Every rationally minded individual today considers astrology false. But this conclusion depends upon an unstated premise: that the correct way to evaluate astrology is by a scientific audit of its premises. What if astrology is understood not as a system of knowledge, but as a game of make-believe? What if astrology is evaluated not as fact, but as fiction?
Professor Kendall Walton’s make-believe theory of representation suggests we can understand artworks – paintings, statues, books, movies and games – as props which prescribe certain imaginings. This description is perfectly suited to explaining how astrology functions. When one plays with astrology, there are various principles of generation in force by which maps of the position of stars serve as props which prescribe one imagines certain things, for example that people born at such-and-such a time of year possess certain personality traits, and that they will experience certain generalised events during certain periods of time.
This is not to claim that astrology is false. The truth of an artwork and the truth of a logical proposition or scientific investigation are not equivalent terms. The works of Shakespeare faithfully capture many aspects of the human condition even though they are fiction, and mythic works such as the Ramayana in Hindu tradition have cultural and religious value that is not hindered by its status as fiction. Heidegger asked “What is truth that it can happen as art?” In this vein, I would ask “if astrology is art, can it not contain truth?”
The idea that astrology can be dismissed entirely because it is “obviously false” (which is to say, it is incompatible with orthodox science) fails to ask the more important question: can astrology have value? The question of its cultural or personal value does not rest on its compatibility with scientific method or theory, and the assumption that it does borders on the doctrinaire. Within the game of astrology, one might find a motivation to act when one would otherwise be afraid (“now is a good time for change”), or a means to accept the human nature of others (“Aries is a fire sign”), and these benefits have nothing whatsoever to do with a scientific evaluation of astrology.
No doubt historically the role of astrology far exceeded that of a game of make-believe: forms of divination were used to guide important decisions of state in ancient China and Europe. But for the most part there were no better methods for settling the decisions in question, and as a spur to action it may still have been an adequate tool. If the astrologer was an intelligent, learned, intuitive individual they could raise matters to the attention of the heads of state through divination that otherwise might never be taken into consideration. This of course could also allow a Machiavellian individual to gain power and influence. But substitute “advisor” for “astrologer” and “analysis” for “divination” in the above claims and this is still a valid concern today.
If astrology is understood as fiction, as a game of make-believe in which participants can acquire entertainment and diversion as well as psychological benefits such as increased confidence or mitigated hostilities, it ceases to matter that its methodology cannot be squared with modern scientific paradigms. Perhaps we are too jealous in the guarding of the wall we erect between fiction and fact: man does not live by fact alone. Even the most intensely orthodox scientist still believes in some fictions, such as their sense of self, the reality of the nation they live in, and the validity of the abstraction ‘science’. Fiction is sometimes as useful as fact, and often more enjoyable, and perhaps this is why astrology maintains its popularity even today.