Astrology — Is the Explanation Spiritual or Material?
As I explained in my previous article, I am taking a break from writing new material on Medium, and encouraging new followers to have a look at my back catalogue. However, this break will be a good opportunity to complete a previously unfinished project, the uploading of my (unpublished) book on Astrology. There are three parts, and I’ve reached approximately midway through part 2. (For what has preceded please see this list.)
In recent chapters I have made a critique of the astrologer Michael Harding’s approach. My own understanding of astrology is based upon a spiritual worldview derived from Carl Jung’s psychology, especially his understanding of archetypes, and the science of quantum physics. Harding prefers an Existentialist understanding, essentially a non-spiritual approach, as outlined in his book Hymns to the Ancient Gods¹. The debate can therefore be seen as one version of the conflict between new-paradigm science, and the old paradigm built upon physicalism.
Chapter 15: OVERVIEW OF HARDING
My critique of Harding’s ideas is nearly over. To summarize briefly what I have said so far, I do not think his dismissal of the archetypes and synchronicity is convincing, and I find his contention that Astrology is the ultimate explanation for everything unsustainable in the light of many of the stories I have quoted in recent articles. Even when the explanation can only be astrological, as is the case with (Dennis) Elwell’s patterns, this should not be taken as confirming Harding’s ideas, for it is hard to see how Elwell’s examples could be accommodated within his theories. Elwell himself attributes them to a vast cosmic intelligence permeating the universe. Harding nowhere suggests that he thinks the planets are intelligent.
To say simply that it is in the nature of planetary movements to generate patterns in the lives of humans, and that this somehow ends the debate, seems to me merely to beg the question. What theory of the nature of matter and movement would allow for the generation of such patterns? According to the prevailing scientific view matter is the result of random sub-atomic processes, devoid of meaning. This is not consistent with matter organising itself in such a way as to create patterns in human affairs, and yet Harding offers no alternative theory of matter, scientific or otherwise, nor does he discuss the enormous gap this leaves in his theory.
I do not think that one should attempt to explain Astrology except as part of a general theory of just about everything. Even if your system cannot be proved you should state how you understand the nature of the universe and its workings, and how Astrology fits into the scheme. It seems to me that Harding falls well short of this requirement, seeking to keep his version of Astrology in a vacuum, isolated from any troublesome ideas which might invade the picture. If you believe, as he does, that Astrology is an effect of ‘celestial mechanics’, then as an absolute minimum there should be a self-consistent theory of : the nature of matter, a meaningful definition of the psyche, a description of the relationship between them, a theory of personality and its origins and, if not an explanation, at least a hypothesis about how the planets might achieve their effects. Even if we accept at face value his statement that the philosophy or the psychology do not yet exist to match the “complexity and grandeur” of the astrological viewpoint, and that his book is an “attempt to move in the direction” of creating a coherent philosophy (p4), that should not be used as an excuse to avoid the difficult questions that his speculations raise. Hiding behind a statement like, ‘Specific spiritual or metaphysical beliefs concerning the ultimate nature of any underlying principles are very much an individual concern’ (p101), is just not good enough, and only would be good enough if all his theories were obviously true without any need for any supporting evidence.
For example, according to Harding all history is a series of astrological patterns which repeat themselves cyclically over time. Where could the information necessary to generate such repetitions be stored? For me the answer is easy, in the non-material collective psyche. For Harding, however, this ‘place’ does not exist. [In fact, as I have already discussed, he believes that it was a misunderstanding of astrological symbols which led to the mistaken idea of the archetypes in the first place.] The onus is on him, therefore, to explain where and how such patterns are stored. His answer is, in the “collective zodiac”, described as the “psychic equivalent of the genetic pool”. What exactly does this mean? Clearly it means that he sees the psyche as being different from the genes and, in that it is “equivalent”, is presumably responsible for psychological inheritance. This therefore sounds very much like the Jungian collective unconscious, and also Rupert Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields, but that would be based on the assumption that by ‘psychic’ Harding means ‘non-material’, which is by no means certain. [Unfortunately, although he uses the word many times and talks at length about it, he never gives his definition of the word ‘psyche’, which can therefore lead to confusion. For example, on the same page as the above quotations, he describes the collective zodiac as ‘a timeless, unconscious pool that contains the fundamental matrix of all our genetic and psychic strivings’ (p106). So here it is no longer a psychic equivalent of the genetic, rather somewhere that is neither specifically genetic nor psychic, but somehow capable of including them both.] Elsewhere he is impressed by Freud, one of his heroes, insisting that archaic memories are transmitted through the genes. He is in fact so impressed that he makes the point three times on the same page (p49). If something psychic can be transmitted through the genes, it is not clear why we need a psychic equivalent of the genetic pool at all, a point which would seem to be further reinforced by the following statements:
‘(The) planets have specific meanings. These meanings are quite independent of us and would exist just as strongly if the whole human race were to vanish overnight…’ (p6). [My italics. In the original “specific” and “independent” were stressed. I have removed his italics in order to emphasize my point.] ‘Astrological symbols may exist within the unconscious but they are not confined to it, nor do they originate there. The symbols and energies of astrology are not contained within the psyche, but in some way permeate it as they permeate everything’ (p28).
Since he says that the symbols do not originate in the psyche, that they exist independent of humans, and denies the existence of any ‘above’ moulding a ‘below’, he can only be saying that astrological symbols and their meaning are a hidden aspect of the nature of matter, as he explains, that they are stored in the planets. [He also believes that the whole history of life on the planet (all events, thoughts and emotions that have ever occurred) are somehow stored and transmitted through the genes. Since this process happens whether or not humans exist, he seems to be saying that the history of the universe is recorded and transferred in the genes of the planets! Do planets have genes? I cannot believe that he really thinks that, so I will just assume that he has allowed himself to appear to say that because of the contradictions in the rest of his thinking.]
Harding complains that Jung’s theories have not been universally substantiated, so that it would be risky to build Astrology upon their foundations (pp21–22). He should perhaps consider taking his own advice, since he seems willing to base his whole approach on ideas for which, as far as I am aware, there is no evidence, scientific or otherwise. There is not even any tentative attempt to propose a theory to explain how astrological meaning might be generated by the planets (i.e. in his view inanimate matter) and their geometrical arrangements.
Other ideas which seem equally bizarre to me in an existentialist, physicalist theory of matter are the following: the instincts of the planets, and the “instinct” of the cosmos (p100), an astrological symbol as a pure energy, expressing a coherent inner purpose (pp135–6), the ability of the planets to trigger the residue of archaic events (pp137–8), the process of imprinting on the Primal Zodiac and planetary memory (p207), and number as an integral part of the zodiac (p208). Harding offers no suggestions of his own to explain how these hypotheses might work; he makes these statements and then studiously avoids discussing the philosophical questions they raise.
Not only does he avoid discussing the implications of his own theories, he also avoids mentioning ideas which create serious problems for them. I am thinking specifically of quantum physics. Harding makes occasional reference to the latest developments — his description of the psyche as encountered in analysis (pp16–17), for example, is reminiscent of quantum language, and later he notes that one of his statements ‘would certainly parallel some of the ideas currently being expressed in modern physics’ (p325). He is therefore aware of what is going on, yet fails to discuss the serious challenge posed to his ideas. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with the theories of modern science, but if that is the case you should say so and say why, not sweep the whole issue under the carpet by pretending that modern science does not exist.
In order to compare Harding’s position with that of quantum physics, I shall make reference exclusively to one book, Spacetime and Beyond, by Bob Toben and Fred Alan Wolf², which contains in one volume all the quantum viewpoints needed to challenge Harding’s views. I have identified five areas where the differences could hardly be more extreme:
1) Harding says: “From a phenomenological point of view, neo-Platonism makes an erroneous division between a world of pure ‘ideas’ and the humdrum reality of the world in which we all live. Indeed, all theories which postulate an ‘above’ which moulds a ‘below’ risk continuing what many would see as a specious dichotomy” (p78). Yet that is exactly how quantum physics reveals the world to be:
a) Matter is not solid:
“Atoms are formed by interactions between vibrational patterns. The atoms interact to form molecules, which interact and which we detect as our physical ‘bodies’ ” (Wolf/Toben p53).
“ ‘Matter’ may be nothing but gravitationally trapped light (energy). The chair is not ‘solid’, it is a fantastic interplay of vibrating, spinning rings of light in the turbulent sea of space” (p46).
b) Even more important is the non-continuity of matter. This idea has already been discussed at greater length in chapter 6. The basic point is that the particles which underlie matter come into being and are annihilated on an incredibly short time-scale.
It is therefore extraordinary that matter appears solid and stable. The, to me, inescapable conclusion is that every physical object is an idea sustained in being by hidden organising principles beyond the universe of space-time, which I would choose to call the archetypal realm. I refer once more to a quote I have used above: “Mathematicians can describe the limits of space-time, but they can’t describe what is beyond, they only know there is a beyond…. We only know that there is something other than space-time but we don’t know what it is, because beyond space-time is nonphysical, unmeasurable” (ibid. p55). Also, F. David Peat says: “The processes of matter and the activity of information are two sides of the one reality… They are not simply fields of habitual response but are closer to some form of intelligence that wells up from an underlying creative source”³.
Harding treats matter as the primary reality. He is obviously entitled to this opinion, which is really just an assumption based upon appearances. I would merely like to point out that, unlike Harding, the quantum physicists have actually spent their lives studying the nature of matter. We should perhaps take their statements somewhat more seriously.
2) Harding says that astrological meanings “would exist just as strongly if the whole human race were to vanish overnight” (p6). Compare this with the quantum viewpoint:
“The physical universe does not exist independent of the thought of the participators. What we call reality is constructed by the mind” (Wolf/Toben p16). The thinking behind this statement is reformulated on pp36–37, and described in greater detail on pp126–8. I would like to draw your attention in particular to these two statements: “Our thoughts about the world and the way the world appears are fundamentally related” (p126), and “you cannot even observe anything without changing the object and even yourself” (p36). As is stressed in every survey of quantum physics, the idea of objective observers has been replaced by that of participators, an insight which has profound implications for scientific experimentation, although Harding chooses to distance himself from it. He refers to a series of experiments which “demonstrate a very clear astrological effect on the precipitation rate of various metals, which cannot realistically be thought of as having an unconscious to work meaningfulness for them in the world”. He concludes “there is no energy moving from unconscious to conscious, no human participation…” (p38). From a quantum physics perspective this last statement is somewhat naïve; the actual material existence of the planets and the metals is energy moving from unconscious to conscious, and to say that there is no human participation in an experiment conceived, performed, observed, recorded, and assessed by humans is to try to return to the nineteenth-century concept — dare I say illusion — of an objective observer.
3) According to quantum theory, as discussed earlier: “All things are interconnected… Every part is directly connected to every other part through the wormholes of space. At this level of quantum gravity, there is no time or distance separating parts”. However, the “connections cannot be perceived in ordinary states of consciousness” (Wolf/Toben pp33–35). One consequence of this is the fact of non-locality, the instantaneous transfer of information⁴. Harding, however, chooses to retain a philosophy based on separateness. He ignores not only these findings of quantum physics, believing that the planets affect us from the distance at which they appear, but also, even more bizarrely, ignores Einstein’s theory of relativity, preferring to live in a Newtonian universe, oblivious of the whole of twentieth century physics: “It appears as if birth tends to be triggered when the key ‘character-trait’ planet reaches 10 degrees above the horizon, whether this planet is the moon, Mars, Jupiter or Saturn. But this cannot be described as a synchronistic event because we are not recording the actual moment when the planet climbed above the horizon but the moment when its light was visible at that point. As the light from Saturn can take up to 1 hour and 20 minutes to get to Earth, the ‘real’ Saturn would have aligned with the horizon 1 hour and 20 minutes earlier. That would have been the moment when the event actually took place” (p35, his italics).
To most if not all scientists’ satisfaction, Einstein completely dispensed with the idea of an objective, ‘real’ event; everything depends upon the position and motion of the observer⁵. Harding is making an extraordinarily paradoxical claim here. On the one hand he is saying that there can be a ‘real’ event taking place out in the solar system simultaneously with a moment of earth-time, thus suggesting his own version of non-locality or time-distortion in that the event’s real meaning occurs even before its effect has arrived on earth, while at the same time denying that such simultaneity is taking place because its effect takes at least 1 hour and 20 minutes to arrive, more if it were to travel slower than the speed of light. The implication of what he is saying is that on every astrological chart drawn up, adjustments would have to be made for each planet to allow for the length of time that it took the light to arrive. This is simply not the case. The World Ephemeris for the 20th Century, for example, describes in detail the workings of astrological calculations; it makes no mention of any such adjustment, nor am I aware of any astrologer who makes them.
Astrology takes place in the human mind. I would suggest therefore, I believe in accordance with Einstein, that the event is the effect as perceived by the observer, not its transmission. Cordelia Mansall says: “The birth chart is the view of the heavens as they appear to be to us on Earth”⁶ (her italics), thus not referring to some hypothetical objective reality. Dane Rudhyar says: “In astrology everything consequently is referred to the point, in time and space, of the observer, or of the native. A birth-chart is the universe seen from the point, in time and space, of the birth-event… The fact of birth, its position in space and its moment in time, creates a universe around itself. Every factor of interpretation revolves around this birth-fact”⁷.
According to this hypothesis, if all the stars had blown up in simultaneous supernova explosions, and all the outer planets mysteriously disappeared, it would still be possible to draw up meaningful charts for children born until the light arrived, even though, according to Harding, the “real” heavenly bodies and the effects they are transmitting would no longer exist. He thus creates a further problem for himself in that every astrological statement he makes must be provisional and open to doubt, in that he can never be sure whether the “real” bodies are still out there in the positions that they seem to be several hours/years later.
4) Harding says that “the Platonic concept of Ideas would seem to distance us from the central nature of our being…” (p82), and that: “The more we address the idea of Self in relation to what we perceive of the birth chart, the more we are forced to recognize that the Self may not be one particular ‘thing’, and instead be more of a state of perception which is by no means as fixed a substance as either Platonic Forms or Christian souls might suggest.
“It may be important to recognize that in accepting the idea that there is an unchanging ‘True Self’, which seems to exist at least partially outside of the centre of our experience, we not only ignore the very real paradox such a situation presents (if the True Self is somewhere else, then what are we doing here?), we also see how the concept of form and archetype may contribute to creating a very considerable dualistic illusion; an illusion which astrology itself could actually dispel” (p87).
As if trying to disprove Plato’s belief in the ‘immortal soul’ he says: “Yet what we claim as being ‘ourself’ often shifts dramatically during the course of life…. In other words, it is something capable of being constantly re-drawn in the light of sensation, rather than as a fixed, unchanging entity”.
To think that the fluctuations of the temporary personality disproves the immortality of the soul reveals at best a total misunderstanding of both concepts. What is more important here, however, is the contrast with the quantum-physics viewpoint:
“What we perceive as ourselves is only the localized projection of the totality of our true selves” (Wolf/Toben, the title-page).
“The real ‘I’ is beyond space-time” (ibid. p108).
“You cannot be aware of what is beyond space-time but you can walk in this dream in contact with the higher consciousness that is the real you”⁸.
5) Quantum physicists seem to have no problem with the concept of synchronicity. For example, F. David Peat positively embraces it [as footnote 3]. This is what Toben and Wolf have to say:
“ ‘Unexplainable’, ‘psychic’, ‘parapsychological’ phenomena bombard our universe… The ‘unexplainable’ events described herein defy classical physics but are within the realm of understanding of the new physics. At the ‘ordinary’ level of consciousness, these events cannot be willed and are usually spontaneous and unpredictable” (pp65–66). Jungian synchronistic events would clearly fit into this category. When attempting to come to terms with them, “there is no such thing as time’s direction at the quantum-level. All events exist concurrently… bridges in the quantum-foam can connect any event with any other event. Thought is faster than light” (p72). For Harding to say that Astrology cannot be explained by synchronicity because of the time-lapses involved would therefore, according to this view, be somewhat missing the point. From within our four-dimensional universe we see synchronicity as a miraculous concurrence of seemingly unrelated events. If they originate from beyond spacetime, however, they are by definition not restricted by space and time. At the level of reality where synchronistic events originate, time as we perceive it does not exist. These events could not happen other than simultaneously, because that is all there is. Thus it is reasonable to say, to use the scientific language, that quantum physics predicts synchronicity. Causality clearly depends upon time. If time is an illusion and everything is simultaneous, by definition all events are acausal and Harding’s idea that Astrology is a “known causal system” must be wrong.
Harding must know that his theories about Astrology are in total conflict with the most significant developments of twentieth-century science. Yet he doesn’t mention this once, preferring to carry on arguing his case as if relativity theory and quantum physics did not exist. If he has reservations about them or can disprove them, he should come out and say so. He has the problem that he is seeking to provide an explanation for Astrology consistent with the phenomenological standpoint of reducing everything to the human. Quantum physics could provide him with a great opportunity in that, bizarre though its findings are, it does explain the workings of the physical universe — it is science. Unfortunately for him, he can neither acknowledge nor accept the findings because they lead to the very conclusion that he has decided in advance is false, that there is an Above shaping this Below (Plato). As long ago as 1930 Sir James Jeans wrote a survey of quantum physics, still in its infancy, called The Mysterious Universe⁹. Even then¹⁰ he could clearly see the implications, in that he chose as his epigram the famous passage from Plato’s Republic in which human life is compared to prisoners in a cave, unable to see the true light¹¹, and made several other references to Plato later in the text. He believed that “the outstanding achievement of twentieth-century physics (over and above the theories of relativity, quanta and quantum mechanics) is the general recognition that we are not yet in contact with ultimate reality”, immediately referring again to the same passage from Plato¹². In these terms we would have to say that Harding has been seduced by the illusion of the shadows on the wall.
On that theme compare Gary Zukav: “…ossified structures of perception are the prisons in which we unknowingly become prisoners”¹³, and Arthur Koestler: “The limitations of our biological equipment may condemn us to the role of Peeping Toms at the keyhole of eternity. But at least let us take the stuffing out of the keyhole, which blocks even our limited view”¹⁴.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, and politics. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my lists.
- Penguin, 1992
2. Bantam, originally1975, my copy 1982
3. Synchronicity, Bantam, 1987, p167
4. In quantum physics, this was demonstrated by Bell’s theorem
5. Coincidences: Chance or Fate?, Ken Anderson, Blandford, originally 1991, my edition 1995
6. Discover Astrology, Aquarian Press, 1991, p21
7. The Astrology of Personality, Servire/Wassenaar, originally 1936, my copy 1963, p177
8. The Coincidence File, Ken Anderson, Blandford, 1999, p119
9. Cambridge University Press, originally 1930, my copy 1947
10. The edition to which I have access is the 1947, by which time three lots of corrections have been incorporated. I believe that they are relevant only to scientific detail, however, and that what I discuss here was said in the earlier editions, thus 1930.
11. part 7, no7. In the 1974 Penguin edition this passage can be found on p316.
12. as footnote 9, p111
13. The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Fontana, 1980, p219
14. The Roots of Coincidence, Picador, 1972, p140