicator is that increasingly their work is being studied and critiqued within the mainstream scientific literature.’6

So, as we can now see, many objections to fringe ideas, views and weird beliefs from the scientific community are political – sceptics are out to trash what they feel threatened by. Like two highly polarised political parties, such ideas belong to ‘the opposition’ and cannot be tolerated. Shermer’s philosophical quandary (‘how can these super intelligent academics believe this nonsense?’) is also a cause for amusement: wouldn’t it just make life much simpler if smart people didn’t believe in weird things, so we can put all the gullible, superstitious fools in the same category!

But what is Shermer’s ultimate answer to the question he posed? Here it is: Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons! The statement positively buckles beneath the weight of its own intellectual dishonesty and self-justifying bias. Putting Michael Behe in the above category without even discussing his arguments is tantamount to a cheap insult. In any case, the term ‘weird’ is narrow-mindedly subjective: what is ‘weird’ for one person may not be so for another. (But, as we’ll see, this is often how the sceptic operates.)

To conclude, then, the kind of hard scientific proof required by astrology’s critics, as I have stated, does not truly exist. Though today’s main critics of astrology arise from within science, there is more than one kind of science (which I’ll cover later on) and this has opened the way towards interpretations of the world that defy the classical, orthodox picture of the world, and logic too! Whilst I cover the Gauquelin results, in the final two chapters I refer to discoveries in quantum physics that have resulted in its practitioners seeing the Universe in a more holistic way.

The individual birth chart is also, to put it succinctly, is a road map for the human mind. Jung once explained that:

‘Astrology is of particular interest to the psychologist, since it contains a sort of psychological experience which we call projected – this means that we find the psychological facts … in the constellations. This originally gave rise to the idea that these factors derive from the stars, whereas they are merely in a relation of synchronicity with them. I admit that this is a very curious fact which throws a peculiar light on the structure of the human mind.7

Jung also observed that astrology has ‘nothing to do with the stars’ in terms of causal mechanism. Rather, some ‘third factor’ (which is just how Jung put it) somehow unites Outer and Inner, Cosmos and Psyche, Heavens and Natal Chart, in a way one can barely start to comprehend. There are some mysteries, apparently, which the Universe does not yield to mere mortals. For the sceptic, however (whom I shall answer later on) mystery is the enemy, an opponent that must be subjugated with their favoured bludgeoning tool – reductive science. If they cannot extract narrowly rational answers from the stuff of the Universe, then the matter is dropped due to lack of evidence. It has been said that if the only tool you have in your toolbox is a hammer, you go around treating everything as if it were a nail. It is this hopelessly clumsy, nay myopic, approach that I turn to next …

1. Astrologers are very vulnerable in this regard, especially the practice of sun-sign columns. Regarding forecasting of this kind, they work best when looking at longer periods of influence applied to specific countries, or cultures in general. (This is the branch of astrology called Mundane or Political Astrology) ,

2. http://www.astrology.co.uk/tests/wp.htm

3.. Hand, ‘On Creating a Science of Astrology’ in Essays on Astrology, Para vfResearch 19823. Hand, ‘On Creating a Science of Astrology’ in Essays on Astrology, Para Research 1982)

4. . Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things Henry Holt and Company,1997/2002 )

5. William A. Dembski and Jonathan Witt, Intelligent Design Uncensored, InterVarsity Press, 2010

6. ibid. (My italics)

7, Jung, in a letter to Prof. B.V. Raman, 1947.