A Philosophy of Astrology #1 ~ The Intro

Astrology is a deep and fascinating subject. Some say it's nonsense, others are hearing the voice of the Gods. Philosophical paradigm wars aside, let's analyze some of the basics of the astrological mindset.

For the neutral observer, the most basic astrological idea would probably be that the movements of the heavens have something to say about life on earth in both a physical and a metaphysical way.

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

In the realm of metaphysics, we force ourselves to live with the heretic idea that besides the complex interactions of the four fundamental forces of physics, nature (or some aspect or derivative of nature) has other modes of operation up its sleeve as well. In particular, we're interested in modes of operation that involve meaning. Philosophically, meaning is a messy concept (altho not as messy as consciousness). But most physicists would agree that physics does not deal with meaning, only with information. So that's a start.

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

Altho there is such a thing as subconscious communication, within the astrological mindset, interpretation should usually be seen as intentional. And if we assume that (some aspect of) nature produces 'astrological' signs, this production process may also be intentional in some sense. Or even teleological. One of the biggest challenges of astrological philosophy is to think clearly about possible intentions behind celestial signs. Are we living in a smart Universe? Or is it essentially random, deaf, dumb and blind as most physicists believe?

Signs, metaphors and stories
The word sign has a traditional astrological meaning, as in 'Sun sign'. But right now i'd like to use this word semiotically. In astrology we basically have two types of signs: celestial and earthly. The astrologer is always looking for correspondences between these two classes of signs. Celestial signs can be 100% observable physical events, like a conjunction of planets, or they may include 'mathematically' constructed stuff, like planetary nodes or house systems. Earthly signs are specific events or psychological processes that correspond or rhyme with certain celestial events. While astrologers claim that celestial and earthly signs are related in regular, predictable ways, high precision is not guaranteed. The relation is a bit associative or poetic. There's some interpretational wiggle room, or bandwidth.

So how does a meaningless physical event like a conjunction or an eclipse become a more 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, (color?) and so on do not live in isolation in the human brain. We connect these qualities with each other in new, creative ways. A poet might say "you're hotter than a 1000 suns" or even "you are the sunshine of my life". It's not too hard to see how a celestial event like a solar eclipse could be thought of 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 with the human need for creation myths, and you 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. So... how do we know what a celestial sign actually refers to? What's the story?

Well... it might be this or that, but only if at the same time...

Because of it's complexity and it's relatively strong dependence on subjective interpretation, astrological consensus develops gradually. It takes different 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. Metaphysical science of course.

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 (or accumulated) 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. In his magnum opus, Tarnas analyses some of the principles of modern astrological theory, and he offers fairly solid astrological perspectives on various kinds of historical events. Tarnas' work is another philosophical 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;
• W.D. Gann for his perspective on ancient numerology.

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