Some of my friends take astrology seriously. I could never quite understand their fascination. I admit that I don’t know the foundational principles of astrology. Can they explain them to me? No, they can’t. They just believe that astrologers know the principles. That brings me to the epistemological question: how do the astrologers know what they claim to know? To me it appears that there cannot be any conceivable way to arrive at that knowledge.
But just because something is inconceivable to me it does not follow that it isn’t valid, true or real. To a primitive the science on which our modern technology is based would be inconceivable. However, modern technology and the science on which it is based are explainable. The average human is quite capable of comprehending the principles that is currently known to man. Admittedly the discoverers of those principles were not average at all — they were extraordinarily cognitively endowed. But once discovered, the principles are easy enough to understand that one may even wonder what all the fuss is about.
[Side note: There are some principles that even the very intelligent struggle to understand, never mind the average intelligence. Quantum mechanics is hard. No one knows if anyone at all understands that stuff.]
As I noted above, my quarrel with astrology rests on the epistemological question. I am told astrologers use books that contain formulas that they use to devine the future. How did the original authors of those books arrive at that knowledge? I am told that they got that through careful observations and deduced regularities. Such as when certain planets were in certain parts of the sky, then certain things would happen — which forms the basis on which the predictions are made.
The sun, moon and other astronomical bodies exert an influence on what happens on earth. One cannot disagree with that because everything exerts some influence on everything around it. Some of those forces are known to us, gravity being only one of them. Who knows what other forces exist in nature, other than the four identified by modern science: electromagnetic, gravitational, and the weak and strong nuclear forces.
We know that there are unknowns out there. And then there are unknown unknowns (as Donald Rumsfeld once famously pointed out but the concept is not original to him.) Among the unknown unknowns may be strange forces that are beyond the comprehension of even the smartest people today but sometime in the past somewhere some people were gifted with esoteric knowledge of those forces. These superhumans authored those ancient books on astrology and that’s why astrology is valid.
Perhaps that is so. You cannot prove that that did not happen. You cannot prove a negative. So let’s ask if astrology works.
How good is astrology in practise? Let’s consider two categories of events. The first consists of events that are large and uncontrollable by human agency, such as the eruption of a super-volcano or an asteroid strike that causes a mass-extinction. We can’t do anything about them. Therefore true predictions made about them cannot be rendered false. The second category consists of events that are small and controllable by human agency, such as the prediction that a person will go on voyage. The person can deliberately avoid travel and thus render the prediction false.
I’d be curious to know of any true astrological prediction of the first kind. I can’t find any. I know of many claims of correct astrological predictions of the second kind. “My friend’s uncle was told that he will get a new job before the end of the year, and he did.” That’s nice. But if 30,000 astrologers each make about 5,000 astrological predictions a year, then you have 150 million predictions, and if each astrologer hits the mark once a year, you have 30,000 correct predictions which can be reported and relayed by credulous people to support their claim that astrology works. A chimp at a dartboard would do as well.
So anyway, astrology is bunk. If astrologers could indeed predict the future they’d be rich because there are great fortunes to be made if you can make even slightly above-average guesses about market movements.
When contemplating the mysteries of astrology, I am reminded of Shakespeare’s words. The man (or the woman) who wrote the works ascribed to Shakespeare was a genius. This is Edmund’s soliloquy in scene 1, act 2 of King Lear:
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the dragon’s tail; and my nativity was under Ursa major; so that it follows, I am rough and lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.
That last word refers to the fact that Edmund was illegitimate.
Anyhow, moving on one final thought. Nostradamus appears to be a shining star in the prediction business. People show some bit of writing as proof that he predicted some important event but never before the event — only after the event happens do they dig through his volume to twist some words to fit the facts. Essentially it’s postdiction or explanations after the fact.
But then as a bit of Danish folk wisdom says, “Prediction is difficult, especially when dealing with the future.” (This is often incorrectly attributed to the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr.)
[Image credit: Chinese Zodiac carvings on ceiling of Kushida Shrine, Fukuoka. Click on image for details.]