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Some Thoughts on Horoscopes

December 29, 2012

In his essay Wittgenstein and the Interpretation of Religious Discourse, Alan Bailey cites astrology as an example of a language-game we can legitimately criticise due to its irrationality, despite the fact that millions of people believe in it to some degree. Although I think Bailey is badly off-line, I do not intend to give a detailed response here. Instead, I want to offer a few thoughts about my own attitude towards astrology that his essay brought to the surface. They suggest to me that the issue is not entirely about rationality or irrationality. At least in part it’s about one’s personal attitude towards the world as a human being.

To be clear: I don’t believe in astrology, horoscopes and the such-like. I know full-well that all objective tests show there is no correlation between star signs, personality and the events that occur in people’s lives. I also understand how horoscopes are carefully worded to make them too vague to be easily falsifiable while still seeming to offer concrete advice. In short, I think it’s a load of nonsense. And yet….

I have to admit that on the odd occasion I stumble upon my horoscope I do not (indeed cannot) read it with precisely the same attitude I might have towards other dubious pieces of information. There is something about the context or the professed significance of the statement that requires me to regard it in a particular way, even though I do not believe for a moment in its prophetic powers. Despite my scepticism I engage with it on some level. This is not to suggest that my scepticism is illusionary – but neither is my engagement. Ironic, yes; illusionary, no. For a few moments I indulge my credulity (smiling at myself as I do so) and read the horoscope as if it were true. Of course, I then forget about it almost at once and carry on with my life. All the same, it is interesting that it yields a reaction other than derision or complete indifference.

It is difficult to describe accurately what’s happening on such occasions, but I also think it’s important not to use some ad hoc theory to brush the whole thing under the carpet. So one might, for example, be tempted to say “Oh, it’s just a hangover from your childhood credulity”. We often use these “theories of the moment” (so to speak), but – honestly – what grounds do we have for such an explanation? Isn’t it merely a palliative we reach for when we no longer want to be bothered with something? Doesn’t it amount to little more than saying “don’t worry yourself about it”?

The fact is this: the power of prophecy is not completely alien to me, but at the same time I’m a modern man with a modern upbringing who doesn’t believe in such things. And the lurking appeal of prophecy here is nothing to do with ignorance – eg, with being unaware of the power of scientific methodology. It is more animal than that: a strange, instinctive reaction to the world. It is part of my life.

Now, when I meet people who actually believe in such things I tend to feel very intellectually distant from them. I find it hard to understand how they can take this stuff seriously – but part of me does understand it. The attitude I find momentarily pleasing they find compelling. And if you ask them for the grounds of their belief what will they say? They might talk airily about “mystic forces” and “auras” not yet comprehended by science. (Such talk would strike me as similar to the “theories of the moment” mentioned earlier – it serves the same basic purpose: they want to behave like this, but they’re challenged by that, so they grab a fig leaf to cover their embarrassment and carry on as before.) They might, on the other hand, simply admit that they didn’t know how it all worked, but nonetheless it was what they believed in. And that would be that. We behave according to these rules. They don’t. We consider people unreasonable if they aren’t convinced by this way of looking at things. They don’t.

And this is how it is with me: sometimes their flight in the face of reason makes me shake my head at human gullibility, but sometimes, when I’m in a more accepting mood, they seem to add to the warmth, variety and humanness of life.

A final, slightly tangential thought. It never strikes us as odd that we educated, rational folk will quite happily go to see a film about vampires or hobbits or even angels (so long as it’s not too preachy). We have no difficulty at all in bathing in that alternative universe for a couple of hours. We do not screw up our faces when the movie starts and say “Vampires? Seriously? Who made this film, a lunatic?” Rather, it seems the most unremarkable thing in the world. I can’t help thinking that reveals something interesting about us as human beings.

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