Astrology as a Traditional Science, Part IV: Research and Observation

In the past three articles, we have explored the origins and roots of rationalism, the essential and metaphysical principles upon which astrology is based, and how astrological problems would be addressed under Essentialist (the traditional approach defended by Plato that was common to all civilizations and was first breached in Periclean Athens), Aristotelian, and nominalist philosophies.  I also suggested that the Essentialist philosophy is soundest of these three philosophies.  I also suggested that we approach astrology as a traditional science, rather than as a modern science.  What does this mean?

A simple explanation of the difference between traditional science and modern science is that a traditional science accepts what has been handed down from tradition as true when that tradition is long standing and relatively uniform.  Traditional science treats metaphysical principles as trustworthy and constant and treats information that we perceive with our senses as unreliable and fleeting.  Modern science takes the opposite approach.  In modern science, nothing is considered true or proven unless it can be observed with our senses (either directly or with technological enhancement) or can be derived from our sense data using rational analysis.  Traditional science still uses sense data and rational analysis; however, information obtained from these sources is given a secondary status to information that has been passed down from solid tradition (you may recall that tradition is that which has been passed down to us from the beginning of time, see What is Tradition?)

How can this be?  Can we not trust what we can observe with our senses?  This proposition is a difficult one for Westerners, I think.  We are taught to question everything and that “seeing is believing.”  Under a traditionalist approach, however, we understand that the only part of the cosmos that we can perceive with our senses is the sublunary sphere; all of the higher planes are beyond our senses.  What we know of the higher planes is that which has been passed down to us from tradition.  There is a certain arrogance to modern scientific reliance on our own observation and rational analysis, assuming that we know better than our forebears did.  The modern attitude can be likened to that of a teenager ignoring the advice and wisdom of her parents.  Traditional science presumes that our forebears knew more and understood more than we did, so we trust tradition over our current sense data.

Does this mean that current research and our sense data are to be ignored by traditional science?  Not at all.  First of all, in the West, our tradition has been broken, particularly in the traditional science of astrology.  There are many fine astrologers and researchers who are busy at work translating and analyzing texts from the past 2,000 years, but this is a poor substitute for an unbroken line of tradition passed down from teacher to student over millennia.  Because of this, we do not have a uniform or consistent tradition to guide us.  There are some principles and techniques that are uniform, such as the traditional planetary rulerships of the signs.  There are other principles and techniques that are confusing at best and chaotic at worse, such as the various House systems.

In cases where tradition is unclear or confusing, we do need to use research and observation to sift through inconsistencies.  In a modern scientific approach, one would sift through these inconsistencies using a purely empirical approach.  We would conduct research to see what “worked.”  Research and observation to determine what techniques “work” is perfectly acceptable in a traditional science as well, particularly when the there is inconsistency and apparent disharmony in the tradition available to us.  On the other hand, in a traditional science, one would first analyze metaphysical foundations for the different techniques, if such information was available.  If it is clear that the metaphysical basis behind a technique is unsound, it should be discarded, whether or not it appears to “work.”

Furthermore, even if we had a solid, unbroken tradition, we would still need research and observation.  This is because of the doctrine of the unfolding of the ages.  For a detailed description of this doctrine, I will refer the reader to this article; however, the summary of this doctrine is that Axial Beings become more and more consolidated in matter as the greater cycle progresses.  At present, we are in the Age of Iron, and we are highly consolidated in matter.  While the metaphysical principles remain consistent and true, the application of these principles changes and becomes less pure.  A technique that may have worked in the past may not work in the same way as this material age continues to unfold.  A concrete example of this concept is the prediction of fertility using techniques that have been passed down from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  In this day and age, we have reproductive technology to assist with such matters, so the techniques that “worked” in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to predict whether an individual would have children may not work now, or more likely, may work, but in a different way.

This approach to research and observation is not the same as the modern approach.  When we undertake this research, we are not attempting to innovate, nor do we have any notion that we will “discover” something unknown to our forebears.  What we are doing is acknowledging the unfolding of the ages and that the sublunary plane is the world of flux and change.  The principles remain the same, but the application of these principles changes over time.  This is where the Essentialist understanding of metaphysics provides more flexibility than the Aristotelian understanding does.  The Essentialist understanding  of metaphysics is that the material reflects the metaphysical; it does not necessarily mimic the metaphysical.  Our theories and hypotheses must be derived from sound metaphysics and tradition; however, a reasonable amount of variance is allowed and even expected.  We can adapt our methods and techniques to be more accurate in a different age without challenging or upsetting the underlying principles.

It may seem like this discussion has led us back to the methods that many astrologers already use in their practice and in application.  In a sense, that is absolutely correct.  Adopting an Essentialist philosophy does not necessarily change what we do on a practical level.  What does change is how we think about what we do, and how we analyze and explain our craft.  One of the areas of discomfort and disharmony for and between  Traditional/Classical Astrologers concerns how strictly we adhere to the lessons of astrologers of the past, and whatever approach we take, it is a source of criticism from modern astrologers.  This makes for some rather uncomfortable conversations in our attempts to explain whether and how we can adhere to tradition in a world that is very different from the world in which our predecessors lived.  As I have also demonstrated, there are flaws in the Aristotelian approach, and these flaws require mental gymnastics to explain and reconcile when we are confronted by the findings of modern science.

While the modern criticisms of Aristotelian philosophy have merit, the modern answer to these criticisms does not.  The error in the Aristotelian approach is not a lack of understanding of modern scientific principles; the error is in the departure from tradition.  Essentialist philosophy provides us with flexibility and gives us the guidance we need to adapt and adjust our practice to a changing world.  This philosophy expects and can accommodate variations between our tradition and our sense data in a way that Aristotelian philosophy cannot. Essentialist philosophy also sets the  parameters for adjustments to our practice.  The first parameter is that our adaptions derive from our tradition and do not disrupt tradition.  The second parameter is that we only adapt when it is necessary to obtain accurate readings in a more material and consolidated time, and these adaptations are vigorously tested.  We adapt and adjust, we do not innovate.

I understand that this series of articles may be a bit challenging.  The ideas that have been presented have been the result of a long dialogue and struggle that I have had in adapting my practice to an Essentialist understanding of the cosmos.  This struggle was reminiscent of the struggle I had several years ago when I was converted to Classical Astrology from Modern Astrology.  Like that struggle, this one was difficult and painful, but the end result was well worth the struggle.  For me, it has given me a new and richer understanding of our craft, and on a practical level, I believe it has allowed me to give more accurate and helpful readings to others.