Numerology, or Something

Someone recently referred to Numerology as a branch of mathematics. I wouldn’t call it that, but it’s definitely in there with other number recreations. And yes, Pythagorus, like others fond of playing with numbers and geometry and such, loved finding the correlations between unrelated things, tying them together with formulae.

I haven’t found any credible evidence of numerology, but there is one phenomenon to keep in mind with this kind of exploration — the laws of probability and statistics apply in often surprising ways. For example, the odds of two people in a group of 57 or more having the same birthday are better than 99%. (Google “birthday paradox” for the math behind that.) Or the odds of a (truly unrigged random) penny coming up heads, after having just come up heads 100 times in a row, are 50:50. (The previous heads have no influence over the future.)

Numerology is ultimately an expression of discerned correlations and permutations found in what may or may not be random sequences of numbers. Bearing in mind that there are many different formulae for assigning numbers to words or letters, we can end up with pretty much any imaginable sequence of digits. Lots of people have applied Biblical numerology according to various schemes (Blevins, Decimal, ASCII, Hebrew, Classical Hebrew, Roman numerals, etc.), and found wild and wonderful correlations. But these same correlations are very readily found in War and Peace or any other piece of writing. They are also found in lists of computed “random” numbers, no matter where you start in the list!

What we learn from observing numerology in action is quite interesting. The most fundamental observation is that the human mind is amazingly well crafted to perceive patterns. In fact, I’ve been working for years now on a theory that the biochemical response to pattern perception involves endorphin receptors, or some similar mechanism, and is what motivates the prenatal brain to pop into the world correlating things in all directions. This tendency is at the basis of language, and learning, and society, and probably everything else human.

It is almost impossible to observe something without finding patterns in it. To contemplate these patterns is only natural. But the logic of deciding that the presence of innumerable wonderful patterns is somehow unlikely is completely false.

There are lots of mathematical websites that can clarify this better than I, but essentially it works like this — first, we look at the jumble of numbers. Then we pick the patterns we can perceive (like repeating digits, or specific sequences, or certain preferred digits, etc.). Then, after we’ve discerned a bunch of patterns, we look backwards at the situation and say, “What an amazing coincidence that these patterns occur in just this sequence!”

In reality, since we can correlate practically anything, and since we’re doing all this after the fact, it’s no more “coincidental” than that the clock’s second hand should just happen to have been right on the 6 the last time I looked.

If you can find a rigorously documented case of someone successfully predicting something on the basis of numerology (or literally any other system you might think of), you may be onto something. The trouble is, most of the documentation is missing or bogus, and most of the predictions are dependent on significant doses of interpretation. So when one is looking for correlations, one cherry-picks the evidence (unconsciously or otherwise) and finds whatever one wants to find. This is what makes strict science so difficult — the scientist isn’t allowed to do anything that might skew his conclusions. And even then, it’s only the requirements of peer review and double-blind experimental repeatability that can really validate a scientist’s conclusion.

Ironically, I’m not an ideological skeptic. That is, I’m not pre-convinced that certain things are invalid or valid (beyond those things we are biologically programmed for, like the belief that the sun will rise tomorrow, or the ability to utterly lose sight of my own mortality most of the time).

I do not believe, for example, that it is impossible that some celestial being wrote some secret knowledge into some earthly text. However, common sense tells me that if that text was edited, corrupted, translated multiple times, and then edited some more, the odds are that the secret knowledge is now lost, and is no longer decodable.

So that’s how I approach numerology. The numerical coincidences are truly endless, and I know people who spend thousands of hours digging up new correlations and coincidences.

For my own part, I wrote a weird fictional piece (“Moebius Trip”) about utterly incoherent and inexcusably unconnected pseudo events linked only by the author (me) arbitrarily jamming them into consecutive sentences. My intention was to be funny, hoping people might read these outrageous links between events, and ultimately realize that what appeared to be logical or causal connections were merely implications born of the style of presentation.

There was no logical connection between events at all. But my readers almost unanimously found these unjustifiable “connections” to be entirely plausible, and the story’s final insistence that all the links were arbitrary and completely unjustifiable seemed absolutely amazing to them.

In fact, while writing “Moebius Trip” I repeatedly discovered unintentional logic appearing where I had intended irrational, meaningless relationships. I had to keep deleting these sensible explanations and inferences so the story would, in fact, not make sense. The whole idea was to make it sound like it made sense when, upon close inspection, the thread of the plot was completely missing. But my subconscious kept inserting perfectly good threads where I didn’t want them.

What that bit of fiction showed me was that (a) it was incredibly difficult to make up a series of events and keep them utterly unrelated to each other, and that (b) no matter how unrelated they were, just hearing them in a sequence made people believe they were adequately interconnected. We humans are designed to find correlations, patterns, repetitions of the familiar — and by god, we do. No matter what.

Perhaps more shocking than our tendency to find correlations in practically any small set of elements is the fact that randomness — which we might think of as the absence of any correlations — is becoming more and more difficult to define. That is, the very notion of randomness is being called into question by both scientists and mathematicians (and of course philosophers, but they are required to call everything into question). The field of Chaos Theory exposes some shocking, empirical evidence that in the most random, unstructured, uncorrelated, hodge-podge of numbers, we will find highly structured formal patterns that are obviously anything but random. 

In the end, we may have to conclude that the laws of nature reveal patterns in everything, too, no matter how “random.” Just like we do. It’s as if we were made in the image of Nature itself. Hmmm. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Sierpinski Triangle (Wikipedia)
Sierpinski Triangle (from Wikipedia). This pattern is generated by plotting the “Chaos Game” using what seem to be entirely random numbers.

Here endeth the umpteenth diatribe of the second son of John the Physician.

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