Thursday, November 10, 2022

Episode I

There was a thing called the Bible code, wasn't there? If you take the text of one book of the Bible and print it in a single long line, and then print the same text in a long column, and then fill in all the other letters so it forms a massive grid, and then start doing word searches, all kinds of surprising phrases turn up. "President Kennedy Will Be Shot" "Eleventh September Very Bad" "Liz Truss Likes Pork." What are the chances? 

Very high, as it turns out. There are about three million letters in the Bible, and three million squared is about nine thousand billion. The chance of any particular seven letter word coming up at random is about one in eight billion, so any eight letter combination of letters ought to be in there about one thousand one hundred and twenty five times. Hebrew doesn't have vowels, and the words don't have to to be adjacent and you are allowed to skip letters. You could do the same trick with Moby Dick. 

I just came across the story on the interwebs of a skeptic who decided to see if palm-reading works. Palmistry is a fairly closed system compared with other divination techniques: there is a high chance that two analysts will interpret the same lines in the same way. To his surprise, he found that the system worked astonishingly well: his clients told him that he was reading their personality and biography with remarkable accuracy. This made him wonder if there might perhaps be something in fortune-telling after all. But to double-check he tried the experiment of telling clients the opposite of what the almanack taught. If good fortune was prophesied by a wiggly line, he warned them of hard times to come. If the health line was strong and virile, he told them they were in danger of getting sick. And -- spoiler alert -- they continued to tell him that his readings were astonishingly accurate.

Many British tabloid newspapers publish astrological columns: often superficial "sun sign" astrology, but sometimes very detailed horoscope readings by practitioners who know their celestial onions. The most famous, and therefore most investigated, celebrity of the 1980s was Diana, Princess of Wales. She famously and tragically died in a car crash, provoking a crisis for the British monarchy. Not one astrologer warned her in advance that 31 August 1997 was inauspicious: but after the event they were all able to spot the astrological data they had missed.
In the sixteenth century a French physician named Nostradamus wrote:

"Because they disapproved of his divorce,
A man who later they considered unworthy;
The People will force out the King of the islands; 
A Man will replace who never expected to be king."

No twenty-first century English person can possibly read these lines and not make a connection with King Charles III, Princess Diana, Queen Camilla and Prince Harry. They simply can't. But if Charles lives to be as old as his Mum and William V succeeds without any problems, people a hundred years from now will connect it with some other king and some other island. That's why Nostradamus was such a good fortune teller. 

Douglas Adams was a skeptic even before he was drawn into the orbit of Richard Dawkins. But in his book So Long And Thanks For All The Fish he puts a very clever argument into the mouth of an astrologer. Of course astrology doesn't work, they say: it isn't supposed to. It's an arbitrary set of rules that you play around with. But the process of playing with the rules leads to insights. It's a technique for thinking about yourself.

I am sure that some fortune tellers are charlatans or just entertainers. But some are undoubtedly gifted and intuitive counsellors for whom the Tarot is a tool or a prop. Very good books have been written under the influence of I-Ching. And also LSD.

Adams later says something similar about Feng Shui, and as a matter of fact and presumably to Richard Dawkins' consternation, God. Of course there aren't invisible dragons or mysterious flows of energy in your office: but pretending that there are may be a very good way of thinking about pleasant, relaxing spaces. So maybe the idea of a supernatural creator is a good way of thinking about how to live as an embodied consciousness in a world full of other embodied consciousnesses. Terry Pratchett had the same thought. So, come to think of it, did the Right Reverend John Robinson.

I think it was A.A Milne who said that his problem with Spiritualism was that it couldn't decide if it was science or religion. If it claimed to have scientific proof of the survival of the soul, then the mediums need to subject themselves to objective tests by skeptical scientists. But if it claimed to be a religion, then it needed to be judged by the results: were the "spirits" dictating profound wisdom that could be put alongside the Sermon on the Mount or the Fire Sermon or the Bhagavad Gita?

Alan Moore tells the story of the man who set out to prove that there was nothing to the occult. You could prove anything you liked, he said: you could prove that Noddy was the Creator of the Universe if you wanted to. Krishna is depicted as a dancing child, isn't he? After the first murder, Cain went to live in the Land of Nod, doesn't he? A few days later the man happened to be in the British Museum, and saw an Aztec carving of a deity in the form of a small boy with a pointy hat with what appeared to be a bell on it. Then he happened to be listening to the radio, and heard an interview with Enid Blyton in which she said that, while being given a dental anaesthetic, she felt as if her mind left her body and was being driven towards some divine light.

He gave the experiment up. Either it is true that Noddy is the Son of God; or else the skeptic had worked a spell and made it true; or else you can find patterns and proofs in everything if you stare at them for long enough.

I myself have told the story of listening to my Beatles collection just after reading The Walrus Was Paul. I kept finding obvious clues in the lyrics which had not been spotted by the writer of the book. Once you know that every Beatles lyric is really about the death of Paul McCartney, then every Beatles lyric really is about the death of Paul McCartney. And every line of the Jewish scriptures is really about the life of Jesus. And if you play a record backwards you can hear it saying whatever someone has told you that it says.

Which is what makes this stuff so dangerous. Start looking for conspiracy theories and you find them. Believe in one conspiracy and you believe them all. Crashed space ships in New Mexico are an entry drug to alien democratic lizards eating babies in underground Pizza Huts. Jewish alien lizards, almost invariably.

When Alan Moore decided to initiate himself into Aleister Crowley ritual magic, he asked his friends to tell him if he seemed to be going mad. "Alan" he says that they said "How could we tell?"

His answer was "Tell me if my writing changes."


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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Andrew Ducker said...

Surely that verse refers to Edward VIII. Anyone can see that if they only cross their eyes in just the right way?

MetallicMask said...

I had the same thought as Andrew Ducker.