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This article was first published in Réalta, vol.3 no.3 in August 1996. It is the transcription of a talk I gave at the Irish Astrological Association conference held in May of that year. The article is spread over three pages

This is Part 3 of a three-part article.      Go to Part 1      Go to Part 2

Astrology & Science - a relationship in transition

Part 3

Clockwork astrology
In the meantime though it maybe instructive to look at how astrologers manifested, and perhaps continue to manifest the influence of the clockwork paradigm in astrology as practiced for the last 300 years. l'm mentioning this because it is unlikely that such a powerful paradigm passed astrologers by. When astrologers talk about occult rays emanating from the planets, how different is this from the occult and invisible force of planetary gravity causally influencing goings-on down here? When we use the words 'planetary influence', 'planetary energies', and so on - and it's a rare astrologer who doesn't, does this not betray the presence of mechanistic and clockwork thinking?

And what are we to make of these quotes from Jeff Mayo's recent book Astrology - a Key to Personality:

"In a sense, every living thing is a time mechanism"
"It would be natural for an astrologer to believe that we must be 'constructed out of time' "

Are astrologers assuming that the universe runs in a predictable clockwork manner? What do we believe we can predict? Are our myriad failures at prediction symptomatic of bad practice (i.e. let's blame the astrologer), or are they consistent with what one might expect when we attempt to be specific in areas where success is not that likely? And what is the role of intuitive or educated guess work in such successes? Are there any constraining limits in relation to astrological prediction? Is there an astrological uncertainty principle?

When all our current understanding of the natural world points to the overwhelming presence of the specifically unpredictable, why do we ignore this? Is it because astrology is not constrained by the limitations reality presents in the rest of our subjective experience? In other words, is astrology supernatural? Or do we hang on to the belief in specific predictability for the same reason as everyone else - because it promises greater security and less existential anxiety? And why don't we ever discuss these issues?

The point I'm trying to make here is that astrology, just like science, is not something absolute, nor is it separate from the field of general understanding through which it emerges. The very fact that astrology has been excluded for so long from mainstream thinking influences how it has evolved. Apart from the insecurity and closet mentality which astrology's recent history has given rise to, it is natural that there has evolved a reaction against oppressive rationalism. A consequence of this is that no one seems to feel the need to engage with reason, but instead it is relegated to the level of the inferior function, to quote a Jungianism.

To engage with reason does not mean becoming a rationalist. We don't all have to sign up for a Geoffery Dean-type '12 Step Recovery Program for Intuition Addicts and the Statistically Challenged'. It simply means thinking more about that which inspires us; what we intuit, imagine and feel to be the case, and about how we practice our craft. It means asking questions, and attempting to answer them in a reasonable way. It means contemplating theoretical considerations, and being mentally creative. Thinking promotes understanding as a complement to faith, and is a necessary ingredient in the development of wisdom. For me, a healthy astrology will be healthy precisely because it confidently and openly recognises the levels of confused understanding that pertains in the discipline, instead of pretending that we know what we're doing and that there are no internal inconsistencies.

When astrology reaches that state, when it feels more comfortable with self-scrutiny and internal critiques, then it will command greater respect especially from radical thinkers in other fields who are just as fed up with the consequences of rationalism and objectivist philosophy as we are. Useful alliances could be formed and a louder voice could be heard. And believe it or not, some of today's most subversive thinkers are operating within science. I personally believe that astrology needs to be more progressive in its outlook, and stretch itself beyond unconscious attachments to the clockwork model, and beyond languishing in the secure and fruitful harbour of psychology.

Astrological tradition and contemporary psychic filters
For this to happen there has to be an on-going questioning of the models we use. We have to look at the way we relate to our traditions. The thesis I'm describing here emphasises the need to embrace the novelty that continually emerges rom the leading edge of our cultural imagination.

This raises the sensitive topic of astrological tradition. At present, much effort is being expended in exploring, uncovering and disseminating through translation and publication the works of those on whose shoulders and legs we are precariously perched. This renaissance of interest in our roots will be of tremendous benefit, and no doubt some gems will be brought to light, polished, and put to good use But without wishing for one minute to denigrate all the hard work involved or the motivations of those carrying out the huge task, I think that it's very important to remember that we will be filtering the information and sifting for significance through our current cultural matrix or collective psychic state. We cannot recapture the psychic state of a Greek or Roman astrologer, or the sociological pressures and context within which he or she practised the craft.

In historian Tamsyn Barton's book Ancient Astrology [3] for example, she makes clear that the prestige and credibility of prominent astrologers such as Firmicus Matemus depended on their capacity for constant technical innovation. To my mind this creates a selection pressure for making things up as required, and an on-going amplification of techniques, some of which may be completely valueless, if not fraudulent. It's similar to the pressures that have led to increasing fraud within science. especially in the U S , where not only one's prestige, but one's job depends on the quantity of published work. My main concern is the possibility that the current state of confusion in astrology may lead us to seek for certainties in the past, as if they knew what they were doing. And in the past, they were not shy of voicing certainties, just like scientists today are not shy of voicing certainties.

The very least we will get from such historical researches is a greater understanding of how astrology was practised in the past, and a clearer sense of it's evolution. The question is how are we to evaluate whether ancient techniques still have a value today? In my opinion, there's no good reason to assume that our antecedents were any wiser in their practice of astrology than we are from a technical point of view.

To say this is not to be anti-tradition. For in the same way that science re-discovered concepts like heliocentricity and atoms, which were first suggested thousands of years prior to their general acceptance, the same could well be true of astrology. It's also the case that a well developed sense of connection to one's roots can be a source of sustenance and nurturing. But I would venture to suggest that there are natal and mundane astrologers operating today who are at least the equal of any who have preceded them. It is also not unreasonable to suggest that the vitality of a tradition, its resilience and ability to persist through time, depends on its ability to accomodate novelty. There's also a lot to be said for breaking the ingrained symmetries that can ossify a relationship, particularly a negative one like that between astrology and science, or between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. If the current peace process up there continues, one might soon anticipate a vibrant release of creative energy within the culture. This will come to pass because of creative dialogue between those who, although old enemies, nonetheless have much in common. The same could happen between astrology and science, who actually share quite a lot of common ground, most obviously from an historical point of view.

I don't expect that there will be too many astrologers leaping up to take on such a task - it requires a certain mindset - and I don't think that astrologers should necessarily lose sleep over the matter.

But I do feel that serious action is required to change the status quo in relation to astrology's public image, and I do think that astrology could benefit by learning a few lessons on how to make better use of the Air element. We should learn some of our opponent's tricks. We of all people can hardly expect astrology and its position in society to remain the same, given the outer planet activity which has recently come on stream. And of course, we astrologers all know about the creative potential implicit in the tensions associated with oppositions - lets tap into it!


return to Part 1       return to Part 2

References in Part 3:

3. Ancient Astrology - Tamsyn Barton. pp139-142, pub. Routledge, London 1994 back

Copyright © 1996-2005 Bill Sheeran. All Rights Reserved.