Astronomy & Astrology: Friends or Foes?

Dr Rodney Hillier, University of Bristol and Nicholas Campion, Bath Spa University College, on 7 June 2002

This debate between an astronomer (RH) and an astrologer (NC), who is organising a Comparative Religions course at the College, took place in front of an audience of about 35, many of whom were amateur astronomers, although a number of enthusiastic readers of horoscopes were present.


It was opened by Dr Hiller, who admitted he knew little about astrology. Astronomy works to rules and aims to predict accurately the future position of heavenly bodies. Some systems are not predictable, e.g. human behaviour, weather, etc. and astrologers, he felt, try to fill the requirement for predictability, particularly of human behaviour, by studying the motion of moving bodies in the night sky relative to stars, as seen from the Earth. He did not see why these motions should influence human beings. He also asked why there had been no improvement in the predictions over the centuries. It seemed difficult to understand why a difference in time of birth of only a minute could affect a person's character because they were born under one `star sign' rather than another. Why was the motion across the sky considered but not the distance of a planet from the earth? Would Mr Campion take a car for maintenance to an astrologer rather than a mechanic who worked with Newton's Laws?


Mr Campion replied to the last question by saying he would go to a mechanic for a car repair but would consult an astrologer when considering investing money on the Stock Exchange, where human behaviour was important. He explained that at University he had realised that astrology was studied during the Middle Ages to guide important decisions by monarchs, so decided to study its applications in the modern world. Since the Middle Ages, and especially in the 20th century, astrologers had adopted the language of psychology for horoscopes. From the 15th century, astrologers had attempted to improve astronomy, for example, to discover more stars, with the objective of improving astrological predictions.

The origins of astrology go back to the Babylonians about 4000 years ago and get its philosophy from Plato and Aristotle. Plato considered the Universe a unity, time and place being linked. He described the planets as moving images of time or of God's intention. Aristotle claimed God's thoughts moved the planets. The Babylonians negotiated with God to affect the future foretold by astrology. He pointed out that the signs of the Zodiac were not the important objects in the sky; it was the position of the Sun, Moon and planets in the 12 zones, each 30o wide, which mattered. These 12 zones were roughly coincident at present with the signs of the Zodiac, but would not always be so.


Questions were chiefly concerned with astrological matters. Horoscopes are written primarily as journalism with language derived from classical mythology and excluding sex or violence. They are intended to encourage people and remind them of moral behaviour, much like `Thought for the Day'. The words are interpreted by each individual according to his/her circumstances and certain parts of the horoscope are remembered and others forgotten. About 20% of people believe that stars affect behaviour. Action, e.g. buy a car, is not recommended because the millions of people to whom one star sign applies cannot be advised all to do one thing. Harbingers of doom in the Middle Ages - comets and eclipses - are not included in modern horoscopes, just as signs of the Zodiac were not in the Middle Ages. The ephemeris (a table of the assigned places of heavenly bodies) provides the basis for modern horoscopes for newspapers; astrologers do not have the time to `cast a horoscope' for each sign of the Zodiac every day.

Horoscopes provided for monarchs and important people in history have not survived; they were confidentially given verbally to the monarch and not written down. It is not generally possible to judge the accuracy of a modern horoscope as they are written deliberately vaguely, although the accuracy of particular horoscopes for financial advice might be measured.

There are many varieties of astrology - Indian, Chinese, Mayan, Aboriginal etc, which are very different to western astrology although some of them have some `stories' e.g. about Orion, in common and these may go back 40,000 years.

Donald Lovell