Skepticism of astrology isn’t particularly smart

Humans have been thinking about the cosmos for millennia.
Humans have been thinking about the cosmos for millennia.
Image: Creative Commons/ Pixabay/ surgull01
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Two types of people are incredibly passionate about astrology: Those who love it, and those who love to hate it.

Astrology skeptics scathingly dismiss the field as false and facile, and those who buy into it as stupid. Certainly it’s easy to mock the notion that the entire universe is aligning itself to tell you what kind of romance you should seek, or whether today is a good day to start that diet. Bill Nye the Science Guy does so aptly in the video below:

But it seems rash to think that astrology, which has been practiced by humans for millennia, is complete bunk. Personally, some of my friends who enjoy astrology that are among the most intelligent people I know. Perhaps they’re seeing something that the eye-rolling skeptics have missed?

There’s one thing that both skeptics and (most) fans agree on: The science behind astrology is wrong. The month in which you’re born does not determine your personality, and the movements of planets don’t decide your personal fate. And yes, scientific studies have disproven these claims. No one I spoke to said that they looked to the planets to know what would happen to them next week. But criticizing astrology by focusing on disproven scientific claims very much misses the point. What matters is that people find meaning in the system of thought.

“Astrology has been practiced ever since civilization records began,” says Laura Andrikopoulos, a lecturer in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology at University of Wales Trinity Saint David. “Trying to understand that practice, we don’t assume it’s true or false. We’re more looking at what humans are doing and what meaning they’re getting.”

One way to think about astrology is as a tool for self-knowledge. As Leah Fessler explained in a Quartz at Work article about the (scientifically disproven) Myers-Briggs personality test, assigning people to categories encourages them to assess themselves to figure out how they fit and deviate from that type. “If you listen, you’ll hear people sharing the same kinds of knee-jerk self-reflections when asked about their zodiac sign, their Harry Potter House, or any other inventory sorting us into fixed ‘types,'” Fessler writes. “There’s a good reason people do this. None of us fits neatly into boxes, and no personality test can fully capture the complexities of our character. That doesn’t mean the assessments, even the silly ones, aren’t valuable.”

Learning, for example, about your astrological moon sign (which governs your emotions) might prompt you to reflect on your emotional tendencies, and whether you really do meet the astrological description. That reflection has a value.

Astrology’s attribution of personal characteristics to external forces also makes it easier to honestly assess one’s own qualities, both negative and positive: When the planets are credited for sins and achievements, there’s less cause for self-flagellation. Meanwhile, one friend said that, “as a woman who is way more comfortable interrogating my flaws,” astrology’s positive spin on personality traits encourages some healthy self-regard.

Astrology’s belief that individual behavioral traits are linked to the cosmos may sound silly, but similar ideas become significantly more respectable in the mouths of more well-regarded thinkers, from Plato to Jung. And while each school of thought has very different nuances, these philosophical fields do influence each other. “Astrology draws on the main philosophical current that comes down to us from Classical Greece,” says Nicholas Campion, professor in cosmology and culture at University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

Astrology’s focus on external forces encourages people to be aware of their limitations (as determined by the planets), as well as how to respond to these limitations. Campion compares this idea to Stoic philosophers’ belief that life is determined by uncontrollable factors, such as where and to whom you’re born, but that we can choose how to respond to these circumstances. Or, as the Marxist philosopher Friedrich Engels wrote, “Freedom is the appreciation of necessity.” “These paradoxes are common to many other philosophies,” says Campion. “They deal with issues of whether we can be free or not.” Whether thinking about the planets or the fates of birth, it’s useful to recognize that one’s own life course is partly determined by factors outside of our control—and even more important to recognize and have empathy with others whose paths are laid (or blocked) by circumstance.

Astrology also points to the universality of experiences. As my friend explained, it’s comforting to realize that a significant proportion of people relate to the same Zodiac profiles and so have gone through similar emotional angst.

This aspect of astrology also appealed to psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who studied zodiac signs and whose work on the “collective unconscious” shares strands of thought with astrology’s connection between the individual and the universe. “Jung made statements such as that the psyche is a microcosm of the macrocosm, which is the old medieval idea of linking psyche and cosmos,” says Andrikopoulos.

This idea, that the individual is a reflection of the wider universe, has echoed throughout philosophical thought. Plato wrote in Timaeus that individual souls are formed from residue of the universe’s soul, that each soul has a companion star and, upon death, a just soul returns to its companion star. The connection between the individual and the universal is also relevant to one of Plato’s most distinctive ideas: The Theory of Forms, which argues that a separate world contains the pure form of all concepts such as beauty and justice, and that our world contains only imperfect examples of these concepts.

Just as many revere Plato without buying into his specific ideas about stars and souls, it’s possible to find value in some aspects of astrology without subscribing to every detail.

Though many derive profound meaning from astrology, perhaps it would be better to find the same meaning from systems of thought that don’t involve false scientific ideas? In reality, it’s difficult to find any theory that doesn’t incorporate potentially false facts.

Indeed, according to contemporary neuroscience, there is no such thing as free will, the “self” is ever-changing, and consciousness may well not exist. But it’s difficult to imagine how we could live without these concepts.

Of course, there are downsides to astrology. Just as alternative medicine could lead people to make hazardous health choices, a too-literal interpretation of astrology could create a loss of agency, leaving people feeling that their lives are controlled by the whims of the planets.

There are positive and negative ways of interpreting any school of thought and, despite skeptics’ scorn, there’s also an intelligent way of relating to astrology.

Ultimately, whether the planets really shape our personality or experiences is entirely irrelevant. Astrology is a way to impose meaning on life. “I think that unless we’re capable of making meaning, we probably can’t get out of bed in the morning,” says Campion. “Making meaning is part of functioning.”