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home    consultations    courses    ideas    irish astrology        Bill Sheeran


Astrology and Unpredictability

A talk given at the 2nd CIDA International Congress, Venice, Italy October 1997

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What I find most striking about this lack of consensus about prediction is how little discussion it provokes, at least in the astrological circles which I move in. I think part of the reason is that there is no real contemporary philosophical framework or theoretical structure for astrology within which the discussion can take place. In my opinion, this is one of the legacies of astrology's exclusion from the Enlightenment, during which the rational and the non-rational became extremely polarized. Astrologers have become very used to defending the value of the non-rational, and can be inclined to react to the mention of reason as if it is the enemy. Of course, the same is true of scientists and other sceptics, who perceive the non-rational as being inherently anti-scientific. During the Enlightenment, reason was used to undermine and de-construct dogma and blind faith. While we needn't go the same extremes, I think that efforts to clarify a rationale for astrology, one which can accommodate the non-rational, might usefully help to dismantle the unconscious influence of dogmas inherited from the past. Their presence blocks the capacity for astrology to evolve.

Interestingly enough, both astrology and science share in common the goal of making successful predictions. As astrology faded and science gathered momentum in the 17th century, it is as if the flame of deterministic philosophy passed from one to the other. Even though science and astrology parted ways over 300 years ago, the prediction obsession has maintained its expression in society through the influence of scientific logic and philosophy. This suggests that the need for reality to be predictable has deep roots in the collective psyche. Which begs the question "Does this psychological need have a shadow, and if so what is its nature?". The most obvious response is that deep within the human psyche lies a fear of the unpredictable, of instability, and of change. Perhaps astrology itself has been born out of this fear. If this is the case, it is not all that surprising that we don't spend too much time discussing the possibility of an archetypal principle of unpredictability in our reality. The dogma of stability and predictability forbids it. And yet we have within our vocabulary a symbol which represents the unpredictable. It even co-rules the zodiac sign which many identify astrology itself with. I find this very strange.

Where does this fear of the unpredictable come from?

My feeling is that the origins are made clear in the biblical myth of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Underlying this story is a theme of the existential anxiety which resulted from the evolution of self- consciousness and the capacity for self-reflection. The conscious awareness of nature as a place of potential danger, of unpredictable elemental forces that can cause pain suffering and grief would surely have created a desire to anticipate and therefore avoid such negative possibilities. Magical rituals were carried out to appease these forces. But at the same time, there are also patterns and recognizable rhythms to life. There is order in the chaos. This presence of order allows the possibility of prediction. The quest to reveal this order was (and still is) the task of astrologers, while the same goal is still being pursued in the science laboratories around the world today. In simplistic terms, one might equate order and predictability with safety and security, while chaos and unpredictability would be associated with danger and insecurity.

One would expect a cultural bias against the chaotic unpredictable aspects of nature to emerge. Mythologies from ancient cultures show this quite clearly. Commentators such as Riane Eisler have argued that one can see within the same mythic tradition an evolution from an earlier theme of partnership between order and chaos to a later theme of the domination of chaos by order. She suggests that these transitions reflect the onset of patriarchy, and that an earlier co-operation with nature gave way to the urge to dominate and control it. She also identifies the period around 5,000 - 4,000 BC as the time when patriarchy began to show itself, coinciding with the invention of the wheel, of alphabets and writing, etc.

It's impossible to put a date on when astrology first began. It presumably materialized out of an awareness of the daily and yearly cycles, and the phases of the moon. But the astrology which we do know about germinated after the beginning of patriarchy, within a cultural context obsessed with order. This becomes quite clear in considering the world view of the Greek civilization, which contributed so much to astrology, and also to the evolution of our own culture.

The most influential Greek philosophers from our point of view envisaged a cosmos which was orderly, stable, perfectly harmonious and predictable. While the phenomenal world was a realm of imperfection and change, the light of reason could be used to reveal the underlying order that was surely there. The idea that unpredictability or instability is a natural feature of the cosmos was unthinkable to them. The orientation of these philosophers was spatial and static, which bore fruit in the development of geometry. For them, change manifested in uniform cyclic patterns, and was therefore theoretically predictable. They had no concept of accelerated change, and there was no capacity for evolution in their world view.

The influential cosmology of Ptolemy, which reflects this view, reverberated for 1500 years, forming a bridge from Aristotle to the first stirrings of the modem era in the 16th century. During that time, astrology was central to the cultural cosmology, and therefore in a secure position of privilege. It made complete sense within the Ptolemaic model of the cosmos. Astrology was one of the primary tools for revealing the absolute order which permated reality.

When natural philosophy cracked in the 17th century, and the split between astrology and classical science happened, there was one important feature which remained unchanged. This was the belief in an orderly cosmos. The pre-modern concepts of astrological determinism and its religious partner, Divine Providence, were simply replaced with a mechanistic determinism in the form of a godless Clockwork Cosmos. Any challenges to the central beliefs of this dogma of predictability were treated as heresy, and to some extent still are.

Copyright 1997 Bill Sheeran       | page 1 |  | page 2 |  | next |