15 Jan 2018 15:25 IST

A book written in the sky

The historical significance of astrology, and its continuation in modernity through algorithms

In The Order Of Things: An Archaeology Of The Human Sciences (1966), philosopher Michel Foucault writes that until the end of 16th century, in Western knowledge such as alchemy or astrology there is “...a resemblance that needs no contact. There is something in emulation of the reflection and the mirror: it is the means whereby things scattered through the universe can answer one another. The human face, from afar, emulates the sky, and just as man’s intellect is an imperfect reflection of God’s wisdom, so his two eyes, with their limited brightness, are a reflection of the vast illumination spread across the sky by sun and moon; the mouth is Venus, since it gives passage to kisses and words of love.”

One may consider astrology as an oversimplified correlation between the positions of planets and human life, but it was much more. Historically it represented the idea that the movement of heavenly bodies are a kind of multi-pronged stylus or Gutenberg’s printing press, each planet the particle of a cosmic alphabet, engaged in writing the autobiography of the universe for perpetuity. As the planets revolved in their strange, looping orbits, words and sentences emerged from the maw of space — becoming the constitution of human life.

By casting a horoscope, the astrologer was metaphorically dipping his nib into this archival text of the sky (known as Akashic Records to theosophists) in order to extract a minute portion, a subset if you will, of the biography of his client or patron.

The techniques extended beyond the horoscope — because the astrologer was privy to the lives of all other clients, he could draw upon this empirical knowledge. This would include family histories, health, psychology, financial status and the winds of politics. In Cardano’s Cosmos: The Worlds And Works Of A Renaissance Astrologer (Harvard, 1999), historian Anthony Grafton emphasises that Gerolamo Cardano’s astrology “rested on the belief that a sufficiently large collection of carefully established genitures (natal charts) would provide a solid foundation for astrology as a whole.” As a gambler and mathematician, Cardano could make an educated guess and, perhaps, to him it was no different to cast dice or horoscopes.

Of all the systems of philosophy that came before what we call science, the one that remains largely undiminished in the 21st century is astrology. However, it does so under extremely diverse labels for statistical thinking of a similar nature, such as economics, risk management, psychology or the numerous ‘social sciences’. As Grafton points out, “Insurance, which rested on statistical, rather than celestial, measurements, came into being only in the seventeenth century — and only after astrology and the other occult arts had lost their cultural value. In earlier periods, only the astrologer could use the best quantitative methods of the time to predict the future and offer useful counsels for averting risk and exploiting opportunities.” If one looks at the profusion of statistics in the social and economic sciences alone, it might seem that we live in the Golden Age of Astrology.

One of the elementary techniques of statistical analysis is called ‘linear regression’, wherein a straight line is assumed to approximate the behaviour of certain data, even though the data may be scattered like fog around the line. Once this model has been made, an infinity of imaginary points may be assumed to lie on that line, “predicting” the behaviour of future data.

After the advent of the electronic computer, such methods are employed to almost every phenomena in ever-increasing scale and complexity with socially acceptable labels such as “data mining” or “machine learning”. Instead of a simple line, one may use a curve as the model or even a surface or higher manifold, which the data must mimic. A self-driving car is essentially a robotic astrologer, which predicts its own path moment by moment, its internal horoscope represented by a system of well-tuned parameters.

Despite all the discoveries of modern science, the large majority of humans cohabit a world of superstitions — the present contains all historical beliefs that have come before. Historical time is not the past, it is a dimension where all time is geologically layered and yet vertically simultaneous.

And what happens if we are surrounded at all times by a multitude of robotic astrologers whispering to us through ubiquitous electronic devices?

Even with the existence of present technology, it is possible to imagine a state of affairs no different than pre-Renaissance Europe — except that algorithms will select and condemn ‘sorcerers’, or order witches to be burnt. It is the ignorance of the underlying mathematics of statistical algorithms, in awe of their performance, that may set the stage for a new Dark Age. As the compass of human beings shifts its mental orientation from words and their meanings, to buttons and their ‘functions’, our entire cosmology will alter too. Those who whisper of anything more mysterious underlying these basic assumptions will be called heretics.

(Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)