Might Astrology Be True? A Critique of Existentialist Astrology
What follows is chapter 10 of a book I wrote some time ago, the early chapters of which are available on Medium, exploring whether there might be any truth in astrology. In the first part, chapters 1 to 8, I developed a worldview derived from Jungian psychology and quantum physics, which would allow the possibility of astrology. This was summarised at the beginning of part 2 in chapter 9.
During my research I had come across a book which, although believing in astrology, was putting forward a completely different explanation, in effect arguing against everything that I had written. This article is therefore my response to that book.
This is obviously a somewhat obscure topic, possibly appealing to only a limited audience. It is, however, another variation on the ongoing argument between spirituality and materialism, which I always find interesting. You don’t have to have read the whole book up to this point, but familiarity with my ideas as summarised in chapter 9 will obviously be helpful, to understand what this author is arguing against. (For a guide to the whole book so far, with links to Medium, see near the bottom of this page of my website.)
10. EXISTENTIALIST ASTROLOGY
Since my hypothesis (as outlined in chapter 9) cannot be proved, the next best course is to consider the merits of other theories. I have suggested in earlier chapters that no definite evidence has yet been provided from a purely scientific angle in favour of Astrology, so that avenue remains an open question. (I am referring here purely to the psychological aspects. There is evidence in support of Michel Gauquelin’s cosmobiology — which of course refers to physical effects.)
Michael Harding has fortunately provided an alternative view¹, so I shall turn to a discussion of his ideas. As far as I can tell, he would disagree with everything I said in the last chapter. He does not outline his position precisely, but he comes close to describing himself as an existentialist, and also speaks favourably of the phenomenological approach — a close relative of existentialism — and Freud. He is impressed by Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Heidegger, and a certain modern philosophy of language, which seems to be his own synthesis of thinkers such as Freud, Wittgenstein, Lévi-Strauss as an example of ‘Formalist and Structuralist linguistic theory’, and perhaps some unnamed others. The purpose of his book is therefore to explain Astrology from this perspective, and in the process to reject the Jungian concepts of synchronicity and the archetypes as contributory factors. He thus places himself in direct opposition to the Platonic tradition of Western Philosophy and spiritually orientated astrologers.
What does this mean when contrasted with my position?
Existentialists are usually atheists. Harding does not use that term to describe himself, but he certainly does not see Astrology as an example of the Divine breaking through into spacetime, claiming instead that it can be explained without reference to anything beyond this universe — he is impressed by Heidegger designating “the essential nature of Being as ‘being-in-the-world’ to emphasize that there literally ‘is’ nowhere else to ‘be’ ” (p82) . He is therefore advocating Astrology without spirituality.
It would be helpful to read Harding’s book, but here is a summary of his most important ideas:
1) He is in obvious agreement with the majority of astrologers in thinking that the explanation lies in the motions of the heavenly bodies, in his words celestial mechanics.
2) He prefers the concept of synchrony to that of synchronicity, that is to say, he believes that there are hidden astrological patterns pre-dating our birth which cause events to happen together through a process of resonance: “Synchrony is the relationship between what astrologers see as the living flux of time into which we are born and whose dynamics we seem to absorb and express, and everything that has gone before. It describes the resonance which the present maintains with the past, the relationship we have with our inherited experience of time and all that has taken place within it” (p39).
3) He prefers the Freudian model of the collective unconscious to Jung’s. Freud, like Jung, saw the unconscious as a storehouse of archaic memories, and believed that we can actually experience the emotions and actions of our ancestors stored there. They differ in that Freud saw this process (and that described in 2) as being exclusively genetic. This would mean that the experiences are not symbolic but real (pp93–96).
4) This leads him to the hypothesis of a single ‘chart’ — collective zodiac — shared universally by all things, “a chart on which is imprinted every human and non-human experience, every event and every moment which in some way was brought into being”, which would be “a psychic equivalent of the genetic pool” (p106).
5) In keeping with the existentialist tradition of an absolute belief in human freedom, he is against concepts of destiny and fate. He does not believe that astrologers can help clients to make the ‘right’ choice, find the ‘true path’ (pp327–330).
The Harding approach to Astrology, it seems to me, is expressed perfectly in this quotation: “Astrology is based on precisely (his italics) this kind of cyclical repetition; of instances unfolding through the processes of time, coming into being as the key moments of their history are triggered by subsequent transits, activating their latent energy in the present… As we evolve further, so we add to the genetic store of experiences that our descendants will inherit and to which they might respond, adding another layer — or another chart — to the collective storehouse” (p96).
More details about his ideas will emerge in the following sections.
CRITIQUE OF HARDING’S POSITION
I do not suppose that it will surprise anyone if I say that I have major reservations about much of Harding’s material. However, if I were left alone with him for a hundred years arguing these points, I think it unlikely that either of us would change our views; as the famous expression goes, we would have to agree to disagree. Readers will have to make up their own minds whose position seems more acceptable, and as a contribution to that debate I offer the following response to his work, dealing firstly with some of the details before moving on to the major points.
Are Existentialism and Phenomenology ‘true’?
Harding is clearly working on the assumption that his perspective represents truth. A detailed critique of this position would require a separate book, so for the moment, although noting that his is a somewhat bold assumption, I will just accept that it is true for him, whilst pointing out that he tries to present it as more universally valid than it actually is, for example:
1) In his first chapter he says that “ideas about the unconscious will emerge from our experience (his italics) rather than a choice to adopt or adapt a particular existing model” (p10), by which he means Jungian theories. Later he describes (Heidegger’s) Phenomenology as “an approach as to how we interpret what is ‘coming in to us’, (which) argues that we should not impose pre-existing ideas upon that experience” (p81). This is of course a noble aim with which nobody could disagree. So, for Harding, Jung’s ideas were something strange that he dreamt up and were in no way derived from his experience as a psychotherapist, while Existentialism and Formalist/ Structuralist language theory do not of course count as models that the author has adopted or pre-existing ideas, because they are the ‘truth’ !
2) On page 81 phenomenology merely “offers an approach”, “Martin Heidegger argued that…” When Harding later refers back to this section, he says, “We saw in Chapter 4 that any claims to have objective knowledge of non-tangible ‘truths’ are always built on philosophically shaky ground” (p322). So what was originally no more than a philosophical position has miraculously been transformed into an objective truth, by sneakily substituting the word ‘philosophically’ for what he actually meant, which was ‘phenomenologically’ or ‘Heideggerian’.
Regarding the actual content of existentialism, and the rejection of Platonism:
Harding’s version of existentialism is revealed as a variation of materialism. As I noted above he agrees with Heidegger that there is nowhere else to be but in the world. This assertion is considered to be so self-evident that no evidence or argument is needed to back it up, despite the fact that its implication is that the spiritual experience of millions of people is a function of the material world plus the psyche (however he understands that term), therefore an illusion. Instead of evidence he offers this: “The Platonic concept of Ideas would seem to distance us from the central nature of our being, without materially adding to our inner understanding of its meaning” (p82). If something is true, it does not matter what it seems to do. What Harding is really saying is that he has an emotional reaction to Plato’s idea, in simple language he doesn’t like it. Earlier on the same page (probably summarizing Heidegger) he says, “Truth does not correspond to something else, nor does it mirror something else, nor is it a pale imitation of some external idea; it is contained within the nature and experience of Being”. Again no evidence or argument is offered; it is considered enough to assert strongly. In similar vein he opens a sentence (p95) “Freud clearly states…”, as if that proved the point being discussed, (which, as it happens, is not beyond dispute). Freud may have been an important figure, a pioneer, but an infallible source of absolute truth, I don’t think so².
And what about this? “There are, of course, those who do not completely accept all of this…” (p139), having just made an extremely contentious statement denying the existence of anything divine or miraculous, and continuing “everything ultimately reduces to the condition of the human, and to the dynamics of the language that defines it”. Why should we “accept all this?” Is it because Harding asserts it so strongly, implying that we are stupid if we don’t? There is nothing inherently wrong with emotional reactions and strong assertions, if we are clear that that is what they are. They should not be dressed up as intellectual ideas, as that is neither the basis of good philosophy nor good science. From his assured existentialist position Harding can complain about “…the manner in which Jung’s beliefs have miraculously been turned into facts, facts which are then reinforced through social observations made through the mind-set which invented them in the first place” (p57). If for Jung we read Harding and for “social observations” we read “pseudo-philosophical statements”, we would have a pretty good description of much of this book.
Is there any support for Harding’s ideas?
The position which he adopts (existentialism+Freud leading to Astrology without spirituality) is certainly unusual. I can mention in passing that Sartre, the most famous existentialist, was vehemently opposed to Freud and the concept of the unconscious, as it was incompatible with his ideas of freedom and authentic action. More importantly, Harding is opposed to most of the history of Astrology. As he explains in his introduction his own teachers, Charles Harvey and John Addey, belong to the Platonic tradition. The catalogue in which I first discovered his book said that it proposed “radical alternatives”, and he is quite happy to state that an idea of his is “the reverse of what traditional astrology suggests takes place” (p324)³.
Neither the ten books that I originally selected at random in order to learn about Astrology, nor any others that I have read since, come anywhere near to talking the same language as Harding; if the authors expressed an opinion it was always in Platonic, Jungian or mystical language, although they did sometimes refer to unnamed astrologers of a more scientific inclination. It seems therefore that Harding is out on a limb. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that; he just might be right. Instead of accepting this situation, however, he seems to be claiming more support for his position than actually exists. He uses expressions like “for the astrologer” (p28), “the way astrologers perceive the nature of our world” (p88), as if all astrologers were in agreement with his position. It seems to me that in these situations he merely means ‘I’ or ‘me’, and is using these expressions in order to give more authority to his statements. If this is not the case, it would be helpful to know who these anonymous astrologers are. I do not doubt that they exist; a few of their names together with their supporting statements would be appreciated⁴.
In similar vein he uses some other expressions, which to me seem somewhat vacuous. For example he says that “all theories which postulate an ‘above’ which moulds a ‘below’ risk continuing what many would see as a specious dichotomy”(p78). So what? How many exactly? Many others, including astrologers with whose writings I am familiar, would not. All he is really saying here is that different groups of people have different philosophies, in this case materialism versus idealism, something we all knew in the first place. He also says that “astrologers should not continue to ignore either the language or the findings of this century’s challenging philosophies” (p336). This does not mean very much; I might as well say “many modern philosophers should not continue to ignore the language or the findings of Plato, Jung, and Eastern mystics”. All this hypothetical reading would not convince anyone of anything if what they read contradicted their experience.
In the next chapter, I go into more detail about Harding’s book, and defend the Jungian concepts of archetypes and synchronicity against his criticisms. Click here.
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 these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. Hymns to the Ancient Gods, Penguin, 1992
2. Harding is probably so impressed by Freud because, as Luis Alvarado points out: “Freud’s psychology is a psychology of the body and of the instincts. Mental life happens through the interaction of ego, id, and superego” (Psychology, Astrology and Western Magic, Llewellyn, 1991, Pxviii). There is no room here for elusive concepts like soul and spirit, which fits in perfectly with Harding’s existentialist perspective.
3. Also: “This attitude contrasts starkly with the assumption of much astrology…”, and “much of current astrology appears to rest on precisely those assumptions we have been questioning” (p328).
4. In connection with this attempt to give the impression that there is more support for his ideas than there actually is, Harding sometimes refers to other authors to extract one small point to support his argument, but ignores the fact that these writers disagree with just about everything else that he says:
- On page 35 he refers to the work of Peter Roberts and his book The Message of Astrology, in that the author is also critical of the synchronistic explanation. Yet Roberts, even though he claims to be against the ‘grand metaphysical designs’ because they are ‘ultimately untestable’ (p104), puts forward a theory which includes reincarnation, the soul being prepared for physical existence, higher planes of consciousness, ideas which are presumably completely unacceptable to Harding.
- On pages 115 et seq. he refers to the work of Stanislav Grof, whose patients, under the influence of LSD, sometimes regressed to perinatal experiences which showed evidence of “startling astrological energies”. He is willing to accept and include these experiences because they suit his argument, yet he does not mention that these same patients, having relived their birth, go on to have past-incarnation memories, encounters with Suprahuman Spiritual Entities and various Deities, consciousness of the Universal Mind etc. (See Realms of the Human Unconscious, Souvenir Press, 1979, p156–7.) Harding, given his world-view, must think that such experiences border on psychotic hallucinations. Grof’s own experiences and his observations of his patients have led him to subscribe to a Jungian view of the Collective Unconscious, a belief in synchronicity and the archetypes, and a fully-fledged mystical view of the world. Furthermore he believes (see The Holotropic Mind, HarperCollins, 1993, p50) that the profound pessimism of philosophies like Existentialism is a kind of hangover of unresolved pre-birth material, specifically that of Basic Perinatal Matrix II — the claustrophic, nightmarish experience of the foetus during long, difficult births. The characteristic of this situation is a feeling of entrapment, and Grof points to the fact that Sartre used the title No Exit for one of his most famous plays, in which the three central characters are trapped in Hell, as evidence of the parallel. Grof thus suggests that such philosophical attitudes are a kind of psychological phase which needs to be worked through until one reaches “the only possible solution — spiritual opening and transcendence”. Again, these are ideas which Harding must find completely unacceptable.
(No Exit is actually an English rendering, rather than a translation of the original French Huis Clos, which actually means ‘In Camera’, a technical legal term which refers to trials which are held behind closed doors. The idea is therefore present in the French, but is not quite so strong as in ‘No Exit’.)