Is Astrology Relevant to Consciousness and Psi?

Geoffrey Dean and Ivan Kelly

Journal of Consciousness Studies 10 No. 6-7, 2003, pp175-198

This paper appeared in the recent edition of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, and attracted a great deal of interest from the media. Much of this interest was frivolous, but some was of a more measured type, leading to commentators - most notably, to date, the science correspondent of The Sunday Telegraph - appearing to accept that the paper is convincing evidence that astrology is an invalid belief system when assessed in empirical terms.

Because of the interest it has generated, I've been asked by the President of the Astrological Association to give my initial observations on the paper in my capacity as consulting editor to the astrological research journal Correlation. I do this gladly, but with the caveat that - due to very real pressures of time - the observations I give at this point are very much ad hoc and not referenced. I hope to be able to give a fuller, fully referenced, appraisal later - preferably after taking up the points that concern me most with the authors themselves.

The paper covers a voluminous amount of astrological research and is, accordingly, to be recommended to any serious student of astrology. The problem with long publications like this, however, is that they are more prone to the occasional mistake or misrepresentation than more modest undertakings. My own feeling is that if, instead of a single paper, the authors had produced a series of shorter papers, the coherence of their case would have perhaps been clearer and less error prone. That said, the paper was written for a specific - one-off - special issue of this journal, so I presume this option was unavailable to them.

A few of my reservations about this paper are as follows:

The authors' definition of consciousness as: "… the difference between being awake and being asleep." Is, in my view, clearly limited. To me it isn't inclusive enough to accommodate phenomena that by almost general consent require some degree of conscious awareness such as dreaming, or object avoidance during sleepwalking. This, after all, is a journal dedicated to consciousness research, and a fuller, more inclusive, definition would have been useful.

Another unhelpful phrase appears initially in the abstract:

"The possibility that astrology might be relevant to consciousness and psi is not denied."

In my view this statement is far too loose for this journal and its extended readership. A precise definition, right from the start, of how astrology and consciousness might be uniquely related, would have been very helpful indeed, particularly for non-specialists like me. When this same theme is developed later on with: "…if astrological links with human behaviour are real they might provide clues." I wondered: 'Clues to what?' For they certainly didn't seem to be clues to what was posited in the previous part of the paragraph concerning that selfsame: "…difference between being awake and asleep."

While on the topic of phrases, the phrase: "…it suggests that mind might be affected by things other than brains (and vice versa)." is surely too non-specific for a specialist journal? It certainly infers that "mind" is indeed affected by "brains," [though I was uncertain if the use of the singular, "mind" was meant to be interpreted as a single, collective mind that interacts with many brains], but it doesn't clarify what things "…other than brains," might affect "mind" and how this might happen.

The only things I know - like psychotropic drugs - that might appear to affect "mind" (or more precisely in this case: mood, or our sense of well-being) all appear to act on brain mechanisms first. Hence an alternative phrase such as: 'It might suggest something novel about the psychophysical dualist view,' would possibly be more utilitarian, or: 'It might challenge the psychophysical parallelist view,' more precise.

The liberal use of phrases such as "many astrologers"; "some astrologers," and so on, while perfectly acceptable in scientific writing in general; is, in my view, best avoided in a paper purporting to prove that astrology is empirically invalid: precise quantitative data surely being a sine qua non of any paper that claims to possibly be the final word on a subject. Again, however, one must appreciate that in a 'one off' paper written by two authors who are geographically distant, the occasional looseness of language is perfectly understandable.

Perhaps a more serious concern is the fact that, in my view, the authors appear to have been too selective in their choice of literature to review, and seem to have generally ignored the large corpus of solid, peer-reviewed, published literature that makes a strong case for 'planetary effects' as these would have been perceived by our pre-scientific ancestors. To take just one example of the many I personally cite in my recent book Blinded By Starlight (Xlibris, 2002).

There was a paper published almost twenty years ago - based on quantitative chemical assay of the metabolites of a specific hormone - that strongly suggested there might well be a lunar effect on the mechanisms that regulate the menstrual cycle in women. This is the sort of research that I believe is critical to our understanding of why people believed in, and continue to believe in, astrology. Hence I feel, at the very least, the existence of studies such as this should be mentioned.

Another aspect of the paper that I find disconcerting is the fact it contains a number of factual errors. The brief accounts of Freud and Jung's astrological commentaries, for example, are inexact, and erroneous in places. Similarly, definitions of certain technical terms - such as "cognitive dissonance" - are less precise than they might be. My understanding being that "seeing what you believe" is how you resolve cognitive dissonance; not the dissonance itself.

Slips of this sort would undoubtedly have been avoided if the paper had been edited more fully, and we must accept that editing a paper of this length and complexity is a demanding task for the non-specialist, especially given its multidisciplinary approach.

The paper discusses the relevance of psi, shamanism, psychic ability, and spirit guides to astrology, as it does with what are termed, "hidden persuaders": cold reading-that sort of thing. While the latter is, of course, of enormous importance when assessing the dynamics of horoscope interpretation, the former might seem less relevant - to those of us interested in the more formal, academic study of astrology - than the authors appear to consider them to be.

A major thrust of the paper is towards the analysis of two thousand one hundred and one "time twins." And while I would agree in principle that time twin studies can present real problems for astrologers; I'd like to see a fuller discussion here of the season-of-birth literature. Given the view held in part of the medical community that people born around the spring equinox go on to show a higher incidence of psychotic illness (a putative effect that apparently disappears when a sample of births at the equator are taken): it would have been interesting to see an objective assessment of this aspect of these "time twins": especially given that they were all born when the sun was in the Zodiacal Sign of Pisces: the Sign that traditionally rules mental illness.

There are also some apparent inconsistencies within the paper. There is indeed a view in contemporary phenomenology that consciousness might well be "…a by-product of complexity…" as the authors put it. In theory, as indeed they infer, a suitably complex computer program run in some futuristic computer could produce the epiphenomenon of "consciousness," in the way some believe the brain does. [the usual analogy here is that consciousness is a by-product of complex systems: like steam from boiling water.] Given this theoretical possibility, it might seem inconsistent to some that the authors, having indicated this possibility, then appear to be implicitly critical of computer-generated astrology. If so, this is something that's especially unfortunate when the late Charles Harvey is cited in this context. Those of us who knew Charles know, all too well, that he pursued his chosen profession without reliance on computers or any other such aids.

In general terms, I dislike the citation of names of non-scientists in formal scientific papers, unless the people in question have given assent, been published in literature of roughly equal stature, or have the opportunity at least to respond in advance to any comments made about them. This is something the authors do too much here for my liking. It should also be borne in mind when assessing the empirical evidence for a subject like astrology, that the way people think they do, or believe they do something, isn't necessarily how they really do it. In addition, how they think they do it doesn't negate whatever it is they claim to do per se.

I remember learning in my student days that Christian physicians of the medieval period in Europe applied an analgesic balm to their patients and then said a set sequence of prayers [a decade of the rosary] until the treatment worked. In fact, from a modern empirical perspective, the prayers simply passed the time until the balm was absorbed. But the treatment was effective just the same, and probably worked better within a religious context due to a placebo effect reinforcement.

There are other aspects of this paper that, rightly or wrongly, cause me concern; these are in terms of logic and reasoning. For example, in a footnote we are told categorically that the "correct answer" to the question: "If you visit the Middle East, should you be more worried about dying in a terrorist attack than about dying in general?" is "no." Not so, I'm afraid. If I am only worried about dying in a terrorist attack in the Middle East, and I couldn't care less if I died in any other way, then the correct answer to the question is "yes." This might seem a minor point, however it's an example of a logically false statement in a peer-reviewed scientific paper, and possibly a sign of a hurriedly written, and poorly edited paper that hasn't been given all the attention, in terms of logical consistency, it deserved, from two normally impeccable authors and the paper's referees. Not to mention the science correspondent of The Sunday Telegraph.

There are occasional statements of the self-evident too. Thus when the authors point out that astrologers who believe astrological interpretation is mediated through spirits: "…hold that spirits are the real basis of astrology…" this is quite simply tautological.

We're also told that: "Spirits might be psi in disguise…." I, at least, need more explanation of what this actually means, together with details of precisely how this might be the case.

It is perhaps of interest to note here that there is what appears to be good empirical evidence that mediums are constitutionally different to non-mediums. So too, apparently, are those who are simply interested in spirits. Accordingly, while I imagine this line of investigation is truly intriguing for the non-academic astrologer, it's perhaps treated just a bit too superficially here, and deserving of a full paper itself sometime, elsewhere.

One statement that particularly attracted my attention was: "…the neglect of astrology by psi researchers might or might not be justified." To critical readers this might seems a bit like having your cake and eating it, and, given the degree of attention given to the issue of psi in the paper; plus the readership to which this particular issue of the journal was presumably directed; a more precise comment might have been anticipated.

There are a number of other aspects of this paper that I found below par by the usual standards achieved by these authors, which I genuinely don't have time to discuss at present. If I'm correct in this view, however, it is doubly unfortunate because I know both of them routinely seek to produce academic work of the highest standards of precision, scope, analysis and comment.

Hence in my view - limited as this is, by necessity, at this time - this paper does not reflect the true ability of these authors as critical scientists, and (once again, in my view) it doesn't do a comprehensive job of showing that astrology, as a belief system, is invalidated due to lack of empirical evidence. That said, there is much here that astrologers can learn from, and I strongly suggest that they read this paper and do so accordingly.

- Dr Frank McGillion - 21st August 2003

Please visit Frank's website for various pieces of research information.

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