ISAR logo
 

Joe Landwehr - The Case for Evolving a Non-Scientific Astrological Research Methodology

The very concept of research implies a scientific approach to the study of what is being researched. Since the 18th century, scientific validation has become the gold standard by which any discipline proves its worth, and many in the astrological community have long sought validation through application of scientific methodology to astrological phenomena. Indeed, ISAR has devoted itself to this pursuit. But the scientific model is in many ways an inappropriate measure of astrological validity, and its tools often inadequate in helping us to fine-tune the art of interpretation. In this article, I want to briefly outline a few key reasons why I believe the scientific model for research is inappropriate, and by implication, point toward an alternative path for the cultivation of astrological knowledge.

While most historians associate the scientific revolution with the development of empiricism in the 17th century, it actually represents the culmination of a 2300 year process of intellectual mutation. The process began in 585 BCE, when Greek philosopher Thales predicted an eclipse through application of a purely mathematical formula. Prior to that time, eclipse prediction was the sole province of astrologerpriests, who invariably embellished their mathematical calculations with pronouncements about their symbolic implications. Thales and his colleagues, the rational cosmologists, sought to divorce the art of prediction from metaphysical speculation, and any consideration of symbolic meaning whatsoever. Eclipses and other celestial phenomena were not meaningful events; they were purely physical occurrences that could be explained rationally, without referring to gods and goddesses, resorting to astrological interpretations, or seeking to understand the symbolic implications of such events for human beings.

What later empiricists brought to this sensibility was the requirement that sufficient data be gathered before rational conclusions were reached. But since Thales, the prevailing trend that would eventually evolve into science became to assess celestial phenomena from a strictly rational perspective. This essentially ensured that the use of the projective imagination would no longer be intellectually acceptable as a way of knowing or processing raw data. It also meant that the use of intuition, while perhaps useful in guiding the direction of research, would have to be validated by rigorous reconstruction of a linear, logical bridge, based on rational analysis of accumulated evidence.

Meanwhile, astrology necessarily champions the use of the projective imagination and the intuition in order to penetrate the symbolism it studies. Indeed, we may wish to build a platform of empirical experience to more skillfully make our intuitive leaps, the actual practice of astrology is not possible without the freedom to make them. I think most astrologers would agree that the study of astrology cultivates intuition, and that the best readings are those marked by intuitive flow. To the extent that the scientific model requires we trade the flexibility of our imaginative, intuitive minds for a purely rational interpretation of symbolism, then this becomes the first indication that the scientific model may be an inappropriate platform for astrological research.

Reason is also inadequate as a mechanism for processing astrological information because it is necessarily analytical and reductive. Scientific research seeks to isolate the variables in a given situation, and then artificially measure what happens when one of those variables changes while the others are held constant. The birth chart, by contrast, is a picture of multiple variables functioning together synergistically as a whole. It is a language of context and cannot be dissected in the way that science requires. This is borne out by experiments attempting to understand the commonality of those with specific Sun signs or other planetary placements. Such experiments invariably find few statistically valid features attributable to a given placement, because those placements mean nothing taken out of context.

The same frustration is also universally experienced by students of astrology, who attempt to approach the interpretation of planetary placements with a simple laundry list of keywords and concepts. The planet, Mars, for example, can be understood to embody a certain symbolic nexus of psychic functions – skill at pursuing a given agenda with confidence and competence, the ability to take a stand for what one believes the active pursuit of desires, etc. But Mars in Pisces or the 12th house, or a Mars that is square Neptune will often not function like Mars at all, and certainly quite differently than a Mars in Aries or the 1st house, or a Mars conjunct Pluto. Mars square Neptune but also conjunct Venus will function very differently than Mars square Neptune but also conjunct Saturn. A Mars that sits at the apex of a t-square with Neptune and Jupiter will function differently than a Mars in a grand water trine with Neptune and Jupiter. In order to understand what role Mars plays in a given birth chart, one must take its contextual relationship to the whole birth chart into account. This art – a way of thinking in stark contrast to rational analysis – is called synthesis. In scientific terms, the art of synthesis requires one to consider the synergistic interaction of all variables simultaneously – an approach to the processing of information that contradicts the analytical methodology of scientific empiricism.

Science concerns itself not with the why of our existence, but rather the mechanical what and how.

Furthermore, the fact that astrology is a language of context means that before a birth chart can be interpreted at all, one must know what it represents. The same chart that describes the birth of a human being can also describe an organization, a nation, an animal, or an event. In each case, the astrologer must interpret the symbolism within a different context. One would look rather silly discussing the financial implications of the 2nd house, when the chart in question was that of a hippopotamus born at the local zoo.

Even two human beings possessing the same chart would not necessarily live the chart in exactly the same way. This is necessarily so, because the chart is only a map of the territory, and not the territory itself. The chart describes various patterns, which will play themselves out in various ways – as life circumstances, issues and challenges that must be faced, pressure toward change, and opportunities for growth. Some would argue that the chart also describes a tendency to respond to these patterns in a characteristic way. What the chart does not describe, however, are the choices the native will make at each juncture through which the chart unfolds in time. Because this is so, each chart must be interpreted within the context of the life story of the native – a fact that is self-evident to any astrologer who attempts to do a reading without any input from the client.

Because anything astrological must be interpreted within a unique context that transcends the symbolism itself, astrology is essentially an anecdotal art with a strong subjective component. Science, on the other hand, professes a profound mistrust of anecdotal information, insisting instead that truth be a summation of collective truth, rendered objectively. Where pure objectivity is not possible, as in any so-called soft science involving human behavior, science must then resorts to an assessment of probability through statistical analysis. Within this system, probability increases as the percentage of individual cases in which something occurs rises significantly above what might be expected by chance. The individual cases are not of interest here, but the aggregate of cases used to describe a collective truth. A certain percentage of individuals who experiment with marijuana, for example, will also try heroin. A person at such-and-such an income level will exhibit a better than average probability of being interested in purchasing products x, y and z. Or as astrological information is routinely squeezed into a statistical mold, someone with Venus in Cancer will be statistically more likely than someone with Venus in Sagittarius to be a homebody, attached to small pleasures and creature comforts.

The problem with such an approach is that it doesn’t take into account either the astrological context in which any given placement must be understood, or the subjective level of consciousness at which such potential meanings will be actualized. This is a problem in psychology, as well as astrology, since it measures individuals according to their deviation from a collective, statistical “norm,” rather than attempting to understand each individual on his or her own terms. As any practicing psychotherapist will attest, however, within the context of individual therapy, these statistical profiles and the theories that are based on them mean less than cultivating a rapport with the client, and creating an environment in which their story is heard and their individuality is honored.

“…astrology is also very much rooted in the art of empirical observation. We have not just a language of meaning, but also a methodology for observing the meaning and purpose of an individual life.”

Practicing astrologers face the same issue, but are armed with a set of tools through which the individual story can be understood within a larger framework of meaning and purpose. We can only utilize this framework effectively, however, if we attempt to understand the chart within the subjective context of an actual life. A scientific approach to astrology presupposes that the symbolism has intrinsic meaning that can be objectified and universally applied to all individuals sharing common placements. This is not an effective way to work with individual clients. How then can we suppose that a scientific attempt to objectify astrological information will lead to a more effective astrology? A second limitation of the scientific insistence on objectivity lies in the premise that what is true must be true under all circumstances and for all independent observers.

Conclusions drawn from scientific experiments are not considered valid unless replicated by others who follow set procedures and attain the same results. Science seeks to eliminate the observer as a factor affecting the outcome of an experiment, even though its own experiments have shown that the subjective mindset of the observer significantly colors what is observed.

Meanwhile, who among us would argue that the individual astrologer was not a significant factor in the outcome of an astrological reading? Scientific experiments giving the same birth chart to groups of independent astrologers invariably conclude that astrology has no validity because the interpretations – based on subjective projection and intuitive processing of the symbolism of the chart – inevitably produce a wide variety of different interpretations. Does this mean that such interpretations are invalid? No. What it does suggest is that a subjective interaction with symbolism is essential to the art of astrological interpretation. To the extent that the scientific model requires astrological symbolism to be interpreted objectively – that is to say, in the same way by all astrologers – is to force individual astrologers to ignore the unique reservoir of subjective wisdom out of which their best interpretations are likely to spring.

Because astrology is a language of context that depends upon a subjective interpretation of a set of symbols lived subjectively, it does not easily lend itself to a one-size-fitsall codification. Nor does astrological truth lend itself to statistical analysis, except as an awkward attempt to quantify what is essentially an assessment of quality. Astrological pioneer Dane Rudhyar once called astrology the “algebra of life,”(1) by which he meant that, like algebra, astrology provides a formulaic language capable of describing relationships between variables. He cautioned, however, that whereas mathematics is by nature a quantitative language, discussing only what can be measured quantitatively, astrology is instead a qualitative language, discussing living processes in qualitative terms. Scientists demand that astrology demonstrate its validity according to the quantitative language of science, never recognizing that astrology is a language in its own right, capable of providing to the qualitative realm of human process what mathematics provides to the quantitative realm of material substance.

Put another way, if mathematics is a meta-science of quantity – that is to say, an a priori language describing a set of functions and equations in which all sciences will express themselves, then astrology is potentially a meta-science of quality – or an a priori language describing a set of functions and equations in which all sciences will yield a different sort of information. Indeed, for at least a thousand years before the scientific revolution, astrology co-evolved with astronomy, interpreting quantitative facts in qualitative terms.

“Who among us would argue that the individual astrologer were not a significant factor in the outcome of an astrological reading?”

During the scientific revolution itself, however, quality was dismissed as a measure of relevance – first by Galileo, who called all those attributes that could not be quantitatively measured “secondary qualities” and then by those empiricists who came after him who acknowledged only primary qualities. As noted philosopher of science, E. A. Burtt noted, “man is hardly more than a bundle of secondary qualities” though the scientific dismissal of quality “begins to appear for the first time in the history of thought as an irrelevant spectator and insignificant effect of the great mathematical system which is the substance of reality.”(2) Instead of reclaiming our rightful turf as the language of choice in discussing qualitative truth, we have been struggling to prove astrology as a mathematical science in quantitative terms. In my opinion, this is trying to be something we are not, and consequently an effort doomed to failure and ridicule.

By a similar token, we have been struggling to prove the validity of astrology by attempting to conform to a causal model, even though a moment’s reflection should be enough to suggest that astrological truth is not predicated on cause and effect. Discussing astrology in terms of known scientific forces such as gravity and magnetism, scientists routinely point out that the causal impact of the doctor in the delivery room is greater than the measurable impact of any distant planet. Such self-evident observations invariably make astrology look foolish. Meanwhile, rare indeed is the astrologer who would claim that Jupiter actually caused anything to expand, or that the Moon was responsible for menstruation.

Most astrologers would likely argue that astrological interpretation proceeds by way of simile and metaphor – that is to say, through the observation that situations in which Jupiter or the Moon are prominent in some way reflect qualities, functions, and processes which are in some way like Jupiter or the Moon. Instead of seeking the refinement of astrology as a language of suggestive poetry, however, we proceed as though we ought to be able to identify the effects of any astrological signature in quasi-causal terms.

Under pressure to conform to the scientific paradigm, we use language which suggests that astrological factors cause the effects we observe, even when what we actually observe is the juxtaposition of qualitative reflections that echo each other in symbolic and often unexpected ways.

This is not to say that eventually a causal mechanism might not be found to explain how astrology works. Perhaps a causal mechanism for astrology can be found, for example, within the scientific theories of post-quantum thinkers like Rupert Sheldrake, who has postulated a biological mechanism called morphogenetic resonance to describe the transmission of information across barriers of time or space. Some promise for explaining the pre-eminence of astrological patterns likewise can be found in the theories of David Bohm, who speaks of an intricate order underlying manifestations of what we now call cause and effect. It is not necessarily that efforts to understand causal mechanisms are doomed to failure. But to the extent that the quest for a causal mechanism is at heart a quest for scientific validation, then I would argue that we are missing the broader opportunity to articulate astrology as an a causal language, parallel to mathematics, that is capable of revealing a vast network of meaningful interconnections within the manifest world to which causal science is utterly blind.

Science is blind to this network of meaningful interconnections, in part because it does not recognize the importance of context, subjective truth, quality, or anything other than a causal explanation for what can be observed – as discussed briefly in this article. But more fundamentally, science is also blind to what a non-scientific astrology has to offer, because science systematically denies and refuses to comment on the possibility that what it observes is meaningful or has purpose at all.

Science concerns itself not with the why of our existence, but rather the mechanical what and how – the material and efficient causes that describe the functional operation of manifest reality. Science refuses to speculate about the purpose underlying this function or even to consider the possibility that there might be some purpose. Since the 17th century it has left such speculations to theologians and philosophers who, at the other extreme tend to abandon the appealing rigor of the empirical method for faith or theory.

In my opinion, astrology occupies a rather unique position between science and religion. On one hand, our stated aim – at least within the realm of applied psychological astrology – is to help our clients gain a meaningful perspective on the meaning and purpose of their lives and of their life experiences. On the other hand, astrology is also very much a language of meaning, but also a methodology for observing the meaning and purpose of an individual life – subject to interpretation – as it unfolds in cyclical time.

Provided we are willing to conduct our observations within a subjective context, astrology can provide a framework within which life events and any life taken as a whole can be understood as the meaningful outworking of identifiable patterns. By embracing the premise that, within these patterns we observe, meaning can be found, we must abandon any hope of defining ourselves as a science. In claiming this ground, outside of the reach of science, however, we stand to gain much more than we stand to lose. For it is as an epistemology of holistic, subjective, contextual knowledge that I believe we have yet to make our greatest contribution to human culture. By evolving our own research methodology along these uniquely astrological lines, we can begin moving in this direction unburdened by the unnecessary limitations that a scientific model will impose upon us.

 

Endnotes

1 Dane Rudhyar, The Astrology of Personality: A Reinterpretation of Astrological Concepts and Ideals in Terms of Contemporary Astrology and Philosophy, New York: Doubleday, 1970, p. 18.

2 E. A. Burtt. The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1952, p. 90.

 

Joe Landwehr, an astrologer with 33 years of experience, seeks to frame our understanding of astrology within a larger philosophical dialogue. Joe currently teaches an intimate course in the fundamentals of astrology, designed to guide each individual student toward an appreciation of the ancient wisdom that dwells within, while exploring astrological symbolism through the empirical observation of everyday life. The arguments put forth in this article are spelled out in much greater depth and detail in his new book, The Seven Gates of Soul: Reclaiming the Poetry of Everyday Life (Ancient Tower Press, 2004), available on Amazon.com or directly from the publisher at ancient-tower-press.com.