A Philosophy of Astrology #6 ~ The Science

For most people with a scientific background it's simply common sense that all things astrological are nonsense, when in fact, there's solid quantitative research to back up various astrological claims. Very few professional scientists have reviewed it.

In principle, science, mathematics and statistics are worldview-independent. But in the scientific community some worldviews are more popular than others. That's just the way it is.

Astrological worldview
The astrological worldview can be summarized by the famous hermetic aphorism 'as above so below'. We can take away a few things from this aphorism.

First, it points to the interconnectedness of two realms. Above can be thought of as the heavens, the sky, stars, planets etc. while below is about everyday life on (planet) earth.

Second, if the movements of stars, planets etc. are meaningfully connected to life and everything else that's going on here on earth, then nature is somehow capable of producing an orderliness that seamlessly integrates matter and meaning. Call it astrological order.

Astrological order builds on astronomical order, particularly on the predictable movements of a stable solar system, which is part of a galaxy, and so on. Unlike astronomical order, astrological order also includes, or adds 'layers of' meaning, metaphor and even myth.

For an astronomer looking at Jupiter, the actual name of the planet is irrelevant at the end of the day. Any unique identifier would do. But for an astrologer looking at Jupiter, the name and its connotations or associations actually have meaning. While most astronomers respect the Standard Model of physics so to speak, astrologers go beyond its jurisdiction to look for meaning-based correlations between celestial events (above) and events on earth (below). In doing so, they introduce the bigger philosophical idea of a meaningful universe.

Subjective interpretation
The methodology of popular astrology relies heavily on subjective interpretation of all kinds of celestial signs (in a semiotic sense). Interpretation is not straightforward, as many signs modulate each other's meaning. Of course, there are also various (conflicting) opinions about what the actual meaning, or semantic potential of a certain sign might be. The popular approach isn't solid enough for scientific purposes. Ideally, we would like to eliminate subjective interpretation altogether. 

Astrological framework
In order to formulate testable astrological hypotheses, we must do some metaphysical speculation first. At a minimum, we need a theoretical framework that says something about the basic structure of the astrological sky (above) and about the way astrological correlations can be recognized on earth (below). We also need to clarify the interaction between celestial signs. A theory that accounts for the integration of matter and meaning, which is at the heart of the astrological worldview, will have to wait.

The construction of a 'universal' theoretical framework is not easy, simply because different cultures have come up with different ideas about particulars of the celestial sign-machine. For example, the semantic potential of the Moon might be related to masculine themes according to some cultures, but related to feminine themes in other cultures. While aiming for consensus seems useless, we can still try to get an impression of what a basic theoretical framework for scientific research of astrological structure might look like.

Embodied metaphors
Astrologers have their own way of looking at the sky. For example, they have a keen interest in embodied metaphors. We can think of visibility, luminosity, size, orbital characteristics etc. as objective measures, but for astrologers they are also embodied qualities that can have metaphorical use.

Following a symbolic style of observation and reasoning, all ancient astrology-minded cultures have recognized the Sun and the Moon as very important players in the astrological meaning-game because of their luminosity and size from a geocentric point of view.

Let's postulate this as a principle:

PR 1: Luminosity and relative size of the Sun and Moon indicate their relative symbolic 'weight' or importance.

Celestial objects that are visible with the naked eye are more important than invisible objects. Big, bright objects are more important than small, faint objects. This is true for the Sun and the Moon relative to the visible planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, but also for the stars. A bright star is usually thought to be more important than a faint star. We could say that in astrology, the Sun and the Moon are the most important celestial bodies.

Semantic potential
For astrologers, each celestial object (star, planet etc.) is somehow seamlessly connected to a unique field of potential meanings, its 'semantic potential'. It's a kind of fingerprint. For example, the planet we call Mars is often related to the more assertive aspects of the struggle for life like fights, ambition, physical fitness and so on. Its red color has been associated with blood. On the other hand the planet we call Venus is associated with the finer things in life and the accumulation of socio-cultural capital.

The semantic potential of a celestial object can be related to notable embodied metaphors which are rooted in the physical domain, but also to the (official) name of the object, which is a metaphysical property. Mars is named after the ancient Roman God of War, Venus is named after the Roman Goddess of Love and so on. Note that certain aspects of myths associated with these mythological characters can also be part of the semantic potential. More generally speaking, the symbolic or associative potential of names can be relevant.

The planets all have lofty names, but when it comes to asteroids it's a mixed bag. Official IAU-approved asteroid names are often mundane and sometimes silly. (This is a good thing as it allows us to work with a wide variety of semantic fingerprints.)

Let's postulate another principle:

PR 2: The semantic potential of a celestial object is usually related to notable embodied metaphors, to its name, and to the symbolic or associative potential of the name.

Geometry of meaning
Most objects in our solar system orbit around the Sun. If, for example, we would project the positions of the visible planets on a flat plane, we could look for changes in geometrical relations and see triangles, squares and other geometrical patterns pop up.

Astrologers are especially interested in the (longitudinal) angles between celestial objects. Certain angles have names. For example, an angle of 0 degrees is known as a conjunction, 180 degrees is called opposition, 120 degrees is a trine, 90 degrees is a square, 72 degrees is a quintile. These angles should also be thought of as harmonics. Conjunction is the first harmonic, opposition the second harmonic, trine the third harmonic etc.

When Mars and Venus are conjunct, their semantic potentials modulate each other in a certain way. If they are in opposition, their semantic potentials modulate each other quite differently. A dynamic geometry of meaning seems to be at work here. Angular or semantic modulation is a continuous process, in the sense that its 'effect' is thought to be most noticable when the harmonic angle between two bodies is exact (exactly 0 degrees, 180 degrees etc.) but it is already, or still, noticable when the angle is off by a few degrees.

PR 3: The semantic potential of a celestial body is continually being modulated by the semantic potentials of other celestial bodies.

PR 4: Exact harmonic aspects between celestial bodies point to peak levels of semantic modulation and stronger 'effects'.

Each harmonic angle, or 'aspect' as they're usually called, has a unique quality which again, to a certain extent, is metaphorical. This is especially true for conjunctions and oppositions. A conjunction has a fusing quality, while an opposition has a polarizing quality. For the other angles the metaphorical case is less strong. Traditionally, the trine stands for an absence of friction, while the square stands for a certain amount of friction, but these qualities are not as easily or intuitively derived from a simple projection on a flat plane.

PR 5: Each harmonic aspect has its own semantic flavor or modus operandi.

Note that we must choose between a geocentric perspective and a heliocentric perspective when dealing with aspects. Traditional astrology is mostly geocentric. A change of perspective would imply certain semantic changes, which we will not go into.

We now have a very basic framework describing the above-part of the astrological realm. It's based on simple geometrical relations between celestial bodies, and it gives some rules of thumb when it comes to the semantics. Other celestial signs, like the popular houses, zodiacal signs, midpoints etc. are ignored for now to keep things simple.

So below
Now let's look at the below-part. How can we establish that certain earthly events are in some sense related to the specific qualities of the current astrological weather? How can we link characteristics of the below-state to characteristics of the above-state?

First, earthly events that 'resonate' with the current astrological weather may come in many forms, from purely physical to purely mental. Very different kinds of 'resonating events' might be happening simultaneously. Most would probably be hidden from the public eye but some should be very visible. From earthquakes and erupting volcanoes to medical conditions or political events, astrological correlations can potentially be found everywhere. The branch of astrology that (roughly) looks at more physical kinds of events can be called mundane, forensic or situational. Mental types of events are studied mostly in psychological branches of astrology.

Big data
For scientific research this means that we have to be pragmatic. Let's start by ignoring all anecdotal stuff. Whatever it is we're looking for, it should come in the form of consistent patterns, allow for large samples, plenty of data points and high precision. Mundane events can be easier to measure than psychological events. Another thing to consider is time. Celestial bodies are always on the move, from one salient spot to the next. If we want to model these movements, we must select earthly events that can have reliable timestamps.

Semantic precision
The patterns we're looking for must be precise. Some celestial signs have a broad semantic potential so 'source material' should be selected with care. When it comes to semantic precision, we can for example differentiate between stars, planets and asteroids.

Stars ~ and black holes for that matter ~ are outside of our solar system. There are various approaches to star astrology, but harmonic angles are not necessarily the best tools.

For all planets, including Sun and Moon, we have a canonical set of core concepts used by most astrologers. These can be quite general.

Asteroids are a relatively new category, so to speak. There are thousands of officially named asteroids, and their semantic potential can be very limited which is good for precision.

It would be nice if we could analyze the semantic potential of celestial signs in isolation, but in many cases this would be too difficult. However, registering the interaction between two signs or objects should be doable in many cases. In general, the interconnectedness of celestial signs and the fluidity of symbolic association make it harder to use reductionist strategies.

Example: asteroid names in news items
Let's finish with an actual research example. Renay Oshop (ayurastro.com) has used her deep knowledge of astrology, mathematics and statistics to design an experiment that bypasses subjective interpretation and leverages the precision of asteroids.

Here's the general idea:
  1. Look at the angle between the Sun and an asteroid. (In fact, look at 1211 asteroids);
  2. Go to Google News and count the number of news articles that have the name of the asteroid in it;
  3. Repeat on a daily basis and keep doing this for 5 years.
The hypothesis being that the angle between the Sun and the asteroids is related to the number of news articles counted. So far the results are satisfying. P-values are in fact extremely small, especially when compared to other astrological research.

The project is open source. All code and data will be made available. Daily updates of the results are available over here.