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Optimum place for astrology
A tool not a source of knowledge

Arthur Mather

Abstract -- Science = observation and testing, astrology = anything goes, with no overlap. The continuing popularity of astrology suggests that it must provide a worthwhile service to clients. But hundreds of empirical studies have found nothing that is commensurate with its claims. Nor have astrologers made any attempt at self-criticism or the attainment of consistency. So astrology is not entitled to be seen as a source of knowledge, only as a tool for helping introspection and therapy by conversation. Reverting to a declared art form, ie to a non-scientific activity, may be the only valid way ahead for astrology, where the birth chart is accepted simply as a tool for channeling wisdom from astrologer to client.

In a 1995 article in Correlation 14(1), 56-59, Nick Campion suggests that arguments between astrologers and scientists are based more on cultural ideals than on evidence. I think the case is overstated because scientific criticism of astrology is always based on evidence, not on cultural considerations.

Nevertheless Campion holds that the situation depends on how astrology and science are defined, and I agree. In what follows I look at the difference between science and astrology to see if this can identify an optimum place in the world for astrology. I start with science.

Campion considers three ways of defining science, namely in terms of (1) its results, (2) its tools, and (3) what scientists do. But these three ways are equally applicable to say gardening or car repairs or even astrology, which thus becomes defined as its results, its tools, or what astrologers do. None of them taps the essential nature of science and its underlying aim, which is obtaining knowledge by systematic testing.

This knowledge is not any old knowledge but a sweeping system of interlinked knowledge that is consistent from one end to the other. For example it would be unacceptable if our knowledge of how atoms behave in chemistry was inconsistent with how they behave in physics.

As more and more knowledge is incorporated into the system, doubtful inconsistencies may be rightly ignored because science is too soundly based to justify chasing anything entirely speculative. But if the inconsistencies are themselves soundly based, as they were for the perihelion advance of Mercury, then in due course science shifts to accommodate them, in this case from Newton to Einstein.

Limitations of Science
Astrologers often point to what they see as the limitations of science that stop it detecting astrological effects. They claim that science is impersonal or unspiritual or insensitive to deeper truths. Or they claim that astrology involves subtle factors not yet known to science. But science requires only that events be observable in some way. And if astrologers can observe the claimed effects, so can scientists.

So the limitations are straightforward -- if no possible observation could rule out a particular claim, the claim is untestable and science is irrelevant. As is the claim in the first place -- if nothing can show it is wrong, then by the same token nothing can show it is right.

Science of course is subject to greed, jealousy and politics like any other human activity. But the over-riding insistence that issues be decided by careful testing means that scientific knowledge is ultimately self-correcting. It may take years or decades, but ultimately errors in science do not survive. How does astrology compare?

Campion considers four ways of defining astrology, namely as (1) a science that seeks empirical answers to questions, (2) a neo science that seeks empirical validation of its ideas, (3) a pseudo science that does false science, and (4) a humanity that interprets data. Note how these four are not the same as the previous three (astrology = its results, its tools, or what astrologers do).

Campion himself prefers (4). And its merits are obvious -- by confining itself to interpretation, astrology is elevated above any criticism based on grubby empiricism. (I come back to this point later). But rather than trying to define science and astrology in absolute terms, it seems better to consider what distinguishes one from the other.

Two possibilities
One possibility is consistency -- science demands it but astrology does not. Thus science would not tolerate tropical and sidereal zodiacs having the same meaning, but astrology sidesteps the issue by assuming each operates at a different level. This sort of thing happens all the time. Astrology (but not science) proceeds via assumptions. So anything goes. In fact in their 1979 critique of astrology, the astronomers Culver and Ianna were so struck by the typical astrologer's confident use of glaring inconsistencies that they labelled astrology the "Gemini Syndrome" after Gemini's supposed propensity for being two-faced.

Another possibility is level -- science is material stuff, astrology is soul stuff. This means that souls are a necessary component of astrology, and that astrology is essentially a religion. Such ideas would certainly distinguish astrology from science, but many (if not most) astrologers including Campion would disagree that astrology is essentially a religion. Areas of dispute can hardly form the basis for reliable distinction.

Main distinction
In fact the main distinction between science and astrology is their attitude towards the testing of claims. Science tests but astrology essentially does not, and scientific tests are typically deemed inadequate or the results are ignored. Science (but not astrology) insists that knowledge be based on observation. In astrology (but not in science) anything goes, generally with tradition as the default option if difficulties arise (as below). No astrologer ever prejudiced an idea by insisting on proper tests. The comment made in 1950 by ace researcher Donald Bradley still applies: "all improvements are welcome so long as the complacent surface of tradition is not disturbed."

Note that this difference is strictly one of attitude towards testing. So we cannot say that astrology is scientific because it uses a science-based ephemeris, any more than a book is scientific because it uses a science-based printing technology. Nor can we say that astrology is a science because both use symbols, albeit in different ways, namely qualitatively (JU = expansiveness) vs quantitatively (r = correlation coefficient). What we can say is that astrology's attitude towards testing means it has no resources by which error could be detected.

So science = testing and observation, astrology = anything goes, and there is no real overlap. For convenience let me now define art as any directed activity not a science, for example the activity of drawing and painting. (Do not confuse this with other definitions of art such as art = art objects eg paintings, or art = the expression of feeling, or art = a special skill eg the art of conversation; nor with craft, the skilled making of objects eg jewellery; the whole point of my choosing this definition is that it excludes science.) We can now say that astrology is entirely an art as defined above, and entirely not a science. Which is consistent with Campion's preferred definition of astrology as a humanity (an art that humanises).

Implications of an art form
If astrology is entirely an art as defined above, and entirely not a science, then the scientific approach must by definition be rejected. Of course many astrologers already do this. But they do not observe the consequences, which means not making testable statements and not making claims like "Jupiter indicates expansiveness."

Note the problem: Without a sound scientific basis, which astrology is now by definition incapable of having, nobody can legitimately claim that Jupiter indicates anything. All that could be said is something like "the ancient Greeks thought that Jupiter indicates expansiveness, but nobody knows if this is actually true." Anything else would turn astrology into a pseudoscience -- an art form falsely posing as a science, as when the testing of testable claims is rejected or ignored.

Straddling the divide
Could astrology straddle the divide by being both science and art form? Perhaps, but only if astrologers embraced testing and consistency, which on their past performance seems unlikely to happen. And even if they did, the consistent failure to date of empirical tests by scientists versed in astrology allows little hope that empirical support will suddenly be found, or at least support reasonably commensurate with the claims (which is what matters). So reverting to a declared art form, to a declared non-scientific activity, may be the only valid way ahead for astrology, at least if it is to place itself beyond scientific criticism. In which case how might astro-art forms be developed?

Developing astro-art forms
Astrology could develop like any other art form -- by people having ideas and working on them. Conflict between different ideas would disappear because it would be seen as part of the choice available to consumers, just as there is no conflict between different ideas in painting or writing. These advantages would of course not apply if astro-artists made testable claims such as "Jupiter indicates expansiveness" -- at least if applied to the person rather than the soul.

As in any other art form, the challenge is to evaluate different ideas for their appeal to clients. This is an interesting challenge because objective tests are of little use in a situation where subjective feelings are the sole arbiter. Good astro-art is what clients like, period. But the challenge is not new. Astrologers have long been used to evaluating ideas in such terms, usually expressed indirectly such as compliance with tradition (recall that Bradley quote). But there is now more to it than meets the eye, as explained next.

Survival of astro-art
In astro-art the effective agent is the wisdom of the astrologer, not the astrology or even the birth chart, a point tellingly shown by the acceptance of readings that were later found to be based on the wrong birth chart. So the birth chart is simply a tool, a focus, an ice breaker, for channelling wisdom from astrologer to client. Tea leaves or inspiring pictures or even dreams could conceivably serve just as well, although they would lack the depth of astrological symbolism.

Arguably even better (and this is the point) might be tools scientifically designed to help introspection and therapy by conversation. Such tools already exist and can be anything from a list of topics to elaborate pictures, all of them carefully tested for effectiveness. This might be preferred to astrological symbolism by a future generation better acquainted with astrology's lack of empirical support. In other words astro-art might in due course have the same fate as phreno-art. Let me explain.

Might astro-art have the same fate as phreno-art?
In the 1980s a move was made to re-instate phrenology as an art form. Contrary to the claims of phrenology, which in the 19th century was even more popular than astrology is today, phreno-artists reject any link between head shape and character. Instead they hold that by thinking about ourselves in terms of supposed phreno-faculties (such as Benevolence, Cautiousness, Ideality, Order, Veneration), and by assessing our excesses or deficits, we can achieve a physical, mental and spiritual whole (see H&P Cooper, Heads, or the Art of Phrenology, London Phrenology Company 1983, page 101).

The merit of phreno-art lies in its "fascinating potential for aiding self-realisation ... its antiquity, discipline and deliberate idealism towards self-perfection" (p.104). Indeed, phreno-artists hold that it is useful in almost every situation. Thus it can give "direction to self-awareness and meaning to life. ... It can help to evaluate such problems as bringing up children, choosing a career, a partner in life, assessing incompatibility and confusion, but above all it is for the self" (p.100). It could be astrologers describing astrology.

The move to phreno-art was paved with good intentions. But a plethora of more scientific approaches to self-awareness (see any bookshop) killed it. Phrenology's once overwhelming charm was suddenly not enough. The move lost out to ideas that had greater appeal and effectiveness. Might the same happen to astrology? Clearly it is unlikely to happen overnight, any more than it happened to phrenology overnight. But as the decades pass, as people become aware of empirical findings that were unavailable to their parents, it could happen. However, if astrology encompasses ancient wisdom about the human condition that science does not, then who knows?

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