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|On the Metaphysical Basis of Astrology
by Dennis Frank
As a preamble to discussing the metaphysical foundations of the astrological belief system, I will recycle a few points from Metaphysics by G.N. Schlesinger (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), the author being Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina.
"The ultimate foundation of all other intellectual enterprises is metaphysics." (p.12) Schlesinger quotes another writer: "The method of metaphysical enquiry is to render explicit the implicit presuppositions of a particular world-view."
Apparently philosophers have always been divided on "the problem of universals. Realists maintain - and have maintained since early antiquity - that universals exist, whereas nominalists have denied it. Ever since the beginning of this debate eminent philosophers in every generation have in more or less equal numbers taken one side or another in the controversy. Today, no less than in the time of Plato, it is not obvious which view is correct." (p.3)
Indeed, I suspect it may never become obvious. When such universals, such as archetypes, or fields, or holistic relationships, are merely concepts, then it will always be a matter of taste and/or faith for people choosing to believe in them. This logic applies to any abstract concept, of course, and the relationship between astrologers and skeptiks mirrors the divide. I am by nature a sceptic, so the term skeptik I am applying to a certain defective type of human being who claims to not be able to believe in something unless he can touch it. He's not telling the truth of course, as you can establish if you ask him if he believes that the sun is real, or that certain other countries exist even when he hasn't been there to touch the soil. It turns out he does believe in these things, due to faith in the opinions of others, most of whom he has not met. The abysmal intellectual performance of the skeptik is combined with a touching naivety.
Schlesinger points out that "the central feature of metaphysical beliefs is that they cannot in principle be conclusively verified in the way scientific hypotheses are." So, if we are, as I have suggested, to make progress in astrology by producing a contemporary description of its metaphysical foundations, we are confronted with the challenge of the real. This used to be known to scientists as "objective truth" or "absolute reality". Apart from noting that reality has traditionally been correlated with the world outside ourselves, I will defer a detailed discussion of this point for now.
He lists 8 metaphysical issues to be addressed in his book, of which several seem relevant to our purposes: (#2) "Temporal becoming and the question of the moving NOW", (#7) "The belief in the intelligibility of nature and the belief in the uniformity of nature", (#6) "The question of the existence of other minds and the more particular question as to whether, for example, others' experiences of seeing red are the same as mine", (#1) "Religious beliefs - how they may be confirmed and disconfirmed". (p.7)
In his chapter "What is metaphysics?", he writes "Metaphysical problems are problems about how the world is that scientists do not tackle, leaving them to philosophers to investigate." Inasmuch as we are functioning here as philosophers, the purposes of Exegesis seem to be included. "One of the opinions most often heard is that metaphysics, just like science, is concerned with the nature of reality." "Another view, perhaps even more widespread, is that metaphysics is an attempt to penetrate beyond the surface of experience and discover what lies beneath."
"The status of temporal becoming is a typical metaphysical problem. Some metaphysicians have insisted that time flows. They have contended that a given instant of time, namely the NOW, is momentarily `alive', is more real than other temporal points." An admirably dispassionate view from the isolation of the ivory tower, this, given that this perspective has been multi-cultural throughout history, being rooted in common experience and normally described as common sense. But we must remember that philosophy professors are unlikely to study anthropology or read history. Common perception of the flow of time provides a temporal context to society and communal experience. It is a fundamental part of collective reality for humans. Common perception of the reality of now is tacit for everyone. It is the most real time of all, since the future remains hypothetical till it happens, and people always differ about what happened in the past. We are all connected by common experience of now, the primary features of which are described daily in the news media. Culture thus embeds the commonality of experience, but astrologers are the only ones with an interpretive framework for analysing the personal now. Now happens differently to each of us, and the horoscope is the main device for interpreting the meaning of the moment. However a local event may have collective impact, in which case the horoscope of the event has more than personal meaning. When the meaning of a moment thus transcends the personal reality of the individual, and provides commonality to a social collective, we can discern a dimension to reality which is more than subjective. In fact, it is relatively objective. The measure of objectivity attained by this group reality is given by (i.e. is proportional to) the extent of collective agreement about the meaning of the event.
"It is quite true that the metaphysical doctrines of the uniformity of nature or that every event has a cause are presupposed by the practical scientist." These are tacit assumptions conferred by the mechanistic paradigm. The paradigm shift has come from theoreticians who transcended such limits. The idea that events have single causes, or even identifiable causes, is no longer an assumed truth. The doctrine of uniformity of nature, however, continues to prevail in physics and chemistry. Not so much in biology, where ecosystem variation is a fact. Locally unique features are readily identifiable. Similarly the astrologer must recognise that events are locally unique in archetypal terms, regardless that they may be classified by type in accordance with traditional scientific practice.
"Finally I should like to mention that a great deal has been said about metaphysics in a nebulous language that is quite mystifying to read, making one wonder whether it has any meaning at all. This feature of the subject must be mentioned, since it is by no means an insignificant or accidental phenomenon. Hardly any other subject has attracted this kind of pretentious, opaque writing that strikes the level-headed reader as so much empty verbiage. One of the more serious results has been to turn some of the most gifted philosophers against metaphysics altogether, which they have judged to be beyond the realm of the meaningful." (p.12)
This was most refreshing to see, and I warmed to the author. When young, I was puzzled that metaphysical and philosophic writing tended, almost always, to come across as intellectual masturbation. Wasn't this meant to be the most important knowledge of all? I eventually realised that reality is hard to handle, particularly for those inclined to fantasy. Esotericism becomes a handy refuge, an ecosystem not merely inhabited by astrologers for that reason. Creating abstractions with the mind is fun, and you can impress others with your fancies, so why be bound by reality? The consequence? Wisdom impresses mainly in the packaging, so there need not be any content in the package. The wise, limited to a focus on the real, impress less. Saturn confronts us with reality, but our imagination transcends reality. Reality binds the mind. What guru wants a small fan-club, if others with glossier packaging attract more acolytes?
"What I suggest is this: both scientific and metaphysical hypotheses purport to account for experience, but in the case of the former the empirical situation is dynamic and gradually forces upon us the hypothesis that we eventually accept. On the other hand, while the empirical conditions relevant to a metaphysical hypothesis may not be entirely static, changes they undergo are not decisive; there is no relentless accumulation of evidence in favour of any one of rival hypotheses." (p.13) The normal practice of science requires the experimental testing of hypotheses in order to reveal a 'truth'. By which I mean an apparent fact of nature, a feature of reality. Replication either confirms or discredits the revealed 'truth'. Acceptance by scientists that something is real or true is relative however, just as for anyone else. Typically, as time passes a consensus beds in, one way or the other. Often the consensus will remain only partial within the scientific community, just as for astrologers. The process of verification does impose a collective discipline, however, that ensures that scientists, generally speaking, are better at identifying aspects of the collective reality of the human race than astrologers are.
"In the case of a metaphysical problem, however, the empirical situation is more or less frozen. Consider the famous controversy between McTaggart and Russell concerning the question whether there is a moving NOW, and the many well-known arguments that have been advanced in favour of their respective positions. Each one of these arguments could have been put forward equally well in the context of scientific knowledge as it stood 50 or even 500 years ago. The empirical features of the universe that are relevant to the hypotheses of McTaggart and Russell remain virtually the same, and it is not expected that future empirical discoveries are going to have a crucial impact on the credibility of either hypothesis." (p.14)
Seems to me that astrology is likewise "frozen" in relation to "the empirical situation". Empirical, however, refers to knowledge derived only from experience. Prior knowledge is too suspect to be included. The typical astrologer cannot therefore be described as one who obtains empirical knowledge, despite his/her excellent claim; "Well, it works for me" (add defensive tone). The idiosyncratic technique adopted by the astrologer according to the convention that every astrologer has to do things differently to every other, is combined ad hoc with elements of a hoary tradition that provide a priori knowledge.
I also consulted the Arkana Dictionary of New Perspectives (S. Holroyd, 1989). New is clearly a concept that seems highly relative to this author; such novel perspectives as Occam's Razor (6.5 centuries), astrology (2.5 millennia) and shamanism (prehistoric) being included. Empiricism, being only 2 or 3 centuries old, is naturally included, and we are informed that it is a philosophy in which "the only sound basis for knowledge is experience, and that the only relevant modalities of experience are sensory. Empiricism denies the existence of any innate ideas in the human mind". Empiricists "deny the validity of any proposition as to knowledge or truth based on intuition or the idea of an innate property of the mind or the world. Empiricism specifically repudiates propositions in the realm of metaphysics. ... its authority was reinforced by its close links with the development of the classical scientific method." Since even animal species have since been proven to possess innate pattern-recognition abilities, this belief system is clearly redundant, an ideological cul de sac that civilisation has left in its wake.
History aside, then, what are we left with, for our purposes? I believe the empirical attitude retains value and utility, but it must be complemented by acknowledgement of the existence of other psychological sources of information. We need communal strategies and techniques for gauging the merit of purported knowledge, to ascertain the extent of consensus and the extent that it can be seen to possess objectivity. We know that someone's personal reality is essentially subjective. We know that paradigms, societal belief systems, are relatively objective. We know that objectivity is an ideal, since it could only be attained fully in reality if we could relocated our perspective to a vantage point entirely outside ourselves, which is impossible. Therefore we must relegate the traditional scientific stance of objectivity to the realm of myth, yet adopt a more contemporary view, appropriate to a new millennium, that is very similar in practice. This is that the extent of relative objectivity that a collective belief system appears to have is proportional both to the number of people subscribing to it and the extent to which it is designed to represent generic human experience in relation to the natural world of our environment.
Generic experience of natural time cycles is clearly a metaphysical problem (as defined earlier by Schlesinger), since scientists assume uniformity then ignore it, in defiance of the common acknowledgement of local variations (and qualitative dimensions) by non-scientists. Whilst astrology does not solve the problem, it comes way closer to doing so than any other field of knowledge. But that's just my opinion, based on my empirical experience. For that statement to seem `true' to others, either they must provide themselves with a similar amount of empirical experience, or choose to have faith that it is so.
Now this is interesting, for if they fall into the latter category, and I think we all are aware that there are (and have been throughout most of history) plenty of people who do, then for a significant section of the human race astrology does indeed function as a religion (rather than a science). [Unless you define religion as belief in gods/goddesses, of course, but I gather such a definition would rule out Buddhism, which certainly seems to be (without dissent) described as a religion. Religion is derived from the Latin verb meaning `to bind', which points to a psychosocial dynamic more fundamental than a deity. The social cohesion provided by a collective belief system binds the community of like-minded individuals together. It maintains order, against the natural tendency of people to do their own thing, which produces chaos.]
So intuition or any other internal source of knowing, which may or may not reference experience to innate capacities for recognising and/or attuning to archetypes of nature subconsciously and/or instinctively, could incline us to sense qualities in moments, and produce a belief in astrology, despite the lack of any conscious endeavour to learn about it from experience. Such a belief may be entirely valid, and many seem to fall into this category. But it seems to me that astrology will just remain a superstition to others if this tacit approach to it continues to prevail. For astrology to seem rational to non-believers (rather than irrational) a relatively objective body of reasoning needs to be developed, to present the subject in terms that seem contemporary and consistent with other fields of knowledge. Traditional astrology, we know, comes across as mumbo-jumbo even to those sympathetic to it and willing to learn it. Many manage to learn it despite this handicap, true, but this never changes its fringe status. Once it is formulated in modern terms, it will be readily seen as a field of knowledge that borders psychology on one side, physics on another, as well as sociology and philosophy on other sides. And these interfaces are of marginal relevance in relation to modern astrology's unique domain of 'character as destiny'. Despite a metaphysical basis, it will share with other social sciences a rather tenuous empirical pooling of experience, rife with subjectivity and category errors. But at least the potential for collective development of the discipline is likely to be sufficiently obvious that strategies for cooperation will emerge. I expect the evolution of the interpretive language of astrology to be the main catalyst.
This evolutionary development into a contemporary formulation requires constructive collaboration, and consensus is not evident in the habits of astrologers. It will be a waste of time to expect these old dogs to learn new tricks. The abandonment of disreputable behaviour by astrologers as a community will only occur under a powerful selection pressure. We can expect human society to follow its usual evolutionary course: an antithetical minority will emerge, capture the moral & ethical high ground, become highly fashionable and gain a snowballing number of adherents and camp-followers. Then the ideological purity of the new alternative will be diluted by internal mutations, but this normally occurs concurrently with absorption by mainstream society anyway, with the consequent transformation of the latter. We have seen this cycle of phases already, as humanistic astrology provided a modern approach in the '60s & '70s, then suffered the bandwagon effect and dissipated into the mainstream astrocommunity, displacing fatalistic dinosaur charlatans with the more fashionable human-potential breed. [The global environmental movement has evolved through an analogous cycle, giving us a somewhat Greener society.]
Currently, however, astrologers are still driving down the superhighway of the emerging global civilisation with their gaze clamped firmly on the rear-vision mirror. How ridiculous this must seem to non-astrologers! There must surely be good reasons that this pathology is so prevalent, and we ought to take them into account. One is that paradigms do rather tend to lock people into a belief system, and many do not evolve to the point where they become capable of reprogramming their minds. More influential is the seductive effect of escape into what seems a magical world. The fact that this alternate mental universe was designed by people living a couple of millennia back is entirely incidental to the effect (a whiff of the mystique of magic captivates them). Similarly influential is the economic reliability of habitual practice for those able to profit from telling people what they want to hear, which provides a powerful disincentive to change.
To conclude, therefore, it seems apparent that change will only come from those who make the paradigm shift for other reasons, deciding to collaborate to provide a contemporary alternative consistent with the multi-disciplinary context. As Dennis Elwell suggested in an online article a while ago, what we really need is 'Project Foresight'.
Ed. N.: This new text recently appeared in the Exegesis Discussion Group (mailing list focused on theoretical dimensions of astrology) on March 21, 2000 (Volume 5, Issue 14). Thanks to Dennis for his permission to reproduce it here. Dennis Frank, author of "The Astrologer and the Paradigm Shift" (1992), can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
All rights reserved © 2000 Dennis Frank