Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The number game

Yesterday I was perusing a site whose apparent purpose is to make people Repent For The End Is Near, and I found that one of the latest things to get the Apocalypse Soon crowd in a lather is the fact that some time in May of this year, the world's population was 6,666,666,666.

Their alarm does not, of course, have anything to do with the fact that that's a pretty scary number of people.  No mention of "wow, maybe we can prevent the end of the world if we stop reproducing like bunnies and increase access to, and remove the stigma of, birth control."  No, the issue was the number itself.

It is such common knowledge that it is hardly worth noting that numbers with lots of sixes tend to put these people's knickers in a twist.  666 is the "Number of the Beast" in the Book of Revelation, so the fact that the Earth's population hit 6,666,666,666 seems like some sort of omen, despite the fact that passing 6,666,666,666 is the most convenient way to get from 6,666,666,665 to 6,666,666,667.

It's interesting that this showed up on a fundamentalist Christian website, because the whole idea of numbers having "significance" is called numerology, and is considered by most devout Christians to fall into the realm of witchcraft and divination, and therefore be a fairly major no-no.  Numerology hinges on the idea that there's something magical about numbers, and that certain numbers are bad and others are good.  Generally speaking, even numbers are considered bad, and odd ones are good -- witness "lucky number seven" -- with the number thirteen being an obvious exception to the rule.  Associations also make a difference -- one is good (there is one god), two is so-so (it represents man/woman or Adam/Eve, and lots of other dichotomies -- light/dark, good/evil), three is great (man/woman/child, the holy trinity), and so on.  Interestingly, six has bad connotations largely because it is one less than seven, which represents perfection (although ironically, mathematicians call six the first "perfect number," a number equal to the sum of its factors).

So, anyway, that's the idea, and I'm perhaps to be forgiven that I think it sounds like a lot of horse waste.  My skepticism notwithstanding, numerology is highly popular.  Numerologists are consulted much in the same was as astrologers are, and then go to great lengths to try to convert everything to numbers, and show that those numbers "mean something."  One of the most common ways is to convert each of the letters of the alphabet into a number (usually starting with a=1, b=2, and so on, up to i=9, then starting over again at j=1).  Then you add up the numbers of whatever you're interested in (most commonly,  your name).  So, for example, my name as I usually sign it, Gordon P. Bonnet, would be 7+6+9+4+6+5+7+2+6+5+5+5+2.  This gives 69, a number with an entirely different meaning, one I will refrain from going into in the interest of keeping this post PG-13 rated.  So, anyway, then you add the two digits together, 6+9 = 15.  Then you add those two together, and keep doing it till you're down to a single digit (1+5 = 6).

So, we can see that my name adds to six, the number of evil incarnate.  So maybe there's something to numerology, after all.

What I find amusing about all of this is the lengths to which people go to twist this technique to get the results they like.  Some people will decide to count (or not) their middle name, middle initial, or whatnot, if the original configuration wasn't giving them a "nice number."  According to one site I looked at, more than one person has actually changed his/her name in order to have a moniker with a "better number" (and the site claimed that immediately afterwards, the person's luck changed for the better).  People do numerological analyses of home addresses, pet names, names of prospective romantic involvements, names of businesses they're considering working for, and so on.

If all of this sounds like a lot of silly hocus-pocus to you, well, it does to me, too.  But the ancients went in for it in a big way -- there was a whole study of the subject amongst Jewish scholars, who would take passages from the Torah (or other writings) and do a Hebrew numerological analysis of it (called gematria) in order to find hidden meanings.  (This practice is why the same numbers keep coming up in the bible -- particularly numbers like 3, 7, 13, and 40 -- all numbers of significance in Hebrew gematria.)  And, of course, there always were hidden meanings, because if you (1) believe that everything has significance, (2) are willing to tweak things until you find the meaning you want, and (3) have lots and lots of free time, you can make anything into anything.

It's the same phenomenon, really, as the people who search for "coded messages" in everything from the bible to Shakespeare.  There are now computer programs being employed to decipher these alleged codes.  Most of what they turn up is gibberish, but every once in a while something meaningful seems to arise, which to me only proves that if you have a long enough string of characters, and no particular restrictions on how you're allowed to mess around with it, you'll eventually create what you're looking for.

So, anyway, I wouldn't get all bent out of shape because some time in May, we had 6,666,666,666 people on Earth.  For one thing, we added another person about two seconds later.  For another, numerology is a lot of bunk.  There's only one number that has much influence over my life, and that's my bank account balance, and the only meaning it conveys to me is "can I pay the mortgage this month?"  Which, now that I come to think of it, is pretty damned significant.

No comments:

Post a Comment