Scepticism and Knowledge
A Dialogue between Dennis Elwell & Garry Phillipson
most controversial part of Astrology in the Year Zero
has undoubtedly been the inclusion, in chapters 9 and 10,
of an interview that is almost entirely sceptical towards
astrology. This piece, entitled Research into Astrology,
was recorded with Geoffrey Dean, Suitbert Ertel, Ivan Kelly,
Arthur Mather and Rudolf Smit (who took on the collective
name ‘the researchers’ for the occasion). An
extended version of the interview can be found here.
little while after the book’s publication in 2000,
Dennis Elwell emailed me to say that he was ‘dismayed’
by this section of the book. Since Elwell is undoubtedly
a serious thinker whose ideas merit close attention, I asked
him if he could elaborate. A small part of the result follows
directly in the form of a discussion between the two of
us. By far the greater portion will be found in a series
of papers written by Dennis, to which Dean, Kelly, Mather
and Smit responded collectively. That will be found here.
purpose of the present dialogue is twofold:
It presents two different views of how astrologers should
deal with criticisms of their subject. In this way it furthers
the aim of Year Zero – to portray the spectrum
of opinion about all things astrological.
- It forms an introduction to the series
of papers about astrology and scepticism written by
dialogue originally appeared in The Astrological Journal
Sept/Oct 2001. It has been revised for publication here.
Phillipson – February 2006
What are your objections to chapters nine and ten (Research
into Astrology) of Year Zero?
DE: Chiefly that the cynics (sceptics would
be too kind a word) were allowed to have their say unchallenged.
They could impugn with impunity. Their contribution was
against the spirit and tone of the book, in which the rest
of us chatted informally about what we did and thought as
astrologers. It was as if we were invited to a convivial
meal, only to find Hannibal Lecter among the guests.
had I realised that Dean and company were attempting to
hijack the project my own contribution would have been very
different, which is why the belated opportunity offered
by the website is so welcome. What they said undermined
everything else in the book, and indeed its own justification.
object that people who are essentially in the demolition
business should be dignified as ‘researchers’.
Genuine researchers have an open-minded and impartial approach,
but these cynics long ago flagged up their extremist opposition,
and were unlikely to be moved from it.
was also the implication that nobody has been doing research
supportive of astrology. The cynics boast of the man-hours
they have spent putting their objections together, but this
is sheer impertinence. As it has come down to us today astrology
is the accumulated result of centuries of investigation,
the work of many hands, and in the light of the understanding
and culture of the time.
the last century many astrologers conscientiously worked
to establish by direct observation what was dependable,
and what was not. Goodness knows how many man-hours this
has involved. Yet here are a handful of dissenters, driven
by whatever motives one can only guess, seeking to reduce
all that honest effort to rubble.
GP: I think an important consideration
is the type of book which Year Zero sets out to
be. In putting it together I wasn’t aiming to write
the last word about the truth of astrology; rather, I wanted
to include a range of experience and views, putting on record
the diversity that actually exists. Given that many people,
whether they have investigated the question or not, think
astrology has been demolished by science, the book would
be incomplete if it passed over the issue.
did the 'researchers' have a free hand. The dialogue shuttled
to and fro between us at least ten times, with me asking
questions, raising objections and pushing for clarification
each time. I didn't see my task as being to hammer out a
formulation that we could all agree on - we would still
be talking. Rather, the aim was to try and cover the most
common arguments which come up when science meets astrology;
then to probe the researchers’ logic, evidence, and
the assumptions on which their statements rest. As a result
of this approach, I feel that it should be possible for
someone who wants to attack the sceptical position on astrology
to read through those two chapters and get a good picture
of the criticisms they will need to address, and perhaps
a few clues about promising places to start.
for the overall balance of the book, chapters 2 - 7 contain
many examples of astrologers getting successful results,
spectacularly so in some cases, from their readings. And
chapters 11 and 12 contain some excellent material (from
scientifically-trained astrologers Bernadette Brady, Pat
Harris and Lee Lehman amongst others) which evaluates and
criticises a number of issues from the researchers' chapters,
including their core assumption that astrology should perform
under statistical analysis.
we accept that it is science’s place to pronounce
the final word on whether astrology is or is not valid (and
that, I think, is a very big if) then, it seems to me, the
researchers have a point. Astrology as most of us practise
it today has not performed well in most scientific tests.
And we need to face this fact before we can progress –
whether this ‘progress’ consists in the formulation
of more relevant tests, or in the conclusion that, whatever
astrology is, it cannot be tested and measured in the same
way as simple physical processes.
for the labours of astrologers past - certainly there is
a place for respect toward them, but surely not at the expense
of our attempts to question and discover the subject for
ourselves now. If you believe that astrology is capable
of being conclusively demonstrated via statistics and tests,
then I'd suggest that your complaints should be directed
more at the astrologers who have failed to come up with
the goods, than those who remind us of this fact.
DE: On the vital question of tests, I feel
that something should be made abundantly clear. Astrologers
make statements of one sort or another, and these statements
– which are experience based – are either correct
or incorrect. (That is to put it brutally, since statements
that are say 75 per cent correct could still be very useful.)
Measured on the scale of correctness or otherwise astrology
thus becomes falsifiable, a much praised virtue.
it is not unreasonable to propose that it is on their actual
statements that astrologers should be judged. The catch
is that many such statements might not yet be provable according
to the exacting standards of formal science. For example,
my composite picture of Sagittarians includes a candour
which can be taken to the point of embarrassment, along
with an inclination to offer unsought advice, characteristics
probably connected. But where are the scientific tests which
might confirm it? I don’t think they exist, and it
is not incumbent on astrology, with its limited resources,
to do the work of professional psychologists by establishing
a yardstick for candour which could be applied across the
whole population, never mind Sagittarians. Even if we agreed
that using a self-report personality inventory would be
a valid procedure, who is going to organise a large scale
field test? Who is going to fund it?
have argued that if something is true it can be shown to
be true. But because something is unproved does not mean
it is unprovable. Given enough resources, and given enough
astrologers interested in the unprofitable exercise of trying
to convince die-hard sceptics, I believe many astrological
statements could be verified beyond reasonable doubt.
would stress again that astrologers need to be judged on
what they actually claim, not what others might choose to
claim for them. Instead of basing itself on astrology’s
clear statements some research perversely comes at the problem
from the exactly opposite direction. One website is looking
for the astrological ‘signatures’ of suicide
and alcoholism - categories which may not be coherent groupings,
neither in astrology nor psychology. Expecting the heavens
to endorse what might be purely arbitrary categories can
be a waste of time and effort. Propensities to suicide or
alcoholism may lie outside the compass of the heavens.
can perhaps be blamed for failing to mount an intellectually
credible defence, or produce more solid results. The lack
of firm ground on which to make a stand has contributed
to a loss of nerve in our own ranks, under the attack from
the direction of scientific scepticism, spearheaded by Geoffrey
Dean. The onslaught led a few astrologers to desert the
fold, and left others milling around aimlessly like startled
sheep looking for a new place to shelter. Perhaps classical
astrology, or horary astrology, or Vedic astrology, or whatever,
would provide a safe haven?
ordinary reader may not realise that while the ‘researchers’
represented themselves as impartial, the evidence points
to the opposite. Thirty years ago Dean and his lieutenant
Arthur Mather produced the ironically titled Recent
Advances in Natal Astrology, which behind the smoke
screen of reviewing the literature set out to undermine
astrology’s fundamental tenets. As early as page 15
of this opus of 600 pages the real thesis is announced thus:
‘Astrology can be largely explained by intuition,
gullibility and [statements of] universal validity.’
compilation, long out of print, was assisted by many believing
astrologers, blind to its devastating intent. It was the
classic Trojan horse, and hence my alarm to find its foal
skipping through your pages.
Deanites have maintained their rejection of astrology down
the years, with increasing acerbity, and readers must judge
for themselves the likelihood of their shaking off their
prejudice at this late stage. Dean and Mather are reputed
to have already endured one shattering of their beliefs,
sorrowfully turning their backs on their ‘beloved’
astrology when it failed to measure up to objective tests.
Readers less trusting than myself may wonder if this U-turn
ever happened, or whether from the outset the aim was to
discredit astrology by infiltrating its ranks.
should consider that Dean admits to a range of what he would
view as scientifically justifiable deceptions, such as giving
astrologers bogus charts for himself and conducting experiments
in which subjects were kept in the dark as to the real purpose.
might further wonder what this arch critic of astrology
was doing in Edinburgh recently, ostensibly lecturing on
his research into unaspected planets. Has he finally become
convinced that there might be genuine planetary influences?
lingering doubts about his impartiality should be dispelled
by the fact that he and Ivan Kelly, another contributor,
belong to the astrology group of the Committee for the Scientific
Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, whose acronym
(CSICOP) fortuitously describes their self-appointed role
as thought police. Anybody who follows the activities of
this curious organisation, obsessed with rooting out irrationality
in all its forms, will realise the improbability of their
ever conceding the smallest crumb of credibility to astrology,
which they hope and believe may have finally found its niche
in the mausoleum of mankind’s superstitions.
is why Dean has set out to discredit what he mistakenly
imagines to be the one remaining crumb of evidence, namely
the Gauquelin results, by suggesting that whatever statistical
validity they ever possessed can be explained by parents
tampering with the birth of their offspring, or with its
registration. Another member of the team, Suitbert Ertel,
is currently disputing this improbable theory, a spectacle
which serves as a splendid example of how true scientists
resolve their differences.
for the evidence for Dean’s theory, suffice it to
say that if he applied to it his own exacting standards
of proof it would be rejected as idle speculation. I have
tactfully suggested to Ertel that he may be the victim of
one of those stories newspapers are amused to run on April
the First. If that were to prove the case (and maybe we
shall have to wait for Dean’s candid confessions)
the spectacle of Ertel canvassing midwives to find if there
is any evidence of the practice lingering today must have
occasioned him special relish.
Ertel has already adopted his hero Gauquelin’s utter
disbelief in astrology, save for the solitary relevance
of the diurnal position of various planets in births of
the eminent. No impartiality there. Even less in the case
of Kelly, his blunderbuss poised to let fly even at any
harmless evidence of lunar influences, which of course could
be physical and not astrological at all.
I first heard Dean's hypothesis on parental tampering I
thought it must be an elaborate spoof, since when I have
been assured that he is really, really, serious. Let me
mention a theory of my own. A disproportionate number of
recorded births seem to have occurred as the clock is striking
the hour. This may be a hitherto unsuspected law of nature,
but Dean's theory alerted me to a more sinister possibility,
namely that here is a hangover of an age-old superstition
which favours whole numbers and abhors fractions as from
the devil. An elaborate thesis, stiff with references, could
be written in justification.
discovered that the exception to this rule is midnight births,
which he tells us is superstitiously avoided because it
is the witching hour. An alternative explanation has been
suggested, to the effect that because ‘midnight’
could apply to one day as well as the next, practical parents,
unconcerned about astrological implications, remove any
ambiguity by recording the birth slightly earlier or later.
Naturally, Dean resists this erosion of his theory, in which
he may well discern a sinister attempt by the covens still
active today to cover their tracks
The issue of open-mindedness versus prejudice is certainly
an important one. Personally, I subscribe to the view (cited
in the discussion of open-mindedness in Year Zero)
of Henry H Bauer - that we can only be truly open-minded
towards things we know nothing about.
So I have no problem in agreeing that the researchers are
not 100% open-minded; I don’t think it’s humanly
possible, particularly for people who have devoted as much
effort to a subject as they have. Nor would I deny that
they argue forcefully - stridently, even - to make their
points. But you're no shrinking violet yourself!
a practical level, I’d say that it’s of limited
interest and use to speculate whether, and to what extent,
prejudice influences the researcher’s arguments. If
prejudice has intervened, then there should be faults in
their evidence and/or arguments. So, do you have any such
cases you would like to raise?
DE: Consider the reference to Naylor and
the R101 disaster (pp 142-3). This great airship crashed
on 5 October 1930, and Naylor had alerted his newspaper
readers to the lunation of 7 October, which implicated Uranus.
- the lunation that caught Naylor's eye: 7 Oct 1930, 18:55
GMT, London, Campanus cusps.
ominous eclipse was already in place, awaiting the voyage
of the R101 to India. The eclipsed Moon in the 12th house
was not only conjunction Uranus but in virtually exact parallel
of declination, and opposed by SA/PL and MA/SA. Jupiter
(on the travel axis by Campanus) was semisquare Neptune,
appropriate for an airship. Saturn on the 8th cusp in Capricorn
(India) is parallel Jupiter and Mars.
thing that might be said about newspaper prediction is that
you have to be very careful to avoid a situation where your
intervention could damage commercial interests, an indiscretion
which could prove costly. After the publicity involved in
the loss of the Herald of Free Enterprise I was plagued
by phone calls by parents whose chicks were about to cross
the Channel, and wanted reassurance that it was safe.
Naylor was not going to advise that the wise course was
not to travel in the R101. Remember that this was a national
event. The maiden voyage of the airship, which carried the
hopes of Britain being in the forefront of the new age of
aviation, had already received publicity. Naylor must have
looked at his charts and winced.
don’t know anything about his methods, but today astrologers
would have picked up the fact that the lunation was not
only closely conjunction Uranus, in that pioneering sign
Aries, but in symmetrical opposition with Saturn/Pluto,
often doom-laden, and Mars/Saturn, which can typically involve
disastrous fires. Many of the passengers were incinerated
reaching back 70 years to discredit this prediction, the
critics do something which every hands-on astrologer will
recognise as extraordinary. They insist that the disaster
came too early. They tell us that: ‘The crash occurred
when the Moon was 33 degrees from conjunction, a long way
from modern orbs of a degree or so.’
it will be news to those working in this field that whatever
is signified by a lunation must manifest when the lunation
is exact, to within a degree of so, which means a couple
of hours or so. Poor dears, we have been labouring under
the delusion, shared by every misguided authority on the
subject, that a lunation has a spread of time in which to
manifest its significance.
this was not a new moon but a full moon, and in fact a lunar
eclipse. Various authorities, and modern experience, affirm
that an eclipse can manifest in advance of exactitude, and
a couple of days is well within the time frame. So what
are the critics doing, with their Moon 33 degrees from conjunction?
tell you. They are trying to score a point, bolstered by
the magic of exact numbers, which may seem to the uninitiated
to be valid, but which to those familiar with the subject
is rubbish. It is one of those cases where if Dean and company
don’t know, they should know, and if they do know,
then they are guilty of dissembling. They can take their
this and other reasons I think their contribution should
have been subject to, how shall one say it, more critical
It’s an interesting point, and I think it throws light
on the problems which astrologers and sceptics have in talking
to one another. The researchers’ argument is that,
1) Although he was in the right ballpark, Naylor got the
timing wrong (he picked out 8th - 15th October, the crash
happened on the 5th); and 2) ‘later studies of air
disasters did not confirm any link with the Moon and Uranus’
- therefore, the episode is inconclusive and can’t
be counted as a proof of astrology.
this, astrologers can object that it is almost impossible
to get every detail of a prediction accurate (an issue discussed
in Year Zero, p107-8), and that to write such an
incident off as ‘chance’ is a choice which,
itself, involves a leap of faith (or should that be, ‘leap
of scepticism’?). The point could also be made that
the complexity of chart interpretation renders it meaningless
to expect lunation-Uranus aspects to reliably link to air
far as I can see, both positions are tenable; I subscribe
to the astrologer’s view rather than the sceptic’s,
but I don't see that the sceptical position is obviously
ridiculous. I think it’s a loss if we can’t
understand the way astrology looks when it’s evaluated
from a sceptical perspective - hence (as I already said)
the aim with Year Zero of presenting a balanced range of
Naylor’s predictions might seem a little
amateur by modern standards, since this was a long time
ago when newspaper astrology was just getting off the ground.
But one interesting thing might be said about the timing
of such disasters. It all depends on what you think is happening.
Often the physical event serves as a trigger for something
else, which may not be realised on the day, nor yet for
a little peripheral vision is needed. A disaster comes complete
with a series of after-shocks, so to speak, which in the
case of the R101 were as much part of the significance of
the eclipse as the precipitating event itself. It is a question
of reading what the charts are actually saying.
meaning of the crash took time to dawn, and was the subject
of continuing debate and recriminations. Britain, in the
grip of a recession, had looked forward to leading the world
again with this revolutionary airship, the largest and most
lavishly appointed aircraft the world had ever seen. Now
the dream lay in ruins on a French hillside, and with it
the prospect for airships in commercial use.
nasty shock, that unexpected reversal, was the primary significance
of this eclipse, which of course had been in the pipeline
long before flying was thought of, even by the birds! As
I say in my book Cosmic Loom (p 40), in what topsy-turvy
universe do meanings precede the events which will come
to be associated with them?
Government had put its weight and money behind this project.
That same year a young engineer named Frank Whittle took
out patents on his revolutionary turbojet engine. At the
time, nobody was interested.
all this is bye the bye. Forget Naylor and ask what our
scholar critics are doing trying to apply an orb of 33 degrees
to the canon of eclipses. Nor do I understand the reference
to studies of air disasters disconfirming a link with the
Moon and Uranus. Are they talking about an eclipsed Moon?
This casual observation, like so many others, would seem
in need of fuller discussion. It seems fishy to me, straight
off the red herring slab.
for your attempt to achieve a balance, full marks for noble
Libran motives. But it is not always easy to see where the
balance is to be struck. If I were compiling the experiences
and ideas of, say, parish priests, would I feel the book
to be incomplete without introducing an adversarial view,
perhaps by agnostics? Or would I need to rope in the hundreds
of other Christian denominations I had not consulted? What
about inviting Satanists the join the party?
balance is necessary in such enterprises is debatable, but
the problem with Year Zero is that an imbalance was actually
created by the seeming gravitas of the ‘research’
chapters, in contrast to the rest, which comes across as
rather jolly and disorganised. After all, here were five
scholars joining forces - we are told for a full year -
to land a body blow intended to knock the wind out of your
objective was to convince readers that, when it came to
proving astrology’s claims, ‘the chance of a
positive result strong enough to overturn the present predominantly
negative evidence seems remote.’ (p 165)
are saying, never mind about all that froth, this is the
hard science, unpalatable though it may be. It reminds me
of how astrology went out of fashion in the first place,
and made me uneasy for the same reason. While it is popularly
imagined that astrology declined because scientific truth
came into the ascendancy, there was more to it than that.
In fact it was a victory for the Saturn ethos - authoritarian,
structured, boundary-setting. The story is told by James
Burke in The Day the Universe Changed (1985), the
companion volume to a BBC television series.
recounts that at one time medicine was in direct and unfavourable
competition with astrology, with astrology dominant as late
as 1600. Both presented themselves as ‘scientific’,
and both had their own explanations for disease. On the
one hand medicine relied almost exclusively on bleeding
and purging, which could themselves be fatal, while astrologers
used a range of herbal remedies, a gentler approach.
goes on: ‘Astrology was not regulated by law: anyone
could practise. Astrologers catered for the majority, a
cross-section of the adult population, principally in country
areas. They dealt with general problems defined by their
clients, such as pregnancy, adultery, impotence, careers,
and so on. In its use of herbal remedies astrology, unlike
medicine, was remarkably efficacious. Astrologers were,
however, ranked only as craftsmen.
on the other hand was elitist, predominantly urban, practiced
by a smaller, more coherent group which was attempting
to develop professional forms of regulation and control
with the aim of excluding non-members and of better controlling
the market. Medicine fitted the contemporary view of the
use of knowledge, for although it was largely incapable
of curing people, it concentrated on classifying and labelling
what was observed.
tells us that as science became increasingly institutionalised
during the Restoration, medicine more easily fitted its
constraints than the anarchic, disorganised practice of
astrology. But even then, neither discipline could claim
to be more efficacious than the other.
were no breakthroughs in the ability to cure which would
explain the triumph of medicine over astrology. But by
1700 astrology had lost its influence and support. The
“medical” view of disease had become the accepted
model for reasons that had much to do with the ability
of the physicians to organise, as well as the fact that
their procedures fitted the overall model – and
virtually nothing to do with the scientific superiority
of their methods over those of astrology.
makes you wonder whether astrology is forever destined to
be in competition with the dead hand of orthodoxy. But while
it refuses to be cramped by the black box of scientific
materialism, it retains its potential power to lead human
thought out into brighter vistas.
Personally, I think that astrology will always be a maverick
subject. This seems consistent with the art’s own
symbolism - whether you consider astrology to be ruled by
Mercury (as per tradition) or Uranus, you have something
which is elusive, volatile, hard to pin down. So perhaps
it is in its nature to remain on the fringes of orthodox
view one takes on this will, I suppose, depend largely on
whether astrology is viewed as entirely scientific by nature,
working by clearly discernible rules which could (at least
in theory) be applied by a computer; or whether one considers
judgement to depend on a non-rational, indefinable quality
of the astrologer’s mind.
given that I was set on talking to people of a sceptical
persuasion, surely you would agree that it was better for
me to seek the participation of a group who can comment
on astrology from a basis of experience, rather than (say)
DE: At least Dawkins and others might have
given the real reason why scientists reject astrology out
of hand. They do not see how the planets could possibly
bring about their alleged effects, and moreover there is
scant evidence, at least in their terms, for such an unlikely
proposition. Astrology, still ‘anarchic and disorganised’,
continues to defy the overall model, yet has largely failed
to develop a model of its own, from which scientific orthodoxy
might ultimately learn something.
model would be essentially holistic, and there are signs
that new ideas are taking shape which might propel science
in such a direction. What is called complexity theory is
encouraging thinkers in several fields to recognise that
‘isolates’ may be networked in meaningful ways.
Perhaps astrology could steer complexity theory into multiplexity
theory, to stress that reality (with consciousness as its
ground?) simultaneously contains manifold messages.
with the arrival of enough virgin minds, and as scientific
prejudice begins to die away along with its holders, there
could be an eventual rendezvous with astrology. It will
be no thanks to Dean and his cohorts, who have been following
a different agenda. You may argue that at least they know
what a chart looks like, but then the Trojan horse was already
inside the city gates, wasn’t it?
You particularly objected to the researchers’ suggestion
that astrologers need to improve their general education,
and in particular their critical thinking skills.
Could you explain your objections?
Well, it’s patronising, it’s condescending.
In any debate you cannot seriously claim a monopoly on objective
thought, no more than you can credibly allege that those
who take a different view to your own must be deficient
in their general education.
is nothing wrong with critical thinking, in the right place.
But introductory astrology texts, of which they complain,
are hardly the right place. In common with beginners’
books generally, they get down to the business of giving
their readers hands-on knowledge. It is tongue-in-cheek,
and merely mischievous, for them to suggest that introductions
to any subject (and most of all astrology!) must contain
instructions on how to think.
every subject there is a ‘given’, basic information
which has to be accepted before, paradoxically, you can
reach a position where you are capable of judging its value.
As the Dean team put it (p 159): ‘Critical thinking
is about evaluating evidence, judging conclusions, and considering
alternatives.’ But knowledge and skill in many areas
has to be acquired through uncritical thinking. If you want
to strain teacher’s patience, be forever asking ‘why?’,
question every conclusion, and suggest looking at alternative
is a more important philosophical dimension. To imply that
astrology must be amenable to critical thinking, because
they desperately want it to be, would turn it into a different
sort of animal. The reason is that critical thinking is
analytical and reductionist, whereas the truth of astrology
depends not so much on analysis as synthesis, and its ability
not to reduce but enlarge meanings. It is essentially holistic.
are two equally valid approaches to understanding anything.
We can break it down into its constituents, to see how it’s
put together. Alternatively we can view it as itself belonging
to a larger scheme. In other words, we can see it as a whole
or a part. In his Recent Advances Dean writes:
‘No amount of holism leads to the understanding of
a clock unless it has been taken to pieces first. It is
a fact of life that all complex problems have to be simplified
in order to be tackled, and everything is won or lost by
the way it is simplified. Hence reductionism must precede
holism if we are to gain genuine insight, and neither is
dispensable.’ (p 2)
all those bits and pieces are trivial beside the perspective
of the clock as part of a larger scheme. Hence, if I look
up ‘clock’ in the dictionary it does not tell
me that it is a box containing gears, flywheels, assorted
screws, and so forth. It says that a clock is a device for
indicating or measuring time. The essence of the clock,
therefore, does not lie in its innards, rather is it a concept
involving purpose, intention. Its predecessor, the sundial,
is even more informative here, since no demolition of the
gnomon, no examination of its metal, will explain what it’s
we place anything in its larger context, seeing it as part
of a system, we enter the realm of meaning, concepts, purpose,
intention. The ultimate role of astrology is to collect
the parts into wholes, to put the bits of the giant jigsaw
together so that they become more comprehensible precisely
because of their interrelationships. This process leads
in the opposite direction to reductionism. For instance,
going back to my picture of Sagittarians, I would view their
candour as the everyday expression of a respect for truth,
and their offering of advice as part of an innate respect
for wisdom. These are high-level concepts, and I would say
they are beyond the reach of what is described specifically
as critical thinking, though not beyond thought itself.
I’d like to pursue your observation that
the ‘researchers’ claim their position to be
somehow definitive. Take this statement from them:
than demonstrate their claims under artifact-free conditions,
or specify what research would be relevant or how controversies
and disagreements might be dealt with, astrologers retreat
behind a smokescreen of speculation about the nature of
truth, reality, perception, language, and so on.
wouldn’t want to deny that a lot of nonsense has been
spouted over the years in attempts to defend astrology.
But when the ‘researchers’ suggest, as they
do repeatedly, that ideas about astrology which don’t
lead to tests are of no value, they are saying that science
is the primary arbiter of reality, with any questions about
how we interpret and understand that reality having only
secondary significance. So I agree with you here, I believe
they do think of science as having a monopoly in determining
what is real. The fact that this is in itself a philosophical
position – and therefore capable of being challenged
in philosophical terms – is a point which, it seems
to me, they never properly get to grips with. This is one
of the themes of chapters 11 and 12 of Year Zero.
I therefore find the researchers’ case less convincing
than they do, I don’t find their conviction as implausible
as you sometimes seem to. As you say in Cosmic Loom,
“if (astrology’s) testimony is valid it means
we have mistaken the nature of our reality.”
So to really understand astrology must entail a radical
switch of world-view, and I see no reason to doubt that
intelligent people might, in all sincerity, decide to keep
their world-view rather than their astrology.
far as critical thinking goes – I take your point
on this, but don’t think that critical thinking, in
itself, has to lead towards reductionism, provided we begin
with an adequate definition. Critical thinking can include
the possibility of neither accepting nor rejecting an assertion
but simply working with it as a hypothesis and seeing what
happens. On that basis we could say that
many of us, including some who would now see themselves
as sceptics, used critical thinking to test and validate
think there is something to be said for developing critical
thinking within astrology, though not perhaps in quite the
form that the ‘researchers’ have in mind. You
mentioned the problem of astrologers cluttering up their
approach by adding one technique after another. This is,
surely, a consequence of a naïve model of astrology,
under which, more methods of analysis, more sources of information,
have to be a Good Thing. If (as some astrologers argue)
astrology is more akin to a language than to a physical
science, then what is needed is for the astrologer to figure
out an approach to chart-reading which is consistent and
coherent, rather than comprehensive. To point out that it
is neither possible nor desirable to incorporate every possible
point, body, and technique in one’s astrology seems
to me like the kind of critical thinking which would be
very useful in introductory books on astrology.
think you and I agree that the questions raised here are
vital, for astrology and indeed for our understanding of
this world and our place in it. I suppose what is at issue
between us is, whether or not the inclusion of the researchers’
chapters in Year Zero was the best way to encourage
discussion and promote understanding. It still seems to
me that, in the context of the entire book, those two sceptical
chapters do not overpower the astrological chapters. They
certainly pose questions for astrologers: if we disagree
with what is being said here, why? What are the weak points
in the arguments? But what I have heard from readers suggests
that they generally go away grappling with these issues,
rather than being convinced by the sceptical case. And so
long as it incites astrologers to talk about astrology’s
big questions – as we have done here – I think
Zero will be worth something.
1: “Having explicitly learned
certain things, scientists and science have at the same
time learned implicitly that other things are not so. We
could then be truly open-minded only about things that we
do not yet know about at all.” - p.77, Henry H Bauer,
1992: Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific
Method, Chicago: University of Illinois Press (quoted p.174,
Astrology in the Year Zero).
Dennis had warned of such a disaster. This episode is discussed
article by him on skyscript.co.uk; , and in p.105-6
of Year Zero.
See Section 7 of The
Researchers Researched for Dennis’s comments;
p158-9 of Year Zero for the remarks on critical thinking
which provoked him.
Astrology in the Year Zero, p.152.
Cosmic Loom, p.ix.
Based on article, Informal Logic in Ted Honderich,
1995: Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford: OUP
(which identifies 'Critical Thinking' with 'Informal Logic').