General Systems and
Astrology: A Statistical Test
(revised Jan., 2011)
John A. Gowan
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The General Systems revolution in my thought came about through conversations with one of my good friends, then a graduate student of Chaucer and Medieval English at Cornell, on the subject of astrology. My friend was a believer, and I, as a scientist, scoffed at the subject. I couldn't believe someone of my friend's great intelligence could believe in such garbage, but he did and he was willing to argue his case.
It was, as I recall, after several years of sniping on both sides that my friend put a book in my hand which allowed me to make the connection between astrology and General Systems, a new discipline which was "in the air" at that time. Now here was a different kettle of fish: suppose astrology as we knew it from the newspapers was but the rags, ruin, and remnant of an ancient intuitive "world system" which was in fact an example of a General System? After all, it was a system of cosmic scale connecting humanity with the planets and the constellations - the entire Universe (actually our galaxy) as it was known and visible to the ancients. And after all, wasn't the Unified Field Theory simply its rational analog - a scientific "world system" of cosmic scale connecting humanity with the Universe as it is currently known and visible in our telescopes? I was much taken by this comparison, and by the fact that whereas the scientific theory sought the relationship among 4 physical forces (electromagnetism, gravitation, strong, weak), astrology exhibited a relationship among 4 elements (Fire, Water, Earth, Air). Thus we had two systems of cosmic relationship, one ancient and intuitively derived, the other modern and rationally derived, each with 4 major divisions. Might they not be General Systems resonances of each other?
In addition to the four Elements, astrology also contains a "trinity" of "Qualities": Mutable, Fixed, Cardinal. The combination of the 4 Elements and the 3 Qualities produces the 12 "Sun Signs" of the zodiac (Leo, Virgo, Libra, etc.). Thus the astrological system can be represented in a 4x3 matrix or rectangular grid form, rather than the usual circular form. My scientific training had accustomed me to seeing relationships in the simple grid form of a Cartesian rectangular matrix, and so I found the astrological system far more interesting when viewed in this "rational" matrix form, which divorces it from its association with the intuitive, circular calendar wheel of the zodiac.
I began to wonder what the rational analog, if any, of the 3 Qualities might be, for if suitable candidates could be found, we would have exactly corresponding rational and intuitive cosmic systems, quite possibly the General System pattern I was looking for. Of course we had the example of the Christian Trinity, but this was another intuitive triplet; I needed a rational triplet which was commensurate with the 4 forces, that is, worked with them to describe and characterize the physical field theory. It was to discover what these three rational parameters might be would lead me to take up Einstein's book upon the occasion of my 40th birthday, but that event was still several years in the future. Before I would take up a serious search for the rational analogs of the "Qualities", I had to have more proof that I was not barking up the wrong tree. I did not want to be led down this path by anything less than solid evidence; I was prepared to spend a lot of my free time and effort on this quest, so I had to sure of my initial steps and assumptions, as they are always the most important and treacherous.
There were two ways of testing the reliability of the astrological pattern that I could think of. The first was to look for other examples of 4x3 patterns in natural phenomena; the second was a direct test of one of the cherished popular assumptions of astrology: that the 12 "Sun Signs" are indicative of personality traits and compatibility, and so would be reflected in the success and failure of marriages. This latter assumption I realized I could test through tombstone readings.
By the mid 1970's I had settled on the notion that the 4x3 astrological pattern - the 4 Elements and 3 Qualities - might be a sort of cosmic structural archetype or "world pattern". There are perfectly plausible, rational reasons to think that a universal pattern might still be a resonant legacy of the Big Bang: since the Cosmos is presumed to have begun from extraordinarily simple beginnings, with a very narrow base of natural law (a few dimensions, a few particles, a few charges, a few conservation laws, a single type of energy) it is not at all unreasonable to wonder whether the impress of this once simple universal structure might still be found in the world today - just as the 2.7 degree Kelvin background radiation still provides clues to both galactic superstructure and elemental abundance. In what form such a pattern might be preserved, I had no idea - natural examples would have to reveal themselves; but the astrological example obviously suggested that the human mind was sensitive to the pattern, at least intuitively.
Testing the Model
The first test I devised involved the popular idea that the Sun Signs are correlated with personalities and hence might predict the compatibility of marriage partners. This would be a test of the "newspaper" variety of astrology. Because I was in a "data collecting" mode at the University, it was natural for me to regard this as another experimental challenge. I took it on as my unofficial master's project. It produced a decidedly negative result, along with other interesting data, so I will go into its details briefly.
In order to test the popular hypothesis of the compatibility of the Sun Signs, I decided to compile birth and death dates of married couples who had also been buried together. This was possible because a large number of readings of headstones in older cemeteries have been published by people or institutions interested in genealogy, and in response to the destruction of courthouse and other repositories of official records during the American Civil War (some of this work was done during the depression by the WPA). These books were available to me in the extensive holdings of Cornell's Olin library. Admittedly, there is no way for an outsider to know if a marriage is happy or not; but this was the most objective test I could think of and actually perform. As a control, I also required that the death dates of the couples also be recorded on the headstone. I could later analyze the death "Signs" to see if they were better correlated than the birth Signs. In this way, the experimental population would become its own control group - a neat trick. Finally, I required that none of the 4 dates fall on a "cusp" - so that I could always clearly tell to which Sun Sign any date belonged.
There are 144 combinations possible among the 12 Sun Signs for male and female partners (a 12 x 12 matrix). My goal was to sample the readings until I found 10 examples of the scarcest combination - such that none of the 144 cells had less than 10 "hits". If all combinations were randomly represented, I would have had to find 1440 acceptable headstones; as it turned out, I had to sample 1892 readings (couples) before the cell with the lowest rate of "hits" reached 10. A statistical analysis was performed on the data (by friends at the university who knew about such matters), and no difference from random probability was discovered from the birth dates. The death dates, however, were significantly correlated - people tended to die in the spring.
Some of the interesting facts resulting from the analysis are as follows: most of the sample was born in the century between 1760 and 1860, with births in the decade between 1810 and 1820 the most numerous; the husbands were on average 4 years older than their wives; nevertheless, most couples died within 8 months of each other. The average age at death of the men was about 70; that of the women, about 67. From this we learn that the impact of modern medicine on life span is greater for married women than for men (certainly due to the dangers of childbirth), and much less on adults of marriageable age than on children.
This large study (completed in Dec, 1976,) required a great deal of my time and effort, and in the end provided what I still consider to be a very robust negative result. The popular notion of preferred personality combinations among the 12 astrological Sun Signs has no statistically demonstrable basis. These couples' death dates were actually more strongly correlated than their birth dates - a reasonably definitive result. Hence the test of "newspaper" astrology failed, at least by my method of testing. The 12 x 12 matrix data set from the study may be seen as the birth date table, and the death date table.
The Fractal Algorithm of Nature
I might have abandoned astrology as a suitable intuitive model at this point, but I did not consider the failed test rigorous enough to completely discredit this ancient World System. I was after all mostly interested in the structural pattern of astrology, and there was no reason to believe this pattern had anything to do with why people married each other. I therefore set out to test the structural pattern itself. Astrology's basic pattern is that of a 4x3 matrix or grid; the question I asked was, could I find other (significant) examples in nature of the occurrence of a 4x3 pattern? The reasoning here is that if the rational world system is in the same form as the intuitive world system, that is, if the intuitive system is a guide to be trusted, then the initiating rational system (the Unified Field Theory) would be expected to have left its 4x3 mark or "footprint" in many other natural phenomena simply due to the mechanism of resonance, or "least energy" solutions to the problems of symmetry breaking, manifestation, and the structure of matter: "as above, so below".
When I began to look for 4x3 patterns in nature, I found them abundantly. And I found them abundantly also in human thought, the metaphysical realm. I found so many in fact, that I was able to construct a structural "Hierarchy of Nature" on 12 physical levels and 8 metaphysical levels, all containing or built upon a recurring 4x3 structural pattern. Therefore, with respect to the 4x3 structural pattern itself, without reference to any of the popular notions surrounding astrology, the test was resoundingly successful. I had discovered the secret of astrology's (and the I Ching's) durability and popularity: both are perfect 4x3 structures, and this is the basic structural (fractal) pattern of reality. With the construction of the hierarchy ("The Fractal Organization of Nature"), I felt that I had paid my research dues concerning the good and the bad in astrology: I could empirically justify accepting the 4x3 intuitive World System as the probable structural pattern of the rational World System I sought, the Unified Field Theory. The initiating system, energy, and pattern of the Cosmos - the "Word" spoken at the "Creation Event" or "Big Bang", bringing the Universe into existence, was a "Word" with a 4x3 pattern - exactly in the religious or intuitive tradition of the "Trinity" and the "Tetragrammaton" - institutionalized examples of the same pattern in human religious thought.
I have been well aware of the currently fashionable saying that patterns are everywhere if you look for them. There is also the contrary saying: "I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't believed it" - often applied in Geology. In order to guard against a self-fulfilling and delusional collection of data, I felt it would be best to arrange the examples themselves in an orderly fashion in a grander scheme, also if possible, itself a 4x3 form. Thus was born the "Table of Natural Organization", arranged in 3 realms (Microphysical - atoms; Biophysical - life; Astrophysical - stars) each with 4 structural levels. This hypothetical structure (which seemed to work surprisingly well) was really a filing system in the form of a hierarchy of size which allowed me to pigeonhole my 4x3 examples, place them in an appropriate physical context, and perhaps trace both their origin and their influence. There is, by the way, nothing untoward in trying to reduce natural phenomena to their simplest essential form; it is in fact the principle goal of science and mathematics. Nor is there anything illusory with reasoning from analogy; some authorities consider it the supreme method of scientific thought. Finally, arranging data in significant patterns is a tradition honored in science by the periodic table of the elements, the taxonomic "tree" of biological relationship, and the Hertzprung-Russell diagram in astronomy, to name a major example in each of the three material realms. It is simply the best way to discover and display relationships in data.
The 4x3 hierarchy was constructed simply to test and demonstrate the proposition that 4x3 patterns are ubiquitous and of fundamental significance in Nature. The hierarchy has survived as an article of interest in its own right, and has also been modified slightly to become "The Information Ladder". I eventually decided the table was evidence for the fractal nature of the Universe, that hierarchies were really fractal iterations of increasing or decreasing size, and that the 4x3 pattern is some type of generative fractal "algorithm". (In terms of "chaos" theory, the 4x3 pattern is a "strange attractor".)
The search for the actual field theory itself continued as a project separate from the construction of the large fractal and information tables. The field theory of course would have the generative role and the 4x3 form, but it was not clear for some time where to place it in the table. Finally it was realized that it belonged as the rational half of a "metaphysical" level of the hierarchy, while all the intuitive models, including astrology, belonged in the intuitive half of a metaphysical level - the left and right hemispheres, as it were, of the human brain. (The "metaphysical" realm is the domain of human thought.)
Finally, we must conduct a practical test of the theory: can we construct a plausible, conceptual, 4x3 (or 4x4) General Systems rational model of the Unified Field Theory, and if we do, can we learn something useful from it? This effort begins with the matrix models of Chapters 2 and 3 (in the E-Book), and ends in Chapter 7 with the Hourglass and Tetrahedron diagrams. Readers will have to decide for themselves if the game was worth the candle.
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