history and philosophy of astrology

10 Questions About Astrology from a Skeptic

Questions about astrology from a skepticA couple of years ago I got into this argument on a forum with this skeptic who was attacking astrology. I didn’t realize it initially, but the guy was actually more interested in ridiculing me than he was in having a serious debate about astrology. He clearly didn’t know very much about the subject, despite the fact that he was so vehemently against it, but on the other hand I was a bit younger, a bit more cocky, and a bit less knowledgeable at the time, and there were some things that I was unaware of as well.

Recently I was looking over one of my old blog entries on Myspace about this debate and I decided to rewrite some of my arguments a bit in order to better reflect where I am at now with the subject at this point in time.

What follows are 10 questions that the skeptic posed to me initially, each of which are followed by my revised responses.

1. What is the likelihood that 1/12 of the world’s population is having the same kind of day?

This is a misleading, albeit common, question which results from a lack of knowledge about horoscopic astrology. It is usually a result of the fact that the person asking the question is only familiar with the type of 20th century ‘Sun-sign’ astrology that appears in the back of newspapers and magazines where only the position of the Sun in the tropical zodiac is taken into account.

For this reason, although it may be a legitimate critique of Sun-sign astrology, it is largely irrelevant within the context of a broader skeptical attack on astrology in general because it is based upon the assumption that the columns that you read in the newspaper represent astrology in its entirety.  This is obviously completely false, and quite obvious, I might add, to anyone who bothers to look into the subject even slightly.

The answer to this question is obviously that it is not very likely that one twelfth of the world’s population is having ‘the same kind’ of day, whatever that means, but since astrology is not simply confined to the positions of the Sun in the tropical zodiac this question has very little merit. A more accurate question with respect to Sun-sign astrology as it is applied in a modern context might be, if we wanted to focus solely on Sun-signs, to ask if it has any validity as a type of psychological typology indicator, in the same way that other more accepted personality indicators such as Myers-Briggs do.

2. Why is the moment of birth, not conception, crucial for astrology? And what if you’re a Cesarean section birth… or born from induced labor?

Historically astrologers have taken a few different positions on this issue. Astrologers first began focusing on astronomical alignments that coincided with the birth of an individual, otherwise known as ‘natal astrology’, in the 5th century BCE in Mesopotamia, with the earliest extant ‘birth charts’ dating to 410 BCE.

Mesopotamian astrology was originally conceived as another branch of divination, usually being practiced by an elite class of literate scholars who were both astrologers and sky watchers (astronomers). The fact that astrology was originally seen as another form of divination, where the stars were signifying the will of the gods, or rather the ‘heavenly writing’ where the planets were seen as the manifestations of certain gods, implies that the connection between the moment of the birth of the individual and the positions of the planets at that time was largely symbolic and temporal in nature.

The appearance of certain celestial omens and alignments at the moment of the birth of an individual have a temporal connection with one another simply by coinciding at the same moment in time, regardless of if the delivery occurs naturally or is induced.

At the basis of this lies the implicit notion that what is happening in the sky at any given moment is relevant to what is occurring on the earth, and vice versa, due to a temporal link that is entirely acausal. This fundamental astrological premise, as formulated in Mesopotamia, bears the mark of what is essentially a scientific statement of principles – that there is a correlation between celestial movements and terrestrial events.  There is a late Mesopotamian text called the Diviner’s Manual which outlines this underlying theory quite explicitly:

Sky and earth together produce omens

Each separate, not divided;

sky and earth are interconnected.

A sign which is bad in the sky

is bad on earth; a sign which

is bad on earth is bad in the sky…”  ((From Francesca Rochberg, Aspects of Babylonian Celestial Divination: The Lunar Eclipse Tablets of the Enuma Anu Enlil, Ferdinand Berger & Sohne, Horn, Austria, 1988, VII. 3, pg. 9.))

This notion of temporal moments of origin was taken up and further expanded in the Hellenistic period with the development of horoscopic astrology, and the creation of a complex construct in order to study this connection with greater precision and detail.

Even in the 2nd century CE when Ptolemy was discussing conception vs. birth within the context of his overarching causal framework he seems to point to the importance of birth over conception in terms of the symbolic significance of that temporal moment. Ptolemy explains that both the conception chart and the chart for the moment of birth of an individual are often taken into account, as they had been in the Mesopotamian tradition, but

…in the case of those who do not know [the moment of conception], which happens for the most part, it is fitting to follow the beginning for the moment [of birth], and it is necessary to attend to this, as it is the greatest and the very beginning is lacking with respect to the conception only this- that the circumstances prior to birth can be foreknown through that beginning. For even if one may call the one “beginning” and the other, as it were “inception,” its magnitude becomes second [in rank] with respect to time, but equal and even more perfect in potentiality, and the former might almost with justice be named the genesis of the human seed, and the latter the genesis of a man. For the new-born babe takes on at that time very many additional [characteristics] which did not belong to it before when it was in the womb- indeed, those individual characteristics which are of human nature alone. ((Claudius Ptoelmy, Tetrabiblos, Book 3, Ch. 2, trans. Robert Schmidt, ed. Robert Hand, Golden Hind Press, Berkley Springs, WV, 1996, pgs. 4-5.))

Here Ptolemy is simply elaborating on the notion that in horoscopic astrology the focus is on the study of specific entities and systems through the analysis of the temporal moments of origin in which said system reaches a state in which it can begin to manifest its potentiality.

The potentiality of an embryo is realized in the formation of the fetus and then eventually the baby which is born at a specific moment in time, and this period from embryo to birth may be studied through the conception chart. However, as Ptolemy argues, the potentiality of a human life and all that accompanies it is only realized subsequent to birth, and the nature and events which take place in the period between birth and death are studied through the birth chart itself.

So the point of natal astrology, or astrology in general, is to study specific systems by attending to the symbolically significant temporal moments in which they originate.   Natal astrology presumes that there is a correspondence between the alignment of the horoscopic chart of an individual at birth, and the potentiality, pattern and nature of everything subsequent to that moment. In modern times this is usually conceptualized within the context of the maxim coined by Carl Jung that

…whatever is born or done at this particular moment of time has the quality of this moment of time. ((Carl Gustav Jung, ‘Richard Wilhelm: In Memoriam’, paragraph 82, 1930, Collected Works 15, quoted in Roderick Main, Jung On Synchronicity and the Paranormal, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1997, pg. 84.))

3. If the mother’s womb can keep out astrological forces until the moment of birth, why can’t we do the same with a piece of steak?

This question rests on the common presupposition that astrology operates through some sort of causal principle or mechanism, or that there is some sort of magical or unknown force involved through which the planets literally influence life on Earth.

While this is a common assumption made by skeptics – that astrologers think that astrology is the study of some sort of undefined celestial ‘infleunce’ – this is not the view of the vast majority of astrologers today.

Most astrologers view practice astrologer within the context of the above mentioned principle of some sort of acausal correlation or correspondence between celestial movements and earthly events or systems. In the 20th century this is often conceptualized in terms of the theory of ‘synchronicity’.

The term synchronicity was coined by the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung , as part of an overarching theory that he developed in order to explain phenomena that have no apparent causal connection, but instead share a connection through meaning or equivalence, by coinciding at the same moment in time.

Jung often referred to synchronicity as an “acausal connecting principle”, or in other words a pattern of connection that works outside of or in addition to causality. In his 1951 work On Synchronicity Jung wrote

Causality is the way that we explain the link between two successive events. Synchronicity designates the parallelism of time and meaning between psychic and psychophysical events, which scientific knowledge so far has been unable to reduce to a common principle. … No reciprocal causal connection can be shown to obtain between parallel events, which is just what gives them their chance character. The only recognizable and demonstrable link between them is a common meaning or equivalence. … Synchronistic phenomena prove the simultaneous occurrence of meaningful equivalences in heterogeneous, causally unrelated processes; in other words, they prove that a content perceived by an observer can, at the same time, be represented by an outside event, without any causal connection. ((Jung, ‘On Synchronicity’, From his collected works volume Synchronicity, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1973, pg. 115 (this volume was extracted from volume 8 the larger Collected Works of C. G. Jung: The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche.  For the same quote you can also see Roderick Maine, cited above, pg. 101. ))

Elsewhere Jung referrs to the principle underlying synchronicity as a “meaningful coincidence”.  With this in mind, Jung made the statement in his later works

We are born at a given moment, in a given place and, like vintage years of wine, we have the qualities of the year and of the season of which we are born. Astrology does not lay claim to anything more.

4. If astrologers are so good, why aren’t they rich? (The Los Angeles Times, December 28, 1995, reported on page 1 that the treasurer of Orange County, California, used an astrologer and psychic to guide the county’s investments. He lost $1.6 billion and bankrupted the county. Why aren’t he, the astrologer, and the county rich?)

There is a bit of a disconnect between what astrologers know to be within their capacity with respect to prediction, and what the general public assumes is possible when you mention the word astrology within the context of prediction. I was speaking to Robert Zoller recently and he said something very pertinent along these lines. He said something to the effect that, astrology gives you the ability to know things that you shouldn’t otherwise be able to know. That is to say, it doesn’t provide omniscience, but it does give the practitioner the ability to tap into the undercurrents of specific situations and systems and to determine things that you would otherwise not be able to know, to a greater or lesser extent. Within this context, as a study, astrology should be seen more along the lines of a type of forecasting art/science. James Holden expresses similar thoughts in his book A History of Horoscopic Astrology

Can astrologers ‘predict’ the future? Yes, to some degree, but not with one hundred percent accuracy. This is mainly because human beings are complex creatures and live in complex societies. Astrologers can generally tell what type of event will befall a given individual, but not its exact details. And they may not be able to determine exactly when this event will occur. This is due to the large number of variables that have to be considered, some of which cannot be known in advance. But the same thing is true of meteorologists, economists, physicians, political experts, etc. How many times have the weathermen predicted meteorological conditions that didn’t occur, or failed to predict those that did? How many economists have confidently predicted economic trends that never materialized or even went the other way? How many doctors have given a patient a clean bill of health only to have him fall over dead with a heart attack or stroke a week later? Or how many have misdiagnosed a patient’s disease until it was too late, or given him pills that made him sicker? And how many political experts have misjudged the mood of the electorate??? But do we fire all meteorologists, economists, physicians and experts and close their departments in the universities when they make predictions? No! Unfairly astrologers are held to a higher standard than those other professionals. If an astrologer makes a prediction that doesn’t work out, the scientists and some of the public will immediately say, “See, that proves that astrology is false.” But if one of those others makes a false prediction, everybody accepts it as just being bad luck in a particular instance, and the predictor goes right on making more predictions as if nothing happened (except maybe in the case of the political expert).

Addressing the other issue of why all astrologers aren’t rich, I think that to a certain extent it depends on the inclination of the individual as well as their own natal predispositions and ability to acquire wealth. It appears to me that the majority of astrologers in the field today are more interested in using astrology within the context of counseling or psychology, and they are not running around trying to forecast the stock market or what have you. On the other hand there are some astrologers who spend their time focusing on the stock market and using astrology to inform their client’s investments as well as their own, and some of these people have done quite well for themselves. Some astrologers are fond of that quote from J.P. Morgan that

Millionaires don’t use astrology; billionaires do.

Ultimately it is really a matter of the disposition and skill of the astrologer though. For many people the success or failure of astrology isn’t simply measured through the ability to acquire wealth.

5. Are all horoscopes done before the discovery of the outermost three planets incorrect?

No, of course not. Why would they be? The three outer planets (including Pluto) just add another layer or dimension to astrology, and provide additional details that help to supplement the other celestial bodies used in a chart. This is another one of those question that arises from a lack of understanding about what exactly astrologer do, and what the rationale is underlying the entire astrological endeavor in general.

6. Should we not condemn astrology as a form of bigotry? (Isn’t it discrimination by birth date?)

Within the context of 20th century astrology, no, because since most people approach the chart within a psychological context there is no such thing as a better or worse chart per se.

In the 21st century this may be changing a bit though because the astrological community is going through a bit of a paradigm shift where we are learning how to integrate the subjective, inner, psychological or esoteric modern traditions with the more objective, external, event oriented exoteric traditions from the past. In a more traditional context there are certain charts which seem to be better or worse in certain areas within the context of the astrological construct and what it is thought to denote about certain areas of a person’s life. If we accept the astrological hypothesis for a moment, then we would say that a person’s natal chart can reflect the relative ease or difficult that each person experiences in attending to various areas of their life. If the astrology is accurately depicting reality then I don’t really see how this could be considered as discriminatory though, because it is simply reflecting was is.

As human beings we already pass judgments on other people’s lives anyways. If someone has a difficult childhood and they commit suicide at some point then we say that this person ‘had a hard life’. Conversely, if someone grows up and fulfills all of their childhood dreams and then eventually dies peacefully in their bed of old age then we made say that this person ‘had a good life,’ or something to that effect. If astrology is accurately depicting people’s lives, and distinctions can be made between the birth charts of the people in the two examples above, then I see no problem with this sort of analysis. Certainly there is the possibility of abuse, or misuse of astrology, but I don’t think that I would go so far as to say that there is some sort of negative form of discrimination or bigotry inherent in the subject itself.

7. Why do different schools of astrology disagree so strongly with each other? I mean, aren’t they experimental verified since this is a *science*?

This is actually a decent and relatively well informed question which requires some sort of background into the subject to know that there are different schools of astrologers to begin with. There are many different schools and traditions of astrology due to a variety of reasons, most of which are due to the fact that astrology is a very old subject that has been a part of just about every culture and language at one point in time.

Much of the astrology that would later develop in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa originated in Mesopotamia. The Mesopotamians amassed a large number of astronomical and astrological observations which were subsequently recorded on cuneiform tablets and codified into different written traditions such as the Enuma Anu Enlil. Some of these tablets were exported to other regions of the world such as India, China, and Egypt where they were translated and subsequently merged with the native traditions of astrology that were already preexistent in those cultures. There was a historian of science named David Pingree who specialized in studying the transmission of the astral sciences from culture to culture. One biographical article on him explains that he

…devoted his life’s work to understanding the transmission of mathematics, astronomy and astrology from the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia through Renaissance Europe, and the ways the recipient culture would alter the ideas to render them accessible to their people. “Each time there is a transmission there is a transformation,” he said. “It is only in modern times that Western science is transmitted without being changed.”

Astrologers often liken astrology to a language. That is, after all, one of the core meanings of the word ‘astro-logos’: star-speech. As with linguistics, there are many subtle nuances of dialect, and even though you can learn an entire language from a book, actually knowing how to make it work, pronounce it, arrange it and speak it properly takes experience, and also judgment of what to say at the right time, and how to interpret certain phrases when they are spoken to you. Different traditions of astrology develop their own languages, and when the different traditions merge with one another to creates something new. Astrology, much like language, is constantly evolving and growing and incorporating new terms and vocabulary and concepts. In studying the history of astrology and how different traditions of astrologers practice the subject you can often see it branch out into various directions from the various original sources. Different areas grow apart, and although each takes with it portions of the original concepts or language of its original source, after time they begin to change and transform into something that may look completely different. This process is very similar to the way that the romance languages are to some extent derivatives of the Latin language.

This is the main reason why there are so many different schools and traditions of astrology. It is only recently, over the past 20 years or so, that the astrological community has started to go back and reassess the various traditions, and what we are starting to see is a rethinking and a resynthesis of the language and all of the different traditions. In the coming decades we may see a new form of astrology emerge that synthesizes several of the traditions. This process has only just begun though.

8. If astrological influence is carried by a known force (such as gravity-caused tides), why do the planets dominate over closer objects? (Why does Mars supposedly have more influence that the nearby doctor attending a birth?)

This would be a good question if astrologers generally thought that the mechanism behind astrology was a known force such as gravity, rather than through some sort of acausal framework. While there are some astrologers who still believe that the mechanism behind astrology is a known force, such as gravity, I think that this a very small minority of people who are either A) delusional B) misinformed, or C) believe that 99% of astrology is bogus except for this small portion which might have a causal basis such as gravity. Personally, I don’t really think that this position is tenable though because it is too narrow in its scope and it wouldn’t explain 99% of what astrologers appear to be able to do.

9. If astrological influence is carried by unknown forces, why is it independent of distance? (Why does Mars supposedly have the same influence regardless of its distance, which varies greatly?)

Even in the instance of an unknown force I would have to go back to my answer from the previous question(s) insomuch as I don’t think that a causal mechanism could possibly account for everything that astrologers do, or even that it is necessary for there to be a causal mechanism in order to justify it.

However, on the subject of force being independent of distance one could point to some of the developments in quantum physics in order to call into question the notion that a force must of necessity be restricted by distance. Quantum Entanglement is an interesting example of this. Here is a quote from Wikipedia:

Quantum entanglement is a quantum mechanical phenomenon in which the quantum states of two or more objects have to be described with reference to each other, even though the individual objects may be spatially separated. This leads to correlations between observable physical properties of the systems. For example, it is possible to prepare two particles in a single quantum state such that when one is observed to be spin-up, the other one will always be observed to be spin-down and vice versa, this despite the fact that it is impossible to predict, according to quantum mechanics, which set of measurements will be observed. As a result, measurements performed on one system seem to be instantaneously influencing other systems entangled with it. … Einstein famously derided entanglement as “spukhafte Fernwirkung” or “spooky action at a distance.”

What I am pointing out here is that even the though at the present time we have this notion that that forces cannot be transmitted irrespective of distance, that doesn’t mean that this is not something that could be subject to revision at some point in the future. While I don’t think that a causal explanation of astrology is plausible, or necessary, I don’t think that we can simply discount astrology simply because it doesn’t fit in with currently accepted scientific norms or positions. By nature science is subject to revision.

10. Why are there no astrological influences caused by stars and galaxies?

Aside from discounting the notion of astrological ‘influence’ one might point out that some of the oldest astrological treatises contained material on the ‘fixed stars’ (as opposed to the ‘wandering stars’ which are observable to the naked eye). There are many long tracts written about the observed and hypothetical ‘effects’ or ‘significations’ of the fixed stars, and a number of astrologers do take them into account. It appears that the majority of astrologers tend to focus on the planets and luminaries in our solar system simply because these are the main components of the various astrological constructs at this point in time, and this approach yields satisfactory results in practice.

As for galaxies, black holes, and other newly discovered phenomena, they are just that; newly discovered. Due to their recent discoveries, some astrologers are trying to ascertain their place in what is already a complex system. Others are not simply because they feel that the system as it is presently constructed provides more than enough information already. It is really a matter a preference and doesn’t really belong in this discussion when the matter of causality has already been brought into question.



Update: I just randomly happened to find the original source of these 10 questions tonight as I was reading through different skeptic sites. I always knew that the guy that I was arguing with a couple of years ago didn’t come up with them, but this is the first time that I have actually found the original source. Good times.

13 replies on “10 Questions About Astrology from a Skeptic”

Hey Chris
Nicely done!
Check out Bernadette Brady’s new book “Astrology a Place in Chaos” for lots of support regarding astrology and chaos/complexity theory. Her assertion is that astrology is neither a science nor divination, both of which depend upon “causal agents.” We sell ourselves short by confining ourselves to this “either-or” attitude. Rather, the astrological model is a stellar example (ha ha!) of how chaos theory works in the real world. She points out that astrology has never fared well under “scientific investigation. ”

She says “Astrology has generally, over its history, proven resistant to reductioninstic approaches….it is unable to respond to the experimental methods of the linear dynamic world as it cannot yield consistently to statistical methods or be replicated in a lab setting or indeed in any setting. Self similarity (a chaotic concept) is not the same as duplication.”

Enjoyed this post, am cross-posting on my own blog. Thanks!

Hi Linea,
Thank you. I will definitely check out the book your recommended. I have to admit that I am kind of skeptical about chaos theory as a viable mechanism for astrology because it seems somewhat antithetical to it in principle. I am certainly willing and interested to hear to argument though. Thanks for letting me know about it.

Thanks for the cross post as well.

Best regards,

Does anyone have any thoughts about the entries in the astrology sections of New York newpapers prepared in the wee smalls of the morning 11-Sep-2001?

After browsing through your blog I would have expected a more well thought out or poignant argument from you. Did you even read this post?

You’re doing outstanding work with your blog, Chris. It’s very inspiring to me, and I’m sure others too. Thanks!

Hi Chris,
I really enjoyed this and learned a lot from it. I looked at the date of the post — isn’t this such an apt one for Mercury retrograde though? Going over old material, even finding the old source again. Mercury rx gets too much of a bad rep sometimes. Good stuff can come out of it!
Thanks again.

Yeah, it really is apt for the Mercury retrograde actually. I try to put things in perspective and go with the flow when there are certain astrological trends such as that one happening. Sometimes it can be just as productive to review and revise certain projects that you have been meaning to do, instead of trying to start something from scratch or initiate a new phase of activity.

“I was speaking to Robert Zoller recently and he said something very pertinent along these lines. He said something to the effect that, astrology gives you the ability to know things that you shouldn’t otherwise be able to know. That is to say, it doesn’t provide omniscience, but it does give the practitioner the ability to tap into the undercurrents of specific situations and systems and to determine things that you would otherwise not be able to know. . ”

I loved this comment. As a practicing astrologer, I have run across those clients that expected an “instant oracular experience”. Having seen on television only those people who are extraordinarily gifted psychics, they expect instant “verification” of your gifts, with little understanding of what an astrologer actually does. They want to hear that everything is going to be wonderful, that they’ll meet the mates of their dreams, that their married lover is going to come running to them and/or they are going to win the lottery when the timing is right. Sometimes there is a real blind-spot to the fact that the information an astrologer is giving them is really something that no stranger should be able to tell them.

Quantifying astrological results is a difficult, time consuming process. Even Gauguelin, after analyzing 6,000 charts, came up with just a few quantifiable results. The complexity of the Art defeats this perhaps, or we have to wait for those computers that can synthesize the information in a birth chart with the same skill that a human mind can. Maybe then we can “prove” astrology to the world at large.

All I know is that I can tell you things about yourself that I shouldn’t know. To me, that is proof enough.

Thank you for a well thought out and elegant article.

I think, despite the booing, as a science, astrology must continue to evolve. But it hasn’t. There’s stagnation, and we’re still stuck with combinations and interpretations put forth decades/centuries ago.
If we want to be relevant, we also have to pay heed to the skeptic’s doubts. Never mind if we can’t explain how, we must at least know what causes these correlation of celestial phenomena and human incidents.
Case in point: when Newton gave the formula for gravity, he didn’t explain what it was or how it worked. That was done in Einstein’s time.
As proponents of an idea under attack, blindly fending off the naysayers isn’t the way.
You say it’s not gravitational waves, for example. Propose an alternative? What do you think it is?

I did propose an alternative. I questioned the necessity of there being a causal mechanism underlying astrology in the first place, and used synchronicity as an example of an alternate theory.

When one looks at the solar system from above, stretching the view to encompass a great distance, one sees all the movements of the planets, around the Sun, singing, like in a choir. From this perspective, it is easy to tell that the planets, in their motion, are synchronistic principles in accord with all the living entities stationed in the center of all of it. How simple must these things be? Stand before the Moon and Jupiter at night, and you will be filled with a radiance. Have you ever caught a glimpse of the full moon when you weren’t expecting it, and it took your breath away? It is the notion that there is an intelligence and a beauty, a numinous light which birthed the Sun, that makes astrology valid. We but float on influences we will never, ever measure with our gross modern tools. The skeptic but has a closed heart; and as a practicing astrologer, yes, I have seen that this closed-mindedness does influence the reading toward their refusal of light; they may leave still not knowing that for which they searched. This happens with Virgos and killer Mercuries. And yet, why should one’s intent control the circumstances of time? Do we understand the nature of what thoughts and intentions are? All of life, we just see through one giant screen, that is placed 3 inches or so in front of our face. Astrology may be that screen. For certainly, it is valid that astrology may function as a screen, because it is comprised of real planets, against the cosmic background, which is the Father. It is as Robert Hand says “the universe is infinitely weird.” Even with my South Node and Jupiter in Sagittarius, I wouldn’t claim to know how astrology works. Nor anything. Knowing is ignorance.