Tuesday, December 9, 2008

How Astrology Works

I was having a conversation with an astrologer of my acquaintance when I began to formulate a hypothesis about how astrology works. That is to say, I began to sense how astrologers and their clients could come to believe firmly that the relative positions of stars and planets on particular dates can serve a predictive and explanatory function, shedding real light on character and motivation, in spite of the fact that the whole idea is (demonstrably) errant nonsense in the universe of Galileo and Hubble.

The particular astrologer in question asserted with confidence that he could know all he needed to know about any given individual based entirely on "their chart", without ever having met the individual in question. More than this, he asserted that he could always convince a skeptical client of the revealed truth about their character and motivation, overcoming their initial denial and leading them to recognize themselves in "their chart."

I put this together with things I've read and heard about astrology from various sources, including demonstrations by James Randi, along with ideas from cognitive science I have encountered by way of the literature on moral imagination. The hypothesis began to take on a more determinate shape. I don't claim this is an original hypothesis, but it has allowed me to find some clarity.

Here it is.


Human life and human experience are complex and ambiguous; our motivations are almost always mixed. As Whitman would have it, we contain multitudes. We can make sense of ourselves and the world around us only by actively framing our experience through conceptual schemata or mental models, highlighting some facets of our experience while ignoring or suppressing others.

In putting together a person's chart, an astrologer provides a very particular frame for that person's experience. Through some combination of strategic vagueness, keen observation, and persuasive power, a skilled astrologer can convince just about any prospective client that the chart really fits them, really reveals the truth about who they are.

Being human, prospective clients are often hungry for coherence; at least some of the time, most of us just don't know what to make of ourselves.

The thing is, our experience is complex enough and ambiguous enough, our motivation are mixed enough, that nearly any chart could be seen to fit nearly any person. This is a testable hypothesis, as sometimes demonstrated by Randi and others: people can "see themselves" in just about any chart. (An excellent double-blind study was published in the journal Nature in 1985; the research is also described here.)

Now, to be fair, it could be that astrology is just a harmless diversion. In the right hands, it might possibly serve as a useful tool for self-discovery or even therapy.

I have my doubts.

I suspect astrology is more pernicious, in part because it assumes the mantle of mystical insight and the presumed authority of an ancient practice. If I were on this basis to give credence to the pronouncements of an astrologer, I would be giving the astrologer real and significant power over me: the power to tell me who I am, to tell me what I really need and really want. It would short-circuit my autonomy and lock me in the prison of lowered expectations: I can always excuse any failing by appeal to the chart. (What do you expect? I'm a Libra!) In short, I would be trading some essential part of my human freedom for a false sense of certainty about my place in the universe.

I have no interest in what my own chart would show. If I am to be framed, I will frame myself.

8 comments:

Lulu--Back in Town said...

Outside of astrologers with that kind of certainty, I've tended to take astrology like I would tarot, or tea leaves, or dream diagnosis. Which is to say, more like a Rorschach test than a predictor?

When people are self-diagnosing or examining a situation through those things (as opposed to going to a professional to tell them about their lives or trying to read the future in any way), while I'm sure a lot of it is just willfully seeing themselves in whatever they're looking at, I think it might serve as a kind of indicator on its own--the way one reads something so open-ended, the kinds of themes one picks up or chooses to focus on, could actually be a useful indicator for them of their priorities or tendencies, because they've chosen it themselves consciously or gravitated to it more subconsciously. "I've pulled the Heirophant. Hmm.. . you know, that probably represents me in *this* situation" (as opposed to so-and-so in that one) "because I've experienced this and you know I really *am* kind of reacting to it that way. Maybe I should be trying this, instead..." Just the way they'd choose to read a horoscope or a card spread would say something about them and their situation. It could be kind of like free-write or free-draw. :)

Though, with astrology specifically, I have wondered a little if there could be some other mechanism at work that might produce a tendency towards some common trait. I do understand why people could give it a little credit, because sometimes it seems like all Leo's have characteristic X, or many Boars behave in way Y. So maybe because these categories and traits have so permeated culture, we might actually raise Leo's expecting them to behave like Leo's do, and so create some self-fulfilling prophecies. Or before the advent of serious indoor climate control and work environments, climate and seasonal activity prenatally or in infancy could have affected development.. Or else (and this would make some sense now, with the way we divide kids into grades), being born a certain time of the year could affect your socialization--kids can be almost one year older or younger than classmates, and whether you're the oldest/biggest child in a class when you start, or the smallest/youngest, could make a difference.. Different levels of development would play in, different treatment by teachers or other children.. Or, there could be common traits to parents who conceive certain times of the year as opposed to others, and there could be related parenting issues...

...So while none of that would mean that the stars themselves have an influence on human life or personality, we may well have created a system where the zodiac could have meaning. Though, at least as far as raising-with-expectation-to-be, it would be (like you said) a kind of confining, limiting structure. Hm.

(Sorry if I'm rambling! Just interesting to think about!)

Anonymous said...

Astrology can do far more than you've imagined. Do not read the "daily horoscope" (it's B.S.), and do NOT watch those commercials!

Astrology is made to seem 100% laughable by the "Text this number and I'll tell you if you and yer 'b/f' will be wuv 4evar"... cuss, does that piss me off!

Astrology doesn't have a chance of being taken seriously, with crap like that on the TV... unless YOU decide to study it, or consult a real -- REAL -- astrologer, yourself. (These people study for ten, thirty, fifty years, and know their stuff.)

I'm sorry; thinking about this infuriates me to no end whatsoever. All I really want to say is that a real, skilled astrologer *will* tell you about very! specific health problems... and one huge ETC.

Here's just one thing, but the first thing, that happened in my life, to set my little chuckling, disrespectful arse straight:

My mother got a reading from a quiet, respected astrologer, once... it was a gift. Suffice it to say that, when I got out of the hospital about three months later, I was shocked to hear (from my wheelchair, but ALIVE) that she'd gotten a reading at all.

Hearing their recorded voices on the telephone, the astrologer repeating, "poor angel, the poor angel -- she will become critically ill on May first, but five experts will be there to help her..." was... it.

She didn't know me. I didn't know her. I don't know her name, and we will likely never meet.

But I did fall with acute pancreatitis on May 1st, exactly. Five specialists helped me; I regained lucid consciousness in five days.

I was out of intensive care within a week, and out of all hospitals and nursing homes (a leg had been shattered, too -- long, long story) in six weeks. Right about then's when Mom played the recording for me, saying, "I have something you need to listen to."

'Cause when I listened... I remembered my Mother's eyes before I'd fallen unconscious with the pancreatitis. How flat grey her warm browns were. She had stared... so desolately, dead-silently, ENTIRELY emptily. I knew, when I was back home, that the tape that was playing in my safe home at that moment, were the words that had gone through my Mother's head when she heard my doctor stop walking, start *running*, and start *cursing*, on May 1, 2002.

So, guess who's been studying for a few years, now, and will soon be helping families in pain, too? Yeah, you guessed right. It's the least I can do; I'm alive.

Ponderize and philosophize if that's what makes you feel good, but, however it works, I'm alive, and telling you that, with a GOOD astrologer (which does entail many things -- do not settle for less! And you DO know it when you hear it -- it's not fancified or mystical *one bit* -- so do not expect it to be telling if it's someone local, easily google-able, from a geocities website in hot pink with unicorns and stars, or first ten minutes free... etc.etc.etc.), you will be utterly shocked.

Or, hey, study it yourself.

These guys? Predict the future. They do.

Whew, dunno, had to say something. Thanks. Try not to write this off. This wasn't a joke, or for fun (have a migraine), or for attention... arg! I'm on my way to bed. But.

Seriously!

(And, sorry to've sounded combative; I am not, 99.999% of the time. I'm just so ARG! at those commercials... they make it impossible for people to even feel safe *asking* if astrology is, of all things, even "real"! Just sick, lately, of this, and of skeptics who just won't *look* before they speak.

It's *right there*.)

Robert Kirkman said...

Two brief responses to "anonymous":

1. Another part of how astrology works is the too-human tendency to generalize from single anecdotes - even if we do not know the source of the anecdote or its validity. Given our also-too-human will to believe in the extraordinary, given the way we filter our experience, given the constructed and sometimes self-justificatory nature of memory, we should treat all such stories with extreme caution. The whole point of a double-blind study like the one published in Nature in 1985 is to filter out the will to believe, to stack up apparent successes against apparent failures, and do the math. One question: You allege that, in one instance, an astrologer predicted the future. In how many instances did an astrologer fail to do so? Even a stopped clock is right twice a day . . .

2. I will not even begin to take a story seriously unless I know the source and can verify the incident with witnesses. So, it doesn't help matters that you have posted your comment anonymously . . .

Alan Gordon said...

Well Bob, it looks like you have opened a Pandora's box.
first, I cannot guess who you are talking about with this comment.
"he could know all he needed to know about any given individual based entirely on "their chart", without ever having met the individual in question. More than this, he asserted that he could always convince a skeptical client of the revealed truth about their character and motivation, overcoming their initial denial and leading them to recognize themselves in "their chart."
It certainly is not me.
But it looks like you are going to get some good responses, and I will throw out a though germaine to our whole subconcious western Gestalt. It is very hard to give a reading to an Oriental person not steeped in a western education. We do refer to archetypal forms already registered in the persons memory through a western education. So if I say Mars is squaring Venus, somewhere in their mythological memory banks, they sort of "Get" what I am saying, where an oriental with none of this in their previous memory rings any bells. So you are right that we certainly use previously held concepts to explain ourselves. As if you don't? You could talk about Plato, the Republic, and Athens until you are blue in the face, and if your audience or clients. i.e., your studenten, don't have some previous archetypal memory of the Greeks and Romans, you might as well be talking greek to them... Oh thats right, you are.
I started at age 7 studying the myths, and am very good at what I do, and still could not match the predictor that the previous writer talks about. I am not that type of astrologer...
AG

Robert Kirkman said...

Hey, Alan.
It's surprising you don't recognize yourself in this. I wrote this soon after the conversation in question, and the claim attributed to you is either a direct quotation or a fair paraphrase. Even now, I recall vividly the bit about convincing even the most skeptical clients. (I think the term "skeptical" drew my attention . . .)
Anyway, I don't doubt you're good at what you do, depending on how "what you do" is characterized. Certainly, you have a lot of satisfied clients, make a fair bit of money, really enjoy doing your shows at Ren Fests. No doubt you come away feeling you understand your clients, and that they understand themselves better.
I would just attribute that to "strategic vagueness, keen observation, and persuasive power" . . . and perhaps a penchant for changing the subject and disavowing past claims when challenged. (Ahem.)
I strongly suspect that the combination of vagueness, observation, and persuasion would be just as effective using a tool even more transparently arbitrary than astrology. For example, banana-peel readings: http://skepticblog.org/2009/10/03/banana-readings-mmmmm/

Alan gordon said...

Well Bob, it looks like you have opened a Pandora's box.
first, I cannot guess who you are talking about with this comment.
"he could know all he needed to know about any given individual based entirely on "their chart", without ever having met the individual in question. More than this, he asserted that he could always convince a skeptical client of the revealed truth about their character and motivation, overcoming their initial denial and leading them to recognize themselves in "their chart."
It certainly is not me.
But it looks like you are going to get some good responses, and I will throw out a though germaine to our whole subconcious western Gestalt. It is very hard to give a reading to an Oriental person not steeped in a western education. We do refer to archetypal forms already registered in the persons memory through a western education. So if I say Mars is squaring Venus, somewhere in their mythological memory banks, they sort of "Get" what I am saying, where an oriental with none of this in their previous memory rings any bells. So you are right that we certainly use previously held concepts to explain ourselves. As if you don't? You could talk about Plato, the Republic, and Athens until you are blue in the face, and if your audience or clients. i.e., your studenten, don't have some previous archetypal memory of the Greeks and Romans, you might as well be talking greek to them... Oh thats right, you are.
I started at age 7 studying the myths, and am very good at what I do, and still could not match the predictor that the previous writer talks about. I am not that type of astrologer...
AG

Lukiftian said...

What a ridiculous post. I'd call you a skeptic but you're too intellectually lazy to be even worthy of my contempt. Alan, you should know better than to tussle with a boob like this. Shame on you too.

Robert Kirkman said...

You know, Lukiftian, had you offered reasoned argument or substantial evidence in response to my hypothesis, you would have had my undivided attention.

Instead you offer only name-calling.

Yawn.