The Philosophy of Science and its Implications for Astrology

Psychology is in interesting times at present because it is in the process of recovering from its decades long obsession with ‘hard science’ or positivism. It has recently (in the last 10-15 years) found itself able to embrace once again at least three distinct knowledge paradigms: positivism, critical theory; and the constructivist or interpretivist paradigm. In so doing, incidentally, it is partly rejoining other social sciences such as sociology and social anthropology.

I suggest that the first and third of these are most relevant to our immediate purposes. Positivism and constructivism will nicely illustrate two different approaches to research, and two broadly different interpretations of astrology.


The Positivist View

Positivism is essentially what some call the Newtonian paradigm, or what others call a mechanical model. The nature of reality is regarded as independent of consciousness, as ‘external’, (loosely) ‘material’, and objective. Because it is “out there”, it can be studied independently of the inquirer. Thus, different observers should arrive at the same conclusions, and it contains general and immutable laws which operate independently of our ability to do anything about them – except to the extent that we study, understand, and harness them toward our own purposes. One might say that the rise of technology (interpreted in its broadest sense, i.e., in terms of tools such as many organisms utilise) is intertwined with the story of the struggle for survival. The features of predictability and control have been major hallmarks of it, right up to the present.

One could note that astrology appears to have been preoccupied with both those features throughout at least its recent history. One could also note that a fair strand of positivist thinking – quite independent of scientific enterprise – exists within occult and some mystical thinking., to wit, that there is a single, unified reality with which we can harmonise or attain peace by knowing it properly. Further, it is worth noting that relativity, quantum mechanics, and recently chaos theory shook up these ideas in various ways. Quantum mechanics introduced probability (or probability-like) notions, and chaos theory banished the idea that we can predict many outcomes with confidence, even if they are fully objective and deterministic in nature (e.g., the ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’ of many simple but nevertheless non-linear equations).


The Constructivist View

Reality is essentially subjective, and “truth” is a construction which is located within our experience (historically, culturally, experientially). Thus, there are as many realities as there are people. Whether or not there is a singular, pervasive reality of the kind postulated by positivism, there is no-one who occupies the privileged position of being able to know it anyway. (If anyone should happen to occupy such a position, they could not demonstrate it with certainty to anyone else, as it will be perceived or ‘constructed’ differently by everyone else anyway). Instead, our varying views of reality may compete, not only at individual levels, but also at wider levels such as the group. In principle, truth could exist privately (although the possibility of private experience is moot), but in any explicit sense it necessarily exists in the form of consensus between numbers of individuals.

Naturally, certain conditions are necessary for this to happen – such as their immersion or “location” within a reasonably common culture and epoch. The type of inquiry or research sanctioned within this paradigm recognises the notion that the researcher is part of the reality he or she seeks to understand – always a participant, never just an observer. Moreover, research “truth” – if such arises – is always ultimately negotiable and contestable, i.e. consensual.

It is also important to point out that positivism is reductionistic. The general and unchanging laws it postulates underly the ‘mess’ of superficial appearance, and can only be explored by carefully screening out irrelevant factors from those few that pertain to the law being investigated. Hence in psychology for example much is made of careful experimental design and the control and isolation afforded by the laboratory. A simile for this is that it is like mining for precious metal – although another that may be more fruitful is the notion that the carefully constructed experimental context also constructs the findings!

In contrast constructivism is holistic and idiographic (descriptive). Excluding 99.9% of reality is silly at best: the “meaning” of experience lies in the TOTALITY of it, not in just a few particular features. Thus, the quality of an event is not determined by just one facet of it (e.g. a single chance remark, or a single transit) as law-like or causal explanations might have it, even though we generally talk as if it does (“I was having such a good day until he said that to me”). Jung articulated this in his synchronistic notion. Unlike the positivist notion that events are produced by laws and therefore are repeatable (e.g., repeatable rocket launchings; repeatable experiments), all moments are unique and nothing repeats itself.

It is possible, but probably wrong, to characterise the two views in terms of a polarity between an external and an internal reality. As it happens, positivism can lead to a constructivist notion of sorts (e.g., relativity. Also, I know someone who reached constructivist views from behaviourism!). Even if one insists on a singular reality in principle, if one determines that it cannot however be perfectly “known” (somewhat like Plato and shadows of the forms), then reality becomes an amalgam with both positivistic (predictable, controllable) and constructivist (subjective, negotiable) features. Nevertheless, strong forms of constructivism will rightly point out that if the singular reality cannot be perfectly known, then there is no proof of its existence!

It is valid to speak of science as a social enterprise. It consists of groups of people who construct consensus truth, and (usually unwittingly) suppress other possible truths or constructions. It is paradigmatic., i.e., what seems credible and what does not is dictated historically and culturally. (Indeed, cognitive psychology provides plenty of evidence for this, in terms of ‘cognitive schema’ through which we perceive, evaluate, and interpret the world. Thus positivist and experimental science critiques itself!).

But science is also empirical. It does not merely talk about things (build theory): it also experiments, observes, and tests, to ascertain whether things are really as they are thought to be (tests theory). This is the interface within which historical breakdowns (Kuhn) occur when a mass of evidence accumulates against a theory and finally all attempts to patch it fail. Such periods are ripe opportunity for the ‘paradigm’ shift.

There is clear evidence of these paradigm shifts within the history of science. Hence, science now generally considers itself a TENTATIVE enterprise. The notion that we can ever discover the ultimate nature of reality – although it is still entertained within large parts of Physics – is essentially no longer held as self-evident. What we have instead is an unending fact-finding enterprise. Any theory, no matter how successful, may eventually be refuted.

Newton’s theory of gravitation was highly successful in terrestrial and local-space terms (the trajectory of cannon balls could be predicted, and the orbits of the planets satisfactorily computed); but it was undone by a number of subtle flaws which were anticipated by the radically different theory of Einstein which it appears is able to be successfully applied to prediction and exploration within the ‘visible’ universe.

Hence, I would also like to comment on the uncertainty for scientific knowledge when it engages with chance or probability as part of the basis of enquiry (ie., the use of statistical inference). I shall not develop on this here, but it underlines the notion of science as essentially tentative as well as empirical.

But it should also be noted that the boundaries between the paradigms are blurred. I already partly discussed that above. Positivist enquiry, as it has stretched itself from an infinitesimally small slice of space-time to an only slightly bigger slice within the last century or so, has begun to equate itself increasingly with uncertainty, and has found itself more able to accommodate the constructivist and critical critiques.

There is no “the” in front of scientific paradigm! And in particular, it has created the possibility of research that employs methods and tools that were once considered contradictory. At present, for example, I am replicating classic “reductionistic” experiments in “group polarisation” which use quantitative measures and analyses as well as experimental control, but combined with discourse analytic methods which are constructivist and holistic in their origin and practice.

So it seems appropriate at this point to mention a little of the pragmatism of William James. Parallelling the notion of all discovery as tentative, and that no final truth is possible, pragmatism is quite happy with the notion of using as many different paradigms, perspectives or theories as are fruitful. If they “work”, in whatever way one cares to interpret that (insightful and meaningful for constructivists I suppose, revealing laws for positivists), then they are worth using.

The lesson for us is that we don’t have to reach a consensus philosophy or theory before we begin work. We can, singly or collectively, work with the most absurdly contradictory theories if we are able, and still achieve things. In fact, this is a fairly good operating procedure in any enquiry, anyway. I mention this because I think we sometimes (and I have been guilty of this) spend too much time trying to persuade each other to a single (our own) view, and consider that we have made no progress when we fail to do that. In fact, it is better to be the master than the slave of our (collective) ideas. Allow them all a say, then they can inform and illuminate our work as their turn comes due.

I think these views have useful implications for astrology, and I shall try to be succinct here.


The Positivist View of Astrology

If we take a positivist view of astrology, then the situation is roughly this. We assert that there is an unknown mechanism, by which certain repeatable effects are observable in the behaviour of persons, and possibly entities other than persons (nations, weather, volcanoes etc). These effects are ‘lawlike’ in the sense that we can reduce their ’cause’ to the motions of the planets. When Saturn transits some person’s (in fact, millions of people’s) Venus, there are certain effects (or a general class of effects) that ensue. Hence, we have reductionism, empiricism, and predictability neatly wrapped up together.

Incidentally, the postulated “mechanism” is of more than academic interest. It’s nature determines the “size” of the astrological effect. Is it a compulsion, or a tendency? (For comparison, there are no compulsive influences that I can think of offhand in psychology, only tendencies). Does it operate at a “deep” level of the entity – in which case the behaviours that eventually emerge will have acquired complex overlays and tonalities which make it difficult to recognise? Or does it operate at a “shallow” level, hence emerging in an easily recognised form almost every time? How does the mechanism interact with other mechanisms from other sources? For example, does a social or cultural context with limited options create greater astrological predictability (or, apparently, fatalism)? That is, were astrologers of the (distant) past able to predict things more successfully than is even remotely possible in those societies of today which are privileged with endless choice? (This question is confounded, incidentally, with the ‘compulsion or tendency’ question. If the astrological mechanism is compulsive, then astrologically generated behaviours are independent of the society or the historical epoch – implying that generally speaking what people do and are today should not be radically different from what we have always been).


The Constructivist View of Astrology

But if we take a strongly constructivist view of astrology, then the reality or otherwise of the “influence” is irrelevant. In fact, astrology’s significance is merely that it is part of the total context of our reality, like it or not. Following certain undeveloped ideas I had more than 20 years ago, I tend to think of this as the “great painting in the sky”.

As I dimly remember it, Jung’s idea of synchronicity was firstly the recognition that coincidence happens, but then further that some coincidences are “meaningful”. They acquire their meaning from the total context, and they are meaningful to the particular person at that particular moment. In constructivist terms, there is no need to reductionistically analyse this and say “show me the repeatability”. Sometimes I listen to a Beethoven String Quartet and I am transported. At other times I am not. That is just reality. Sometimes Venus transits my Saturn and something amazing happens (e.g., I rediscover Beethoven). Sometimes I do not. That is just reality too. In each moment, there is far more going on than we are aware of, or can ever be aware of. Astrology is part of that context, so it is part of meaning, and that is just that.

And, astrology is NOT predictive. We constructed it (in varying forms, mark you, as varied as our cultures and races) long ago in our past. It is part of our history, our stories, our reality; and, supposing our future society permits it, it shall remain part of our future too.

And in this case, there are no questions about mechanism to ask. Rather, fruitful forms of astrological enquiry are: what new stories can we add to it that resolve our doubts and dilemmas and increase the meaningfulness of our lives? What new “theories” contribute to this? What other stories and discourses (e.g. psychology, philosophy, etc.) can we borrow from to bring about this enrichment?

I have slanted the two portraits above to lead toward things that I think astrologers actually do. We do generally talk of astrology as a “tendency” not a “compulsion”; and we are extremely fuzzy about the effects of a given transit. So two of the questions about the nature of its mechanism are (possibly) answered already, and so we have a slightly better idea of what sort of mechanism to look for.

On the other hand, that very fuzziness sits perfectly well with the constructionist perspective too. It is my experience at least that we construct stories with our clients. They are not (generally) passive recipients of some sort of received wisdom; rather they actively participate in and negotiate the nature of what they are told.

Moreover, as astrologers we have been actively importing other discourses into astrology for some time – doubtless from the very beginning in fact. Jungian analytical psychology was a big influence thanks to Rudhyar and Greene; William James through Marc Edmund Jones; and among others there is physics; developmental psychology; and I am quite sure personally that it is possible to bring facets of social and discursive psychology to astrology (and vice versa). So what is the language of astrology? Perhaps it is, and can only be, the language of those who listen to it and so make it their own…

-by André Donnell