On Astrology

Posted on January 12, 2012

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An old post of mine – from the middle of 2007 – has recently been replied to by someone who takes their astrology very seriously. Anthony Louis, who has published books on astrology and tarot, runs quite an active blog on the topics. His somewhat curious response is quite short so I’ll quote it in full before analysing it:

I recently came across a blog by Konrad Talmont-Kaminski, a university lecturer in Poland, in which he discusses the nature of superstition.  As a psychiatrist with a keen interest in astrology and tarot, I am fascinated by this topic, especially because most scientists, without ever having investigated the subject, dismiss divination as “mere superstition” on the basis of their scientific belief system.

In his blog, Talmont-Kaminski begins with a definition from the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology which defines “superstition” as “any notion or belief held in the absence of what one not holding that notion or belief would consider to be adequate evidence to substantiate or support it sufficiently to maintain such belief.”   This is a curiously circular definition.   It would imply, for example, that the scientific belief that astrology is without merit is a superstition held by the scientific community because astrologers, who do not hold that notion, have sufficient evidence from their work with charts to substantiate an different view.

Take another example.  A fundamentalist Christian who believes that the Bible is the literal word of God will believe that dinosaurs never existed and will feel that belief in a Jurassic period is a scientific superstition.  Scientists will believe that any belief based on religion is superstition because there is no scientific evidence to support such beliefs.

If I hold a belief that you disagree with and you feel there is insufficient evidence to support it, then by definition you can call me superstitious.  But if I disagree with you for the same reasons, then by definition I can regard you as superstitious.   In the end, the word “superstitious” becomes simply a means of name-calling and disparaging those who have a different world view.  The Inquisition executed those who did not share the orthodox view of the Church.  The liberal use of the ambiguous word “superstitious” is evidence of similar intolerance.

Because of the way Louis has phrased things it is not clear to what degree he is aiming his comments at the definition, at my stated views or at the views of scientists in general. Certainly, he gives no indication that he has read anything else from my blog. Indeed, he gives no indication that he understands that my original post is a criticism of the dictionary definition he quotes out of my post. So, I would agree that it is problematic that the notion of superstition is relativised to each person’s individual standards of evidence. Such a definition might work well in a normal dictionary but not in a scientific dictionary. Having said that, the definition is clearly not circular. He has simply used the wrong term there.

However, Louis goes beyond the bad definition to reach all sorts of conclusions that are far from valid. In particular, he seems to assume that the definition is the latest and best word on superstition. How else to understand his apparent conclusion that the term must be purely derogatory? It is almost as if none of the work done over the last century to provide a scientific understanding of supernatural beliefs and practices existed. It is possible to argue, of course, that the term ‘superstition’ is too value-laden to make it appropriate to use in a scientific context. That is a view that has some merit and, indeed, I have largely moved to referring to magical practices, rather than superstitions. But a bad definition in no way settles that issue. One could just as well define astrology as a simple superstition and claim to have proved something. Logic does not work that way.

Louis’ less than lucid thinking is garnished with the kind of “namecalling” he protests against when it is aimed at him. How else to understand the trite comparison between calling something a superstition and the execution of heretics. If Louis finds himself threatened with immolation for reading tarot cards, I will agree with him. Until then, I will think it failure of morality and imagination to compare the use of a derogatory term with the horrors of the Inquisition. The ideal of the Enlightenment, which was in part a reaction against these kinds of horrors, was to allow people to disagree and criticise each other without resorting to force. The flip side of that is that calling someone’s beliefs irrational is an essential part of rational discourse.

Having said all that, I do not actually think astrology is a simple superstition. There is nothing simple about it. I would compare the difference between it and superstitions to the difference between theology and popular religion. As Robert McCauley explains, theology is the attempt to render coherent a set of culturally stabilised and cognitively attractive beliefs about supernatural entities that in their original form are nothing but coherent. Similarly, astrology is the attempt to render coherent a set of such beliefs about using astronomical objects to divine claims that concern particular humans. Of course, the old computer science principle of GIGO applies (it is a wonderful coincidence that the second G is sometimes taken to stand for ‘gospel’). Neither theology nor astrology would exist were it not for the cognitively attractive folk beliefs and practices that provide their respective justifications. What is more, the pronouncements of theology and astrology have no more basis in reality than those folk beliefs. Kind of like folk intuitions and traditional philosophy.

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