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Philosophical Problems
of Astrology as a Source of Meaning

Geoffrey Dean and Arthur Mather

An abridged update of material that originally appeared in a collaborative discourse entitled "Some Philosophical Problems of Astrology", Correlation 14(2), 32-44, 1995. With 25 references.

Abstract -- To evaluate astrology as a source of meaning we need to consider several philosophical problems that until now have not been fully discussed on this website. (1) Astrologers do not agree on what their fundamental hypothesis as above so below actually means. (2) Astrology is defined as precisely not the result of any means we know of. (3) Its meaning cannot be identified except after the event. (4) Astrologers rarely describe what such an astrology predicts, or the evidence they would accept as showing it had failed as a source of meaning. (5) We see meaning in birth charts for the same reason that we see faces in clouds. In short, astrology as a source of meaning is as solid as the Emperor's New Clothes. Which is not to say it cannot be beneficial if honestly described.

Despite hundreds of controlled studies, there is no evidence that astrology adds anything useful to an inquiry beyond that due to non-astrological factors. Consequently modern philosophers reject astrology as an independent source of knowledge, but accept it as a source of meaning that can provide sympathy and support, either through astrology books or by visiting an astrologer.

Many of the associated issues have already been documented on this website. The views of modern philosophers are surveyed in Views of modern philosophers. The ideas on which astrology are based, such as symbolism and worldviews, and the philosophical problems of astrology as a source of truth, are evaluated in Concepts of modern astrology. The ways in which the astrologer (as opposed to astrology) can provide benefits or liabilities are detailed in Using astrology as a counselling tool. A summary appears in Basic statements about astrology.

But even as purely a source of meaning, astrology still involves several philosophical problems that until now have lacked full discussion on this website. The following account is an abridged update of relevant material from a collaborative discourse entitled "Some Philosophical Problems of Astrology",Correlation 14(2), 32-44, 1995. Our concern is not the various philosophies of astrology such as "astrology is a way of understanding reality", or the philosophical problems of truth and knowledge, but the philosophical problems of astrology as a source of meaning regardless of what that meaning may be. We start with definitions of astrology.

Definitions of astrology
A survey of 35 dictionaries and encyclopedias, and 35 reputable astrology books that defined astrology (many do not), both mostly from 1960 onwards, showed that some defined astrology variously as a science, a supposed science, an art, a divinatory art, an art/science, a language, a philosophy, and as a system for self-understanding. But the majority (roughly half) defined astrology as the study of relationships between the stars and human affairs. In non-astrology books the reference was usually to supposed relationships.

This lack of agreement is partly, but not entirely, due to the diverse applications of astrology (horary, psychological, medical, mundane, etc). Compounding the disagreement are the many astrology books with definitions that defy classification and even understanding, for example "Astrology is an Ego Conscious attempt to differentiate and rationalize relative wholeness by observing the effects of Transcendant Order" (Palmer 1984).

The above disagreement points to disagreement on the meaning that astrology is supposed to provide, which is confirmed by the disagreement on astrology's fundamantal hypothesis.

Disagreement on astrology's fundamental hypothesis
The fundamental hypothesis of astrology is as above so below, nearly always qualified by the dictum the stars incline but do not compel or (to avoid implying causality) the stars merely signify, indicate or represent. But astrologers (even leading astrologers) do not agree on what the hypothesis actually means. For example some see the link as operating only in our deep intuitions, or as having no observable consequences, or as having observable consequences not requiring intuition, or as the result of planetary spirits, or of a non-spiritual chaos, or of physical forces. (These views are documented in the Appendix.)

Although astrologers disagree on what the fundamental hypothesis actually means, they agree on what boils down to its negative definition, which is the first of our philosophical problems of astrology as a source of meaning.

Negative definition
What astrologers agree on is that astrology is defined as precisely not the result of any means we know of. That is, it is defined negatively. An effect is deemed to be astrological only if there is no known causal explanation, which is not the same as being acausal, ie known to be without cause. (The same negative definition applies in parapsychology, see Flew 1987.)

There are two problems here. First, thanks to research, we now have a tested explanation (namely hidden persuaders and other artifacts) for supposed astrological effects, so the above negative definition does not necessarily apply. (Here "tested" means the explanation has withstood repeated attempts to disconfirm it, for example see under Superprize in Competitions in Astrology.)

Second, even if the negative definition did apply (meaning we simply ignore the first problem), there may be causal explanations not yet known for supposed astrological effects. Which puts astrology in the awkward position of being unable to logically claim any effect as astrological. It also leaves astrology with no properties that, if falsified, would disprove it, because falsification (ie finding a non-astrological explanation) would merely mean that the effect was not due to genuine astrology. Ironically this is consistent with Rudhyar's view that astrology does not need to be true.

The problems of negative definition are compounded by the imprecision of the associated claims.

Many astrologers claim that astrology is a better model of reality than alternative models, for example Dennis Elwell (1986:149-151) claims that "The true value of astrology, its claim to be heard, lies in its power to describe people, and the world in which they live, from a standpoint quite different from any other ... if astrology is only part-way true, the universe is very different from what it seems to be." Similarly Robert Hand (in Mann 1987:38) claims that astrology has no future unless astrologers "re-establish the idea of the universe as a living conscious entity."

The problem with such claims is imprecision. Astrologers rarely describe precisely what their model predicts, or the evidence they would accept as showing it had failed, and they tend to remain silent even when directly challenged. For example when the several hundred experienced astrologers who were subscribing to Astrologers' Forum or Correlation were invited to nominate the evidence they would accept as showing their claims were wrong, the total response was 5, namely scientific evidence 3, none 1, not sure 1, with several refusing point blank to respond (Dean 1984).

But if no evidence can be nominated that would disconfirm the claims of astrology, whether material or spiritual, neither can it confirm them, in the same way that we cannot tell if a glass is full if we cannot tell if it is empty. Of course none of these problems would apply if astrology does not need to be true. Nevertheless suppose we attempt to avoid these problems by claiming astrology is a miracle. Does this solve anything? No, it makes the situation worse.

Claiming astrology is a miracle
Suppose we claim that genuine astrological phenomena exist. In effect we are claiming astrology is a miracle, ie we are claiming things that are not merely unexplainable but, like levitation, go contrary to present understanding. It is here that David Hume's famous argument, first published in 1748 and sometimes referred to as "Hume's Razor" by analogy with "Ockham's Razor", is immediately relevant.

Hume argued that when evaluating a person's claim you should consider "whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates should really have happened." In other words, what is more probable -- astrological miracles or the knavery and fallibility of astrologers? Or conversely, astrological invalidity or the knavery and fallibility of scientists?

Here things like winning the lottery do not count as miracles, because someone has to win, so the existence of a winner is hardly a miracle. Let us look further at the idea of astrological miracles.

Astrology world
If astrology was valid to the extent claimed by astrologers, what should we expect to observe? An answer is provided by Donnelly (1984), who describes a world that might exist if astrology was perfect. In this world hunger and hardship have disappeared because economic trends and climate are exactly predictable. Science has disappeared because horary astrology answers any question. So has competitive sport for the same reason. Cars and planes are totally hazard-free because assembly times conducive to accidents are routinely avoided. Crime and divorce are unknown because perfectly predictable. Abuse of astrological knowledge is prevented by restricting it to those whose charts reveal due responsibility and worth.

Clearly none of this corresponds with the real world, at least not in the sense of astrology as a source of knowledge. But what about astrology as a source of meaning? Here we can start by considering the philosophical problems of the meaning associated with prognostication.

The problem of prognostication
Certain kinds of prognostication (telling the future) are unproblematic. For example anyone can predict that we will die sometime or spend money or speak words, or that we will freely choose to conform to our habits, or that the sun will rise tomorrow. In effect some aspects of the future are knowable. Prognostication becomes problematic only when it goes beyond the knowable. For example nobody can know that in a certain month we will drown at sea or win the lottery or have a happy marriage, because such events depend on variables too numerous or too uncertain to be knowable. Of course the prediction of such events is not problematic if no claim to accuracy is made, because success or failure is then meaningless.

However, this waiver does not apply if we insist that such predictions are possible because of some intrinsic connection between the stars and earthly events, even if like Rudhyar we insist that the connection delivers meaningful events but not observable events.

Such a connection implies that no distinction can be made between past and future events (each past event was once a future event but its particular stellar connection is fixed for all time), which means that both past and future predictions must actually come true regardless of any human action, otherwise we could not know that a stellar connection exists. But suppose the connection predicts that next week we will drown at sea, and we deliberately falsify it by staying on land. Does this reveal as illusory the supposed connection between the stars and earthly events, in the same way that a union strike reveals as illusory the supposed connection between railway timetables and train departures?

Of course some predictions might be difficult to deliberately falsify (Etna will erupt next Monday), and our motivation might be lacking in others (next week we will refrain from suicide). But if with sufficient resources and motivation we could falsify any astrological prediction -- which might only require what is traditionally the easiest of exercises, namely finding a second opinion to disagree with the first -- what would this mean for astrology? This question is usually answered in terms of the stars compelling vs inclining or signifying, discussed next.

Astrology works only sometimes
For example Nicholas Campion (1990:7) says "We must face the fact that astrological prediction often fails", which he explains by the fallibility of astrologers rather than the deficiencies of astrology. But frequent failure of astrology is course inescapable in view of the dictum that the stars incline or signify but do not compel. Thus heavy transits do not necessarily mean trouble. Mars rising does not necessarily mean red hair or olympic medals (it might of course mean accidents or acrobats or appendicitis or baking or blood transfusions or brick kilns or chimneys or cruelty or dental drills or disputes or embezzlement or entrepreneurs or fire engines or freckles or garbage or geraniums or horse radish or infectious diseases or itching or jaundice or kettles or laboratory apparatus or love affairs or measles or mustard or nettles or nosebleeds or onions or pimples or profiteers or quinine or radiators or red dyes or research or sharp instruments or stolen goods or toasted bread or Tuesday or uncultured persons or veterans or wars or working with iron and steel, see Bills 1971, but this leaves us no better off). And the meaning that works for one astrologer does not necessarily work for another. In effect the fundamental hypothesis becomes as above so below but only sometimes.

But this solves nothing. If astrology works only sometimes we have no way of knowing whether a particular meaning delivered by astrology will be useful until after the event. Nor can we tell how reliable such delivery is until after many events. And even then we have no way of knowing whether a particular meaning is due to astrology or to psychic powers or to chance or to other factors. In other words, the very concept of astrology as a source of meaning is essentially statistical.

(Of course its statistical nature might only be the result of our imperfect understanding of its workings, in which case, when a perfect astrology is demonstrated, this article may need revision.)

Statistical considerations in astrology
Ironically most astrologers deny that statistical considerations could be relevant to what they do, arguing that it cannot apply to an individual client, ie to a sample size of one. But their incline-not-compel dictum means that statistical considerations must be relevant, simply because an inclination does not guarantee a particular outcome. Forecasting rain does not guarantee it will happen. The same applies to stars that signify, indicate or represent. In other words for statistical considerations not to be relevant the dictum would need to be either the stars compel absolutely or the stars are neutral and do not incline, signify, indicate or represent. Neither can be found in astrology books.

Since the incline-not-compel dictum does not guarantee that astrology will be a source of meaning, its meaning (if any) can be identified only by a subsequent check. Having X in your chart may or may not be meaningful. So astrology can never be an independent source of meaning. The wise client will act accordingly.

Independent reasons for belief in astrology as meaning
The wise client will require independent reasons for accepting astrology as a source of reliable meaning, as would be the case if each planet was known to emit powerful rays on which terrestrial life depended, or if governments had decreed that our daily activities be determined by Moon sign, or if synchronicity was known to be dominant (all apples on all trees drop together, all coins tossed simultaneously behave identically, all people born at the same time have similar lives). None of which is true of the real world.

Instead the independent reasons normally offered are the existence of extraterrestrial effects. For example Parry (1990) argues that phenomena like the Piccardi effect and lunar effects on oysters proves that astrology is credible, which is like arguing that money exists, therefore everyone is rich. (The lunar effect on oysters may be illusory, see Quincey 1993 and Enright 1993; both strongly dispute the alleged effect.) But it is a huge implausible leap of faith from such influences to accepting astrology as a source of genuine meaning.

Argument from Personal Experience
More common is the argument "try it and you too will find astrology to be meaningful". At first sight this seems unassailable. After all, what could be more convincing than experience? But the Argument from Personal Experience, although convincing to astrologers, is the least convincing to anyone aware of the unreliability of experience (see Artifacts of reason). In this case it leads directly to the collapse of astrology-as-presented-by-astrologers, and the true reason why astrology seems to be meaningful, simply because it works even when the wrong sun sign or wrong birth chart is used. That is, links are perceived even when the above does not correspond with the below, in direct conflict with the fundamental hypothesis whether or not it is qualified by "works only sometimes".

In other words we see meaning in birth charts for the same reason that we see faces in clouds. This conclusion is supported by the previously mentioned hundreds of studies which indicate that the chart is merely a cloud in which astrologers see faces and pronounce it miraculous. Astrology thus emerges as a time-honoured cover for the operation of non-astrological factors. Nevertheless it can be seen as a useful fiction whose benefit to the client lies in the quality of the astrologer as a wise and caring person. If astrology happens to seem especially meaningful it is because it involves seeing faces in clouds of planetary gods invented by the ancient Greeks to mirror human conditions, so the faces we see are our own, for example Mars warlike, Jupiter benevolent, Saturn wise.

The same conclusion has been reached on similar grounds in other articles on this website, notably in Basic statements about astrology. We can now recognise what is at stake.

What is at stake
To most astrologers, when it comes to the crunch, it matters not whether their astrology can be supported by scientific observations, only that it has spiritual utility and is meaningful.

Such a view is perfectly acceptable as it stands, but not when justified by unsupportable claims about as above so below regardless of how well disguised by philosophyspeak. If astrologers merely claimed that "astrology is a tool that uses celestial myths to help you think about your life and destiny", or something similar, then their approach would be fairly described and attention could focus on its helpfulness unsullied by assailability, as exemplified in palmistry by Skafte (1969).

Given that astrology adds nothing to a consultation beyond non-astrological effects, there is a clear case for astrologers to ensure their clients know this, and for current practice and future research to focus on enhancing non-astrological effects, eg by attending to known correlates such as warmth, understanding, and wisdom (there is a large orthodox literature on these points, see also Using astrology as a counselling tool). Until this happens, astrology as a source of meaning is as solid as the Emperor's New Clothes.

Appendix: Disagreement on astrology's fundamental hypothesis
Some examples, starting with spiritual astrologers:

Gregory Szanto (1985) sees it as a link between our outer physical expression (where we have free will) and our inner spiritual nature (set by God) that allows us to achieve harmony with the universe. He states that intuition is essential because only intuition can reveal the inner nature shown by the birth chart. That is, its meaning must be allowed to rise spontaneously from where it resides in the unconscious, for example by using the birth chart as a crystal ball. He does not explain how we can resolve opposing intuitions (by appealing to other intuitions in infinite regress?), so his ideas are problematic.

Dane Rudhyar (1895-1985) is perhaps the best-known proponent of spiritual astrology. Like Szanto he sees it as a path to broad psycho-spiritual wisdom (Rudhyar 1980). But intuition, although useful, is not essential and the problem of opposing indications does not arise because none of them need to be true. The issue is not whether the indication is correct but whether it feels valid (Rudhyar 1979). Thus it is sufficient if, after studying his birthchart, a person "is able to feel a direction and purpose in his life"; astrology cannot reveal things confirmable by observation, only our potentials (Rudhyar 1936/1970:7). But what if the potentials are merely speculations that are actually untrue? Ironically, if we believe it is all foolish nonsense, then by his own rules we are right. (For an extended critique see Kelly & Krutzen 1983).

Although the need for observability is rejected by both Szanto and Rudhyar, other astrologers embrace it as part of the fundamental hypothesis. For example the Larousse Encyclopedia of Astrology (1980:19) restates it as: "The central assumption of astrology is that the positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets at the birth of an individual or the beginning of an enterprise are related in a significant and observable manner to the intrinsic character and later development of that individual or enterprise."

The relationship need not have a physical or psychological cause, in the same way that our bedroom clock does not dispatch the 8am shuttle from Heathrow even though they are related in an observable manner. Indeed Robert Hand (1987-88) argues that an astrology based on physical or psychological causes would no longer be astrology, as would apply if the full Moon caused lunacy through changes in atmospheric conditions, or if the accuracy of sun signs was due to a self-fulfilling prophecy, or if supposed planetary energies were actually measurable. That leaves spiritual causes, for insight on which we can turn to John Addey:

John Addey and the spiritual cause of astrological effects
John Addey (1920-1982) was the leading British astrologer of his day and was one of astrology's leading experimenters. Unlike other astrologers he followed the dictum that ideas were worth having only if they could be shown to be true. And his heroic empirical researches had convinced him that an astrology based on harmonics (ie on waves, and harmonics of waves, in the zodiacal and diurnal circles) was true. That later research showed his claims to be unfounded (see Theories of astrology or Research results) is not relevant here.

In his posthumous work, Addey (1996) devotes a chapter to "Some Philosophical Considerations" in which he considers the cause of an astrological effect in terms of Aristotle's four causes. For example, applied to a book, the Final cause is the demand by readers, the Formal cause is its content, the Efficient cause is its author and printer, and the Material cause is its paper. Addey concluded that in astrology the Efficient causes, ie what we now call causes, were the planets, which were not "mere lumps of dirt" but "spiritual existences or substances and their influence is universal" (p.9). He noted that science mostly concerns itself with Efficient and Material causes, whereas astrology mostly concerns itself with Formal causes, ie symbolism, so "astrologers can think about life in a more satisfactory way than can scientists" (p.7). Some might not agree, see Views of modern philosophers.

To modern philosophers these Aristotelian notions are mainly of historical interest. Although astrologers may be concerned with Formal causes, the term is not mentioned in most dictionaries of astrology. They lead to a universe awash with the ebb and flow of symbolism like mixed seeds in a blender waiting to be dipped into by each new-born seed packet. The analogy is so appealing that we may miss the flaw:

Just as the idea of water does not explain why a ship should or should not float (for this we need other ideas such as relative density), so the idea of Formal causes does not explain why a birth chart should or should not match the person. So Addey's ideas of astrological causation are essentially circular -- a spiritual astrology is caused by spiritual causes -- that merely replace one mystery with another. But others have fared no better:

Is astrology chaotic?
Brady (2006) has proposed a model of astrology based on analogies with chaos theory. (A chaotic system has nothing to do with the usual definition of chaos; it is one so sensitive to initial conditions that outcomes can be predicted only if the initial conditions are known with essentially impossible accuracy.) Could astrology really be chaotic?

produce. In case these few seconds are not enough, there is more on Brady after the end of the article (it is not part of the article).

Brady's analogies include the following: Just as strange attractors pull chaotic systems into repeating patterns, so chart factors pull their owners into repeating patterns. Similarly, just as bifurcations mark where chaotic systems change from one pattern into another, so chart factors can predict the patterns but not which one will be chosen. Just as chaotic systems are too complex to yield to the statistical approach, so with birth charts.

Brady claims that "chaotic astrology" requires neither a causal agent nor gods, and thus escapes from the causal/noncausal debate. But a real chaotic system involves an exchange of energy (otherwise nothing can interact) and is therefore by definition causal. Clearly Brady's "chaotic astrology" has nothing to do with real chaos, and is just another attempt to dress astrology in fancy clothes to hide the fact that nothing has actually changed. It still requires the assumption of as above so below, and is therefore open to the same philosophical problems as before.

Astrology and physical forces
Over the centuries various people, not always astrologers, have argued that astrology may have a physical basis. Most recently the astronomer Percy Seymour (2004:226) has put forward a geophysical explanation for astrology, or at least the Gauquelin findings, claiming that "critics could not conceive of a mechanism by which these [planetary] results could be understood. [But they] can be understood in causal terms by means of known physical agencies operating in a particular way". This was his theory of magnetospheric resonance. But neither this nor any other physical theory could possibly apply to astrology because there is often nothing for physical forces to act on, as when the subject is a company or a country or a question, or when actual planetary positions no longer exist as in progressed charts and returns. In any case his theory is not needed to explain the Gauquelin findings, see The Gauquelin Work 2.

Finally, as in all astrologies, the assumption of as above so below is in conflict with scientific explanations.

Conflict with scientific explanations
Findings in the relevant areas of astronomy, biology and psychology conflict with astrological claims in three ways. (1) They seem to deny that astrology could work in the way and to the extent claimed by astrologers (Eysenck & Nias 1982, Kanitscheider 1991). (2) They provide competing theories, eg heredity, that collectively cover the same ground as astrology but are more testable, have more explanatory power, and are more consistent with other areas of science. (3) As already noted, they suggest plausible non-astrological explanations for supposed astrological effects.

Plausible explanations involve factors such as perceptual and inferential biasses (we draw wrong conclusions from what we see), sampling errors (sampling variance is wrongly interpreted as variance due to astrology), and capitalisation on chance (if the number of variables exceeds the number of subjects, as it must do for any astrologer who has less than a few million clients, then a multiple correlation of r = 1.00 is guaranteed even if all data are random numbers). These explanations are explored further on this website in Artifacts in data and Artifacts in reasoning.

Of course new scientific findings might reverse this picture. But the existing scientific findings are built on a body of investigation immensely greater than that for astrology, and the evidence needed to overturn such a huge volume of work would have to be extremely powerful. This alone is a strong argument for caution when considering claims about astrology as a source of meaning.

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Bills RE (1971). The Rulership Book: A Directory of Astrological Correspondences. Macoy, Richmond VI.

Brady B (2006). Astrology a Place in Chaos. Wessex Astrologer, Bournemouth UK.

Campion N (1990). Mundane prediction: possibilities, problems and answers. Astrological Journal 32(1), 1-18.

Dean G (1984). Letter to Editor. Correlation 4(2), 33-36, and letter by Power in 5(1), 40.

Dean G & Loptson P (1995). Some Philosophical Problems of Astrology. Correlation 14(2), 32-44.

Donnelly FK (1984). The perfect world of astrology. Humanist in Canada Summer 1984, 20-22.

Elwell D (1986). Astrology: an alternative reality. Astrological Journal 28(4), 143-151.

Enright JT (1993). Oyster rhythms long buried (letter). Skeptical Inquirer 17, 448. Cites his thorough re-analysis of Brown's oyster data in Journal of Theoretical Biology 1965, 8, 426-428.

Eysenck HJ & Nias DKB (1982). Astrology: Science or Superstition? St Martin's Press, New York.

Flew A (1987) (ed). Readings in the Philosophical Problems of Parapsychology, Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY. Chapters 8 and 9.

Hand R (1987-88). The emergence of an astrological discipline. NCGR Journal Winter 1987-1988:66-70. Reprinted in Astrological Journal May-June 1988, 30(3), 117-127.

Hume D (1777/1962). Enquiries concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. Reprinted from the posthumous edition of 1777 and edited with an introduction and index by LA Selby-Bigge. Oxford, London, 2nd edition, pages 115-116.

Kanitscheider B (1991). A philosopher looks at astrology. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 18(3), 258-266.

Kelly IW and Krutzen R (1983). Humanistic astrology: a critique. Skeptical Inquirer 8(1), 62-73.

Larousse Encyclopedia of Astrology. McGraw-Hill, New York 1980.

Mann AT ed (1987). The Future of Astrology. Unwin Hyman, London.

Palmer C (1984). Dynamics of Natal Astrology. AFA.

Quincey P (1999). The strange case of the New Haven oysters. Skeptical Inquirer 17, 188-193.

Rudhyar D (1936/1970). The Astrology of Personality. Doubleday, Garden City NY, 1970 (originally published 1936).

Rudhyar D (1979). Personal communication to Dean and Mather, Oct 1979.

Rudhyar D (1980). Personal communication to Dean and Mather, Jan 1980.

Seymour PAL (2004). The Scientific Proof of Astrology. Quantum Books, London. A boldly retitled, but otherwise identical, version of his 1997 book The Scientific Basis of Astrology from the same publisher.

Skafte D (1969). The use of palmistry in counselling. Voices 5(4), 38-41. Also covers astrology and numerology.

Szanto G (1985). The Marriage of Heaven and Earth: The Philosophy of Astrology. Arkana (Routledge & Kegan Paul), London, pages 116-117.

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