A Philosophy of Astrology #4 ~ The Subjectivity

In the previous episode the astrological world view was characterized as 'essentially holistic' because it integrates planets and people, cosmos and consciousness, in a deeply coherent way. So why do critics think astrology is superstitious nonsense?

The astrological realm is filled with stories, symbols and signs. Each symbol or sign, whether embodied, gestural, geometrical, narrational or mythical, points to a (limited) field of potential meanings. The actual interpretation of symbols, in relation to other astrological variables and place-and-time coordinates, is done inside the heads of astrologers. Each astrologer thinks differently so the 'correct' interpretation of symbols can and should be subject to discussion.

What could possibly go wrong?
1. Interpretation of signs and symbols is a complex process, involving both conscious thought and unconscious 'brain activity'. The outcome may be influenced by personal biases, blind spots, projection, wishful thinking, cultural conditioning and so on.
2. Arguments about the validity of widely used techniques, especially the tropical vs. sidereal zodiac-debate, demonstrate how hard it is for the astrological community to reach consensus about fundamental issues related to interpretation.
3. Uncritical use of the popular, simplified 10-planets-12-signs-12-houses-model may lead to flat interpretations or to mistaking the map for the territory.
4. Bad data, looking at the wrong chart and so on.
5. Predicting the future is not easy at all.

Professional astrologers have a pragmatic mindset. They want useful results that are good enough, and they want to get them in a limited amount of time. You can spend 2 minutes, 2 hours or 2 days analyzing a chart. The economic optimum would be to spend a certain number of hours, not days. Analyzing all astrological information that is available 'in principle', integrating fixed stars, asteroids and perhaps a few less common techniques will actually take days. That's why many astrologers prefer to stick to a trusted basic repertoire that produces reliable results in a relatively short time. Fair enough.

Certain individuals with 'high sensitivity' or a strong intuition have a special talent for the correct interpretation of astrological symbolism. From a pragmatic point of view that's fine. But we have to keep Carl Sagan's aphorism in mind: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. A solid track record of succesful predictions for example might constitute such extraordinary evidence.

Ambiguity vs precision
Astrologers work with a mixed bag of tools. Some tools are relatively precise, others are relatively ambiguous. In the popular, simplified Western approach the 10 planets, 12 signs and 12 houses all have a fairly broad and somewhat overlapping field of potential meanings. Each planet has a special relation with certain signs and houses that resonate with it. This means that certain symbolic ingredients can enter the story via three different routes, leaving quite a bit of interpretative wiggle room.

Lots of asteroids have a more limited, precise field of potential meanings. If asteroid Lie (26955) is conjunct the Sun in a birth chart, this can roughly point to either a special talent for dishonesty, or being allergic to lies. It would be relatively difficult to discern these fairly specific qualities using only the popular Western model (altho Mercury is known for it's ability to speak with a double tongue, and Jupiter has a talent for bragging).

Since there are still many asteroids with unknown properties, these rocks are no magical cure for ambiguity or vagueness. But a systematic analysis of 'salient' asteroids improves precision. In the same way, a solid analysis of the fixed stars improves precision. A judicious use of prime harmonics and midpoints improves precision, and so on. But overall, very few astrologers would be interested in, or actually have the time to use all resources that are available for disambiguation and precision.

The map and the territory
Some astrologers are obsessed with exact birth times. No problem. Basically they're trying to collect reliable data in order to eliminate certain errors. Others are obsessed with the peculiarities of their preferred map. This can lead to unrealistically precise claims. For example, the graphical design of a chart may suggest that zodiac signs and houses have clear, unambiguous, straight borders. But the graphical representation doesn't necessarily equal the astrological reality. Basically, a chart is just a convenient graphical tool for quick assessments. We have 12 equally proportioned signs for ease of use or perhaps for numerological reasons. At any rate, treating the graphical borders on the map as actual borders is a case of mistaking the map for the territory. After all, there is no consensus about the preferred or 'correct' sign-system or house-system. This kind of reasoning also seems to be a symptom of losing the connection with the night sky, where signs do not exist. The unequally proportioned constellations are the actual mythical stuff that signs are made of. Constellations are not irrelevant. To be clear: all this is not to say that the Ascendant, Descendant, MC and IC are unimportant.

Nowadays, because of light pollution, horizon pollution and so on, most astrologers stare at computer screens instead of observing the night sky. It seems that something important has been lost. In my opinion astrological interpretation is rooted in physical reality. The 'visual' tradition is very important. As Bernadette Brady has demonstrated, it's perfectly possible to do great astrology using the ancient techniques of the Egyptians and the Sumerians. The Hellenistic toolkit is also still valid (altho i suspect that Vettius Valens would consider himself a siderealist). We can also tap into the deep wisdom of the Jyotish tradition and get amazing results. But modern city-dwellers who have never actually seen the Milky Way can also be susceptible to digital distortions or cheesy cultural cliches.

Next time we'll look at the geometrical aspect of astrology.