When Tolerance beats Critical Thinking
Updated: Mar 2, 2018
Firm conclusions require empirical evidence not historical hypotheses.
A western astrologer arguing his case on the “The Two-Zodiac Problem” to 800 Vedic astrologers was going to be controversial. At the 2018 Astrology Conference in Kolkata, India, archetypal astrologer, Dr Glenn Perry grabbed the nettle:
“The sidereal zodiac hangs on, a vestigial organ once relevant to our Babylonian ancestors but no longer in accord with our current understanding of the cosmos. The sidereal zodiac was effectively terminated by the tropical zodiac, but like a ghost haunting its executioner, casts a troubling shadow over our profession.”
I don't question Perry's action in raising important questions and the content of his talk was clear and well composed. But I question his approach in three ways:
First, many in the audience felt his tone was inappropriate considering the conference was about building bridges between the East and West. Perry and his partner were receiving generous hospitality from the organiser, a Vedic astrologer. In India, astrology is considered sacred and respected accordingly.
Secondly, his arguments were too simplistic and failed to address the flaws. (I have read the transcript of his lecture but not the full article published in Constellations.)
Glenn Perry addressing the elephant in the room.
A Zodiac Based on Seasons or Stars?
Perry’s basic premise is that the original zodiac was a hybrid defined by stars and cardinal points. Astrology was founded on calendar-keeping. The zodiacal constellations were metaphors of seasonal processes occurring in nature. All subsequent sign meanings are self-consistent, and derivative of their foundational meaning rooted in nature.
The great prehistoric megaliths around the world were oriented to the Cardinal Points. Once Hipparchus (2nd century BC) had identified precession, he used the Vernal Equinox point as the start of the Zodiac. Ptolemy followed, in line with the consensual view at the time. Meanwhile, Hellenistic astrology came to India in the 1st and 2nd century (or earlier). However, without knowledge of precession “Hindu astrologers continued to confuse the visible backdrop – the constellations – for the real thing.”
What Glenn does not address is whether and, if so, how the zodiac should also apply to the Southern Hemisphere where the seasons are reversed? Is astrology universal and do the Signs have objective meanings? Were the northern hemisphere seasonal archetypes projected or coincidental? How do signs such as Gemini and Sag apply as seasonal metaphors? Did Hindu astrologers know about precession and deliberately use sidereal markers? Do Hindu astrologers ascribe the same meanings to their Zodiac Signs (Rashi) as western astrologers as Perry claims? Though he cited western sidereal astrologers, why didn't he cite any Indian sources?
As an intellectual debate, this will go on for ever. As a western tropical astrologer, I will leave this to the practitioners and scholars of both systems.
Critical Thinking requires Empirical Evidence not Historical Hypotheses
What interests me is Glenn’s attempts to imply that he has the scientific high ground when he asserts:
“Tolerance of opposing viewpoints is not mutually exclusive with critical thinking. A field grows by a willingness to question itself and go where the evidence leads.”
Critical thinking is part of the language of science. In the scientific method, evidence should be empirical - not historical assumptions and claims that are debatable. He provides no objective evidence.
"I also don’t think personal, subjective experience can tell us which zodiac is correct because there are too many ways an astrological archetype can be represented in a chart.
In the end, all that matters is whether an explanation is persuasive;..."
In this debate, it would be fine to discount subjective experience and anecdote if objective evidence could be provided. However, merely being persuasive in the mind of an astrologer, weaned on the western zodiac, is subjective and no substitute for hard evidence. (By hard evidence , I am referring to experimental tests with subjects, a control group and a statistical analysis.)
In practice, I have no objection if an astrologer can help a client using an astrological technique that could work through placebo, intuition or divination. In this instance, the subjective experience: the result is more important and where tolerance is more appropriate than critical thinking.
I accept that it was good to open up this discussion, but I disagree with Glenn’s justification of his approach. Tolerance of diversity within the practice of astrology is not a PC posture, but rational humanity. However, shared or public claims should be proportional to the evidence and limited to the scope of the test. So, it is fine to claim that one technique is superior to another in a given situation, but only if it is supported by hard evidence. In this instance, Dr Perry's soft evidence did not warrant his firm conclusion.
Thanks to Dr Will Morris & Roy Gillett.
Podcast: Chris Flisher interview with Robert Currey. How To Interpret? Western or Vedic Astrology? 58 minutes
2 March 2018