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Reconciling Interpretive and Statistical Significance Date Published: 11/30/2005 by Kyle Pierce
Bio: Kyle Pierce Kyle Pierce

Kyle Pierce began his astrological studies in 1974, and since then he has been occupied with one astrological thing or another. He has been writing astrological software, working with lots of charts, and grappling with basic astrological problems and questions. He has also earned Master's degrees and pursued careers in Biostatistics and Computer Science. His articles and presentations on research topics are familiar to research-oriented astrologers.

Kyle was a member of the Matrix Software team during the '80s. Since then he has worked on his own projects and as a software consultant for Matrix. He has also been an active student of the Project Hindsight material. Kyle recently returned to Matrix Software as a full-time staff member. He brings a wealth of ideas for new kinds of software, as well as his long-term fascination with the origins and the evolution of astrological thinking.



There is one phase of research design that is quite distinct from the other phases, in that it seems to call for a different mindset. This is the early and critical task of translating astrological intuitions into workable research guidelines or goals. The problem here concerns the kinds of questions we tend to ask about astrological phenomena, based on unstated-and often unexamined-assumptions.

Framing astrological questions

As students of research design, we have been taught to ask a particular kind of question about the world. This is the kind of question that can be expressed in terms of probability distributions of, and relationships among, well-defined variables, measured in controlled studies. The process of answering these questions rests on a variety of assumptions, all of which ultimately rely on the independence of observations, the randomness of error, and the ability of our measures to validly and reliably capture the phenomena of interest.

We would like to think that our findings will contribute to the advancement of our interpretive knowledge. But by what means can a probabilistic view become a tool for our better understanding of interpretive significance?

Prior to any probabilistic conception of phenomenon, we must have an essential grasp of that phenomenon, on the level of perceived features of individual observations-that is, if we are to sensibly interpret our findings. In other words, we must start out by asking questions that are not primarily concerned with a statistical approach to the problem. We cannot expect that our sophistication in research methods will somehow take the place of an essential grasp of the phenomenon of interest.

This suggests that at least initially, the demonstration of statistical significance must be secondary to the problem of understand the phenomenon at hand. The attitude one takes toward this issue will determine the kinds of research goals one pursues. It seems that the research community has tended to pay more attention to the demonstration of statistical significance that to truly doing justice to astrological phenomena, by learning to approach them on their own terms.

The Split: Astrologer as Researcher

How might we better understand the relationship between interpretive and statistical significance? Both practicing and researching astrology involve posing and answering a variety of astrological questions. Reconciling these approaches is quite a challenge, however. I believe that anyone who can call themselves both a researcher and an astrologer will be, at some point, in a position to encounter-and will be, in some way, compelled to deal with-what I call the Split.

The simplest, most personal statement of this split is that, as an astrologer, my experience of the astrological realm moves from the inside outward. That is, my astrological knowledge is literally a part of me, and my express of that knowledge is an externalization of something living within me. Yet as a researcher, I have learned to approach this domain from what seems like an opposing direction, in a sense that is hard to define. From the vantage point, this living knowledge can sometimes seem worse than useless; it becomes a chimera leading down endless false paths.

This initial statement about the Split does not yet lend much clarity; these issues are refined and articulated more clearly in a later section. And yet this statement does capture something significant. One sense a vast, uncharted chasm, underlying all the enduring stalemates that have been the dominant features thus far in the field of astrological research. What follows is an attempt to chart this territory from a new vantage point.

Husserl's critique of objectivism

Edmund Husserl, who originated the philosophical school known as phenomenology, has something to offer to our understanding of the astrologer/researcher split, in his development of the concept of the "lifeworld", and in the critique of the objectivistic orientation of the empirical sciences that followed from this development. The lifeworld is the actual realm of direct experience that is presupposed by an objective science. It is the world of that which is intuitively experienced, and which is relative to the experiencing subject.

The problem of the relationship between reality as constructed by the objective sciences and the reality of the subjective lifeworld became Husserl's central interest. The follow excerpts are from Husserl's last major work. The Crises of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology:

"That which is subjective and relative does not function, shall we say, as an irrelevant route of passage but rather as the ultimate foundation for the theoretical-logical acceptance of Being in all objective verification: thus, it functions as the source of evidence, the source of verification….."

"If we cease to be absorbed in our scientific thinking, if it dawns upon us that we scientists are, after all, human beings and, as such, constituents of the lifeworld, then, along with us, the whole of science enters into the-merely 'subjective-relative'-lifeworld."

The contrast between the subjectivity of the lifeworld and the objectivity of the scientific world thus lies in the fact that:

"…the latter is a theoretical-logical [foundation] of something fundamentally unable to be experienced in its own being-itself, where as the subjective character of the lifeworld is distinguished in each and every respect precisely by its ability actually to be experienced. The lifeworld is a realm of primordial evidences."

Different orderings of phenomena

In the light of Husserl's distinctions, let us clarify what it is that we call an astrological phenomenon. It is a symbolic correspondence between the "primordial evidences" of the lifeworld and the movements of the cosmos that we chart. Perhaps a point of comparison will help to clarify the unique nature of astrological phenomena.

In the biological sciences, the development of taxonomies or classification schemes for the identification of specimens has established an ordering that allows one to infer many things about a known organism. Only within the context of this and closely related orderings do biological phenomena-the objects of a biologist's observation of organisms-acquire the meanings upon which the discourse of the biological sciences depends.

I can now try to clarify what Husserl means in the last paragraph of the above excerpts: biological phenomena are instances of "something fundamentally unable to be experienced in its own being-itself," just to the extent that their meanings are dependent on the unique orderings of the biological sciences. For example, we can directly experience that a frog has certain visible features and that its skin feels a certain way, but we cannot in the same sense directly experience that a frog is an amphibian; that depends upon a classification scheme, and ultimately upon "primordial evidences" of the lifeworld.

In contrast, the essential ordering of astrological phenomena is based on the structure of the cosmos itself. According to Plato's Timaeus, the cosmos is the origination and ordering of time, the "moving image of eternity," as Plato calls it. The framework of the astrological vocabulary, with its structure of symbolic entities and relations, evolved from the human experience of the cosmos.

This symbolic structure of this astrological framework can be seen as an ordering in much the same sense as that of the biological sciences: it is only within this context that astrological phenomena acquire the meanings upon which the discourse of astrology depends. So the ordering of astrological phenomena is precisely the purpose of the astrological framework.

Learning from astrological principles

If we want to identify actual instances of symbolic correspondences, those elusive astrological phenomena, it is worth considering what kinds of research efforts are most likely to be fruitful. To paraphrase the ancient principle of correspondence: That which is Below tends to conform to that which is Above, not the other way around. If this is the case, would it not make sense to study groups that are homogeneous with respect to their astrological signatures, rather than to their observable behaviors?

For example, it is safe to say that within any given vocational group, we will find a multitude of astrological signatures that have nothing in common other than generational factors. This is not, however, evidence against the efficacy of astrological principles, none of which refer back from observable behaviors (like vocational choice) to particular astrological factors; they always refer in the opposite direction, do they not?

What astrological principles, you may ask. Take a look at some of the ancient or medieval material-Vettius Valens, Ptolemy, Ramon Lull, Guido Bonatti, to name a few-and you will find a great wealth of examples in the form of aphorisms, every one of which refers from celestial factor to the observable events or characteristics. (In the context of these astrological writings, an aphorism is the interpretive application of a principle to a specific situation.)

So, given a group that is homogeneous with respect to a single astrological factor, we can study this group in a manner that comes quite naturally to an astrologer. We can actually test some ancient aphorism about those who have Jupiter rising, and see whether they really have large appetites, or whatever. More importantly, with the guidance of our intuitive grasp of astrological factors, we can make clear judgments about the observable outcomes we would expect to find in the homogeneous sample.

What does this have to do with Husserl's critique of objectivism? I believe that when we don our researcher hats, we tend to adopt a bias against that which we consider subjective. There is a prevailing concern that we must transcend any naïve, experiential, subjective mode of doing astrology, and there are some good reasons for this. But does this mean that we must literally reverse our mode of reasoning?

In the course of practicing astrology, it seems natural to reason from a given astrological factor to its possible outcomes or expressions. Yet when we become researchers, it then seems proper to proceed in the opposite direction. This shift to an ordering by the observed outcomes is due in part to the difficulty of collecting samples that are homogeneous with respect to a single astrological factor. But do the motivations for this shift run deeper than this? What research goals tend to accompany these two distinct approaches?

Those of us who have studied in social science setting are likely to have learned that a central activity of research work is the formulation and testing of an effective hypothesis.

Those of us who have studied in social science setting are likely to have learned that a central activity of research work is the formulation and testing of an effective hypothesis. This is a theoretical construct that typically states something about relationships between dependent factors and independent factors. The reasoning is not necessarily from effect back to possible causes-causal inferences are often not appropriate-and yet the pattern is to reason in this direction, focusing on the outcomes rather than the independent factors.

Similarly, when astrologers are learning to think like researchers, it seems natural that one should be reasoning from observable outcomes back to the astrological factors. But when we attempt to reconcile this mode of reasoning with that mode I have described as native to the principles and the practice of astrology-let us call this the "interpretive mode"-we are faced with serious quandary.

To illustrate this kind of quandary, let us suppose that one began the research design process by choosing the observable outcomes of interest, making no assumptions about what celestial factors might be related to these outcomes. This means that the hypotheses are not stated in terms of particular symbolic correspondences, but instead are statements about how one outcome may be distinguished from another.

For example, rather than stating something about how someone with Jupiter rising at birth is expected to differ from someone with Saturn rising, the hypothesis instead states that medical doctors can be distinguished from the general population, or from journalists, by some celestial measure (or combination of measures) that can be determined only by empirical testing.

Let us now suppose that one has completed the task of hypothesis testing, and is examining the results-the statistical evidence. These results will limit one to making statements that are more or less of the same form as the original hypotheses. In particular, these statements can only refer to astrological factors indirectly, in terms of outcomes. This limitation is quite apart from the statistical significance of the results, and concerns the applicability of these results-in other words, their interpretive significance.

This may seem like a minor limitation, until one confronts the problem of trying to validate any remnant of the symbolic relationships that form the astrological framework, when limited to the kids of statements just noted. The structuring of astrological phenomena by a symbolic framework has been replaced by a structuring of a very different nature, one that is relative only to the observed outcomes. Any validity of symbolic correspondences can be established only in terms of these outcomes.

There seem to be severe limits on the applicability of the approach outlined above, to answering basic questions about symbolic correspondences. The suspending of assumptions is not in itself the main limiting factor. If this were the case, approaches similar to the Gauquelins' keyword study-where assumptions about correspondences were absent-could not produce findings such as it did, which lend support to the traditional symbolic correspondences for individual planets.

The primary limitation is that, since one can only refer to astrological factors indirectly, in relation to the chosen outcomes, there appears to be no viable path back to the original astrological framework. Without such a path, there seems to be little possibility of answering basic questions about symbolic correspondences, such as these: is a planet stronger in its sign of rulership than in its detriment, or is its character more pure, or what? Is a planet's strength affected more by its diurnal position that by its zodiacal position? More generally, what kinds of observable variations do these determining factors produce in the particular outcomes and characteristics that we associate with each planet?

Questions like these must be addressed if we are to acquire new knowledge about anything resembling the astrological framework as we know it. Try to imagine addressing such questions by studying anything other than particular planetary correspondences, guided by this framework. Perhaps this clarifies the original issue posed earlier, of how we tend to frame astrological questions on the basis of a variety of unstated assumptions.

One can begin this whole endeavor from an alternative orientation, that of the interpretive mode, reasoning from celestial factors to observable outcomes, with the thoughtful application and testing of traditional principles of symbolic correspondence. The task of "thoughtful application" is worth some examination. We do not begin by choosing the outcomes of interest, but instead we choose certain symbolic entities and/or relations. In this approach, one's intuitive grasp of astrological principles suggest the outcomes one should examine.

So, as in the earlier example, one could choose to study how people with Jupiter rising at birth can be distinguished from those with Saturn rising. The differences between these two kinds of symbolic correspondences are, one would hope, marked enough to be captured by associated measures. In this case, the general hypothesis would take a form such as this: The mean (and/or variance) of measure X in the population of those with Jupiter rising at birth is significantly different from that in the population of those with Saturn rising. Having tested hypotheses of this form, we can now make statements that refer directly to particular symbolic correspondences, based on our confirmation of their presence (or the lack thereof).

It seems worthwhile to pursue research goals that are well grounded in the interpretive mode of reasoning. These goals might be more "pure" than those of the contrasting approach that was illustrated previously. That is, this approach is devoted to acquiring knowledge about symbolic correspondences, giving priority to interpretive significance. This kind of knowledge may prove to be of the most enduring value.

Design of measures and sampling methods

It is reasonable to expect that the cleanest measure, with a direct link to the astrological factor of interest, will yield the best result. Other than this, I honestly don't know what measures are best. It does seem that the use of standardized personality inventories is in basic conflict with the goals of the interpretive mode, in at least two important ways.

First, standardized measures take the place of what should be the product of one's own insightful judgment, guided by one's intuitive grasp of astrological factors. The use of inventories also leads our attention away from other possible measures, such as those that focus on personal histories, which could very well yield more usable information than other self-report measures.

The hard part of research of this nature will be data collection. This requires focusing on a particular astrological factor, and assembling a sample that includes only cases where the factor of interest is present. Depending on the frequency of this factor, this could be an unreasonable requirement. Let's assume this problem can be overcome, and that we have chosen a simple factor that occurs frequently.

The general hypotheses to be tested are two: we want to determine whether, for a given measure, the sample with the astrological factor of interest present shows a different mean, and/or a smaller variance, than a control sample. Since the sample is homogeneous with respect to the astrological factor, having a smaller variance is of interest because it means the sample is also more homogeneous with respect to the measure being tested.

I am presenting this as one approach that is amenable to the use of a wide variety of measures. The most critical concern is that the subjects are astrologically knowledgeable; this would be an obvious and probably fatal source of bias. Also, knowledge by the subjects of the general category of astrological factor-that of rising planets or planets on angles-can itself be a source of bias. This issue can arise, for example, when contrasting astrological factors are use to select samples that can serve as mutual controls, as in the Jupiter-Saturn example of the preceding section.

Regardless of the particular measures we choose, we cannot escape the need to base our research goals and methods on the thoughtful examination of astrological principles, which, as I have argued here, seem to clearly favor the use of interpretive mode of reasoning. This no doubt has substantial implications for research design. I believe this is a crucial step toward clearer goals, with more solid grounding in astrological principles.


Bonatti, G (1994). Liber Astronomiae, Part I (R. Zoller, Trans., R. Hand, Ed.) Berkeley Springs, WV: Golden Hind Press.

Husserl, E (1970). The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology; An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. (D. Carr, Trans.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Lull, R. (1994). Treatise on Astronomy (K. Shapar, Trans., R. Hand, Ed.). Berkeley Springs, WV: Gold Hind Press.

Plato. (1892). Timaeus [37]. In B. Jowett (Trans.), In Dialogues of Plato. New York, NY: Random House.

Ptolemy, C. (1994). Tetrabiblos, Book I (R. Schmidt, Trans., R. Hand, Ed.). Berkeley Springs, WV: Golden Hind Press.

Valens, V. (1994). The Anthology (R. Schmidt, Trans., R. Hand, Ed.). Berkeley Springs, WV: Golden Hind Press.


© Copyright: Kyle Pierce





Other articles by Kyle Pierce:

Pierce, KyleAn Interview with Z



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