Pulling Down the Moonshine
Astrology, Science and Culture: Pulling Down the Moon By Roy Willis and Patrick Curry. Berg, Oxford 2004. ISBN 1-85973-687-4. 170 pages including bibliography and index. GBP15.99 paperback.
The subtitle “Pulling Down the Moon” refers to the women diviners of ancient Thessaly who, Plutarch said, can pull down the moon. Roy Willis is a social anthropologist at the University of Edinburgh. Dr Patrick Curry is a social historian and Associate Lecturer at the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cultural Astronomy and Astrology, Bath Spa University College.
In order of increasing controversy, astrology has been seen as a topic of great historical importance, a useful fiction to promote therapy by conversation, a cloud in which meaningful faces can be seen, an expression of underlying world order, and an independent source of knowledge. Underlying these various views is a single issue, namely the merit of astrology as a source of (1) facts and (2) meaning.
Neglect of the distinction between facts and meaning has led to much unproductive debate between astrologers and critics. To improve the debate, astrology urgently needs (and www.astrology-and-science.com attempts to provide) competent reviews of relevant areas. The title Astrology, Science and Culture seems to promise such a review, but ironically (and, these days, inexcusably) the book fails to deliver, all with an aggressive unreadability that is equally inexcusable. It claims that the only real astrology is horary astrology, or divination, which fills the world with magic and meaning. Empirical findings and contrary views (even astrological ones) are dismissed. These and other points are discussed below.
According to astrologer Garry Phillipson’s review in the Astrological Journal (2004, 46(4), pp.36-37), Willis and Curry’s book is “epochal.” In thirty years’ time it “will be seen as a key text from the period when astrology was taking its first, tentative, steps back into academia.” (This refers to the recognition in 2000 of Kepler College in Seattle, and in 2002 of the Sophia Centre in Bath, as academic institutions where astrology can be studied for a degree.)
However, Phillipson does warn us that the book is “frequently abstruse.” And that is precisely the problem. Other than the introduction, each chapter is written either by anthropologist Willis (who focusses on ancient roots) or by astrologer/social historian Curry (who attacks science). Both authors are postmodernists, and they seem to want to outdo each other in being obscure and long-winded. Indeed, there seems to be nothing so simple that the authors cannot make it impenetrable. This is a highly unreadable book. After being told that astrology involves “the human dialogical engagement with divinity”, whatever that means, the reader has constantly to struggle with sentences such as:
Here let us note certain fundamental consequences of our dialogical reading of human nature. In its essential, necessary openness — the inherent duality of dialogue which is also, and most fundamentally, a many-voiced plurality — this reading permanently guarantees us against any possibility of collapse into monolithic solipsism.(p.2)
And this is only 10% into the Introduction! Nobody who writes like this can be accused of clear thinking. Willis and Curry’s ideas can in fact be expressed simply and clearly, but they never are. The problem is that, once the impenetrable overburden is removed, the flaws become obvious and the case falls apart. What should have been a useful and informed discourse ends up as a parade of pretentious inutility. Of which more later.
The authors’ key point is a simple but profound one. They claim that what most astrologers call “astrology” is in fact bogus. Real astrology is horary astrology, or divination, and can never be other than divination. Thus bogus astrology is popular today because it taps into our ancestral urge for divination. In real astrology the world is filled with gods (ie planets), spirits, and magic, that our minds can become attuned to. It brings back mystery and enchantment into our lives and makes the world seem wonderfully meaningful. To achieve this all we need do is believe.
In other words astrology is to do with meaning, not facts, and the present belief in astrology is explained by an earlier belief in divination. The blurb says “this book not only persuasively demonstrates that astrology is far more than a superstitious relic of years gone by, but that it enables a fundamental critique of the scientism of its opponents.” Ironically it does this by assuming what it sets out to prove, namely that real astrology is real religion, a point that many astrologers would vigorously dispute. But this is to get ahead of ourselves.
Rule 1: Reject quantitative methods
To promote their ideas the authors deliberately reject quantitative methods, “daring to privilege sensory quality over a row of digits” (p.1). There are two problems here. First, if we reject the quantitative testing of ideas, we are rejecting a useful adjunct to purely qualitative testing such as checking an idea for consistency or how it compares with alternatives. For example without quantitative methods we might be hard pressed to decide whether the earth is or is not at the centre of the universe, which might affect how we interpret its enchantment. In effect, and ironically, the authors seem to be rejecting the same pluralism (diversity of values and opinion) that they are advocating as the “touchstone of divination” (p.75), the “inherently pluralistic” basis of astrology (p.80), and the “irrevocably pluralistic” basis of postmodernism (p.133). In short the authors seem committed to dietary diversity while forcing readers to live by bread alone.
Second, the authors support their rejection of quantitative methods by misrepresenting them. For example they dismiss tests of astrology by psychologists as “crude attempts to demonstrate that astrological effects are attributable to something else (usually forms of cognitive error) that psychologists are more comfortable with” (p.4). In fact psychologists test astrology simply to see if its claims are true. Should it fail to deliver useful effect sizes (which for factual claims has invariably been the case) they then ask how astrologers could believe in something that is effectively not true. The answer (because human judgement is good at creating wrong impressions like seeing meaning in Barnum statements, a view confirmed by thousands of published studies and dozens of books, none of them cited by Willis and Curry) is here highly inconvenient, not to say fatal.
As when Willis, unacquainted with astrology other than having fabricated newspaper horoscopes while a trainee journalist, an “exercise in deception” (p.5), had his birth chart read and found it “corresponded remarkably well with my inner perceptions” (p.11). This of course is the usual outcome even when the chart happens to be the wrong chart, which is awkward. Just as awkward is Willis’s devoting seven pages (pp.5-11) to an account of his becoming convinced by precisely the kind of astrology that is dismissed here as bogus. Indeed, Willis does not seem to have visited any horary astrologers, ie the kind he presumes to write about, if only to check Martin Luther’s experience that “the divinations of astrology … are wrong so often that there can be nothing less trustworthy” (Garin, Astrology in the Renaissance, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1983:4). To say nothing of Charles Carter’s experience four centuries later that the horary charts cast for him “have usually been downright wrong and never strikingly right” (Astrological Journal December 1962). For some reason Carter’s experience is not mentioned despite its exemplary relevance (Carter was the leading British astrologer of his day).
Rule 2: Embrace bias
Indeed, anything inconvenient is swept aside or distorted. For example the authors seem to see all scientists as bad scientists, obsessed with “crude reductionism”, always implacably opposed to astrology and always bent on disenchanting the world, which allows any inconvenient scientific finding (and there are many) to be dismissed out of hand. They cite an article in the Astrological Journal (1994, 36, pp.60-68) as providing “a good discussion of scientific double standards … in astrological research”, but fail to mention that a later critique (in 36, pp.258-259) noted how the “good discussion” was itself ruined by double standards, a point evident to any informed reader.
Similarly the authors fail to mention that, even in their own anti-materialist camp, it is not hard to find positive views towards science. Indeed the anti-materialist Charles Tart in his book Transpersonal Psychologies (Harper & Row 1975) addresses precisely the same general area as Willis and Curry do, but argues precisely the opposite case with a clarity and open-mindedness that leaves them for dead:
The realm of the spiritual, and the connected realm of altered states of consciousness, is one of the most powerful forces that shape man’s life and destiny. I think attempting to keep these realms and the realm of science separate is dangerous, and I hope we will go on to develop state-specific sciences and similar endeavours that will start building bridges between them. To those who think it can’t be done, I can only reply that we have to find that out by trying, not by limiting ourselves in advance by preconceptions (p.58).
Thus Tart notes the need for “a data base for future sciences is of exceptional importance” (p.27), as is “the need to achieve testability of our theories about spiritual phenomena and ASC [altered states of consciousness] phenomena” (p.35). Which is clearly not what Willis and Curry want to hear.
Similarly the anti-materialist Rupert Sheldrake in his book The Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science and God (Century 1990) argues that new developments in science are leading to “a new understanding of nature in which traditional wisdom, personal experience and scientific insight can be mutually enriching.” Indeed, in his later book The Sense of Being Stared At and other aspects of the Extended Mind (Hutchinson 2003), which is a consciousness-related topic as controversial as horary and of greater antiquity, Sheldrake shows how the scientific approach leads to insights unattainable in any other way. All in plain English, after which Willis and Curry’s paralysing prose might easily be mistaken for another Sokal’s hoax.
(Physicist Alan Sokal’s now-famous and deliberately nonsensical 1996 article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, heavily adulterated with physical clangers and full of incomprensible quotes from postmodernists, was published by the postmodern journal Social Text because, in Sokal’s opinion, it sounded good and flattered editorial preconceptions.)
Despite the privilege supposedly accorded to “sensory quality”, Willis and Curry also ignore qualitative studies of astrology if the outcome is inconvenient. For example sociologists who observe client sessions have noted how astrologers can explain any error via their own infallibility or via a contrary indication previously overlooked. The participants remain unaware of this win-win self-deception, so the end result can hardly fail to reinforce belief in astrology (as in fact happened to Willis). The nearest the authors get to recognising this is “the experience of enchantment does not make it true in an objectivist sense, nor does it need to be” (p.112), which as usual is sufficiently rarefied to obscure what is really happening. More on this later.
Recipe for smokescreens
Even inconvenient philosophical criticisms (for example I.W.Kelly’s “Modern Astrology: A Critique” in Psychological Reports 1997, 81, 1035-1066) are dismissed without examination as “purely ideological” (p.100). Similarly the assertion “science has banished [disembodied spirits], of course, en route to attempting to get rid of human subjectivity too” (p.120) is made with no hint of its conflict with much of the philosophy-of-mind literature. For example philosophers such as Chalmers, Searle, and Nozick would have problems with disembodied spirits but do not deny subjective experience. It seems that readers must be protected from honest discussion of anything that might upset the authors’ ideas.
Ironically, although the authors constantly criticise “reductionist” scientific studies, such studies are made welcome when they seem to support the authors’ position. For example genetic studies are cited to support the idea that we are “all psychically connected, not only to one another, but also to the universe” (p.131); and the idea that we are born with an “innate impulsion to dialogue with a multiverse of intelligent beings, starting with fellow humans and including every animal and plant, every rock and river and ocean; also the clouds in the sky, winds and storms and rain, and all the luminous inhabitants of the starry vault” (p.132). But do we really need genetics to tell us that we interact with our surroundings?
Similarly the authors tend to quote only those philosophers whose views agree with theirs and ignore the rest. In this way all sorts of philosophers including Wittgenstein, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty, none of whom was interested in astrology, are recruited into laying the groundwork for the authors’ speculations. Furthermore, the selected philosophers are quoted without argument or critical examination of their position, and without noting where we could agree with their position and still not believe in astrology. Readers never get an impartial balancing of views from both sides, which is surely what they are entitled to expect from authors who hold academic positions. In other words the authors are rather like promoters of phlogiston as the only way to think about combustion. (In postmodernist terms phlogiston is as good as oxygen for explaining why fires burn.) Reject quantitative methods, embrace bias, avoid specifics, garnish with impenetrable rhetoric, and the smokescreen is complete.
Varieties of astrology
On pages 65-76 the authors provide a foggy survey of how they see the varieties of astrology, namely sun signs (popular but shallow), horary (divination), neo-Platonic (spiritual), Ptolemaic (astral determinism), scientific (eg Gauquelin), and psychological (currently predominant among working astrologers). The last claims that character/destiny is in our inclining-but-not-compelling stars, so the stars “only ever advise courses of action in relation to a constantly shifting future” (p.75). The authors say the problem with all of these varieties except horary is that they do not engage with gods and therefore by definition lead to disenchantment. That is, they contain a corrupting element of fatalism. Even so, all of them “could best be understood as divinatory [ie engaging with gods], each in its own way” (p.67). So now you see it, now you don’t.
Later (p.122) the authors briefly note that astrologers can have a view of horary precisely opposite to their own. As examples they cite two eminent astrologers of the 1900s, namely Alan Leo (who described it as “the vilest rubbish imaginable”) and Alfred J Pearce (“absurd and unwarrantable”). They could have cited many other astrologers such as Jeff Mayo in 1964 (“sheer nonsense”) and Ingrid Lind in 1962 (“savours of the bead curtain and fortune-telling booth”). These are not your average everyday astrologers — Mayo was principal of the Mayo school, Lind was patron of the Faculty of Astrological Studies, two bodies that were and are reputable and world-famous.
The authors could also have cited Charles Harvey, president of the Astrological Association 1973-1994 and then its patron, who in the Astrological Journal (1994, 36, pp.396-398) condemns the view that almost all astrology is grounded in divination. As usual, Harvey writes with a vigour and clarity (and long experience) entirely missing from Willis and Curry’s book, so he is worth quoting at some length:
Whilst it [the pro-divination view] appears to explain why quantitative research has found so little evidence to support astrologers’ beliefs and experience, it at the same time seems to remove from astrological practice any secure basis for interpretation. … More importantly, we are still left with the question as to how this astrological divination works? How can it be enhanced if the principles upon which its interpretations are based are not true in any testable sense or are of secondary significance? If this were actually the case, then it would be impossible to programme a computer to produce reports which, although imperfect, can often identify many of the key issues in an individual’s life and psychology. Experience shows that some computerised reports can prove remarkably to the point. But perhaps the most potentially problematic and pernicious outcome of allocating an almost exclusively divinatory foundation to astrology is that it encourages the view that there is no systematic way in which astrological interpretation can be improved and enhanced. By such a move the magnificent contributions to astrology this century of, for example, Witte, Ebertin, Addey, Barbault, Liz Greene and Jim Lewis are all too easily marginalised and several whole dimensions of astrology’s universe negated.
Recall also the views of Charles Carter cited previously. One wonders why eminent astrologers should be so hostile if horary were as marvellous as the authors claim.
Divination and consciousness
On horary itself, the authors assert that divinatory chart readings involve “expansive changes in consciousness of both client and astrologer” where they become attuned to the symbolism and “are able to become participants with divine agencies (”daemones“) in a joint negotiation of the client’s destiny” (p.148). Or as Charles Harvey puts it, divinatory chart readings are “not based on anything that is in any normal sense objective, measurable, or factual. [They] do not contain qualities in and of themselves but [are] assigned by the consciousness of the astrologer” (p.397).
Willis and Curry make no attempt to validate their claim except by references to shamanism, ancient beliefs, and any philosopher (no matter how uninterested in astrology) whose views seem even remotely compatible. The result is like supporting the idea of levitation by references to angels and Jules Verne. Incompatible philosophical views (in philosophy there are always incompatible views) are ignored. Human judgement biasses like the Barnum effect are briefly mentioned but are dimissed as irrelevant because astrology is simply the “experience of its truth”, and ascribing it to “something else is not to understand astrology, but to replace it with something else, in keeping with a very different agenda” (p.101). As if ascribing combustion to oxygen is not to understand combustion.
The above “very different agenda” is the supposedly universal aim of all scientists everywhere to discredit astrology by all possible means, as if bona fide scientific study could not possibly occur. On top of this, the authors seem to think we have to accept astrology or not, as if it were impossible to accept part of it and reject the rest. Similarly they refer often to scientists’ rhetoric but never to astrologers’ rhetoric, as if astrologers were incapable of it (any astrology writing will quickly dispel that notion). Nor do they tell us about astrologism, the astrological equivalent of scientism, where for example astrology is the way, the truth and the light, and (given the right technique) is able to explain everything. Ironically, in an article in the Astrological Journal (1994, 36, pp.69-75), Curry uses the same belief in “one way, truth and life” to dismiss both Christianity and the “so-called scientific method.” This is not a book for readers who are expecting credible scholarship.
It boils down to religion
If, as the authors claim, real (ie their) astrology makes the world seem wonderfully meaningful, exactly what does this mean in practical terms? What do paying clients stand to gain? What criteria should we use to compare astrology with its many competitors? Unfortunately the authors do not tell us in a coherent way, as in a shopping list, nor do they tell us how clients might recognise a suitable astrologer (do good outcomes depend on good rapport?). The result is like discussing restaurants without ever visiting one or mentioning food.
However, the authors do say that real astrology is “a specific form of religious life” (p.111) that has no need of “experience of truth in an objectivist sense” (p.112), so it seems that the benefits are generally those of any religion. Real astrology does not need to be true. Like any religion, real astrology values mystery (enchantment) before concrete knowledge (disenchantment), and presumably after priestly status (judging from the authors’ lofty sermonising). Ironically the authors fail to mention that empirical research has already reached the same conclusion about astrology not needing to be true, but no doubt they wished to avoid any hint that such research can actually get it right.
Similarly the authors seem unable to appreciate that both science and religion are responses to our thirst for understanding, so to accept the latter and reject the former (as they do) is hardly reasonable. Which is not to say that others on both sides have not done the same.
Regrettably the authors scarcely mention how the role of divination was hugely disputed in the Renaissance. Thus in 1495 Pico della Mirandola dismissed divinatory astrology as a confusion of real physical planets with stellar divinities. He asked “Shall we accept as divine the things which we have disproved as irrational, imitating the astrologers who refer all the things men do to the stars without reason?”, and so on for twelve volumes (Garin, op cit p.88). In the 12th volume he sees the history of astrology as the progressive influx of ancient religious beliefs into the realm of natural philosophy, a direction that was of course to be reversed two centuries later. In effect Willis and Curry seem to be back in the Renaissance, arguing against Pico in the style of the day. They are of course entitled to see Pico as making a wrong turn, but by the same token readers are entitled to hear Pico’s arguments and their response. No entry on “Renaissance” appears in their index.
Rule 3: Attack via distortion, hypocrisy, and straw men
The chapter on “Science and Astrology” attacks what researchers say in their interview in Phillipson’s Astrology in the Year Zero (Flare, London 2000), also available in expanded form at Astrology and Science. The attack proceeds via the usual selective quoting and distortion. For example the researchers are quoted as asking “Was astrology true?”, which is taken as their “stated starting point” and then dismissed as being impossibly sweeping and akin to asking “is science true?” (p.96). However, their actual starting point, or how they got involved in astrology back in the 1970s, is as follows:
We were intrigued by astrological claims, and by the depth and complexity of the subject. Was astrology true? Could the stars really correlate with human affairs? How could it work? Scientists love challenges like that. The problem was the lack of evidence — a situation no longer true. So we set out to explore the claims in depth. (Phillipson p.124)
In other words a less selective quote tells a different story. Examples of claims to be explored are then philosophised away. For example when the researchers ask “Is it true that positive signs are extraverted?”, testing is dismissed because it ignores context, even though the claim is made not by the researchers but by every astrology textbook. (No matter that the same argument would dismiss the claims of horary astrology such as “first house signifies the querent.”) Similarly, when the researchers note how astrologers show “dramatic disagreement on fundamentals”, this is dismissed because fundamentals also depend on context (p.97). Which is like arguing that traffic accidents can be dismissed because they depend on a particular road and driver.
Ultimately the attack reduces to asserting that real astrology (because religious) is not amenable to the researchers’ scientific approach, which makes the researchers guilty of “naivete, bordering on sheer ignorance, or else hypocrisy” (p.98). But here the hypocrisy lies with the authors, who fail to mention that the researchers insist on exactly the same caveat. Thus when Phillipson asks “Are there some astrological claims to which scientific research might be irrelevant?”, they reply as follows:
Some astrologers claim that scientific research is impersonal or unspiritual or insensitive to deeper truths. … Or they claim that astrology involves subtle factors not yet known to science. In each case they conclude that science is unsuited to astrology, period. But apart from its emphasis on critical evaluation, science requires only that events be observable in some way. … if astrologers can observe the claimed correlations, so can scientific researchers … Does this mean that science must apply to all areas of astrology? Not at all. If no possible observation could rule out a particular claim, then the claim is untestable, and scientific research is irrelevant. It is as simple as that. … Even so, we can still compare astrology to other systems that claim to give direction and purpose to our lives (astrology has no monopoly here), in the same way that we can compare the origin and maintenance of religious beliefs.” (Phillipson p.128)
In other words the scientific approach is relevant only where astrology is testable by observation, or where concrete statements are involved, or where empirical comparisons are being made. Apart from attacking a straw man, Willis and Curry are in effect claiming that real astrology is beyond observation. They are placing astrology on the same level as fantasy, which makes their long-winded obscurities largely redundant. Indeed, having noted that you cannot predict when astrology will successfuly predict, presumably a reflection of stars inclining but not compelling, they add “And being unavoidable, this is no failing!” (p.102), which is placing astrology on the same level as guessing. What took all of 170 paralysing pages could have been said just as plausibly in a few lines. In terms of advancing the debate on astrology, the book adds generously to the noise but little to the signal. Which leads to Rule 4.
Rule 4. Keep well away from the coalface
The authors seem committed to keeping their arguments shrouded in philosophyspeak, like shadow boxing in the blue beyond. Indeed, there seems to be nothing so concrete that they cannot make it vague and abstract, presumably in the hope that this will be mistaken for profundity. For example on page 12 Curry says he “came to astrology early”; it seemed “to offer a Key” and “perfectly suited my character.” But he tired of astrology’s “marginality” and its “lack of certainty.” After several years in academia he realised that science had “as much ultimate uncertainty as astrology” and therefore offered no hope of demystifying it. He then discovered horary, which “contextualized astrology as a kind of divination, a dialogue with the unknown, which opens it up and enlivens it”, whatever that means. In all of this there is no mention of what he actually did to reach that conclusion, or what tests he made or did not make, so readers come away with only impressions and no real understanding. And as with page 12, so with the book. The reader is always kept well away from the coalface by torrents of vagueness and obscurities.
For example (in plain-English translation) the authors argue that science is mechanistic, so it cannot be used to test a non-mechanistic astrology. Conclusion: all existing tests are meaningless. But the argument is implausible. The aim has been to test what an astrologer claims (“people fit their charts”) by asking straightforward questions (“do people fit other people’s charts just as well?”). Or by comparing one view (“what matters is when you think of the question”) with another (“what matters is when I receive your question”). If astrologers can observe support here for their claims then so can anyone including scientists. Issues of mechanism do not come into it. Indeed, a look at any recent well-designed test would be a big help, but the authors seem incapable of being this simple, preferring instead to retreat into obfuscation.
Similarly they never examine an actual study or finding or the various empirical approaches. They never examine how a chart is prepared and interpreted. They never walk you through an actual act of divination. You never get a feel for what divinatory success means, or how frequent it is, yet (as Sheldrake shows for acts of staring) such things should not be difficult. The result is like conducting a war game out of sight of practicalities. The arguments when stripped of their protective fog of philosophyspeak are often ludicrous, as when the authors dismiss the idea of controls because you cannot test astrology if it is absent (p.102), and when they quote the inability of science to determine absolute truth (p.103) as a reason for dismissing the idea that we can tell when an astrology reading is wrong. But the futility does not end there.
In the end the authors shoot themselves in the foot. As committed postmodernists they dismiss science as “just one of a plurality of mythological narratives” (p.127). But so is their own view. Didn’t they notice? So their own view can equally be dismissed as a mythological narrative worth no more attention than any other.
For further insight into the futility of postmodernism, listen to what Curry said in 2004 in his Carter Memorial Lecture to the Astrological Association (see Astrological Journal Nov-Dec 2004 pp.7-17): “The researchers will always find a perfectly good reason, in their terms, why your [astrological] result is not valid.” For Curry the reference to “in their terms” allows him to dismiss the reason out of hand, because in postmodernism any set of terms is as good as any other. You can dismiss whatever you want just because you don’t like it, period. Which is like claiming a change of terms will save you if you jump off a cliff. If on the way down you dismiss the researchers as hopeless bigots, and continue to claim your astrological result is valid, then according to Curry the researchers “will simply ignore you.” So what would he have them do, believe that gravity is a silly idea?