Does astrology need the approval of modern science?
© 1999 Hamish Saunders

‘Vilified by science for three centuries, derided by philosophy, psychology, medicine, the law and every other branch of modern learning, astrology refuses to die’. 

So states the blurb on the back cover of “The Case for Astrology” by John Anthony West & Jan Gerhard Toonder. Since their book was first published nearly thirty years ago a lot has changed in the world and opinions about astrology and its detractors have changed with it. The modernist scientific genre is being eclipsed, or at least complemented, by the post-modernist approach, which favours ultimate scepticism that any technique can have all the answers. There is a cornucopia of techniques to employ. Many so-called scientists are merely tribal men and women acting like tyrannical trade unions of old who lock out and refuse to allow ideas to bubble up. These self-appointed guardians of knowledge are seemingly unaware of the observation made by Darwin’s acolyte, T.H. Huxley, over 100 years ago:

“Intellectually we stand on an island amidst an illimitable ocean of inexplicability, the purpose of each new generation is to claim a little more land”.

Thus to reject anything out of hand is antiscientific – we should keep an open mind. Though for some reason, an open mind is as foreign to some scientists as their knowledge of astrology, which they periodically feel obliged to attack. The BBC’s on-line Science & Technology correspondent, Dr David Whitehouse, made such an attack on astrology during last year’s Soccer World Cup. It discomfited him that some of the players and teams employed the services of astrologers. He complained that there isn’t the slightest bit of serious scientific evidence that astrology works. He asked why no astrologer had predicted the dramatic death of Diana, Princess of Wales (Assuming there was a reliable method for determining longevity, he obviously doesn’t realise that no responsible and ethical astrologer would do such a thing as predict someone’s passing). And, with confident authority, he informed his readers that the positions of the planets at our births are irrelevant, and that we could do better to consider taking the gravitational effects of the doctors and nurses around the mother during birth as a guide to personality. 

Whitehouse said nothing new, but that he is able to say it at all without question from his media masters tells us how things are. Would the same media space be given to an astrologer who felt inclined to attack any subject he or she disliked, and knew very little about, because it didn’t fit into their understanding of the world? To their credit, the BBC did allow a reply to Whitehouse’s assault. It is usually the case that the right of reply is denied. Dr Paul Kail of Prague, a scientist and astrologer argued that Whitehouse himself was being unscientific and that his comments on astrology reflect a complete ignorance about the subject. He accused Whitehouse of irrational nihilism and of being frightened by ways of looking at the world which don’t conform with existing scientific dogma. As an astrologer he, like most of us, is interested in finding out what the mechanism is that allows astrology to work. He also said that any scientist should be curious in something that cannot be explained fully by the existing laws. He said that when he was a student of medicine and nuerophysiology at Oxford in the early eighties nobody fully understood how anaesthetics or nueroleptic drugs worked, despite there being many conflicting theories. Whitehouse remained unconvinced, of course, and concluded that: “Some things are just plain wrong”.  In asserting this view Whitehouse shows us how wrong and out of touch he is. If he knew anything about astrology he would know that it studies the endless universe looking for rhythms, patterns and coincidences. It does so with an open mind, respecting both science (quantitative) and art (qualitative) methodology, unconstrained by the paralysis of analysis pure-scientific approach. He is merely throwing his weight around, because he can. His attitude is not new. Astrology has suffered repeated attacks since the so-called Age of Enlightenment. So, what happened then that brought on this unease between astrology and modern science?

The Decline of Astrology in the West
No single thing has been attributed to the decline of western astrology at the end of the 17th century. Some say it was the rise of orthodox science, which is ironic considering many of those who pioneered the scientific revolution were astrologers themselves. One of the most amusing ironies, given the state of affairs existing between astrology and astronomy today, is that the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed (1649 - 1719), used his skills as an astrologer to elect the best time to found the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

However, there can be no denying the seeds of the 17th century's eventual disaffection with astrology had already been sown in the earlier part of that century. Astrologers were increasingly at theological odds with the Catholic Church. Their cause probably wasn’t assisted by a prediction against the life of Pope Urban VIII in 1631 by a somewhat over-eager astrologer. This understandably earned the Pope's displeasure and prompted his re-assertion of a 16th century Papal Bull against the practice of judicial astrology. No astrologer had ever been persecuted for practising astrology, however, the disfavour of the church at this time could have contributed to the political climate change that was to come.

What is most likely, is that intellectual focus shifted towards a more mechanistic Newtonian view of the universe, and the minds that had previously applied themselves to Neo-Platonic and Ptolemaic cosmologies now rejected these models. While these considerations may go some way to determine astrology's fall from favour, they are not sufficient reasons for its decline. It could be that the world was becoming simultaneously more specialised and expansive through the discoveries of new colonies, developing technologies and the eventual arrival of the Industrial Revolution and its impact on world economies and capitalism generally. Court astrologers found themselves being replaced by more specialised advisers. Intellectual focus was shifting and astrology was no longer fashionable, nor was it still seen as a subject worthy of serious study. In the light of reason it looked jaded and superstitious. It was finally removed from the universities in 1776 resulting in a decline of intellectual rigour amongst its practitioners through the 18th and 19th centuries. 

The Isaac Bickerstaff Affair
Today, there is a plethora of astrology books and magazines on the market, reflecting a wide public interest in the subject. This, too, was the case during the 17th and 18th centuries, with the publication of almanacs by the leading astrologers of the day. However, an almanac published in 1708 by an unknown astrologer, Isaac Bickerstaff, became the means by which astrology was made to look very foolish in the eyes of the educated and the privileged; the holders of power and shapers of general opinion. Isaac Bickerstaff’s almanac attracted a great deal of attention for its specific prophecies, the most notable being that John Partridge, the leading English astrologer of the day, would ‘die upon the 29th of March next, about eleven at night, of a raging feaver’.  Partridge, of course, did not die, but this didn’t prevent the publication of an elegy of his death on the 30th of March followed by an anonymous letter describing his last hours and bedside confessions. Partridge published his own almanac later in the year. His protestations that he was alive and well amused his readers and Bickerstaff, who in turn, went back into print to assert his reputation as an accurate forecaster. Bickerstaff maintained that Partridge was dead, and that someone else had published Partridge’s almanac in his name, much like Raphael’s almanac is published today long after Raphael’s death. Partridge didn’t help his own cause by falling out with the Company of Stationers, who prevented him from publishing his almanac for the next three years, indirectly ensuring a noticeable lowering of his public profile. It could be said that Partridge’s weakened profile was like a death after all. In one way, Bickerstaff’s bogus prediction was accurate. The originator of this elaborate hoax and inventor of the fictional Bickerstaff was Jonathon Swift. The implications of his actions were far-reaching then for astrology and are just as relevant today.

What Swift managed to do was show Partridge as a fool and to irreparably damage his reputation within intellectual circles. He commented on Partridge’s humble background as a cobbler turned astrologer, implying that he didn’t have the wit, class or education for high intellectual activity. In Swift’s opinion Partridge was vulgar. This implies that knowledge is the property of the privileged and the ruling classes. It also implies that if astrology had any value respectable and educated minds would take an interest in it. Possibly, he must have conveniently overlooked the fact that some of the great minds before him had involved themselves with its study, e.g., Plato, Ptolemy, Roger Bacon, Tycho Brahe, Galileo and Kepler. Swift was part of a new breed of intellectuals that held court with the powerbrokers of his day. Both parties propped each other up by maintaining that their reason driven take on knowledge was the only point of view worth considering. Anything that existed outside their new scientific discoveries was untenable. 

The 20th Century: Astrology in pursuit of scientific acceptance.
Today, opinions differ within the astrological community as to whether scientific validation is necessary for the progress of astrology. Certainly, there have been genuine attempts in this century to bridge the gap between astrology and modern science. The efforts of the Gauquelins, John Nelson, Hans Eysenck and Percy Seymour spring immediately to mind. 

One of the firmest advocates for a scientific approach to astrology was Reinhold Ebertin. An innovator in astrology, Ebertin was a student of another 20th century pioneer, Alfred Witte. Both men revolutionised astrology by throwing out many of the time-honoured techniques of traditional astrology and concentrating on planetary and angular relationships. Parker described Ebertin as the reformer of astrology stating that “he threw overboard many additions of the Middle Ages, limited the orbs of the aspects, and concentrated the interpretation on significant points which appeared to repeat themselves”.  Ebertin didn’t chuck everything out. He stripped astrology down to its undisputed factors: these being the Ascendant, Meridian, Sun, Moon, Mercury and all the planets through to Pluto. He did jettison house systems, minimise the use of soft aspects and emphasise the importance of midpoints. He further emphasised the need to consider the native’s environment, education, medical and psychological backgrounds and hereditary in astrological judgement. He held that the two concepts of ‘Cosmos’ (the heavens) and ‘Bios’ (the body) were the basis of astrology. The word, ‘Cosmobiology’ was first coined in 1914 by the medical scientist, Feerhow, and adopted by Ebertin and his associates in the 1920s. In his ‘Combination of Stellar Influences’ Ebertin describes cosmobiology as:

“…a scientific discipline concerned with the possible correlations between cosmos and organic life and the effects of cosmic rhythms and stellar motion on man, with all his potentials and dispositions, his character, and the possible turns of fate…..cosmobiology utilizes modern methods of scientific research, such as statistics, analysis and computer programming. It is of prime importance, however, in view of the scientific effort expended, not to overlook the macrocosmic and microcosmic interrelations incapable of measurement.” 

In reality, cosmobiology is essentially an adapted version of modern astrology. Its attempts to incorporate scientific methodology are admirable and to be encouraged. However, while cosmobiology can look scientific, it is still astrology by another name, and because of that any serious consideration of it by the scientific community hasn’t yet occurred.

So, where does this leave us now after nearly a century of attempting to acquire scientific approval? A little bit further ahead I would say, but still a lot further to go. Personally, I do not think astrology needs scientific approval. I am not convinced that acknowledgement from a discipline whose certainty has gifted us with thalidomide, the Challenger disaster and pesticide-induced deformity really is necessary. I do think astrology needs rigour, and astrologers need to know their craft, in whichever form it may take, after all astrology has many branches. A thorough knowledge of astrology by its practitioners, respect for its tradition and responsible and wise use of it will ensure its survival, with or without scientific approval.

‘The Case for Astrology’ by John Anthony West & Jan Gerhard Toonder; pub. Penguin Books 1970
‘The Moment of Astrology: Origins in Divination’ by Geoffrey Cornelius; pub Penguin Arkana 1994
‘Working With Astrology’ by Michael Harding & Charles Harvey; pub. Penguin Arkana 1990
‘The Combination of Stellar Influences’ by Reinhold Ebertin; pub. AFA 1972
‘An Introduction to the History of Astrology’ by Nicholas Campion; pub. Institute for the Study of Cycles in World Affairs 1982
‘The Astrologer’s Apprentice’ Issue #1, Sept. 1996