Can Naturalists Use Astrology?

Astrology Natal ChartAstrology is a popular target for skeptics. They think it uses your birth to make predictions about your personality or your future.  This is the way astrology was portrayed in the newspapers: you look up your sun sign in the daily astrology column, and you get predictions about your day.  So this is Newspaper Astrology. Skeptics say that Newspaper Astrology is false and that the people who use it are irrational. On this point, naturalists agree with the skeptics –we don’t use astrology to make predictions about our characters or about our futures.  Astrology has no value as a predictive tool.  It is useless for analyzing your personality traits. But do people really use Newspaper Astrology?  And even if they do, is that the right way to use astrology?

Astrology has been extremely popular over thousands of years.  If it’s irrational, then an enormous number of people are irrational.  Moreover, since skeptics have clearly (and correctly) shown that Newspaper Astrology is false, they are perplexed that people still spend money and time on it.  Many skeptics therefore conclude that humanity is irrational.  This looks pretty arrogant.  And it’s almost certainly false.

One problem with this skepticism about astrology is that it rarely cites any evidence about how people really use astrology.  Skeptics just assume that astrology is Newspaper Astrology.  Since skeptics pride themselves on using evidence, this assumption is surprising.  If skeptics really want to criticize astrology, they should try to honestly figure out how people really use it.  Otherwise, the Newspaper Astrology criticized by the skeptics looks like a straw man.   Maybe astrology isn’t Newspaper Astrology.

A second problem with skepticism is the persistent popularity of astrology.  Astrology survives and flourishes in communities of human organisms. Evolutionary theories generally entail that, if something survives and flourishes in a community of organisms, then it has survival value for those organisms in their communities.  It is playing some important and useful role for the organisms who adopt it.  Skeptics should accept the evolutionary argument that astrology plays some pragmatically valuable function.  As scientists, they ought to try to find out what it is.  Since they do not, debunkers are not consistent with their own scientific values.

A third problem with skepticism concerns charity.  Faced with human behaviors, charity demands that we try to affirm the humanity of those who engage in them.  We ought to assume that humans are rational animals. So, if they use astrology, they are doing so for good reasons.  Only if we cannot find any good reasons should we then declare that the humans who use astrology are irrational.

A fourth problem concerns sex.  Far more women use astrology than men. If astrology is irrational, then it would contribute to an argument that women are less rational than men.  The irrationality would feed into the sexist stereotype of women as weak-minded.  However, it seems far more likely that bias against women is feeding into the argument that astrology is irrational.  The skeptic movement has been severely criticized for misogyny.  We ought to start from the position that women are at least as rational as men.  More astrology does not make for less rationality.

One naturalistic approach to astrology says that astrology is a kind of applied Stoicism.  The Stoics were concerned with the dichotomy of control– what’s in your power versus what’s not in your power.  This concern is reflected in astrology: the stars symbolize fate and destiny, and they represent the externally determined aspects of your life. They help you reflect on issues of control and freedom, contingency and necessity.  Astrology also incorporates four Stoic techniques for self-realization.

The first technique is physical description.  You drain events of their emotional significance by treating them as purely physical.  So astrology helps you describe  complex psychological issues in terms of purely physical powers or influences (it’s not you, it’s Saturn).  The second technique is the view from above.  This means looking at your self and your life from a distance. Astrology helps you look at yourself from the perspective of the heavens, the planets and the stars.  The third technique is cognitive and affective distancing.  Distancing teaches you to think and talk about troublesome personal or inter-personal issues in an impersonal language, from an impersonal perspective.  As with the view from above, astrology helps with distancing more generally.  The fourth technique is taking the long view– the present is not permanent; it will change, all things change through vast cosmic cycles; don’t over-value the here and now.  So astrology is a kind of applies Stoicism.  This is not Newspaper Astrology.  It can be useful, and naturalists can use it, but we need to remember that the stars are just being used as tools in a process which aims at greater self-awareness.

Another naturalistic thesis states that astrology is a decision algorithm.  It is a highly rational response to the problem of choice overload, especially in social contexts.  It can serve as an arbitrary convention for solving otherwise intractable decision-theoretic or game-theoretic problems.  This thesis explains the persistent popularity of astrology.  It has the benefit of not looking down on humanity as irrational.  It has the added benefit of not treating women unfairly.  Plus, this theory is naturalistic.

People today are faced with enormous numbers of options.  We do not live the pragmatically narrow lives of Medieval farmers.  Advanced technological societies provide their members with enormous systems of choice.  Our decision trees are very dense.  Each node has enormously many divergent branches.  And the rapidity of modern technological life means that many more choices need to be made in any unit of time.   This leads to choice overload (overchoice). Choice overload causes anxiety and paralysis.  This is in part because the decision problems become quickly computationally intractable. Furthermore, since they involve other social agents, they are not merely decision theoretic: they are problems in game theory. We live in extremely complex social situations in which small mistakes may have large consequences.   Too much choice is simply computationally overwhelming.

Faced with choice overload, a rational actor requires some decision algorithm.  This algorithm needs to have several desirable features – it needs several desiderata. It should resolve the choices into a manageable set.  It should reduce the choice space somewhat but not too much.  It should be finely tuned for an appropriate level of vagueness (not too precise, not too ambiguous).  Thus it should provide, not precise rules, but flexible rules of thumb.  It should be able to serve as a social convention. It should have a basis that everybody can agree on.  It should have a high level of arbitrariness.  It should provide different persons with different rules of thumb.

Astrology satisfies all these desiderata.  People don’t use astrology for simple-minded fortune-telling.  Newspaper Astrology isn’t just false, it isn’t astrology.  Astrology is used to provide people with pragmatic rules of thumb for daily personal choices.  These choices often involve other people and are therefore social.

Astrology is based on universally recognizable facts.  We all live under the same sky with the same stars and planets.  We can, in fact, use science to tell us with great objectivity where they are.  So we can agree on the basic facts.  This is less so for other decision algorithms, such as tarot cards, the I Ching, or Eno’s oblique strategies.

Astrology is naturalistic.  It is not based on alleged facts about unobservable gods or spirits.  It is based on observable facts about things in the natural world.  Hence it implicitly recognizes the authority of science. It avoids the need to appeal to priestly authorities.  It is empirically universal and therefore democratic.

Astrology is an arbitrary social convention. Arbitrariness makes it fair; it is indeed essentially random.  This is a useful feature, not a bug.  However, it’s randomness is concealed rather than naked.  It’s not like rolling a die.  The randomness in astrology applies equally to everybody. The stars have no favorites. Hence, when it comes to resolving conflicts, the stars can participate as neutral third-parties.  Astrology is partly based on facts over which the individual has no control: hence it enables individuals to relinquish control.  This is useful for solving overchoice.  People with overchoice lose the ability to use their own native decision algorithms.  So they hand control over to an external conventional algorithm.

Astrology is based on things that have socially recognizable power.  The sun really does have power over night and day, over sleep and wakefulness.  It has power over the weather, over our crops, over all aspects of life.  The moon at least has power over the tides.  We can all agree to cede a certain amount of power to the stars.  This enables people to use astrology to make socially acceptable excuses.   Astrology provides people with reasons for their behaviors.  It provides an explanatory system in a trackless wilderness otherwise lacking explanations.  And astrology has a mathematical side.  You can make apps for it.  We do cede much control to apps.  This makes it useful as a social convention.  It is already socially acceptable to cede control to computers.

People need decision algorithms, and astrology provides one.  The persistent popularity of astrology is evidence that astrology provides a highly useful and pragmatically successful decision algorithm.  In evolutionary terms, the astrological algorithm is extremely fit.  Skeptical arguments will not dissuade people from using astrology.  Debunkers show spectacular blindness to social-pragmatics; since humans are finely-tuned to social-pragmatic issues, this blindness is immediately apparent.  Debunkers therefore appear as dogmatists rather than scientists.

Naturalists cannot use Newspaper Astrology – it’s false.  But we can use astrology as applies Stoicism, and as a decision algorithm to resolve overchoice. Now the question becomes: are there any better ways to apply Stoic ideas?  Are there any better decision algorithms?  Maybe there are.  If skeptics want people to be more rational, they should work on providing better decision algorithms.  Maybe random number generators would work as well as astrology.  The I Ching often involves generating random numbers.   And perhaps Tarot cards are better ways to apply Stoicism. So the question is this: how can naturalists (who don’t believe in fortune-telling) use traditional divination tools in naturalistic ways?  And how can we develop better tools for self-awareness?


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2 thoughts on “Can Naturalists Use Astrology?”

  1. As the editor for SNS articles, I was a little hesitant to publish an article on astrology. While Eric may find value in astrology, it should be noted that the Spiritual Naturalist Society does not incorporate it in any way.

    The author does make an important point about astrology – that it has been of interest to people for a very long time. The mythologist William Irwin Thompson even makes the claim that their are references to astrology in cave paintings dating back 40,000 years.

    The zodiac, in one form or another, is found in all civilizations. People had discovered quite early on that in the yearly progression of the constellations and the movement of the planets through the constellations, there was a simple regularity and predictability. One could argue that the systematic observation and recording of the movements of the constellations and planets is the beginning of natural science and also stimulated mathematics.

    In Western thought, codified in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, the world became divided between the timeless realm of the heavens and the time driven realm of earth. The zodiac was a symbol of this timeless realm. Nearly a thousand years after the first Greek philosophers, we still find this idea providing inspiration to the last of the ancient philosophers, Boethius.

    The idea of a timeless realm penetrated Western Civilization in many ways. Naturalism, on the whole, has attempted to show the fallacy of this notion, but the scientific idea of timeless natural laws is still widely held, though is currently being challenged by cosmologist such as Lee Smolin.

    All this is to say that while what Eric calls newspaper astrology is rightly scoffed at, the ancient ideas of astrology have had a huge, and on the whole probably beneficial, impact on the development of civilization.

    I also want to emphasize that the SNS does not endorse the use of “decision algorithms,” but if people find these valuable, fine. When I was young, I used the “I Ching” on several occasions to help me with decisions. I was always impressed with how pertinent the comments of the book turned out to be.

    A few years ago I spent some time trying to figure out why the I Ching seems to work. I think there are three principles at work. One, we often know more than we are immediately aware of about what we should do. By getting us to stop our normal activities and enter a meditative state of mind, we allow some of this awareness to rise from our subconscious into our conscious mind. Second, the images that the form the interpretation of the hexagrams also have a way of stimulating our subconscious. Third, the interpretations often contain little wisdom sayings, such as “persistence in a righteous course brings reward.”

    In the right frame of mind, this statement is really asking of us “how much persistence are you really willing to give to this course of action.” Depth of commitment is often an essential ingredient in a successful undertaking. At least once in using the I Ching, this line helped me to realize that I was not as deeply committed to the outcome as I superficially thought I was. This knowledge helped me to make a better decisions.

    So I think there is something to be said for “decision algorithms,” but again, I want to make it clear that such methods are not endorsed by SNS.


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