Why astrology is interesting

August 15, 2021

I recently became an uncle (yay for new humans!). During the fretful hours while we waited for news from the hospital to know that all was good with my sister and her new daughter, my family messaged away on our group chat, and I turned to something that might seem on first glance to be contradictory to a person who considers science to be the greatest gift of humanity. I turned to my horoscopes.

A couple of years ago, I had written my own horoscope generator (using Python and an ephemeris) because I wanted to know which signs and houses the minor planets of Ceres, Eris, Chiron, fell in for my horoscope. It was a fun exercise in learning a bit of computational astronomy and the differing methods of computing horoscopes, of which there are all sorts of warts, distinctions, and exceptions. This is probably what you get when you tether a mathematical system to the human soul for thousands of years.

Turns out this is exactly the kind of pseudoscientific occultism that I can get behind.

Whether astrology can foretell someone’s fate isn’t that interesting to me (if it could, I think someone would have figured out how to make a whole lot more money than you can make writing newspaper columns). But it’s also not useless; it has persisted too long for that dismissal to be credible. What is the social utility of astrology then? What does this complicated and arcane system give us, and what can it tell us about ourselves?

It’s possible that all that astrology does is talk about ourselves. Humans, being the self-centered creatures that we are, love to talk about ourselves. But I think it’s more than that. Astrology has a bunch of weird symbols which only grow in complexity as they form relationships with other symbols: a planet is always in one of 12 houses, determined by what sign is on the horizon at the time of the horoscope. A planet is also in a sign, which also changes its meaning. Each planet, sign, and house all have a personality that interact in byzantine and contradictory ways.

Pluto can be related to death or wealth, the 2nd house is related to money as well as self-worth, and Geminis are intellectual yet wishy-washy. The double-meanings and contradictions aren’t a flaw, they’re by design. I think astrology is an artistic medium we can use to talk about people more easily. They’re a canvas and set of paints, they’re a database of personality archetypes, a language we can code-switch into that makes it easier to explore the corners of your personality that you don’t want to look at directly.

When an astrologer is looking at a horoscope, they get to decide what’s important, what defines the subject the most. Is it their rising sign? The distribution of elements in different houses? Or maybe a subtle aspect of the moon in a house, across from Mercury in another house? You might be tempted to just call this cherry-picking by a different name. Maybe the astrologer is justifying their existing assumptions, biases, and stereotypes.

But if astrology is an art form, then this is the point! We cherry-pick all the time, and for good reason—we have limited attention spans, and most information isn’t important most of the time. The world is complicated, and it’s easier to understand one cherry-picked narrative at a time. Hitchcock called films life with the boring bits cut out. The astrologer is doing the same thing as the filmmaker, cutting out the boring bits to tell a story.

There is a generalization here that goes beyond astrology. I think a good name for the type of system I’m describing is a Rorschach System: a mathematically consistent but deeply ambiguous system. A Rorschach System masquerades as a system that uncovers truth, but instead is a generator that aids the interpreter in telling a story. Their purpose is to serve as a medium for expression and discovery of the emotionally true, rather than discovery of the “objectively” true. I suspect that there are more Rorschach Systems lurking in the quantitative sciences than we would like to admit.

I’m calling it a Rorschacht system after the psychological test because I think it fits. In the original test, your interpretation of an inkblot said something about you. With a Rorschacht system, you’re using a system to surface ideas you already have, in a kind of confirmation bias-in-a-package way.

So why did I turn towards astrology in those hours I spend with my family, hanging on news from the hospital? It was something I could do, at a time when we were all quite useless. Once a person is born, their horoscope is immutable, and once we had them, we could wonder about the human that they (supposedly) described.

I think there’s something to be said for daydreaming towards the truth. Astrology can be useful, we’re just thinking about it wrong. It’s not somehow accessing a cosmic database of past and future, fortune and fate. It’s a system that we’ve developed to access archetypes of people, and use those to tell a story about someone. Sometimes art is the best way of telling the truth as we see it.

a blog by Rowan Copley about fantasy data systems, unhelpful simulations, echoes from the future, and the strange ways that the digital world manifests in the real