Overweening Generalist

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Your Favorite Number, Coupled With Wilson's Conjecture

In my friend Eric Wagner's book An Insider's Guide To Robert Anton Wilson he uses the term "number poetry" in at least one place, and this has stuck with me: A moment's thought will probably reveal that you have a number or two that you, for some reasons all your own, particularly "like." Or you've long noted and memorized certain "deeper" meanings" regarding certain numbers, such as seven is "lucky" or thirteen is damned near evil, or that sixty-nine has something to do with naked yoga. Or for some reason (?) this number has meant something to you, or it's been involved in some synchronicities in your life. Perhaps you've simply always felt drawn to this number, for some - and I hesitate again to use this term because there's probably a more apt one - "reason."

We probably have a-rational "reasons" for our peculiar relationship to certain numbers. And many of us have wondered if Nature or (our?) Universe has Its own favorite numbers. And then we wonder if, with our limited knowledge, we've only created or discovered what we assume must be - as the brilliant and entertaining mathematical writer Ian Stewart called one of his books - Nature's Numbers: The Unreal Reality of Mathematics.

A recent article on our odd affinity for certain numbers showed up here, and linked to a mathematician's site where he asks us to tell him what our favorite number is, and why.

Because I was born on my father's 23rd birthday, and then I had three girlfriends who were born on the 23rd - three girlfriends in a row in my early twenties, two of them born on the 23rd of September - I had begun to notice how seemingly mysterious my relationship with that number was. I say "seemingly mysterious," because I had enough mathematics and statistics and reading in the psychology of perception to realize that, if I fixated on 23, that number would more likely be noted and that there's a subroutine of circuitry in the brain - probably developed through evolution, as we are a species very adept at pattern-recognition - that would "see" 23s everywhere.

Then I stumbled upon the writer Robert Anton Wilson in my late 20s. Have you ever so quickly fallen in love with a new writer that you could hardly believe your luck? It's happened to me a few times. But I had never heard of him before! Certainly not in college.

I had been promiscuously browsing in a bookstore in Torrance, California and picked up a book called Right Where You Are Sitting Now. It was a certain species of "experimental writing" mixed with journalistic pieces, pop quizzes, zen-like humor, and addressed what many academics would call "fringe" knowledge, but Wilson wrote about Odd Things in a very intellectual way. And I noticed he was using William S. Burroughs' "cut-up method," that Burroughs largely got from Brion Gysin, and which seems antedated by the Dadaist Tristan Tzara. 

Burroughs also had a story and/or "routine" in which he talked about his own very eerie relationship with persons named "Captain Clark" and ships that crashed that carried the number 23. 

                                           Robert Anton Wilson, 1977
The Wilson book was filled with 23s. That a-rational part of my brain sent my rational part a message: Is this some sort of sign? And even more non-rational: If so, from where or what? What is the connection to...if anything? Is chance weirder than I thought? Is there some kind of quantum effect on the macro-level that has my nervous system attracting or "causing" this number to keep showing up? 

(There may be a genetic predisposition towards thinking along these lines, too. The lines between very creative people and manic-depressives and schizophrenics are blurrier lines the more you look at it. See Kay Redfield Jamison's Touched With Fire for startling data on poetic genius and manic-depression; note the continuum between Joyce, Einstein, and Bertrand Russell, for example, and their schizophrenic offspring. My favorite theory about schizophrenia from the last 15 years is that it is a manifestation of a "cliff effect": in neurobiology and human physiology, too much a good thing. I have emotional reasons for why I "like" that idea...Anyway, most of us in families with manic-depressive genes or schizophrenia will not develop the full-blown versions of those two quite dire illnesses; we will just be "weirder" than most other people. But we can get along in life.)

Since the first volume of Wilson's tripartite autobiography was released in 1977, 23 has become a sort of cultural meme. (There was even a Joel Schumacher film starring Jim Carrey that seems to have mined a few things from Wilson, although not credited.) You may have noticed 23 pops up in too many odd ways; maybe it seems to appear in an "unreasonable" frequency? Or are you the one who notices it? Is it some sort of conspiracy? You mention it to a friend and they say, no. They notice 42 far more often than seems "natural."(42 people and me tend to get along really well.)

Notice how I used the term "odd" in the above paragraph (and others): I was not cognizant of my word-choice when I wrote; "odd" is synonymous with "something strange" in many Western cultures, if not all of them...why is this? "Odd" is clearly a metaphor from mathematics, but how easy it seems to not notice this! The even numbers seem stable; the odd ones maybe not so? Some part of us considers them a tad queer or "off," for some...reason. Prime numbers? Don't even get me started! (But note: 23 is prime. And we have 23 chromosomes...)

This goes back at least to the Pythagoreans, who saw qualities in individual numbers, perhaps even something like what we would call personalities. What "is" it about us? One part of us knows that numbers serve a basic utility, starting with counting on our fingers. And some compelling neuroscience suggests that the mathematical faculty seems to have piggy-backed on the evolution of the linguistic faculty, but I leave that for better minds than mine, for now.

Is there "really" something odd about our favorite numbers? Why do they keep intruding in our lives in ways that seem "above chance," or in just plain spooky ways? Wilson himself - being a skeptic, despite what his detractors said of him - thought this was probably a trick of perception, and was revelatory of the human mind and its ability to see patterns, or impose patterns on dense clusters of information, which seems related to selective perception, a basic bias most of us are prone to, even the highly educated ones. And then we forget our own minds made these connections, and look for the causes "out there."  (Nature seems, to quote William James, a "blooming, buzzing confusion," and what we want is a narrative. Much editing needs to be done, literally every second, if only to cop a story that seems pleasing or plausible, or provides some sort of harmony with our current working models of "reality.")

But Wilson also wondered at times if there might be something Unknown, eldritch and exceedingly weird that might be going on...I call this Wilson's Conjecture Regarding Recurring Numbers: That we ought to appreciate the creativity, even of the unconscious mind!, to see the "uncanny" aspect of recurring numbers, even while knowing that our minds tend to impose patterns based on our prior conditionings. Basically stated: recurring numbers tend to happen when you pay attention. Wilson's Conjecture Regarding Recurring Numbers: don't look for it in the math books, folks: I just made it up, on the 23rd of July!

(Most educated people tend to be flattered by how much we know; it seems equally likely that we know closer to 1% of what there is to be known, rather than the idea that we know about 99% of the Possible Knowable. This too is conjecture...For a book of dialogues with great scientific minds on this topic, see John Horgan's The End of Science.)

In a book that appeared earlier than Wilson's Right Where You Are Sitting Now, a "wild" and mind-blowing autobiographical/magickal book titled Cosmic Trigger Volume 1, Wilson related his own experiments over a roughly 14 year period in which he sought to find out how far a human nervous system can be pushed, and what could be found "there." And ethically, the only person he could experiment on was himself. In this he's in a long line of scientific self-experimenters. 

In Cosmic Trigger vol. 1 he relates the "23 Enigma" in a lucid way, but he also describes his exceedingly odd experience, that he asserted started on July 23rd, 1973, in which, after years of pushing his consciousness and/or nervous system (use of psychedelics, intense study of kabbalah, yoga, exploring different "reality tunnels," and diligently studying and practicing magickal techniques of Aleister Crowley, intense readings of Joyce and Pound and quantum mechanics, among other Things) to extremes and noting, scientifically, what might be "going on," he woke up on July 23rd, 1973 and, as he writes, "the Shaman [this is one aspect of "self" or a "mask" for Wilson - OG] awoke with an urgent message from Dreamland and scribbled quickly in his magickal diary, 'Sirius is very important.'" 

Sirius the "Dog Star." If his life hadn't been weird enough, it gets very weird from thereon, but I will let the Reader decide what was "really" happening to Wilson.

Anyway, through the years, RAW and his fans gradually began to call July 23rd "Maybe Day," in honor of Wilson's love of what became "maybe logic." This is a logic in which there are at least three values: True, False, and Maybe. Wilson went to great lengths to show how anyone can adopt this logic for their everyday lives, and he thought it would add more sanity to the world and possibly lead to more human happiness. With hardcore ideologues who seem sure of Everything making the rest of our lives miserable, this seems like maybe a good idea. One story has it that a quantum physicist Wilson knew, named David Finkelstein, said, "In addition to a yes and a no, the universe seems to contain a maybe." (John von Neumann [say "fun NOY-mahnn"], one of the great scientific minds of the 20th century, proposed a three-valued quantum logic that seems pretty much the same thing here.)

Our nervous systems and cultural conditionings urge us to want to know what the truth "really is," but all of our epistemologies suggest our knowledge seems always contingent and subject to more information and investigation. Our points of view about politics, diet, musical preferences, what ideas in culture are "really" based on truth and what ones are hokum....all manner of our taken-for-granted worlds, should be subject to maybe logic: My entire blog has some sort of attitude, but verily, I tell you, I do not "know." What I write here is what I think, as of that day. I always want a new angle; I am always searching for some new way to think about something I find I thought I had a handle on. I find this mode of embracing uncertainty in knowledge both more honest according to the epistemologies of the 20th century and early 21st, AND it opens the mind to constant wonder and creativity. It turns out, for Wilson and for me at least, that most "things" seem to reside in the "maybe" state. 

So: as an experiment, try thinking and verbalizing much more using "maybe" over the next week or so, maybe until August 1st, and see if you learn anything interesting from this exercize. Anyone can do it, too! You can do it, right where you are sitting now.

A final observation: in my years of reading about this topic - seemingly recurring numbers and people's reaction to this phenomenon - there seems a certain psychological disposition among some to get disproportionately snarky, even angry that a person should bring up the topic at all. It's out of bounds, and like talking about one's own masturbatory habits, or alien abductions or the JFK assassination. "Ut-oh! Mister Woo-Woo is gonna tell us about his latest New Age spirulina nonsense!" I've never been able to clearly tell if these people are pretentious, overly rational, deadened to that human faculty of "play" or that they think someone is trying to do some dangerous ju-ju out in the open, trying to get away with some subtle wizardry, trying to pull a fast one. I used to think, "Probably a little of all the above." Now I've pretty much given up trying to understand this intellectual position, or psychological disposition...There seem far too many other interesting things to think about.

I write this on 23 July, 2011: Happy Maybe Day!


SatoriGuy said...


michael said...

@ SatoriGuy: Whole lotta fnords these daze!

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

There's quite a lot about David Finkelstein in the new book, "How the Hippies Saved Physics."

michael said...

The Berkeley Public Library bought five copies of this book! And when I found out they'd ordered it, I got on the HOLD list and was number 15. So apparently this is still a pretty big deal around here. My copy is due in either today or tomorrow. I will have to remind myself that chewing adequately allows for easier digestion later.