Some thoughts on determinism, human agency, and the plurality of astrological interpretations
Astrologers often face the criticism that our work is imprecise and not scientifically valid or verifiable. Skeptics remain unconvinced of astrology’s viability as a form of knowledge about human experience. This raises a challenge for those of us who seek to validate astrology in our society, to gain respect for our work.
One reason why attempts to prove the validity of astrology through scientific methods fail is that we refer to an outdated approach to science. Modern science has been guided by the philosophy of logical positivism, the belief that knowledge equals certainty and the view that science is a search for absolute certainty through knowledge of the regularities of phenomena. Science seeks to predict outcomes and to explain why events occur as they do by postulating repetitions and regularities between events in the world. And science seeks deterministic explanations, which implies the inevitability of actions, causes and outcomes.
So according to this logic, if a person has natal Sun opposite Neptune, or Pluto in the fourth house, then some definite, predictable result must necessarily occur; we should be able to make a definitive statement about what this will mean. Otherwise, by this reasoning, astrology isn’t valid. But of course this isn’t what happens. Pluto in the fourth house or Sun opposite Neptune manifest differently for different people. The outcome of planetary “actions” or causes isn’t inevitable. Moreover, the person interpreting the chart influences the meaning elicited from it.
Some would argue that this plurality of outcomes and interpretations invalidates astrology. However, in postmodern, post-positivist science, determinism and absolute certainty aren’t the ultimate criteria of knowledge, especially when it comes to understanding human beings. For example, physicists have shown that we may not have any certain knowledge of the physical world; at a subatomic level we can’t definitively identify particles as separate entities existing at a specific location. It’s more accurate to say that particles show tendencies to exist at a particular place and time; uncertainty is part of nature. Also, at a subatomic level, everything is interconnected with everything else. Linear causality and determinism are called into question.
This suggests that by preparing in advance for a Pluto or Uranus transit our alignment with the planetary archetype could affect the outcome. In other words, the planet doesn’t just act upon us; we also act upon the planet. Also, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle showed that all observed phenomena are influenced by the observer, the scientist, and thus there’s no pure, unmediated knowledge of an objective reality. If scientists are saying there’s no certainty of knowledge about the physical world, then I wonder why the astrologers are seen as suspect if we can’t make 100 percent predictions of outcomes, or if different astrologers interpret the planets differently.
Rather than seeking absolute certainty, post-positivist thought seeks understanding, which is open to different interpretations by different interpreters. We recognize that all knowledge is relative to one’s perspective, and that we’re always influenced by our beliefs and expectations. One never has pure access to an objective reality. There’s a plurality of truths, not absolute certainty. In the human sciences, hermeneutics or interpretation is emphasized, making clear the interpreter’s biases and interests in the experiment or text to be decoded.
According to philosopher Hans Gadamer, interpretation involves dialectic between the interpreter’s expectations and the meanings in the text. There is no one correct interpretation. Similarly, in astrology we realize there’s no pure, objective reading of a chart; the chart is always open to a plurality of interpretations. No two astrologers read a chart in exactly the same way. Rather than seeking the impossible goal of absolute certainty and predictive accuracy, we acknowledge that our findings are dependent on the unique conditions of the interpretive moment – which is influenced by the kind of mood the astrologer is in, what transits we’re having at the time, and our degree of mastery of what each planet represents.
In other words, our ability to interpret a Saturn or Neptune transit depends on our own maturity in facing the challenges these planets tend to present. Our biases as interpreters and our clients’ varying levels of consciousness both undermine the determinism often assumed to be implicit in astrology.
But the definitive insights that can help astrologers permanently shed determinism derive from the philosophy of human action. As stated by philosopher Charles Taylor, human action isn’t caused by prior, antecedent events. People are the agents of their own actions. People can start chains of events in the world and needn’t function merely as links in causal chains already started. We’re sometimes causes of our own behavior. No prior, antecedent conditions are sufficient to account for the fact that a certain action has been performed. Human action involves purpose and intention, the awareness of an action plan.
Human actions are autonomous acts of agents and are teleological (goal- oriented) rather than strictly determined by prior causes. According to Taylor, human action is governed not by causal law but by teleological laws that relate actions to their intended consequences rather than to antecedent events. In short, human action is goal oriented, and purposeful.
In this light we can practice astrology stressing not what determines us but what pulls us toward the future, discerning the “intended consequences” of the planets. We can meditate on chart symbols, asking: “What does the universe intend or ask of me now?” Astrology is a special discipline of human action, because it enables us to synchronize our actions to the evolutionary rhythms of the cosmos. It enables us to formulate intentions, and to transform ourselves in accordance with the patterns of the planetary archetypes. This is the basis for a truly humanistic and spiritual science that is making an important contribution to human culture and transformation.