4th February 2011
The Guardian 'Star Wars' debate, which sought to define astrology as 'rubbish and nonsense' (to defend the BBC's reporting of it as such) closed last night as the opportunity to add opinion reached its deadline. The feeling at the end was that the debate might be over but the problem was far from resolved.
For those who are unaware, this anti-astrology dispute was pursued through two Sceptic reports in the 'Lay Scientist' section of the Guardian-online. The first, by Martin Robbins, was inflammatory, misrepresentative and historically inaccurate; the follow up, by Rebekah Higgitt, presented the astrologer's argument and corrected some of Mr Robbins inaccuracies; although that too was designed to propose a more effective 'debunking' of astrology by members of the scientific community.
During the 10 days of comment-opportunity the two reports generated a massive 1626 responses from online readers, illustrating how provocative and controversial the subject of astrology has become within the British media of late. Apart from the initial flurry of derisory put-downs from the regular readers of the 'Lay Scientist', most of the comments came from a group of extremely committed 'debunkers' of all things holistic (the enemies of pseudo-science as they call themselves). Having done this sort of thing fairly regularly (most recently with homeopathy), they had clearly-defined tactics which involved ready-reference to 'debunker manuals' on the internet, the ability to call on others when they weren't dominating astrologers by sheer volume, and a tried and tested method of dismissal (which involved drowning out the defensive explanations of astrologers trying to correct misunderstandings by rudeness, crude 'noise', accusation, and evasion of the relevant points).
Martin Robbins' initial report was published at a time when a combust Mars in Aquarius culminated beneath the horizon (chart below), which gives a signature of the deep underlying anger and scientific hostility which triggered the knee-jerk publishing of the report (as an immediate response to Dara O'Briain's anti-astrology Twitter feed ). The Mars signature is also evident in the report headline: "Astrologers angered by Stars".
Considering the misrepresentation of the report (which naturally then provoked inflamed and emotive reactions), and considering the ferocity of the written attacks and the zealous persistence by which the debunkers clung to their irrelevant arguments, astrologers did astonishingly well, creating a strong united voice by which the inappropriate criticisms of astrology were consistently cast aside. Eventually, the inevitable conclusion was reached: the summary being that a lot of time and energy was invested into something that did not move the argument one way or another; but merely revealed it more clearly for what it is. All those who respected astrology to begin with held onto their respect, whilst those who were hostile to the subject to begin with held onto their hostility.
What great news for astrologers then, that as the Guardian debate closed joyless around midnight, daybreak brought the unrealised news that yesterday the Bombay High Court in India had given a legal ruling that astrology is, indeed, a trusted and respected science, by rejecting a claim that had been brought to challenge astrology's standing as a reputable science and to urge a ban on practices promoting its services unless they included a warning that its methods could be unreliable.
The intention of the case was to revoke the 2004 ruling of the Supreme Court in India, which had already considered the issue and ruled that astrology is part of science. The 2004 ruling had also directed Indian universities to consider the placement of astrological science in their syllabus, and it was that decision which was reviewed and upheld, and therefore declared to be binding on the decision made yesterday.
The case was brought as a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed before the Bombay high court against astrologers, practitioners of vastu, numerology, gemology and faith healers. It had asked the Court to make it mandatory for astrologers to put a disclaimer in their advertisements, to state that their methods and recommended remedies were not "tried and tested". The PIL report ran to more than 100 pages and pointed to some examples where political predictions of well known astrologers had failed to be fulfilled. Its argument presented similar themes to those put forward by the Guardian-debate debunkers, one of which concerned the fact that new planets had been discovered during the last 300 years. The summary of the complaint was that:
The practice and belief in astrology and related theories is devoid of any scientific process and experimentation, based on ludicrous theories of cosmic constellations, gravitation, divination, existing and non-existing solar objects as well as illusionary and imaginary placement of zodiac signs.
However, the judges also took on record an affidavit submitted by the Union government, which stated that astrology is a 4000 year old 'trusted science' and so should not be subject to the Drugs and Magical Remedies Act (Objectionable Advertisements) of 1954.
The said Act does not cover astrology and related sciences. Astrology is a trusted science and has been practiced for over 4000 years.
… said an affidavit filed by Dr R Ramakrishna, deputy drug controller (India), west zone.
The said Act is aimed at prohibiting misleading advertisements relating to drugs and magic remedies. The Act does not cover and / or relate to astrology and / or allied sciences like Palmistry, Vaastu Shastra etc. In view thereof, a purported ban on practices promoting astrology and related sciences sought by the petitioner, which is a time tested science more than 4000 years old is totally misconceived and unjustifiable.
… was the argument of the affidavit which was upheld by the court.
What's the Significance for Western Astrologers?
What is happening in India may seem of little relevance to western astrologers, and western scientists will no doubt argue that the Indian definition of science is more liberal than theirs. But let's consider this for a moment.
The word 'science' derives from the Latin scientia 'knowledge'; as a form of the Latin verb scire 'to know'. The modern use of the word, to refer to a specifically 'non-art study' is attested to 1678; but before that it had a much wider application to indicate any generally accepted body of knowledge, mastery of which was acquired by an appropriate and committed course of study. Traditionally the pursuit of knowledge is assumed to come from the impulse of the higher mind, which draws us towards moments of inspiration and illuminated understanding. That is why astrology draws a traditional association between science and theology, with both of these themes finding signification in an astrology chart's ninth house of spirituality and communications with the Divine, which also embraces the aspiration to acquire knowledge in places such as universities, and the refined understanding of knowledge that is necessary to express it and teach it.
India, it seems, is retaining this original sense of the word. In the 20th century, western nations took this to be old fashioned and out-moded, but the 21st century is more likely to bring a return towards that viewpoint, as a more enlightened realisation emerges; which recognises that human spirituality, the interpenetration of matter and mind, and the power of human belief and conviction cannot be forced outside of the remit of the development of our understanding of ourselves and the practical circumstances of our lives.
This current, almost fanatical, expression of scientific hostility towards astrology represents a pivotal moment within the process, as extremes become reached and biased emotive calls for repression of information comes to the surface, allowing them to be clearly seen for the damaging suppression of 'older knowledge' that they are.
For example, one point which became clear in the Guardian-debate is that the most aggressive and hostile attacks directed at astrology came from physicists, who promoted a sense of outrage that anyone would dare to pursue an understanding of our place in the cosmos without using their terminology and their new models of definition, even if the exploration served a different purpose, was contained within a different discipline, and followed a different perspective which did not overlap with theirs.
One poster to the Guardian-debate, a cosmologist, presented himself as a leading proponent for the need to insult astrology in the most derogatory terms. The word 'cosmology' incidentally, in its modern scientific sense, was adopted around 1650 to refer to the study of the large-scale structure, origins, and development of the universe. It is concerned with the elements, parts and mathematical laws of the universe, whilst exploring the mechanics behind concepts embedded in space and time (and theories of causality, relativity, the big bang, etc., or unprovable hypothetical models such as string theory). There was a constant demand from the sceptics for astrologers to present astrology in these terms or to accept the definition of their subject as 'rubbish'. This was despite the repeated explanations that such detailed analysis of the mechanical fabric of the universe is the concern of cosmology, not astrology. It was explained that astrology adheres to a more insular earth-centred perspective for good reason, and is differentiated as a subject by its pursuit of a philosophical, spiritual and psychological emphasis, as well as seasonal and meteorological information, in order to understand how astronomical cycles correlate to human, cultural and earth-centred experiences at many different levels of expression.
But still, to maintain the complete refutation that astrology deserves any kind of respect, it was argued that (forget astrology) even everything that was contained within the study of astronomy prior to the advent of cosmology in the 1600s was not even 'real astronomy'! Responding to one astrologer's personal perspective on astrology, the conceited dismissal went as follows:
Even a basic understanding of Maxwell's equations (the fundamental element to understanding photonic interactions) requires at least a passing understanding of vector calculus, a fundamental understanding of the Maxwell model of light, and more than a little dabbling in quantum mechanics.
None of that leads to astrology. Astrology PRE-DATES real astronomy by several thousand years - real astronomy dates from the 1600s, and even then, only with the inner planets.
So the call of modern scientists such as this, is for nothing less than a rewrite of history; so that we can pretend that there were not two separate but entwined studies, of astronomy monitoring and defining celestial information which astrology sought to find meaning for; there was only the 'pseudo-astronomy' of the past, and then cosmology which introduced 'real astronomy' in the 17th century.
The chart below shows the legacy of this 'real astronomy' by comparison to the documented 4000-year-old study of astronomy and astrology, from the period around the construction of the pyramids (that's actually about 4˝ thousand years and the history of astronomy is much, much older - and I believe that the real history of astrology is too - but let's be generous whilst keeping the proportions simple). Erring on the side of generosity again, and giving cosmology another 50 years to account for the period in which it struggled to emerge; the proportions work out at 4000:400, or 10:1.
Looking at this graphically we might conclude that India is not being illogical in seeking to preserve respect for the slowly acquired and long-tested body of knowledge that springs from its own social history and cultural heritage. And given that an analogy with the average human life-span would recognise modern science (as separated from spiritual impact) as having the proportional maturity of development of a seven year old, who on earth could blame them?
A few days ago the BBC screened a Horizon program called 'Science Under Attack', where Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse examined why modern science appears to have lost the trust of the public, and why public confidence in many of its statements are becoming seriously, and increasingly, eroded. His view was that scientists have forgotten that they do not operate in an isolated bubble; and they should not take the public for granted, nor undermine public concerns or interests. Part of the narrative was transcribed and has been made available online by New Zealand reporter Bryan Walker. The passage below talks about the difference to be discerned between the positive influence of a careful peer-review of knowledge, against the damage that is brought to science from extreme skeptics who act as denialists:
As a working scientist I've learnt that peer review is very important to make science credible. The authority science can claim comes from evidence and experiment and an attitude of mind that seeks to test its theories to destruction… Skepticism is very important… be the worst enemy of your own idea, always challenge it, always test it. I think things are a little different when you have a denialist or an extreme skeptic. They are convinced that they know what's going on and they only look for data which supports that position and they're not really engaging in the scientific process. There is a fine line between healthy skepticism which is a fundamental part of the scientific process and denial which can stop the science moving on.
Attitudes such as that expressed by the cosmologist above, demonstrate a denialist fear, which creates such impenetrable and territorial grips around what can be considered to be respectful and knowledgeable information that it is even prepared to rubbish its own history and foundations. Modern science may aim to be as objective as it can be; but humans are not purely objective beings. We have traditions, communal needs, subjective realisations and 'common-sense' awareness; and most of us know from experience that our senses can lead us to discover what it is we need to know, and that long-standing traditions did not develop without firm foundations (irrational as they may appear to be when defined by cold logic alone). It is this kind of denial that characterises the western world as one which is affected by disillusion towards modern science. Because, as a collective, human society knows that we won't find every answer in a test tube, and we want to be able to draw on the wisdom of our forebears too.
So I believe that the ruling in India holds tremendous significance for western astrologers, as indicating an attitude of allowing the word science to be applied to a body of knowledge which may appear 'irrational' by one discipline's standard; but is fully supported by its own internal logic.
The crux of the matter is that for the practitioners of holistic studies to expect respect for the unique and specialist nature of their knowledge; a recognised system of learning and agreed qualification needs to be available, to allow the necessary mastery of the subject to be attained. If such a system is set in place then there is no reason why western nations cannot follow the more enlightened (and truly democratic) approach of India; allowing knowledge to prosper and flourish into all kinds of disciplines; and recognising that an expert of one limited field is not qualified to demand that disrespect be cast towards an expert in another.
** End **
About the author:
(www.debhoulding.co.uk) was the editor of the Traditional Astrologer Magazine
, founder of Ascella Publications, and currently runs the astrology website www.skyscript.co.uk
. She is also the author of The Houses: Temples of the Sky
, and since the late 1980s she has been active in researching the astronomical and symbolic basis of the techniques used in western astrology. Deborah practices as a horary and electional astrologer and is the principle of the STA School of Traditional Horary Astrology.
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|The British Astrological Association is at present collecting the names and email address of all who wish make known their objectijons to the misrepresentation of astrology by astronomers and especially on the BBC. Please support their efforts and register your dissatisfaction with flippant misreprentation of astrology in the media.
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© Deborah Houlding, 4 February 2011.