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Many highly educated and professionally accomplished Indians (including eminent scholars and thinkers) believe that Astrology is a science and its practitioners make correct predictions on the basis of theories propounded by ancient seers and sages in India and elsewhere. In the recent past full-fledged departments and state sponsored programmes of research have been instituted in several Indian universities. 

The central astrological thesis is that astral configurations and movements that are the subject matter of Astronomy are ‘independent determinants’ of physical, social psychological and historical phenomena on the earth. Theoretical Astrology is the systematic map of these invariable connections or correlations. Astrologers further hold that some therapeutic practices alter these otherwise invariable correlations between the stars and their earthly effects.  It is believed that Theoretical Astrology is an exact science and that the occasional errors of prediction are the result of either arithmetical errors the individual astrologer makes in the process of lengthy calculations, or the wrong factual information or data the individual client supplies to the astrologer. Numerous people (specially) in India believe that if these two possible sources of error could be removed Astrology would become as accurate and certain as, say, Physics or Chemistry. This truth-claim is quite different from the much more modest claim that some individual or individuals can see into or read the past and future without using the normal methods of enquiry or discovery. Indeed, most of us can testify to have witnessed this remarkable phenomenon that leaves us quite baffled. In the following pages I propose to examine (impartially and critically) the restricted central thesis that astral configurations and movements determine earthly events in the manner of a cause-effect relationship.  In other words, that Astrology is a scientific or rigorous discipline just like Astronomy.

Let us begin with briefly explaining the concept of science. Well, science is accurate and quantitative description of what is the case in terms of actual or possible sense experience, supplemented by verifiable explanations of why such and such is the case. If and to the extent that the explanation cannot be checked or verified in the strict sense of direct or indirect verifiability the explanation becomes speculative or metaphysical rather than scientific in the strict sense of this term. In other words, even if the putative explanation is not directly verifiable (for some reason or other) but it implies or suggests some states of affairs and these states can be cross-checked for their presence in the total picture of ‘what is the case’ the explanation can be (provisionally) accepted as ‘scientific’.  If this cannot be done at all the explanation stands disqualified for being considered or regarded as ‘scientific’. Science is, thus, a highly provisional but progressive body of truth-claims needing continual verification. If, therefore, one believes or claims that Astrology is a scientific discipline he must be able to explain the exact sense in which it is scientific and also why astrological predictions go wrong so frequently as they actually do.

To give some concrete examples, an astrologer predicts that the marriage of P with Q will fail within a year because of such and such astrological configurations or incompatibility between their stars. Such predictions together with astrological explanations are indeed, the stock in trade of astrologers. But when we question the astrologer why is such and such a configuration inauspicious, we find that the astrologer just reiterates this truth-claim and confines himself to citing venerated ancient authorities who were the founding fathers of astrological science in the hoary past. One may well, in all honesty, accept the intuitive wisdom or knowledge of the great ‘rishis’ and sages of India and even go on to accept that their ideas or theories about the benign and evil consequences of specified configurations and movements of the stars as true and, therefore, reliable guidelines for human choice and action. However, the issue concerning the status of Astrology will remain unanswered until such time as the presumed correlations between astral configurations and earthly events can be explained in the proper scientific sense, namely, as instances of a general verifiable theory of the universe as a whole.

Scientific knowledge starts with accurate observation, experimentation, description of regular correlations and interconnections of events but ends with the formulation of laws of wider and still wider generality based, not on induction alone but on verifiable theories that connect the maximum number of events in a broad and internally coherent conceptual framework.  The ceaseless search for verifiable laws of wider and still wider generality keeps the motor of science in perpetual motion and continually expands the   frontiers of knowledge. Even if it be true that astrological predictions are found to be correct in a very large number of cases, this fact, by itself, does not prove that Astrology is a science, in the above sense.  The fact is that the critical enquirer of the real status of Astrology must have before him the statistics of success and failure of prediction on a far bigger scale than what is presently available to us.

Astrology, Astronomy and Mathematics:

The votaries of Astrology take keen delight in pointing out that when an astrologer predicts the future he does not speak out of his hat but on the basis of exact figures, axioms and derivative formulas in the manner of a mathematician. I respectfully submit that this self-image follows from two confusions, (a) equating Astrology with Astronomy, and (b) equating astrological calculations from unproved premises with mathematical calculations that are based on logical necessity and rigorous deduction from self-evident truths or axioms.

There is a radical distinction between the truth-claims of Astrology and Astronomy. The latter is akin to Mathematics and Physics. In fact, Astronomy is Mega Physics, and its truth-claims are restricted to the parameters of science or the scientific method. Its predictions are subject to scrutiny and verification in the scientific sense. It does not claim that the writ of the stars runs the fate of marriages, the fortunes of tycoons and sovereign states or governments. Its truth-claims are more or less like those of other natural or physical sciences.

Astrological calculations are radically different from mathematical calculations. The latter deal with analytical truths based on strict logical implication without any reference whatsoever to what is the case at the factual level. When, for instance, one says that 3+2=5, there is no reference to any physical object or objects, nor to the actual or factual situation right now. The mathematical truth-claim merely states a necessary or logical implication of adding up two numerals. No factual evidence is called for to test or establish the mathematical truth-claim concerned. On the other hand, the truth-claim that the boiling point of water is x while that of milk is y does need empirical evidence for its final acceptance as true. In short, mathematical inference is the pure explication of the inherent implication of either a self-evident truth or any initial assumption for that matter, quite irrespective of the actual truth of the base assumption. Modern Mathematics has, thus, reduced mathematics to the science of pure logical implication without any reference to the self- evidential status of the starting axiom or axioms. However, the truth-claims of the natural sciences do require and will ever continue to require sound and adequate empirical evidence for their final acceptance or corroboration. 

Let us now consider to which category astrological truth-claims belong. It should be obvious to any critical student that they are neither self-evident nor logically deducible from any self-evident truth or truths. They are, really speaking, assumptions or beliefs, held in good faith, on the basis of long cultural conditioning or faith in a hallowed and sacred tradition. Predictions are based on a person’s horoscope or the configuration of the heavenly bodies at the time and place of birth. The horoscope, in turn, flows from basic astrological truth-claims, say; configuration A brings good luck while configuration B bad luck. But this truth-claim is, obviously, not self-evident. Then why should one accept it as true unless there is empirical evidence for its truth? Now what sort of evidence, possibly, could have established the truth, if not conclusively, but at least, as reasonably probable, beyond a shadow of congenital doubt. To me, a mega statistical survey of the total life-chart or biography of persons born in different astrological configurations would have sufficed for the purpose of reasonably satisfactory evidence. But this evidence is not there. What is there is merely faith in the unerring wisdom of the ancient seers and sages. This faith can and does survive in millions of adult men and women. And the fact is that faith can and does act as an anchor and source of consolation and strength for the human species. We all know that even the well established theories of Physics and Chemistry are not certain in the ‘logical sense of certainty’ but only in the sense of  ‘very very probable’ and also extremely fruitful for further research and exploration of other factual truths. However, it is very important and necessary for human growth and welfare to remove one’s inner confusions and bring to light one’s hidden and unexamined assumptions in general.

Therapeutic Astrology:

  This term refers to practical Astrology that prescribes remedies for removing or reducing the bad influence of astrological configurations or stars on the life course of different individuals.

The human individual is a born ‘activist’. The child is ‘active’ even when in the mother’s womb though his awareness and activity are severely limited. As he grows so does his awareness of his or her needs, of communicating them to others. His power of manipulating objects and satisfying his needs also grows and in the fullness of time he becomes an adult. If the adult is thirsty he does not touch or see water, he gulps it down; if he wants to buy food or sweets he goes to the proper shop; if he wants to go out of town he travels by train or bus or by car, and so on. In short, he takes the world to be a system of causes and effects though he may still continue to believe in an all-powerful Creator who could do whatever He willed. Now the point is that Therapeutic Astrology encourages or propels humans to shift the gear from natural cause-effect activism to dependence on some sort of substitute occult action to satisfy their normal needs, desires and goals. The therapeutic actions astrologers prescribe include such acts as feeding Brahmans, or needy persons or animals, burning some specified oils, burying some specified articles or any object of some specified color under the earth or throwing it in a river, reciting some mantra, etc. If one accepts the basic astrological thesis that stars cause good luck or bad for humans on earth, how come that such completely unrelated earthly remedies modify or cancel the inherent power of stars on human destiny.  Prima facie, the basic thesis of theoretical Astrology, as such, and the practice of therapeutic Astrology appear to be incompatible.

It seems to me that astrological theory affirms that stars are all powerful while human will and aspiration are helpless, and if the astral configuration is unlucky every effort will go wrong despite every human ingenuity and planning, while astrological practice affirms that rather strange remedial acts (prima facie quite unrelated to the issue concerned) can break the power of the stars. This lands us in a sort of predicament. If we accept theoretical Astrology, therapeutic Astrology collapses. If we give more weight or importance to the latter the former seems to crumble.

The Track Record of Astrology:

Let us now briefly review the actual success record of Astrology in history. I submit this is a purely factual question whose proper answer depends upon an impartial descriptive survey (based on reliable statistics) of the success/failure in life among the practitioners of Astrology, on the one hand, and non-practitioners on the other. If the survey shows that pro-Astrology individuals or groups have done consistently better than anti-Astrology ones this should be regarded as a pragmatic argument in favor of Astrology. If the survey shows no significant difference in the two groups this should be regarded as seriously weakening the case of Astrology. Moreover, if the survey shows that a large number of  highly successful and inwardly happy individuals do not worry at all about the stars but follow scientifically confirmed  techniques of self-improvement, positive thinking and yoga  this would further weaken the case of Astrology.

There are no reliable statistics at present. However on the basis of everyday observation it seems to me that, in the final analysis, the key factor that determines the success graph of both individuals and groups has little to do with acceptance or rejection of Astrology, and much to do with self-understanding, intellectual and emotional maturity, integrated personality and the active cultivation of good and productive habits of honest hard work and patience. If we closely examine the lives of outstanding happy and successful individuals in different societies all over the world we shall find that they all share certain traits of personality and character, no matter what they think about Astrology. Likewise, the failures would be found to share some other negative or destructive traits, no matter what they think or do about the good or evil power of stars.  

Astrology and Sociology:

Whether stars determine or influence the life story of individuals or not, it is absolutely certain that social cultural factors and the personality type jointly shape the life history of the individual. Diseases related to malnutrition, over-crowding, lack of medical care are far more common among the poor than among the affluent classes, quite irrespective of their presiding stars. It is significant that marital discord and breakdowns of marriage increase when both the partners happen to be economically independent, no matter what their horoscopes might be. Even if we accept that stars matter, reducing the tremendous complexity of human life to the astral dimension (quite clearly beyond human control) and ignoring the social, cultural, economic and technological determinants of the quality of human life (considerably under human control) is the height of un-wisdom. Likewise, the concept of individual fate or predestination (taqdeer), as an immutable Divine decree, is also a tragic misinterpretation of Monotheism, Islamic or Christian.

Concluding Reflections:

Is it possible to redefine or reconstruct the old and persistent Indian astrological tradition in the light of modern scientific knowledge? I leave this task to those who feel powerfully drawn to Astrology even though they are intellectual giants and eminent academics. I, personally, do not have this inner fascination for Astrology. However, it seems to me that this task is, in principle, possible. In the realm of theoretical Astrology one could replace ‘hard astral determinism’ with ‘soft astral influence, while in the realm of therapeutic Astrology one could replace the traditional, rather, arbitrary prescriptions with modern clean cognitive and meditative therapy without any admixture of superstition. In this reconstructed sense an auspicious astral configuration would mean a ‘favorable wind’ or weather, while an unlucky configuration would signify ‘running against the wind or current’.  It is obviously implied that a ‘favorable wind’ is no substitute for the actual process of running, while an ‘unfavorable wind’ is no excuse for abandoning an otherwise rational and desirable choice or project. In short, the astrological concepts of ‘auspicious’ and ‘inauspicious’ may well be interpreted as ‘downstream swimming’ and upstream swimming’ without any power to veto well considered and rationally sound choices or decisions in the sphere of personal, family, business or state undertakings, as the case may be. 

Whether the above approach to Astrology would be practically feasible cannot be asserted at present. The reason is that we do not have enough data to confirm the idea of ‘soft astral influence’ as such. A colossal amount of statistical data would be needed for clinching this issue. On the other side, the universal success of the standard scientific method and technology (without any aid whatsoever of Astrology) in the arts of peace and war is already well established. To my mind, therefore, it is far more prudent for all individuals and groups to rely on the scientific method and apply policy recommendations made by competent psychologists and sociologists for achieving their well-considered goals of life. Reliance on science, however, by no means, implies neglecting or devaluing the proper roles of morality and spirituality in the good life.   

Critique Of Astrology
BY Jamal Khwaja

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Jamal Khwaja studied Philosophy in India & Europe. He was elected to the Indian Parliament in 1957. He retired as Professor and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Aligarh Muslim University. He is the author of seven major books. 

Khwaja’s work seeks to answer three inter-related questions: Firstly, What does it mean to be an authentic Muslim? Secondly, How should a believer understand and interpret the Holy Quran in the 21st century?  And finally, What is the role of Islam in a pluralistic society? 

Khwaja believes in judiciously creative modernization rooted in the Quran and firmly opposes shallow, unprincipled imitation of the West. His mission is to stimulate serious rethinking and informed dialog between tradition and modernity in Islam. 

Khwaja’s work is the definitive contemporary discussion regarding the collision of Islam and Modernity. Readers of his work will be in turn, informed, inspired, and intellectually liberated.