Sunday, May 02, 2004

Deciphering the World System

Posted by Keith

I noticed an add in the google bar recently for the truly true and really real secrets of the Da Vinci Code. Now, as a writer, I'm fascinated by codes and ciphers. They make for some of the most engrossing literary devices around: Illuminatus!, Cryptonomicon, and Faucoult's Pendulum all make masterful use of the code macguffin. But if anyone really thinks there's some mystical code in Da Vinci or the Bible, you're mistaking the map for the territory it represents.

People have been trying to make sense of the world since antiquity. It's even been argued by cognitive scientists that this is what the human brain is for- creating order out of the chaotic stimuli of existence. The problem arises when we mistake our perception of order as being Out There instead of just in our heads. Just look through any well researched history book and you'll discover the Caesar's propensity for relying on Haraspix, Etruscan soothsayers who read the future in the entrails of animals. This is a laughable notion, here in the 21st century, of course. We're more sophisticated than that. We look for coded previews within the dense pages of books.

According to proponents of the Bible Code--itself a subset of the genre of biblical numerology and Kabbalistic mysticism popular since the Middle Ages--the Hebrew Pentateuch can be decoded through an equidistant-letter-sequencing software program. The idea is to take every nth letter, where n equals whatever number you wish: 7, 19, 3,027. Print out that string of letters in a block of type, then search left to right, right to left, top to bottom, bottom to top, and diagonally in any direction for any interesting patterns. Seek and ye shall find.

Predictably, in 1997 Drosnin "discovered" such current events as Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, Benjamin Netanyahu's election, Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9's collision with Jupiter, Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing, and, of course, the end of the world in 2000. Because the world did not end and current events dated his first book, Drosnin continued the search and learned--lo and behold--that the Bible predicted the Bill and Monica tryst, the Bush-Gore election debacle and, of course, the World Trade Center cataclysm.

Just like the prophecies of soothsayers past and present, all such predictions are actually postdictions (note that not one psychic or astrologer forewarned us about 9/11). To be tested scientifically, Bible codes would need to predict events before they happen. They won't, because they can't--as Danish physicist Niels Bohr averred, predictions are difficult, especially about the future. Instead, in 1997 Drosnin proposed this test of his thesis: "When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby Dick, I'll believe them."1

And of course, you could use Moby Dick, Ulysses, or any novel of sufficient length to find coded references to world events- after the fact. Any sufficiently complex information system (a pretty good definition of a book) will contain enough data points, loosely arranged to allow for individual interpretation. This is a rather technical way of saying books are full of metaphor and simile, and our brains can rearrange them in numerous, nearly infinite ways, to say anything we want (just don't try and tell a Fundy this, they may want to string you up as one of those dirty athiests who don't deserve citizenship). Yet and still, people look for absolute meaning in-between the covers a book. What they find is, well, a debatable and unfortunate collection of unverifiable notions that may make for comforting myths but leave a lot to be desired in the way of truth content.

If there is an encrypted message in all this numerological poppycock it is this: there is a deep connection between how the mind works and how we perceive the world works. We are pattern-seeking animals, the descendants of hominids who were especially dexterous at making causal links between events in nature. The associations were real often enough that the ability became engrained in our neural architecture. Unfortunately, the belief engine sputters occasionally, identifying false patterns as real. The habit of faltering may not be enough to prevent you from passing on your genes for detecting false positives to the next generation, but it does create superstitious and magical thinking. This process is coupled to the law of large numbers that accompanies our complex world, where, as it is said, million-to-one odds happen eight times a day in New York City.2

Now, that Iíve effectively ripped apart this little strawman, Iíd like to point out that looking for codes in books is a hobby of mine. I donít take the results seriously, but itís certainly an interesting way to stretch oneís imagination and look at the world from a different perspective. if more people looked for codes in the Bible and other novels like this, we might have a far more imaginative and creative culture, one that recognizes the psychological truths of fairy tales and mystery codes, while chuckling merrily at the idea that they mean anything more than that our highly organized brains are capable of surprising things sometimes.


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