art, but not science

My friend Brent had asked, given how seemingly accurate astrological readings can be, how this could scientifically happen? Could I write on that?

I think for me the short answer is “no”, for despite what some astrologers assert, astrology is not a science, and I do not think it ever will be (or rather it will never be again).

There was, back at the end of the 70s, a bit of a buzz I remember about the researches of Michel Gauquelin correlating certain astrological occurrences at birth with things like adult occupation, something referred to as the “Mars effect“, but even this proved to be unverifiable in subsequent research, and there were some questions about the methodology. If this had proved to be verifiable and repeatable, it would certainly have been interesting and raised some extraordinary questions, but such a limited (though scientifically extraordinary) claim would not come anywhere near what astrology takes itself to be. As it is, even that seems to have evaporated.

And yet:

Astrology works for those of us who use it and engage in it. It proves useful, therapeutic, insightful. It seems to accurately map inward processes of personal unfoldment, and their apparent reflection in the outer world, and does so repeatedly.

It does this not in a rigidly predictable, determined and pre-set way. It is not objective and causal in a hard science sense. The closest it comes to science would be in its resemblance to psychology, especially of the transpersonal variety, and here astrologers have found refuge and a self assembled credibility since the mid twentieth century, when things like Jungian analysis appeared as life boats that could be boarded to escape the supposedly sinking ship of fortune telling, occultism and other forms of the great carnival freak show that some of us still call home.

But for all these migrations of interpretation and self image, astrology is magic, not science. It has some of the appearance and mechanics of a science, but the scientists left long ago, when we and they separated and differentiated. We inhabit the same building, but they have gone. Astrology is not a “forgotten science”, it is something else. It works in the world of subjectivity, meaning, magic and synchronicity. The fact that (like magic) it does work in its own terms, much as therapy does, and that it moreover spills across the dividing line between the inner and the outer world, is indeed a mystery, but that does not make it a science. I think it was Nicholas Campion that said something along lines of “if you look at astrology you find that astrology doesn’t work, but astrologers do”*. Astrology is an art based upon interpretation, communication and human interaction, using a soulful and poetic language whose form we find in our relation with the earth and cosmos. It’s purposes and goals have changed over time, but its raison d’être is human need.

Things like astrology and alchemy had their place in the history of science, at a time when our scientific endeavours to understand and manipulate the world were fused with a brilliant act of imagination; a faculty which created the basis of the future sciences, the vision, play, observation and experimentation from which reason could travel towards its future disciplines. Astrology was in that sense maybe a proto-science, it was pre-science, and now it is one of a number of studies which are “after science”, or para-science, because on the family tree it appears to head off into a childless dead end, which we yet find fertile. We inhabit an imaginary castle, and find that it still functions.

When I say astrology is not a science, I do not mean that there is nothing to study, or question fruitfully, or that there is no mystery to elucidate. There certainly is. But we are not going to get this great monster, with its waistcoats and watches and tentacles, back into that utilitarian tin can. It’s too late for that, and we done grown too big.

The Alchemist by Francesco Peluso, 1870. Baillieu Library Print Collection, University of Melbourne. Image at http://blogs.unimelb.edu.au/librarycollections/2012/10/05/1088/, presumed in public domain - image digitally solarized and cropped

The Alchemist by Francesco Peluso, 1870. Baillieu Library Print Collection, University of Melbourne. Image at http://blogs.unimelb.edu.au/librarycollections/2012/10/05/1088/, presumed in public domain – image digitally solarized and cropped

* apologies if I got that quote wrong, I will see if I can find the strictly accurate version.

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