A Philosophy of Astrology #1 ~ The Intro

Astrology is a deep, and also a controversial subject. Skeptics claim that it's based on 'magical thinking' while believers are hearing the voice of the Gods. Philosophical paradigm wars aside, let's take a look at some of the basics of the astrological mindset.

For neutral observers, one of the most basic astrological ideas would probably be that the movements of the heavens are somehow related to life on earth in both a physical and a metaphysical way.

If we want to draw a fairly straight demarcation line between physics and metaphysics, the Standard Model of particle physics is probably a good place to start. It says that all natural phenomena can be reduced to four fundamental forces: the electromagnetic, weak and strong interactions and gravity. That's physics in a nutshell. Example: the Sun produces energy that warms up the Earth. The gravitational influence of the Moon creates tides. 

Stepping into the realm of metaphysics, we accept the idea that Nature has other modes of operation up its sleeve as well. Since we're talking astrology, we're interested in modes that involve meaning. Philosophically, meaning is a messy concept ~ altho not as messy as consciousness. But most professional scientists would agree that physics does not deal with meaning, only information. 

For practical purposes, let's say that meaning implies:
a. production of patterns of signs, metaphors and/or symbols;
b. recognition and interpretation of these patterns;
c. communication.

Altho there is such a thing as unintentional or subconscious communication, within the astrological mindset the act of interpretation should always be seen as intentional. And if we say that somehow, some aspect of Nature produces astrological signs, this too may be intentional or even teleological. Astrology seems to imply that we're living in a fairly smart Universe.

Signs, metaphors and stories
The word sign has a traditional astrological meaning, as in 'Sun sign'. But right now we'll use this word semiotically. In astrology we basically have two types of signs: celestial and earthly, or above and below. The astrologer is always looking for correspondences between these two classes of signs. Celestial signs can be observable physical events, like a conjunction of planets. They can also include geometrically derived abstract elements, like planetary nodes, house systems and so on. Earthly signs are specific events or psychological processes that seem to correspond to or rhyme with certain celestial events. These relations are often loose, associative and even poetic.

So how does an objective physical event like a planetary conjunction or an eclipse of the Sun become a meaningful sign in the mind of a human being? Personally speaking, i'd guess that the human tendency to observe and communicate in terms of embodied metaphors (see the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) has a lot to do with this process. Objective physical qualities like size, speed, temperature, direction and so on do not live in isolation in the human brain. During our lifetime, we connect these qualities with each other in new, creative ways. We literally create new neural paths. A poet might say "you're hotter than a 1000 suns" or "you are the sunshine of my life". If people start talking like this, it's not hard to see how a celestial event like a solar eclipse could be seen as not good: suddenly and unexpectedly, everything goes dark. Light good, dark not good.

In the same way, movements of planets, stars and constellations get entangled in all kinds of ancient stories. Combine the observation of celestial dynamics (above) with the observation of patterns (below) and with the human need for creation myths, and you'll eventually get the story of the Big Bang, adjusted for cave dwelling societies. 

Bingo! A poetic match
Before we can have an actual poetic match between a celestial sign and an earthly sign, we need a stable, somewhat objective system of rules (correspondences) for basic interpretative purposes. In other words: we need some consensus. While poetry may not be as precise as physics, it's not a license for free association, chaos or madness. Metaphors and symbols have their own kind of precision. But how do we know what a celestial sign actually refers to?

Because of the complex holistic nature of the celestial sign-machine and astrology's dependence on subjective interpretation, astrological consensus develops slowly. It takes many cultures, and many generations of specialized observers. And it takes peer review and error correction mechanisms.

This stupid astrologer has lied to the king, off with his head!

But if certain poetic matches are observed often enough, and even show some predictive power, they become part of an astrological canon. It's a bit like science really.

Note that a celestial sign, like for example a planetary conjunction, can simultaneously be related to simple, easily observable physical signs, and to more complex psychological processes involving layered metaphors and symbols that build on various elements of the interpretor's pre-existing knowlegde of the world.

simple sign: if wood or metal is shiny and red, it's hot and dangerous;
certain redheads are hot, sexy and even dangerous.

In other words: a celestial sign may at the same time be linked to physical events like fires (hot and dangerous) and to vaguely related psychological processes, like a preference for people with red hair.

Philosophy: matter or mind?
The official academic history of philosophy, as taught in Western schools, started roughly 2600 years ago in Greece. The Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers asked basic questions about the essential stuff the universe is made of. Some, like Thales, said that everything is basically watery while others, like Heraclitus maintained that everything is basically fiery (as in red, hot, sexy and dangerous).

This simplistic picture of the birth of Western philosophy more or less rhymes with a modern philosophical discussion. Nowadays, philosophers discuss whether basically, everything is matter-like or mind-like. Is everything, including human consciousness, ethics, dreams and so on made of stuff and therefore ruled by physics? Or is matter essentially a by-product of mental, metaphysical activity?

If we want to think about the fundamentals of astrology, it seems almost inevitable to assume that the universe is basically mind-like. Matter-based explanations of astrological synchronization or correlation may be possible but what i've seen so far doesn't look convincing. That's why for this series of blogs i will be relying on a modern, rigorous flavor of idealist philosophy. The views of computer scientist and philosopher Bernardo Kastrup are my theoretical starting point. Kastrup knows his mathematics, quantum theory and philosophy of mind and he formulates his ideas very clearly.

Conveniently, Kastrup also knows his C.G. Jung. The Swiss psychiater's intellectual legacy is also a core element of Cosmos and Psyche, a critically acclaimed book by another philosopher: Richard Tarnas. Cosmos and Psyche offers fairly solid astrological perspectives on various kinds of historical events. Tarnas' perspective is another cornerstone for this series of blogs.

Since i've mentioned Richard Tarnas, i should say that i'm also very appreciative of the following authors, who have shaped my thoughts about astrology:
• Bernadette Brady, for her work on visual astrology and fixed stars;
• Benjamin Adamah, for his encyclopedic work on asteroids;
• Theodor Landscheidt, for his theories about golden ratio-aspects; 
• Hans-Jörg Walter and David Hamblin for work on prime harmonics.

In the next episode, we'll look at the complex symbolic web of astrology.