Abstract -- A comparison of divination with astrology as practised shows a close match all the way from belief in gods to nonfalsifiability and openness to manipulation. But when critically examined, divination is indistinguishable from fantasy. Supposedly divination (and therefore astrology) is a mysterious process that somehow delivers the goods. But if by the goods we mean religious feelings, the process is neither mysterious nor controversial, and astrology is indistinguishable from a faith-based religion. But if by the goods we mean the truth, astrology is indistinguishable from fantasy. To deny astrology as fantasy is not to understand astrology but to replace it with something else. The claim that astrology is untestable and can be judged only by experience is incoherent. Includes summaries of important historical arguments such as Cicero's De divinatione, Pico's Disputationes, and Heydon's Defence of Judiciall Astrologie, and a bibliography with 58 entries.
Recent astrology-based books such as Cornelius (1994) and Willis & Curry (2004), and lengthy articles such as Phillipson (2006) and Thorley (2007), have argued that astrology (sometimes just horary astrology) is divination. Similarly, in a special issue of The Astrological Journal devoted to the foundations of astrology, Prudence Jones (1996) asks whether planetary meanings are based on "dispassionate observation of their effects, or on dogmatic symbolism which forces our observations to conform to our expectations". Her answer is that most astrologers who assert the truth of astrology have abandoned any pretence of empirical support. Astrology is divination in disguise.
But such conclusions are nothing new. Historians of divination have always seen astrology as divination, for example Zuesse (1987) and Johnston (2005). Indeed, as I show below, we can reach the same conclusion more clearly and more directly simply by looking at what divination entails and at what astrology entails. Not forgetting the popular assumption that divination is a mysterious process that somehow delivers the goods.
What divination entails
Divination tries to know the unknowable. It assumes the existence of gods (gods, angels, archetypes, daemons, divinities, numina, providences, signifiers, spirits, spiritual essences, supreme beings, symbolic links, higher powers, transcendental realities, things beyond human comprehension, whatever) who know everything. There are plenty of gods to choose from, for example Coulter and Turner (1997) identify over 10,000 ancient deities alone.
Many of the descriptors in the above list are essentially synonymous. For example according to the OED, an angel is a ministering spirit; an archetype is an ideal prototype; a divinity is a divine being, a god, a deity; a daemon is a spirit, an inferior divinity; a god is a deity having power over nature and the fortunes of mankind; providence implies divine intervention; a spirit is an immaterial being; the supreme being is the highest deity; a transcendental reality is beyond experience and close to the deity. Until someone determines which descriptor is the most accurate, I will use "gods" as a convenient keyword.
Divination assumes that these gods, if properly approached, will reveal whatever information they are willing to share. It assumes they communicate by signs, which men then have to interpret. But there is no promise of success if their communication is followed. The reason is simple -- if a divination fails to work, the fault lies not with the gods (whose existence is entirely logical, see next), but with the approach or interpretation. Man is fallible but the gods are infallible and nonfalsifiable.
Cumont (1912) explains why the existence of gods was entirely logical. To Greek thinkers: "Reason, reflecting on the marvellous [heavenly] phenomena which are perceived by the eye, realises that they cannot be due to chance or to the action of a blind force, but recognises that they are ruled by a divine intelligence. The ceaseless harmony of movements so diverse is inconceivable without the intervention of a guiding Providence. The stars themselves prove to us their divinity so clearly that to fail to see it is to be incapable of seeing anything" (pp.57-58). Today the argument would be labelled Intelligent Design.
Belief in gods was universal
In Mesopotamia and Greece, the birthplace of astrology, the will of the gods was seen in numerous ways -- in the flight of birds, in the livers of unblemished animals sacrificed under strict rules, in rolls of dice, and in celestial phenomena. For example Graf (2005) describes how seers in ancient Asia Minor rolled a set of five dice and looked up the meaning in a series of verses resembling the I Ching. The results were not dissimilar to today's sun sign forecasts.
Four examples: Do not make haste, the daemon is opposed to you, rather wait and do not act like a lion that gave birth to a blind litter. Take counsel calmly, and things will turn out happily for you (one 1, one 6, three 3s). Do not undertake this business, it will not turn out well for you. The god announces that he will help the one who is ill; and if there is any fear, nothing bad will happen to you (one each of 1,3,4 and two 6s). The daemon will lead you on the way that you undertake, and the lover of smiling, Aphrodite, will lead you towards good things. You will return with rich fruit and an untroubled Fate (two 1s and three 4s). You kick against the goad, you struggle against the waves, you search for a fish in the sea; do not hasten to do business. It does not help you to force the gods at the wrong time (one 1, one 4, three 3s).
The reasoning was simple: The gods were everywhere and revealed themselves in unusual phenomena. The liver was the seat of the soul, therefore it showed the will of the god accepting the sacrifice. The heavens were the seat of celestial gods; therefore by looking at what the heavens contained (birds, clouds, rainbows, eclipses, risings, settings, and so on), one could know their plans. The connection with livers and bird flight was entirely logical.
Spence (1920:126) comments: "The tenets of the Roman augurs were that for signs of the gods one must look towards the sky, and glean knowledge of the behests of the divine beings from such omens as the lightning-flash, and the flight of birds. On a windless night, the augur took up his position on a hill which afforded an extensive view. ... He carefully observed every sign which came within the purview of his vision: such as lightning, the appearance of birds, and so forth. The song or utterance of birds was also carefully hearkened to; and these were divided into birds of good omen and evil omen; while others referred to definite persons and events. The reading of omens was also effected by the feeding of birds and observing the manner in which they ate. The course of animals and the sounds uttered by them was also closely watched, and all unusual phenomena were regarded as omens or warnings."
Temple notes that liver-reading predates astrology, adding "because of its remote origins in Stone Age antiquity or earlier, the millennia of its continuous use, and its widespread geographical extent, it can probably be regarded as the main divination system to have been used on this planet during the entire history of humanity" (p.66). Traditionally among astrologers longevity is a sign of worth, so the current unpopularity of liver-reading is curious. After all, every year roughly 25 million sheep and lambs are slaughtered in Australia alone, enough to allow every Australian household two divinations a year, which (if gods exist) seems a waste of resources.
Openness to manipulation
For example Hyman (1981) notes that in sign interpretation "the contributions of the receiver [diviner] almost totally determine the message and its interpretation. [But] receivers do not realize how much of the message and its meaning is their own contribution". Neither does the client, who accepts the message as true if it provides a plausible new viewpoint or agrees with what the client already knows, especially if the client sees the diviner as having mysterious powers. In other words both the diviner and client falsely attribute the message to occult sources. Hyman compares this with a fake divination by a cold reader: Here the reader knows the client will supply all the information and takes steps to both maximise it and disguise it. Result: the client accepts the message as true and ends up just as convinced that mysterious powers are involved. More on this later.
Belief makes doubt irrelevant
Being part of a divine plan
Astrology depends on planetary gods
For example former astrologer Charles Strohmer (1988:20-21) notes that the principles of astrology have "absolutely nothing to do with planets but with superstitions and imaginings relating to mythical deities". But this goes unnoticed "because continually hearing the words planet and planetary creates a connotation of real-ness. The imaginary-ness of what is behind what is being said is overlooked. It is covered up" (p.26).
All this makes astrology equivalent to seeing faces in clouds. Because the ancient founders of astrology chose gods that mirrored human conditions, astrologers such as Ralph Metzner (1970) can plausibly claim that astrology is "probably better adapted to the complex variety of human natures than existing [orthodox] systems". In other words the faces we see are our own, albeit at the risk of garbage in, garbage out.
Awareness of gods
His answer is a simple one: "Its starting-point was faith, faith in certain stellar divinities who exerted an influence on the world." Next, because the heavens showed regularities, they saw the gods as being susceptible to similar regularities. This led to various theories, justified by physical and moral reasons; the old belief became science-like, and its original source in divinities was forgotten. People then invented reasons for believing: "the logical sequence of which concealed the radical fallacy [of stellar divinities]" (p.xiii).
Cumont's heroic work on Greek texts failed to convince him that astrology had anything more than historical value. Thus even if classed as a mental disease, "this hallucination, the most persistent which has ever haunted the human brain, would still deserve to be studied" (p.xiii). Even so, "The birth and evolution of astrology, that desperate error on which the intellectual powers of countless generations were spent, seems like the bitterest of disillusions" (p.xiv).
Despite the general non-awareness of a dependence on gods, some astrologers including Cornelius and Phillipson have expressed it directly, for a review see Dean & Kelly (2003). For example US astrologer Barbara Clow (1988) emphasises the astrologer's "shamanistic duty" to place a client in contact with spirit forces, thus making the chart "a unified energy field of consciousness" (p.xv). Even John Addey, champion of empirical investigation, claimed that planets are "spiritual existences or substances and their influence is universal" (Addey 1996:9). More recently Thorley's (2007) survey of 70 astrologers in the UK found that four out of five identified with supposedly divination-like processes such as altered states or use of intuition.
The match between astrology and divination
Does divination deliver the goods?
(1) If a divination fails, we cannot blame the gods and must always blame the approach. And in astrology at least four escapes have always been available without even mentioning gods -- the client does not know herself, the astrologer-seer is not infallible, another chart factor is responsible, or the manifestation is not typical (Wedow 1976). As a bonus, because we can always blame the approach, astrology is made secure from all possible attacks (except of course those based on its nonfalsifiability).
(2) If a divination succeeds, it is impossible to tell whether it was due to gods-and-the-right-approach or to non-god factors, of which a large number exist (Dean & Kelly 2001), each creating the illusion that divination works and none requiring that divination be valid. Indeed, Phillipson (2006) argues that any link with the divine is by definition untestable, which is seen by Mather (2008) as reducing everything to fantasy, a view that Phillipson (2008) evades by claiming that gods, although untestable, could still exist.
(Strictly speaking it should be presently untestable. But as Hyman (1989) has implied in the context of parapsychology, if gods became testable, they would become part of science. So divination would have to adopt some other untestable base if it were to retain its mystique.)
Applying Occam's razor
But untestable gods are still indistinguishable from fantasy. If no possible observation could decide between gods and fantasy, Occam's Razor ("prefer simple explanations to complex ones") would suggest that fantasy is the best bet. So if by the goods we mean the truth (ordinary everyday truth, not The Truth), delivery by divination is the worst bet. In which case astrology-as-divination boils down to a time-honoured cover for the operation of whatever non-god factors happen to be present.
The power of non-god factors
But artifacts are not mysterious. They are described in thousands of studies and dozens of books (for a review of those relevant to astrology see Dean, Mather & Kelly 1998). Indeed, after a brief practice any astute person can capitalise on these artifacts to deliver divination-type readings that are precise, specific, on-target, highly persuasive, and totally divination-free.
But Shermer was fully aware of the artifacts he was capitalising on. He concludes "There is not a shred of evidence that any of this [divination by astrology, palmistry, etc] is real, and the fact that I could do it reasonably well with only one day of preparation shows how vulnerable people are to these very effective nostrums. I can only imagine what I could do with considerable experience. Give me six hours a day of practice for a couple of weeks and I have no doubt that I could easily host a successful syndicated television series and increase my current bank balance by several orders of magnitude. ... I cannot do this for one simple reason: it is wrong" (p.55).
In other words a successful divination does not mean it was an authentic divination. Similarly the experience that astrology works does not mean that genuine astrological effects exist. As noted by Mather (2008), the experience is real enough, so the issue is not the experience but the factors on which the experience is based. The issue is crucial for the understanding of astrology, for example Spencer (2000:245) notes that experience is so powerful that astrologers carry on despite having "no rational reason why it should work". Nevertheless the issue remains seriously unexamined by Phillipson et al. Almost as crucial is the question: are there conditions where astrology would NOT be divination, whether bogus (as in cold reading) or genuine (if it exists)?
When astrology would NOT be divination
Most modern philosophers see gods as a good reason to reject astrology. For example The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Hornblower and Spawforth 2003) says: "From a modern perspective it is the postulated link, causal or semiotic [divinatory], between celestial and terrestrial events that renders astrology suspect" (p.195). Or as the German philosopher Bernulf Kanitscheider (1991) puts it: "Why should we possibly need to introduce the magic correlation argument into modern thought, when we can observe no phenomena that call for such supernatural treatment?" (p.263).
Early astrologers tended to question the need for gods. For example Heydon (1785), in a work "comprising the very essence of Haly, Bonatus, Lilly, and other learned men", says the idea of "diabolical compact" (ie gods) is absurd because every judgement is based on strict rules founded on "that miraculous sympathy in nature which is admirably manifested between the Moon and the Sea, by which that amazing body of water is constantly drawn after her, though no man sees nor can conceive how". Consequently "The Science of Astrology is nothing more than the study of Nature, the knowledge of the secret virtues of the Heavens, and may be obtained by common diligence" (pp.v-xi). Gods and divination are out.
Similarly Charles Harvey (1994) argues that astrology is not divination because this would deny any way for astrology to be improved over, say, tea-leaf reading. It would also deny the success of computer-generated chart readings, some of which "can prove remarkably to the point" (p.398). Finally it would deny any way for astrology to have been discovered in the first place, a point left unaddressed by Phillipson et al when they argue that astrology is divination.
Resolving the disagreement
In the last fifty years these chart issues have been the subject of hundreds of studies where non-astrological factors have been controlled to avoid mistaking them for genuine effects. But none of these studies have given positive results commensurate with Harvey's argument (Dean 2007). So not only do the results deny genuine astrological effects (so astrology is divination), they also deny god-dependent effects (so divination is fantasy). Such an astrology offers no advance over that of the ancient Greeks, where its starting point was faith in stellar divinities who exert an influence on the world.
When Mather (2008:54) raised these issues, pointing out that "ordinary science accommodates [explains] astrology perfectly well, at least astrology as performed in consulting rooms", Phillipson (2008:61) disagreed. In his view we should be suspicious of any explanations about what might be happening because astrology "hovers on the margins of comprehensibility". But unlike Mather, Phillipson presents no evidence for his claim other than assertions and circular arguments (astrology is barely comprehensible because it is untestable and therefore barely comprehensible).
Thus he questions whether "testing is the best and only tool for discriminating the real from the imaginary" (p.60), because in his view astrology is untestable, hence the only tool is "one's own experience", which of course is famously unable to discriminate the real from the imaginary (think of blood letting). Worse, if astrology is untestable, it denies the experience of astrologers that astrology works, just as our experience that a TV set works would be denied if tests could not tell works from does not work. Phillipson cannot have it both ways.
Faith and untestability
So what is hiding under the rhetoric? Suppose I believe in invisible untestable gods. To persuade realist unbelievers to change their minds, I confront them as follows: (1) Because gods are untestable, I am unable to specify any observation that requires their existence. (2) But deep down I know they exist. (3) So I implore you, please be sensible. Search your hearts, open your minds, and believe in gods because I say so.
In other words an astrology based on untestability is indistinguishable from a faith-based religion.
Cicero begins by noting that divination exists everywhere. "A really splendid and helpful thing it is -- if only such a faculty exists -- since by its means men may approach very near to the power of gods." But it has no place in cases where the senses "are sufficient in themselves and require no aid from divination", which include science, art, philosophy and politics. "And since it is of no use in these cases there is no use for it anywhere." It cannot foretell things that happen by chance, because such things by definition cannot be foretold, and if they could they would not be chance. Even if divination could tell the future, the disadvantages would outweigh the advantages, for example it would allow a person "to peer into every man's house to see what he needs" (p.489).
Cicero then looks at each kind of divination and argues that each is preposterous. His description of the things that contradict the claims of astrologers takes up about 9% of the whole. Here his main arguments are as applicable today as they were then, and embrace all of astrology: (1) Twins "are generally unlike in career and in fortune." (2) Given their "almost limitless distances, what influence can the planets exercise?" (3) Weather has a big effect on man but is ignored by astrologers, who consider only "some subtle, imperceptible, well-nigh inconceivable force which is due to the condition of the sky". (4) It is clear that "the carriage and gestures of children are derived from their parents", which would not be the case if they were derived from the sky's condition. (5) As for time twins: "the fact that men who were born at the very same instant, are unlike in character, career, and in destiny, makes it very clear that the time of birth has nothing to do in determining man's course in life." (6) From the striking differences between Indians and Persians: "it is evident that one's birth is more affected by local environment than by the condition of the moon." (7) "Did all the Romans who fell at Cannae have the same horoscope? Yet all had one and the same end." (8) "Were all the men eminent for intellect and genius born under the same star? Was there ever a day when countless numbers were not born? And yet there never was another Homer." He concludes: "why say more against a theory which every day's experience refutes?" In short: "What stupendous power delusion has!" (pp.469-483)
Cicero goes on to discredit divination's supposed link with the gods. He notes that the pro-divination argument for such a link starts with: "If there are gods and they do not make clear to man what the future will be, then they do not love man", and ends by asserting that the gods do love man "for they are the friends and benefactors of the human race", therefore (to cut a long story short) divination exists. Cicero then shows how every step in the argument is based on unwarranted assumptions. Who says the gods love man? Who says they should give us signs and the means to interpret them? "The truth cannot be proved from false premises. Hence their entire argument falls to the ground." (pp.483-491)
Note 2. The Italian scholar Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) raised many objections to divinatory astrology in his famous 12-volume Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem (Shumaker 1972, Garin 1983), which can be grouped as follows: (1) Unsound basis. Astrology is irreligious, leading to impiety and heresy. It is based not on observation (because too complex) but on number mysticism and fallacious analogy. (2) Disagreement and error. Astrologers disagree widely on method and interpretation, eg Ptolemy rejects what Dorotheus accepts, and they make many errors, eg they do not correct for declination. This is more than the antiquity of astrology should allow. (3) Many absurdities. Why should details of individual lives be clear when important events involving nations are not? Many astrological ideas are absurd, eg houses (the sky has no inherent properties), elections (how can a fortunate hour for starting a journey make it safe and comfortable?), and predictions (forces that work in the future work more powerfully in the present). (4) Inutility. Predictions rarely come true, and then only by chance or ambiguity. If astrology merely reinforces a wise judgement, what has been gained? If it contradicts it, why trust astrology over reason? (5) No physical basis. The stars can act only by light and motion [ie gravity], which apply universally not individually. Apart from the sun and moon, they affect us hardly at all. In any case, the required accuracy in celestial position is not achievable. Today argument (5) is unremarkable but at the time it was almost unheard of. Pico especially despised how astrologers reasoned by analogy, eg just as life begins at spring so the zodiac begins at Aries. Such reasoning can prove anything, "since nothing exists which ... [cannot be imagined] to have some similarity or dissimilarity with something else", eg just as life began in the sea so the zodiac begins at Pisces.
Even Plato held that
divination was not divinely inspired and was merely the artless fumbling
of human error (Lawrence 2006). In the 17th century disputes about
astrology largely relied on selective quoting from the Bible and other
authorities, so nothing was ever settled, nor could it be Notes 3,4.
Heydon's Defence is essentially religious and reflects a common belief of the time: Can we be "so senseless as to imagine, that these [glorious planets made by God] only bespangle heaven like vain ornaments, or that they have that diversity of light, magnitude, distance, and motion to no effect?" (p.118). Nevertheless he rejects the argument about twins because the large interval between their births explains everything, it being "for the most part never less than three hours" (p.237), which seems dubious because today the average difference between natural twin births is about 18 minutes (Linney 1983:25). Also, "though the mother labours for two twins at the same time and moment; yet it is impossible in nature that they should be delivered and born in the same instant" (p.237). Of claims such as horary, he says: "I dare not defend them ... First for that I find them not taught by Ptolemy, whom the most judicial do follow as their guide; secondly, because I cannot satisfy myself, how the same may generally be admitted, without apparent sortilege [drawing lots], and subjecting our wills, and all our voluntary deliberations to the dominion of the Stars" (p.3). With these provisos he maintains that his Defence will be "agreeable both with the word of God, and not impugned by civil constitutions (p.4).
Heydon's Defence was attacked in turn by a 1624 book by George Carleton The Madness of Astrologers, written 20 years earlier, which relied even more on religion: "The first inventor of Astrology was the Devil" (2nd page of contents). "There are but two ways to know the truth hereof; by the light of Nature, or by the word of God" (p.18). "The question is not whether the Stars signify any thing; but whether they cause, or incline, or signify" any thing in detail, such as a wound to the head. For if they do, then arguments such as free will are merely smokescreens to allow escape "from such Arguments as press you". Even Cicero and other philosophers couldn't solve this one (p.19).
In effect all three books boil down to a battle of selective quotes from the Bible and other ancient authorities. But in those days there was little else. Tools and tests that today we take for granted were still nearly four centuries away. Rhetoric (verbal propaganda) reigned supreme, bolstered by a steady rain of pointed insults about comments "slanderous and false", about being "clamorous without cause", about arguing "in ridiculous fashion" to maintain a "mad and senseless position", and so on, all aimed at showing the target's "vanity in reprehending that which he understandeth not".
Note 4. Much the same battle over stellar influence (but not astrology itself) occurs in Galileo's famous Dialogue on the Great World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican, published in Italian in 1632. It was a time when the Catholic Church was all-powerful -- every event revealed God's anger or pleasure, comets were harbingers of disaster, and questioning Catholic doctrine led to burning at the stake. Galileo's Dialogue has three participants. Two represent respectively religious views and Galileo's science-based views, the third is a moderator. The religious participant invokes the common belief that the Sun, Moon, and stars "are ordained for no other use but to serve the Earth", and that they "need no other qualities for attaining that end save only those of light and motion" (the same views held by Sir Christopher Heydon three decades earlier). To which the moderator replies "What's this? Will you affirm that Nature has produced and designed so many vast perfect and noble celestial bodies, invariant, eternal, and divine, to no other use but to serve this changeable, transitory, and mortal earth? To serve that which you call the dregs of the universe and sink of all uncleanliness? I cannot understand how the application of the Sun and Moon to the Earth to effect change should be any different from laying a marble statue in the chamber of the bride and from that conjunction to expect children" (Hellman 1998:13). But the pope was not amused, and brought Galileo to trial for heresy.
Gods may be untestable (Phillipson 2008) but astrologers are testable. Astrologers who use intuition perform no better than those who don't (Dean & Kelly 2003). Top practitioners disagree on fundamental issues, and their explanations in terms of "intuition" are uninformed (Mather 2008). Divination thrives under conditions of insecurity (Smith 1975:33). The incidence of fantasy-prone personality in the general population (about 4%, see Wilson and Barber 1983) is much higher than the incidence of astrologers (about 0.01%). Serious accidents never lead to "gods" appearing in legal briefs or on investigators' check lists (adapted from Flew 1990).
There is also the view that dismisses non-astrological factors as irrelevant because astrology is simply the "experience of its truth", and ascribing it to "something else is not to understand astrology, but to replace it with something else" (Willis & Curry 2004:101). As if ascribing combustion to oxygen is not to understand combustion. The view becomes more acceptable if restated as "to deny astrology as fantasy is not to understand astrology but to replace it with something else".
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