SC/BC 1800C.03 - Analysis of Astrology FAQ Page

collected and edited by M.M. De Robertis (Instructor)

Introduction:
It may not be too surprising that the World Wide Web contains numerous offerings involving the Paranormal, Occult and Pseudosciences or POPs as I refer to them. In a first-year university seminar class offered by Bethune College at York University, SC/BC 1800C.03, we devoted some time to the study of a number of POPs, including the archetypal pseudoscience, astrology. One of the assignments in this part of the course required the students to analyze and comment on an Astrology FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page which may be found in its entirety here

Of all the defences of astrology encountered on the WWW, I found this FAQ to be the most credible and well-written. It was clearly authored by a person or persons very knowledgeable in astrology and rather familiar with the more difficult questions posed by the average scientifically literate individual. (There may be better apologies available, but this one's pretty good.) I edited the document, leaving only the most scientifically challenging questions and asked my students to consider the following:

How satisfied are you with the replies given for each of the following "answers." That is, give your opinion (with justification) as to the appropriateness of these "answers": How convinced are you by each? Identify the weaknesses and strengths in the argument(s) presented.

The following is a summary of the replies I received from the students. In general, I was struck by how well they were able to identify the weaknesses in the purported "answers." (There are a few instances where I've added my own comments because the students didn't have a sufficient background in astronomy or physics.) It should be noted that the students taking the class were all in first-year and enrolled in a wide range of disciplines from biology to geophysics. As well, we had discussed the nature of science and pseudoscience (and their demarcation) prior to this assignment.

The text is presented in the following way:


3) I have no idea what to do with my life. Here are my birth data. Can someone please tell me what I should do?

Answer: Nobody can tell someone what to do with his or her life. However by studying one's astrological chart, one can gain insights into one's personality, and one can see areas of life where there is harmony or discord. A reading of one's chart by an experienced astrologer would be very valuable. After you have such a reading done, you could probably benefit greatly from learning astrology yourself and studying your chart at leisure. You can also look at "transits," the interactions of planets in the sky with your chart across time. This tells you when opportunities and difficulties arise in various areas of life, and helps you plan your future. An astrologer can tell you about current transits, or you could learn to read your own transits. With a few good books from your local occult bookstore, it's really quite easy. Interpreting transits is much easier than reading a natal chart (which involves a synthesis of many factors).

One of the longest-standing knocks against astrology has been its explicitly deterministic view of human nature. This, for example, is a major reason why Christianity and Judaism have been traditionally so opposed to astrology, at least in principle. Modern astrologers, however, are far more clever at marketing their product. Thus, "Nobody can tell someone what to do with his or her life" has a rather strong indeterministic and decidedly egalitarian ring to it, apparently quite far removed from the notion that the stars control one's life. Moreover, the author appeals to the democratic, anti-clerical yearnings of most Americans by downplaying the importance of the "priesthood," ie., astrologers, and emphasizing the role and responsibility of the individual.

The truth, however, is that this response and those which follow still preach determinism, albeit rather more subtlely. By knowing and recognizing one's particular resonances with the stars, one can tailor one's decisions to have a maximal positive effect on one's life (career, relationships, etc.). This may appear to dismiss the role of "fate" and admit free will into the discussion, but this is only an illusion. Inherent in this argument is that there are signs in the heavens and that one will benefit tangibly from recognizing and following them. This is the same old argument, but dressed up in modern apparel!

11) I have seen people born within days/hours of one another whose lives are really different. How come?

Answer: Even a few minutes difference in the time of birth or having a different birth place can change the chart substantially. Obviously people who have just the same birthday will have different charts. Since Earth is the only planet that makes a trip around the Sun exactly once a year, all the other planets will be at completely different positions in a different year. But even if people are born on the very same day, their charts can differ quite radically. The Moon moves about 13 degrees in a day, and the astrological houses, which are an extremely important element of the chart, move through the entire zodiac in a 24-hour period! And their positions are affected by latitude as well. In addition, even if two people's charts are identical (which is rare), other factors may influence the way the chart is expressed. Some people operate on a material level, some on a mental level, and a few operate on a spiritual level. The same chart can be expressed on any of these levels. An astrological chart does not show the "fate" or "destiny" as such. The person always has a choice, and the free exercise of the will determines how the influences indicated in a chart manifest themselves.

One certainly should investigate astrology's claims in some detail before making definitive claims about its legitimacy. Astrology is far more than the mass-marketed Sun-Sign astrology columns one finds in the newspapers. (Note how gently the professional astrologers on the Web broach this rather delicate subject!) The apparent positions of the moon and planets at birth are often more important than the Sun's position (and see #32). As a result, astrology has never suggested that two people born at precisely the same moment on the Earth will live identical lives regardless of what uninformed critics might say.

But what of babies born within a couple of minutes of each other in the same hospital ward (and therefore, who experience the same lunar and planetary configurations)? No problem; some people live on a "material level," some on a "mental level," and some on a "spiritual level." This is the perfect "out" really; this hypothesis is unquantifiable, unfalsifiable and sufficiently fuzzy to satisfy anyone who wants to believe in the principles of astrology...just one of a host of excellent reasons why astrology remains the archetypal pseudoscience. Moreover, it provides a perfect reason to justify the need for astrologers.

13) How is it possible for astrology to work?

Answer: There are at least two schools of thought. One common explanation is synchronicity, an acausal connecting principle proposed by Carl Jung. The general idea is that events on earth of a certain nature coincide in time with astronomical events of a similar nature (according to the symbolic significance of the planets and their relations in the heavens). Although synchronicity operates throughout the universe, the planets might have special significance because they are part of collective experience (that is, we can all see them or know about them) and so they can take on a collective meaning -- they can speak to the "collective unconscious." But Jung's synchronicity principle is still hypothetical and still not well understood.

Jung's idea is similar to the ancient hermetic idea of resonant bonds of sympathy between "similars" (which share a common essential design) in the microcosm and macrocosm. This was the ancient explanation for the correspondence between cosmic and mundane events.

A less popular explanation is that there are unknown and currently undetected forces or energies emanating from the planets that affect life on earth, perhaps something akin to Rupert Sheldrake's "morphic fields." (This type of explanation is unpopular among those physicists who believe that all the forces in the universe are already known.) Biological evidence showing a harmony between celestial rhythms and biological rhythms suggests that known or unknown planetary forces operate on organisms at a material level, sometimes through changes in the pattern of solar radiation. Such biological effects might alter psychological processing and thus human action and the events that arise from it.

Whatever explanation is offered, it is evidence from experience and research that convinces people that astrology does indeed work. The rich descriptive theory that has evolved over thousands of years provides for a deep understanding of human nature and the capacity for prediction of the type of circumstances that will prevail during specific time periods. As with most areas of inquiry, the correct explanatory theory to account for the structure of the descriptive theory awaits its discoverer.

Astrologers, more than anyone, suffer from "physics envy." Though astrology per se has been around for millennia, it still lacks an encompassing, theoretical explanation for why it works (if indeed it does). As noted below (#24), this does not necessarily invalidate its claims a priori. But the possibilities mentioned in this response as well as other highly touted explanations such as Percy Seymour's magnetic field resonances are, at best, grasping at straws. There is little merit to any of them.

The author of this response engages in the most common, and yet invalid, technique to justify his practice: the fallacy of equivocation. The terms "energy" and "force" for example are used extensively by paranormalists and pseudoscientists. The trouble is, these terms have rather precise meanings in physics but when used to defend astrology, for example, they become terribly nebulous and imprecise. Nonetheless, they lend an air of legitimacy to the practice to the overwhelming fraction of people who are not well acquainted with science. Notice also in this response the attempt to link familiar biological rhythms in nature with as yet unknown planetary rhythms; yet more equivocation.

And just what is a "rich descriptive theory?" This is an oxymoron. A "theory" is not a list, however exhaustive, of empirical facts or descriptions. It is something which arises out of a set of observations and attempts to explain the observations from a principle or principles possessing an underlying unity and simplicity. There is no "theory of astrology" and it is a misrepresentation to imply otherwise.

14) Does astrology control my future? Is it "wrong" to use astrology to learn what the future holds for me? I'm scared.

Answer: In Western astrology, it is not believed that the cycles associated with the planets control your future; it is believed, rather, that YOU have ultimate control over your future through the exercise of your will. The planets only indicate some of the tendencies inherent in your personality and the conditions that surround various areas of life. One cannot determine in precise detail exactly what will happen in one's life from day to day and moment to moment, but only what kinds of influences will be present. There is a famous saying: "The stars incline, they do not compel." Within the situational and psychological context described in a chart, you are free to act and react according to your will, which is in turn guided by the wisdom you possess and your stage in your spiritual evolution. As for good and evil, there is nothing "wrong" with learning what sort of conditions will exist in your life. It may be to your advantage to foresee these influences so that you can be prepared and control your actions to better work in harmony with the celestial cycles.

As in #3, the trend in modern astrology is to describe it in terms with which modern people feel more comfortable: "YOU have ultimate control over your future through the exercise of free will", "The planets only indicate some of the tendencies inherent in your personality...", or "`The stars incline, they do not compel'." In fact, there is no middle ground. If there is advice to be had in the stars, then our futures must be determined to some extent, notwithstanding the attempt to cloud the issue by implying that how one interprets this stellar wisdom depends on one's stage of spiritual evolution.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this response is that if the author is correct, then one doesn't need astrologers or even astrology since you are free to be "guided by the wisdom you possess." In the end, relying on oneself is certainly less expensive.

24) Every sensible person knows that astrology couldn't possibly work, so why are you people wasting your time?

Answer: It is impossible to rule out astrological phenomena on a priori grounds. Current understanding in scientific circles does not shape the actual structure of the universe. Science involves research. No mere mortal is omniscient, and so none can predict infallibly which effects would show up in research and which would not. What is currently known is not all that will ever be known. It is a mistake to buy into the current way of thinking as if it was an accurate and complete picture of the universe. Dogma is antithetical to true science.

A priori arguments are not the final word in science, which was designed, after all, as a means of discerning nature's secrets by actually examining nature, as opposed to just thinking about it the way Aristotle and Descartes did.

It should be clear that the questions posed in the original FAQ document are tailored for the sympathetic "answer" which follows. There is a little of the "Galileo syndrome" in this crude response which is basically accurate. The scientific method is inherently anti-teleological (or at least has been); that is, one should not presume anything a priori, but let the empirical world "speak" for itself. For example, one cannot approach science with the preconceived notion that the world is of order 10,000 years old. One may propose an age for the Earth after sifting through substantial evidence and the results of exhaustive experiments. But not before one looks. In the same way, skeptics should not dismiss astrology or any other pseudoscience without carefully weighing the evidence.

25) How could planetary forces, of whatever nature, act upon an infant when it is outside the mother, but not when it is a fetus in the womb? Why should the forces only have effect at the moment of birth?

Answer: Given that we do not yet have an explanation for astrological phenomena, we cannot assume that astrological correspondences are due to some "force" (e.g., gravity) that can travel through a mother's body as easily as it can through the walls of the hospital.

One research finding might be relevant to this question. The Gauquelins found that one of their results, the "inheritance" of angularity for specific planets (i.e., the child of a parent with an angular planet tends to have the same planet angular), was only present when the birth was natural. This finding suggests that it is not exposure to air per se that produces the astrological effect. Rather, the baby is "destined" (for unknown reasons) to be born at a certain time, and to retain the astrological character of that time. Unnatural births (e.g., C-section, or drug-induced labour) prevent birth at the "correct" time, and so the child fails to "inherit" its parent's planetary angularity in its own chart. (No studies have been done looking at the effect of the type of birth on any factors in actual chart interpretation, so the Gauquelins' finding does not speak to the issue of astrological charts in general; if future research fails to find an effect of the circumstances of birth on the validity of the birth chart, then the reason for the child's absorption of the character of the time of birth will not be able to be accounted for by destiny.)

This response begs a cynical comment. The reason why the moment of birth (whatever that may mean) is used by astrologers instead of the moment of conception is that it is rather difficult, if not impossible, to determine the moment of conception to an accuracy of a few minutes which is required by astrology. The prospect that the mother's stomach protects the fetus from an "astrological force" or that the "exposure to air... produces the astrological effect" is preposterous, particularly given the suggestion favoured by the author(s) due to the Gauquelins that a "baby is `destined' to be born at a certain time." How can a baby's birth be causally related to the astrological force unless it can be affected in the womb? Although it would be interesting to carry out some of the experiments proposed in the response, in the end, a null result would make no difference to a believer since one could always claim that one simply guessed the precise nature of the "astrological force" incorrectly.

26) Don't you guys know that astrology depends on a geocentric astronomy? Copernicus blew it away. Astrology can't work because it depends on the view that we are at the centre of the universe, which we clearly are not.

Answer: This is an argument that never occurred to Copernicus, who practised astrology. Heliocentric versus geocentric is a method of calculation, and it is easy to postulate astral forces indifferent to the current interpretation of orbital mechanics. In any case, as the answer to the next question will show, demonstration of the possible causation of astrological effects is not clearly relevant to showing the existence of these effects.

A force exerts the same influence whether the position of the body exerting it was calculated using Ptolemaic, Copernican, Keplerian, Newtonian or Einsteinian orbital mechanics. And, of course, astrology was originally practised using observation, before astronomy was sufficiently advanced to allow highly accurate prediction of the positions of the planets. So the ancient theories about the relation of Earth to other bodies in the solar system had no effect on the estimates of bodily positions used by the astrologers of the time.

Regardless of what one views as the "centre of the universe," the positions of celestial bodies relative to a person are obviously the only positions relevant when considering any possible effects of those bodies on the person (e.g., any influences that might pertain to astrological phenomena).

The whole concept of a centre of the universe seems meaningless until it is proven that the universe has edges. And astrologers' use of geocentric coordinates certainly does not imply that they think Earth is at the centre of the universe! By analogy, a physicist can compute the gravitational effect of Earth on our Sun without adopting the belief that the Sun orbits the Earth.

A specious question and a rather curious response. (Copernicus eschewed astrology, by the way, although the same could not be said of Galileo and Kepler.)

If one agreed that a particular projected configuration of solar system objects against a background of stars (although see #32) at the time of birth was important to an individual, then it doesn't matter which flavour of "orbital mechanics" one adopts. (Why one should worry about orbital mechanics at all is a mystery.) Only the relative positions are important: A configuration is a configuration.

The geocentricity of the co-ordinate system is not the question, however. The prospect that a configuration of solar system objects light-seconds to light-hours away against a three-dimensional background of stars tens of light-years away has some meaning to an individual is very difficult to accept. The stellar background pattern is entirely a chance projection. (The stellar pattern wouldn't change appreciably when viewed from the Sun rather than the Earth.) Move to any other planetary system in the Galaxy, and the "zodiac" would be radically different. (See #32 for a discussion of the tropical zodiac.)

One could argue that the astrologers on an extra-solar planet would have derived appropriate and analogous meanings for their particular situation. One would then have to focus on the characteristics of the "astrological force." (Note that the "astrological force" is very much an element of the empirical world. That is, it is not a spiritual or occult "energy." This implies that this putative force could be studied and presumably detected using scientific methodology.) Forces in physics have a distance dependence. For example, gravity and electromagnetism decrease in strength according to the inverse square law. The astrological force, however, seems to have no distance dependence. Why isn't there a radical difference between a planet at opposition and conjunction (closest and furthest from the Earth), so long as its projected against the same stellar background?

27) Don't you guys know that no cause for astrological effects is known? Therefore such effects cannot exist.

Answer: There are quite a few variations of this very popular fallacy. A common variation is to point out that the hands of the doctor delivering a baby exert a far stronger gravitational pull than any planet could. Again, the reasoning here goes, "no cause, therefore no effect." If there ever is a cause advanced for astrological effects, it may well not involve gravity.

All sorts of sciences are based on empirical evidence alone, with no explanatory theories available. Genetics was accepted as part of science before the discovery of DNA, and, even now, the complete mapping from genetic factors to amino acids is far from complete. In psychology, the principles that govern the organization of vision and audition (i.e., that determine the boundaries and content of separate "figures," "objects," or "streams" of sound) are well established, but researchers have no idea why perceptual processes follow these particular principles.

Vast areas of sciences that do provide causal explanations make specific predictions that cannot be derived directly from the believed cause but are based on empirical evidence and descriptive theories that capture the structures inherent in the data. Tide tables, for example, are calculated empirically. Although physicists know enough about the relevant physical processes to make it plausible that there should be two tides a day, even though the earth revolves only once a day, mathematical formulae directly relating this cause to the observed tides do not exist.

.....

So the descriptive theories of astrology, the relations that have been discovered and exploited over a period of thousands of years, may not lend themselves to an explanation in terms of causes any more than Newton's laws of motion do. The human mind seeks "causes" (at least in the West), but Nature herself may be indifferent to them. The Eastern vision of an harmonious universe with all its interconnected parts dancing in unison may be more in line with reality.

The response to the original question was truncated for the purposes of expediency. Yes, it is quite true that one does not require an explicit identification of the causal mechanism for there to be an effect: we know there is a clear connection between smoking and the incidence of lung cancer, even though we do not know precisely the chain of events which lead to this form of malignancy.

The response makes a serious error, however, when it attempts to use tides as an analogy. In fact, contrary to what is written, physicists understand very well what produces tides and have the supporting mathematical formulae! (Tides are differential forces.) But just in case the reader is concerned that astrological causes have yet to be identified despite the several millennia of practice, the author covers his tracks by suggesting that there may not be a causative explanation for astrology and that the search for "causes" may only be a Western fetish anyway. "The Eastern vision of an harmonious universe... may be more in line with reality." Then why does astrology aspire to be a science in the first place?

28) Don't you guys know that tests of groups of astrologers show they do no better than chance? Therefore astrology does not work.

Answer: The same is said of investment managers. From The Economist for March 7, 1992, p. 81: "Numerous studies suggest that `exceptional' investment managers do not exist. In any given period, each has no more than an even chance of doing better than the market index; moreover, a manager who does well one year is no likelier than others to do well in the next. A few funds may beat the index for, say, three years running, but these are no more common than chance would predict. Give a sample of coin-tossers three coins each. If they obey the laws of probability, one in either will toss three heads."

Does this mean there is no such thing as good investment advice?

The question of the standard of practice in the profession and of the validity of the discipline are not the same, and should not be confused. Do the best astrologers participate in such tests? Given that astrology is not a closed profession, can testing groups of people where the only criterion for selection is that they say they are astrologers really say anything about astrology? Given these sort of ground rules for the test, would a good astrologer decide to participate?

Even if highly qualified astrologers agreed to participate in a study, did the specific test administered give the astrologers a fair shot at accuracy (e.g., if they are asked to match charts with people, are they allowed to get to know the people well and learn about their lives and personal history in detail, or are they allowed just a brief chat with the people)?

It would be very hard to answer any of these questions with an unqualified "Yes." The talent of practitioners and the validity of the discipline they practice must not be confused. And scientific tests conducted by those attempting to "debunk" astrology must be evaluated with as much critical attention as any other scientific study. The tests must be fair. The conditions of the tests must be conducive to finding an effect if any is possible. They must not be arranged so that finding an effect is impossible simply by virtue of the experimental design.

One must be very careful in drawing conclusions from a lack of evidence (either because of negative findings or because no studies have been conducted). The failure to find an effect does not mean that the hypothesis is false. It just means that one hasn't found evidence in favour of it. Nothing more, nothing less. But if one *does* find an effect, then one has evidence in support of the hypothesis (and any other hypothesis that would make the same prediction, whether or not that hypothesis is currently available). So there is an asymmetry that is rarely recognized: evidence (data) can support an experimental hypothesis, but a lack of evidence cannot refute it (even if the lack of evidence is in the form of failure to find a predicted effect, e.g., a difference between samples). The possibility always remains that our experimental design is flawed and/or our measurement techniques are inappropriate and so they fail to capture the effect. In psychology, where measurement is often very difficult and indirect (as it is in much astrological research), one can fail to find evidence to support a particular hypothesis even after years of experimentation. Then some clever researcher invents a new measurement technique, or creates a new experimental design more favourable for the emergence of the phenomenon of interest, and the predicted effect emerges!

Note that many scientific astrological studies that do not focus on the ability of individual astrologers (e.g., to match charts to people) have found positive results that are replicable. The elements of subjectivity and interpretive ability are missing from these studies because they concentrate on objective measures (e.g., the presence/absence of a planet in a certain area of the chart for a certain group of people) and so effects are easier to observe. As any experimental psychologist will confirm, subjective judgements are fraught with error, and the unreliability in such measures vastly reduces the success rate of experimental studies.

A fine attempt at misdirection by the author(s) in the response. In fact, if astrology aspires to be a bona fide science, then it must subject itself to controlled statistical tests. And as the question suggests, tests which have been performed to date under a controlled environment have provided no indication whatsoever that astrologers fare any better than random chance with their predictions.

But the response by the astrologer(s) is most enlightening. First, the attempt to link astrology with investment management is invalid. Everyone readily agrees that psychology places a significant part in the behaviour of investment markets. Now it is abundantly clear that the modicum of success enjoyed by astrologers is primarily the result of applying modern psychological techniques. Many professional astrologers admit as much. If astrologers would only give up their ancient art for the practice of modern psychology, everyone would benefit: astrologers would have a much better track record and the paying public would receive at least some value for their money!

Second, it is somewhat disingenuous for the author(s) to argue that previous statistical tests may have all suffered from the absence of "good astrologers." "The talent of practitioners and the validity of the discipline they practice must not be confused." Maybe, but one would never think of saying the same of a bona fide science. A scientific principle stands on its own, the "talent" of the scientist being irrelevant to its validity. By relying so heavily on the subjective, astrology insulates itself against "falsifiability" and therefore from ever failing a scientific test; at least in the eyes of practitioners and believers. One cannot have it both ways. Science or pseudoscience.

31) Legitimate scientists (or educated people, etc., etc.) universally despise astrology. Can such a weight of opinion be wrong?

Answer: Yes. Easily. Examples in the social sciences of educated opinion doing a total about-face are common. Racialist theories, now despised by almost all those in academe, were orthodox before World War II, as just one example.

In the health sciences as well, practices such as phrenology, acupuncture, hypnotism and chiropractic have all crossed in one direction or another the line that separates respected science from despised pseudo-science. If astrology does so too, it will definitely not be the first time, and probably not the last.

This question is based on an appeal to authority and, as such, is an example of a common fallacy in reasoning. Plausibility based on current world views is a poor guide to the nature of reality, but scientists, being human, are as fallible as the rest of us in embracing modern views with undue passion. (Humans have a deep need to feel they understand things. The unknown is a source of fear, so many choose to deny it. But the unknown is only unreal for those who are omniscient. For those of us who are less than omniscient, humility is in order in any discussion of the nature of reality.)

In principle, this response is correct. In practice, the apologist does a very poor job of articulating the point. The author(s) should have taken some time to select a bona fide science which has crossed the demarcation between pseudoscience and science. The allusion to "racialist theories" is not terribly accurate and even if such theories were embraced by a majority of academics at one time, one must be careful to distinguish between "good science" and "bad science." The identification of "phrenology, acupuncture, hypnotism and chiropractic" as "health sciences" which have crossed the line is mystifying since none of these practices has yet been embraced by modern medicine (and are not likely to be). Bad choices.

In evaluating a scientific theory or idea, an "appeal to authority" is considered irrelevant, at least in principle. Science isn't a democracy and never will be. But on the other hand, only the irrational continue to entertain ideas which have been demonstrated to be false by considerable rational investigation and argument. One might believe, for example, that the moon is made of green cheese in spite of the evidence to the contrary. And in the spirit of these rabidly egalitarian times, "one has a perfect right to hold this opinion." The trouble is, this opinion is incorrect and every legitimate scientist will say so.

32) Why don't astrologers consider the fact that when the Sun is in the sign of Aries, it is not really in the constellation Aries?

Answer: This is due to the phenomenon known as "the precession of the equinoxes." The equinoxes are the points in time and space at which the earth, with its tilted axis, is positioned with respect to the sun in such a way that the length of day and night are equal. Most Western astrologers, with a few exceptions, base their work on a zodiac with sign positions determined by the equinoxes rather than the constellations. At the Vernal Equinox, which occurs on about March 20th of each year, the Sun enters into the sign of Aries in this zodiac. The signs are not defined by the constellations. The zodiac positioned with respect to the equinoxes is called the "tropical zodiac." (A zodiac based loosely on the constellations [with the first sign beginning at the edge of the constellation Aries, and with 12 equal signs of 30 degrees each], which is called the "sidereal zodiac," is used primarily by Hindu astrologers.) Because of the precession of the equinoxes, the equinoxes are moving backwards with respect to the fixed constellations by about one degree every 72 years. Approximately two thousand years ago, the beginning of the tropical sign of Aries was aligned with the beginning of the constellation Aries (perhaps around 217 A.D.).

Why do the tropical signs have the same names and symbols as the constellations with which they were aligned 2000 years ago? Isn't the sidereal zodiac the source of the meanings of the tropical signs? And so shouldn't astrologers take the meaning of a tropical sign from the constellation most closely aligned with it now? This argument is based on the presupposition that the meanings of the signs come from the natures of the symbols in the heavens that we call constellations. But clearly this is not the case. Some of the most dominant traits of Virgo are obsession with detail and an analytical and critical nature. How could these traits be derived from a picture of a virgin? How could the Piscean qualities "spiritual," "selfless," "imaginative," "inspirational," "feminine," and "idealistic" be derived from a picture of two fish? Few traits of each sign can easily be related to the symbol assigned to the constellation of the same name.

There is no necessity, given current knowledge, for the tropical signs to have received their meaning from the constellations of the sidereal zodiac; it is possible that the nature of the tropical signs suggested a symbol to associate with a constellation (since the symbols look very little like the pattern of stars we associate with them). Perhaps the constellations with which we are familiar came into being during the period in which the tropical sign Aries was aligned with the constellation Aries. When did the tropical zodiac and constellations appear? The tropical zodiac may have been around a long time. The Egyptians had a tropical (solar) calendar by the early part of the third millennium B.C.; given the direct and transparent relationship between the signs of the tropical zodiac and the months of the solar year, they may well have had a tropical zodiac as well. Tropical calendars in the form of standing stones (e.g., Stonehenge) date from 1000-5000 B.C. in Northwest Europe, so the tropical zodiac might have existed there as well. Unfortunately, the preliterate people of these cultures left no records behind. Some sort of zodiac, possibly sidereal, with 12 equal signs, existed in India in 3000 B.C. A manuscript (in Sanskrit) from that period shows that astrologers then used a zodiac, an equal house system, and aspects counted sign to sign (as in much modern-day Hindu astrology).

The origin of the modern constellations is somewhat obscure, so it is very difficult to decide whether the constellations were around to lend meaning to the tropical signs at the time that the tropical zodiac was created. Noonan (1976; Journal of Geocosmic Research, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 6-7) claims that the first zodiac of the constellations appeared around 500 B.C. The constellations are believed to have been assigned symbols by the Babylonians, but there were originally 36 constellations, and only some of them coincide with the modern sidereal signs. We know that some of the symbols used for the modern signs are recent, because the original symbols were all animals (the word "zodiac," derived from the Greek zoidiako's, means "circle of animals"). We can be certain that the modern constellations of the zodiac existed by about 30 B.C. because they appear very clearly on the ceiling of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera in Upper Egypt. So was the tropical zodiac in use by then?

It might have been. The precession of the equinoxes was certainly common knowledge by then. Precession was discovered at the very latest in 200 B.C., when Hipparchus wrote about it. But Sir Norman Lockyer found that many very early temples in Egypt had been moved at different periods in history so that they lined up with a particular star as it precessed across the sky.

(See, for example, E.C. Krupp, In Search of Ancient Astronomies, New York: Doubleday, 1977.)

Most of my students were not sufficiently knowledgeable in astronomy to understand the arguments presented in this response. I, myself, had not been aware of this "solution" to the problem of the precession of the equinoxes before, although I had been aware that Eastern astrology takes precession into account, presumably by the same technique articulated in this response. If the Sun is now nowhere near the constellation or pattern of stars on the sky with which one's Sun-sign is identified, one simply redefines the zodiac so that it does; hence, the reliance on the tropical zodiac.

This is a neat solution, but it is by no means unique and does not do away with a fundamental objection to astrology articulated in #11 and 26. The pre-Ptolemaic astrologers had a much different Vernal Equinox from our own. (The Vernal Equinox is defined as the point on the Celestial Sphere in which the Ecliptic--the Earth's orbital plane on the sky--intersects with the Celestial Equator--the extension of the Earth's Equator to infinity. Precession causes the Celestial Equator to "wobble" on the sky with a period of 26,000 years and with an amplitude of 23.5 degrees.) Even if one now switches to the tropical zodiac which maintains the Vernal Equinox near the end of March, astrology still associates human characteristics (or propensities or potentialities) with planetary, lunar and solar configurations. It doesn't matter that the Sun is two constellations removed from those of Ptolemy's time.

But why should the tropical zodiac be so important? So far as we are aware, no astrophysically important objects move precisely with the precession of the equinoxes in order that the moon, Sun, and planets might modulate (or mediate) this force causing a unique imprint onto each and every one of us at birth. Or perhaps only solar system objects are relevant at all? But then why choose the tropical zodiac over the "sidereal zodiac" or any other zodiac whatsoever? The only reason is to give the impression to the astronomically illiterate that astrologers have successfully dealt with a (devastating) criticism by the scientific community.