In defense of Astrology? Have I finally lost the plot?
Maybe! I like to doubt my own doubts from time to time, and critique my own sceptical beliefs. I originally wrote this as a playful piece on Richard Dawkin’s forum when The Enemies of Reason TV show was announced.
All my life I have been rather amused by the persistence of belief in Astrology, and have outspokenly declared against it as superstitious claptrap — in this I was very much influenced by one of my heroes, the American Rationalist and SF/Horror writer HP Lovecraft who carried out a letter writing campaign to get it removed from newspapers, and the latter day efforts of James Randi and other decent minded Sceptics.
However, I think it’s time to say a few words in defense of the old gal, so here goes…
From the earliest times, humanity looked to the stars with awe, and very quickly they made a rather important observation, and one upon which I suspect pretty much all of our civilization is founded: the heavens predict the seasons, and by observing the skies, one knows when to plant, when to reap, and so forth. The whole calendar, and our sense of linear time, but above all the development of agriculture which enabled urbanization and eventually through surplus, the rise of technology and learning, is based on predictive study of the heavens. Astrology was a science back then, a science which enabled the Egyptians to predict the flooding of the Nile for example. In China, the Middle East, and probably India a great body of astronomical lore and observations were amassed, for entirely pragmatic reasons.
From the earliest times, I guess people also marked important anniversaries – birthdays perhaps, or the solstices. They saw themselves age, and life events pass, and measured themselves against the passage of time, the seasons, and the stars. From these observations the astrologers with their maths developed a body of knowledge which they saw as predictive, which explained the fates of people, and came to believe in it.
Of course there were a great many sceptics in the Ancient World – Rome was full of astrological sceptics, and today we would separate the Astrological nonsense from the Astronomical truth – but in the early days of Science there was no such luxury. By the fist century BCE astrologers were pointing out, does the moon not influence the tides? How much more likely the subtleties of the human blood and spirit were bound by these same natural forces!
In fact they were almost right. We know now that cosmic rays appear to seed clouds, or so I am told, and we understand that the same rays can cause mutations in our very DNA, or again so I believe is the case? The sun clearly is vital to sustaining our little system, and the moon really does cause the tides. Indeed they were completely right to see a causal relationship between the sun and moon and the seasons, which our science has long since explained. The planets really do effect life on earth, and maybe the remains of dead stars actually brought us some of the ingredients for this life? I don’t know.
So maybe old Aunty Astrology, long since discredited by the Christian Church Fathers, vilified by sceptics, and abandoned by her wayward son Astronomy in her dotage, was not all bad. Without her we would probably still be hunter gatherers, and how much of our science in a millenia will look equally as dumb to an observer then looking back? “They believed what in the 21st century? How quaint!”
Then there is the fact that in some senses Astrology works. At a simple level, many people do seem to actually resemble their sun sign, and i think I know why — because as children we are exposed to this garbage, and therefore our personal identities shape themselves to some degree based on what we are told we “should be like”. I’m a Leo/Virgo cusp – I was told when young I was Leo, so I grew up proud, arrogant, overbearing and intensely egotistical, a thoroughly unpleasant tosser, but hey that’s me. And I’m guessing that happens a lot.
I started working on this theory years ago, after I noticed that Freudian ideas, which I considered superstitious tosh, actually were far more effective in a clinical environment than they had any right to be, and there were some brilliant Freudian practitioners. I thought through all the possibilities – was Freud right after all? Was it all just chance and misperception on my part? and then one day a possible explanation hit me – most of our patients had grown up in a society where Freud’s ideas were at least slightly known, and held authority – and that belief empowered them to get better, because they were comfortable with the ideas? I could be wrong – but I think it might work.
Astrology might gain just empower some people to make decisions, because they feel its “in their stars”, whereas in fact they are just selectively choosing which bits to believe, and which to ignore. So I actually think childhood to the ideas exposure might help shape the child’s personality and self perception in a self fulfilling prophecy – precisely Augustine’s argument as I recall, except I think he felt demons gained power to shape you once you chose? Maybe it was some other Church Father, I’m nowhere near my books!
Yet Astrology was, and still is in many parts of the world correct here – the time of your birth in any seasonal agricultural economy might be extremely important in your chance of surviving infancy I’m guessing. simply because certain illnesses and the mothers food supply hence available nutrients are going to vary tremendously with the passing of the seasons. Of course this will depend where you are on the planet, as the seasons of say Northern Finland are very different to those of Italy or Brazil, but it will be significant. The place and date of your birth may well in pre-industrial societies actually have a marked effect on your development? I don’t know, but us “Enemies of Reason” like to consider these possibilities. The ancients were maybe not so daft after all…
So Aunty Astrology has been shown to be a gossipy old hag, but she was not without her uses. And then of course, we have the final and funniest thing of all.
A few decades ago, a French husband and wife pair discovered what they called the Mars Effect – that is that Mars was ascendant at the time that sports champions (as I recall, this is off the top of my head) was ascendant, rising over the horizon at the moment of birth. Now a moments thought will show this is nonsense – why birth – why not conception? The problem is their figures worked, and the rationalist organization CSICOP famously investigated this, and then a number of members including Truzzi quit in disgiust claiming that CSICOP had suppressed the positive replication. It was a scandal which actually besmirched the cause of Sceptisicm for years, an irrational refusal many felt to follow the facts when the conclusions were uncomfortable. In fact in the decades since there have been many positive replications, and a good number of papers which show why the original claims may well have been as flawed as was purported – but the matter is still not really in 2009 conclusively dealt with as far as I know. You can read up on this here –
Perhaps someone with time, and a good knowledge of stats and mathematical analysis cares to play?
Now let’s get this straight – I ain’t following no horoscope, or claiming Astrology as popularly understood is in any sense useful. However before one can dismiss it finally as pseudoscience, there is still a little work to be done – and if it was not for our dear mad aunty, we might still be out hunting now, and grubbing for roots, not playing on the net.
I’m not going to be too harsh on Astrology again.
The UK Sceptics have announced their 2009 conference to be held at Muncaster Castle, Cumbria on the 18th-20th September 2009. Speakers include Chris French and Chris Roe, but also interestingly John Walliss on mediumship and amazingly Nick Pope – yes, Nick “real X Files” Pope! I have never heard of the other speakers but it looks like an excellent line up, covering a huge array of topics, from the social psychology of conspiracy theory to “The Lure of the Dark side: Sex, death and the paranormal in cult movies.” Sounds intriguing! I don’t know if I will be able to make this one – places are limited, and Cumbria is a bit of a trek for me unless Dave Curtin is interested or some of my other friends are interested, but if you are considering going do email me or comment and let’s see if we can work something out!
It is astonishingly cheap for a weekend in a castle — to quote their website “As is clear from the location chosen and the invited speakers, we have decided to make the conference a quality event rather than go for minimum cost; however, the price per head will still only be £65 as an Early-Bird booking discount (£75 if booked after July 1st).
This price includes, access to both days of the conference (10 talks, 5 per-day); access to the Friday night welcoming wine reception (meet the speakers) to be held in the castle; tea, coffee and biscuits each morning and afternoon session; a two course hot fork buffet style lunch on Saturday and Sunday, full access to the castle and grounds for the duration of the conference (note castle is open Friday and Sunday – grounds open all the time).
In addition, an optional 3-course dinner for speakers and delegates is available on Saturday evening in the castle (priced separately £45 per-head).”
Well I’ll be skipping the dinner, and it looks like one has to find accommodation – where is Dave when you need him? Still it looks pretty good to me!
So anyone interested? Full details at
It’s the Year of Darwin, and boy am I bored with it. All the myths are being cranked out – and very little new (with some honourable exceptions — see below.) It’s also a year after I spent a lot of my energy examining Darwin and the Church, and reading around the subject. I thought it might amuse people to read some of it here – because most of “what we know” is wrong… This will be the first of a short series of posts on Dancing on Darwin’s Grave, as I lash out at the absurd hagiography surrounding the chap, and the modern myths that have grown up around the birth fo Evolutionary theory. And no, I am not a Creationist! I fully accept Evolution by Natural Selection – just making that clear, ok?
Everyone knows that Darwin was opposed by the Church right? Evolution was accepted by scientists, and mocked by evangelicals? Fundamentalists hated Darwin, and Soapy Sam and Wilberforce had a huge row over religion? Er, nope. It never happened like that.
I argue quite the opposite is true – at a time when the scientific community were still intensely sceptical of Evolution in the Darwinian model, many Evangelicals played an important role in supporting and accepting evolution, and few Evangelicals seem to have opposed it in the period 1850-1920… I suspect this will please almost no one, from Darwinians to Fundies!
I’m assuming most people are aware that what we call Young Earth Creationism, the belief the earth is a few thousand years old, is really only a North American Protestant belief and has only been prominent there since 1961. Sure, in recent years it has grown in the Islamic World, and in the rest of the Christian world following US example, but YEC is really quite a modern thing.
It was not the most common belief at all in the time of Darwin, even among conservatives. Age Gap, Framework and Age Day theories were the ideas common in the Evangelical mainstream before Darwin – a fact reflected in the massive contribution of Evangelicals and Anglican churchmen to the geological breakthroughs of the early 19th century.
Ah, some may cry, what are they? Wikipedia to the Rescue! You don’t really need to know this to get the main point, but hey–
Catastrophism and flood geology was an extreme minority position, and only one Evangelical newspaper, The Record, appears to have much time for it.
Evolution was pioneered in America by the devout Evangelical Asa Grey, writing Darwinia (1876) which reconciles his Evangelical beliefs with orthodox Darwinism, and indeed being the only non-British member of the Darwin circle who saw Origin of the Species (1859) prior to publication. He dedicated much of his life to publicising and popularising Darwinian Evolution. A good bibliography is here- http://www.huh.harvard.edu/libraries/asa/asabio.html So by Darwin’s time, a number of Evangelicals were already evolutionist.
Many of the objections raised like those of Soapy Sam Wilberforce were primarily scientific not theological — Kelvin pointed out Darwinian Evolution was completely impossible in terms of our understanding of the laws of physics and a theory not substantiated by the empirical evidence: indeed it ran contrary to much we knew until we understood stellar nucleosynthesis. It was of course correct,but that was not to be established for many decades to come.
Despite these problems, the Evangelicals response was generally positive. So who accepted evolution in those first years? It’s a Who’s Who of Evangelicals. Marston & Forster list BB Warfield, AH Strong, Van Dyke, Landey Patton, AA Hodge, WT Shedd, James McCosh — all hard core Evangelical leaders. ( They cite Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders, Scottish Academic Press, 1987).
Many historians of science and religion have already surveyed this territory and found that on both sides of the Atlantic works in favour of Darwin in Christian circles far outnumbered the minority opposition. Fundamentalism? Looking at The Fundamentals, I am immediately minded of Chapter 69 – The Passing of Evolution. (online here – kudos to the chap who undertook this herculean task! – http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/6528/fund69.htm ) As you can see, this limited acceptance of Darwinism and objections based upon scientific principle is not quite what one might be led to expect from the very founding document of Fundamentalism. Orr’s chapter 18 contains a resolute defence of evolution, though he was Lamarckian and here disparages Darwinism. You can read it for yourself here http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/6528/fund18.htm
Orr accepted Lamarckian evolution, or at least appears to. I could go on and on – I probably will, it’s what I do – but I suspect that the “meme” of Evangelical refusal of evolution has developed quite recently, and part of the “conflict between science and religion” woo one sees so much of these days. The popularity of the idea is simple — it appeals to both hard atheists wishing to disparage religion as an opponent of reason, and to devout Young Earth Creationist types who wish to claim this was always the Christian faith.
Few voices speak out against it – few people bother to check the facts, despite the mountains of printed material available, and modern studies like those of Marston and Livingstone.
My contention is that YEC only dates really from 1961 and Henry Morris – certainly OEC was common, but that looked at an earth many millions of years old (though limited by Kelvin’s calculations on the sun which gave the Earth an age of not more than 25 million years - http://www.me.rochester.edu/courses/ME201/webexamp/kelvin.pdf - which led to his and many other physicists rejection of Darwin as physically impossible.)
The debate between physicists and geologists over the age of the Earth was ongoing, until the understanding of the actual processes involved in the sun showed the geologists were right. Physicists however probably were greater opponents of Darwinism in the early years (as pseudo-science that defied our understanding of physical law) than Evangelicals? Dunno! The Creationists as we know them are very modern – the Seventh Day Adventists, who gave Americans many interesting doctrines almost unique to that continent did much to support the rise of OEC, and McCready Price in the 1920′s was the first major anti-evolutionist who went for seven literal days I can think of? Willliam Jennings Bryan for example (he of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial) favoured one of the two main Evangelical theories –, Age/Day, where a Day represented millions of years not a 24 hour period, and the famous Schofield Refence Bible of 1909went for the other – Gap theory, where there was a Gap of millions of years between Day 1, and Day2, and possibly between other Days. Both arguments preserve Biblical inerrancy.
The myths were already building fast even by then, indeed before the end of the 19th century, one of the most famous being about the debate between Huxley and Wilberforce over On the Origin of Species. Superb essay on the history of this by JR Lucas here, well worth reading (honestly it is!) — http://users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas/legend.html As you can see, this encounter is one of the most common stories almost everyone knows, but the truth is shall we say a little more obscure? Legendary indeed! Inerrantists has long accepted Gap Theory, Framework Theory or Age/Day by Darwin’s period – many leading geologists were devout evangelicals, so the age fo the Earth was known to be exceedingly ancient, and as Augustine and Origen both accepted the reading of this passage as non-literal as did theologians all through the ages, it is not surprising really they had cheerfully gone with the new science. It was a reaction to be expected in light of the dominant Baconian “Two Books” paradigm? Anyway, one does not have to be stupid ot be a Christian, it’s entirely optional – then as now. A few of us still possess brains, and a cynical scepticism about how susceptible we are to modern myths, no matter how much we can see the problems with ancient ones… Hope my historical whitterings have not bored to death.
I wrote that brief summary last year, after conversations with Beast, then luckily John Van Wyhe (Historian of Science, Cambridge University, leader of the Darwin Online Project) published a very interesting article in BBC History magazine — January 2009 – Volume 10 – No 1 http://www.bbchistorymagazine.com/currentissue.asp in which he also exposes ye olde myth. Anyway, question all these myths! I f everyone knows something, it’s often nonsense!