Astrologers count their lucky stars

The latest astronomical findings will not alter our fascination with ho roscopes
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The Independent Online
Writing in the New York Times a couple of years ago Professor Steven Weinberg, one of the greatest living physicists, discussed the possible effects on the world of a Theory of Everything. This theory - which would provide a complete account of th e history of the universe - would, he acknowledged, not be fully understandable by the lay public. But in time, the very fact of its existence would begin to change people's attitudes.

"News that nature is governed by impersonal laws," he wrote, "will percolate through society, making it increasingly difficult for people to take seriously astrology or creationism or other superstitions."

Weinberg's assumption is that the physicists' faith in their theory would naturally be transmitted to the general public. Once we understood that the history of matter could be condensed into a set of equations, then all our superstitions would graduallyfall away.

Well, the Theory of Everything remains unattained. But meanwhile, one of those superstitions - astrology - is under attack from another scientific discipline. The astronomer Dr Jacqueline Mitton has pointed out that our star signs are all wrong in the sense of being astronomically inaccurate and that, in any case, there should be 13 signs of the Zodiac rather than 12. I find that, at a stroke, I have become a Leo rather than a Virgo; and the imperturbability of Gary Lineker has been subverted by the discovery that he belongs under the troublesome new sign of Ophiuchus.

Dr Mitton appears to have been genuinely surprised by the level of interest in her announcement. She shouldn't have been. Astrology is the single most popular fortune-telling technique we have. Everybody knows their sign; stupid and intelligent people alike routinely accept that their personality is in harmony with that ordained by their sign; and most of us, from time to time, read horoscopes with at least some degree of credulity.

Scientists get very angry about this. There is, they point out, no possible basis for the astrological theory; it is phoney, laughable and maybe, if they get very angry, dangerous. Dr Roger Highfield, in the Daily Telegraph, even makes the somewhat bitter point that the most successful newspaper astrologers earn much more than Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal. Does he mean that scientific soundness should be employed as the basis of pay scales? Since he is a scientist, he probably does.

In truth, scientists get suspiciously angry about astrology. If it is complete nonsense, what are they so worried about? There are other, more harmful, superstitions in the world and, pay scales apart, astrologers do not seem to represent any direct threat to the march of science. In fact, somewhat pathetically, they seem to be aspiring to the authority of science by mimicking its hermetic language of explanation.

The real problem is, I suspect, that astrology is a daily advertisement of the fact that we do not, and never can, live in a scientific world. Persuasive and effective as science has been, people still insist on living partly, if not wholly, magical lives. Indeed, it seems that the more successful and powerful science and technology become, the more people turn to magic and the occult. "The more enlightened our houses are," wrote Italo Calvino, "the more their walls ooze ghosts."

Such a process is an affront to the conventional vision of scientific progress that has been with us since the 18th century. This vision shows humanity being led from darkness to light by the solid, enlightened wisdom of science. Behind lie the dark agesof superstition and illusion; ahead lie the bright uplands of true knowledge, free of illusions and mystery.

But in our time, this bright vision has been severely tarnished by scientific failures - environmental problems, the failure of nuclear power, the incompetence of supposedly scientific methods in areas such as economics and so on. In the mind of the public, science is no longer the virtuous guide to a better future, but a deeply ambiguous form of knowledge that offers as many threats as it does consolations.

There is also a much deeper change in our perception of science. Now the initial excitement has died away, it has become clear that science does not actually have very much to say to us. What, for example, do we do on those bright sunlit uplands where weshall not be allowed to read our horoscopes? Having freed ourselves of all illusions, what shall we do, who shall we be? Ludwig Wittgenstein, as usual, got it in one: "We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched."

Scientists find it hard to accept that this change has taken place. Dr Highfield, for example, writes of "the dark days before scientific enlightenment". But what does he mean by "dark"? Ours has been the most brutal century in history; it has also been the most scientific.

Perhaps the scientists simply realise that they have lost power and prestige. They prefer the old belief - strongest, perhaps, in the early Fifties - that science was the only effective truth we had and that, in time, it would eliminate all What is absolutely clear to the rest of us is that astrology and a million other systems of magic and divination will always be part of human life. Scientific credibility has nothing to do with it. Something deeper, something more profoundly entangled with our humanity, is involved.

Consider, for example, what happens when you - optimistically, I take you to be an intelligent and fairly sceptical individual - read your horoscope. You are drawn in. You indulge your credulity. You compare your life with what the astrologer says; you try to match his forecasts with what might happen that day. At the point of reading, in spite of yourself, you believe.

This belief is rather like the "suspension of disbelief" we employ in order to read a poem or a novel. We suppress the rational conviction that this is not "true" in order to make it work and, when we return to the real world, we find, if the astrologer or novelist has been sufficiently skilful, that something remains, some echo which we have made our own.

Any number of scientific explanations may be found for this habit, perhaps showing that astrology springs from some primitive, ancestral need that is now superfluous. But no such explanation could ever make the slightest difference. For, whatever Weinberg says, we cannot be talked out of our magical dialogue with reality.

There is, within us, some indefatigable determination to place meaning outside ourselves, to invent strange and scientifically meaningless patterns and, in some part of our mind inaccessible to scepticism, to take them seriously. Nobody, not even Dr Highfield, can stop themselves from doing this. And nobody should want to, because the day we stop will also be the day we stop being human.