Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Genie scenario

The “purpose” of a gene is to persist. What our genes “want” is to continue to exist, in one body or another (or in several simultaneously), for as long as possible. We phenotypes are “designed” to further that “goal.” (I’ll dispense with the scare quotes hereafter, trusting that my readers can recognize a metaphor.)

When the phenotype is a higher animal capable of thinking, it can have its own desires and goals — which, in turn, are designed to further the genes’ goal of perpetual existence — so you might think that animals would naturally evolve to want the same things their genes want. But they don’t, generally, because animals (including us) are just too dumb. So instead we’re given proxy motives which, while not identical to the motives of our genes, will tend to produce the results the genes want.

Take the so-called survival instinct for example. I suspect very few animals actually have an instinctive desire to survive. When a mouse eats and drinks regularly, runs away from a fox, or finds a warm place to hide during a blizzard, is it thinking, “I’d better do these things, or I’ll die”? I doubt it. I doubt a mouse has any concept of its own mortality. What it wants is not “survival” in the abstract, but food, warmth, the absence of pain, and so on. From the mouse’s point of view, these are ends in themselves. The mouse’s genes don’t particularly care if the mouse is warm and comfortable; they give it those desires as a means to an end, knowing that a mouse that pursues such goals is likely to live longer than one that does not. That’s the best they can do with a mouse, which understands life and death dimly if at all and wouldn’t know what to do with more abstract desires if it had them.

Human beings are another story, though. We have many of the same desires a mouse has, but we also have a desire for survival itself. We’re smart enough for it to be useful. It’s what allows us to think, “This is delicious, but if I eat this kind of stuff too often I could end up with heart disease,” or, “This is going to sting, but if I don’t do it, the infection could spread.” As often as not, our mouse-type desires actually become a liability for animals as knowledgeable as ourselves. A mouse’s desire for tasty food will rarely lead it astray; but the same in not true for humans, smart enough to cook up all kinds of new foods that are tasty without being nutritious.

The disparity between what we want and what our genes want is even clearer when it comes to reproduction. In lower animals the sex drive leads predictably to reproduction, but humans can often find ways to have lots of sex without having lots of kids, and the smarter and better-informed they are, the better they are at subverting their genes’ intentions in this way. All across the First World, birthrates are plummeting, as clever humans pursue what they want in ways their genes never anticipated. As Richard Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene, our intelligence allows us “to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” Nor does this rebellion always take the form of hedonism; well thought-out moral principles can also subvert the goals our moral instincts were designed to further.

But this is a rebellion we can’t possibly win, at least not in the long run. If our genes die out, we die out. Our ability to survive is a function of our ability — and willingness — to serve their interests. We may be able to “turn against our creators” for a season, but the day of reckoning will inevitably come. The combination of mouse-level motives and human-level intelligence is unstable. It can’t last. One or the other has got to go. Maybe our motives will stay the same, the intelligence bubble will burst, and the species will go back to being too dim to outwit its own genes (“protective stupidity,” though perhaps not in a precisely Orwellian sense). The more interesting possibility is that we’ll stay smart, or continue to get smarter and smarter, but that our motives and desires will evolve to approximate ever more closely those of our genes. I would predict an almost law-like correlation between level of intelligence and type of motivation. Lower animals can do just fine with proxy motives far removed from what their genes really care about; a species of geniuses, though, could survive only if they wanted exactly the same things their genes wanted.

Lets imagine such a species — much older than the human race, much more intelligent, and therefore consciously gene-centric in its motivations. And let’s call these hypothetical people Genies — a convenient word that suggests a focus on genes (i.e., genes are to Genies what Rev. Moon is to Moonies), is etymologically related to genius, and is already used to refer to imaginary human-like beings. Here are some speculations about the nature and history of the Genies:

Gene-centered psychology:

Genies care about genes, not phenotypes. To them, the self-evident purpose of life is to do everything you can to enable as many of your genes as possible to survive (in original form or as copies) for as long as possible. Everything else is a means to that end. Important secondary goals include:

  • Longevity: As a vessel of your genes, preserve yourself and live as long as possible. If you can, live forever.
  • Reproduction: Don’t put all your genes in one basket. Make copies of them in other bodies (especially in younger bodies that may outlive your own). This can take the form of conventional reproduction, cloning, or even inserting some of your genes into other species via genetic engineering.
  • Diffusion: For the same reason that you don’t want to keep all your genes in a single body, you don’t want all the bodies that bear your genes to be in the same house — or in the same region, or, ultimately, on the same planet. As Stephen Hawking has said, “There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet.” Scatter your seed.

Genie psychology is human-like in some ways, but in other ways it is deeply alien. You can probably sympathize with the desire to live a long life and have children, but may be less enthusiastic about, say, cloning yourself, or ensuring the immortality of a few of your genes by engineering a species of cockroach to carry them. Nor are you likely to have any particular desire that your descendants live in many different countries, let alone on many different planets. For Genies, though, this stuff is fundamental. They care about it the way we care about status and sex.


Cloning technology is a big deal for Genies. With sexual reproduction, each child carries only 50% of each parent’s genes, and no matter how many children you have, you can’t be sure that 100% of your genes will be passed on. (Two children will, between them, carry 75% of each parent’s genes; three will carry 87.5%, four 93.75%, and so on, with the number approaching 100% but never quite reaching it.) The Genies find this completely unacceptable and instead opt for cloning, which they develop to the point where it becomes the norm and sexual reproduction disappears completely.

The end of sexual selection:

When sexual reproduction disappears, so does sexual selection as an evolutionary force. If you think about how many human traits and behaviors have their origins in sexual selection, it’s hard to overestimate the impact this would have on Genie psychology, lifestyle, and even physiology. Genies no longer care about making themselves attractive to others or about proving their fitness through showing off or symbolic status-seeking. The concept of fashion disappears, and Genies all dress in identical jumpsuits which are efficient and can be cheaply mass-produced — or perhaps each genotype has a uniform of its own which, as in the military, serves to distinguish friend from foe, because that’s how they think now — not “me” or “my family,” but “my genotype.”

Physical changes:

You might expect that at this point the physical evolution of the Genies would effectively come to an end, since ever more advanced forms of cloning ensure that each new generation bears precisely the same DNA as the last. But remember that the Genies are smart. Really, really smart. They’re quite capable of thinking things out and seeing the need to make certain sacrifices in the service of their long-term goals.

Imagine that you are a member of one of the less successful Genie genotypes. The other Genies are in some way more “fit” and are out-reproducing you. You can stubbornly continue to produce exact copies of yourself, keeping your “inferior” genotype as it is, in which case it will probably eventually be driven to extinction by other types of Genie. Or you can do some genetic engineering, modify your genotype to improve its “fitness” and allow it to compete successfully against the others, and it will live on. Sure, you have to sacrifice portions of your precious genome, but so be it. As Jesus said, it’s better “that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” Better to sacrifice a few of your genes than to allow your whole genome to be driven to extinction. It may even be possible to have it both ways, keeping all your old genes in the genome but “turning off” the less adaptive ones so that they have no effect on the phenotype and become what we phenotype-focused humans would call “junk DNA” — a term that would be oxymoronic to a Genie.

So, even after switching to reproduction by cloning, with careful anti-mutation measures taken, the Genies continue to change. Mostly they engineer higher and higher levels of intelligence, since that alone allows them to compete against rival genotypes, to develop the best methods of cloning and genetic engineering, and to trick others into helping them. The brain, which, thanks to the latest reproductive technology, is no longer required to squeeze through a vagina, is now free to expand, and a sort of intelligence arms race leads to the Genies’ distinctive bulbous, grotesquely enlarged heads.

A single genotype:

As long as they are competing with other genotypes for space on a finite planet, doing anything to limit population growth is unthinkable for the Genies. Their planet quickly fills to capacity, leading to wars of genotype against genotype, until one alone survives

This changes everything. All competition and physical change ceases, and each individual’s goals and interests are now 100% identical to those of every other individual. Soon the Genies scarcely think of themselves as individuals at all, their entire focus being on the genome which created them all, which dwells in every one of their bodies but is essentially non-physical in nature, which appears in many persons but is all one substance, and which — unlike any individual Genie — has the potential to be immortal. Individual bodies are valuable only in that they keep the genome alive. Indeed, an earthling overhearing the Genies speaking of their genome might be forgiven for mistranslating the word as “God.”

Space colonization and panspermia:

The One Genotype having been firmly established on the Genies’ home planet, and in no danger of being outcompeted by any rival, space colonization would become the next big goal. The Genies pour all their efforts into interstellar travel, terraforming, and so on, setting up Genie colonies on as many planets as can be made to support them.

Not every planet can be made to support Genies, but, in the Genies’ mind (best to use that word in the singular now), letting even a tiny fraction of the Genie genome take root on a planet would be better than nothing. They create bacteria which are designed to contain as many Genie genes as possible while still being simple and versatile enough to survive in a wide variety of environments, and they make every effort to seed the entire known universe with these Genie-bacteria. Wherever the Genie-bacteria take root, evolution takes over and they develop into forms suited to each local environment — but in nearly every case, some portion of the Genie genome survives, and that alone made it all worthwhile for the Genies.


Much, much later, Genies in spaceships visit some of the planets which were seeded millions of years before. If the planet is habitable by the Genies themselves, they settle there. In other cases, they find a planet which they themselves could not comfortably inhabit, but where the Genie-bacteria have evolved into strikingly Genie-like intelligent life. In such cases, the Genies abduct the local people and perform genetic tests. Sometimes they steal eggs, sperm, and fetuses, genetically engineering them to contain even more Genie DNA. Some of the resulting “hybrids” look pretty much like the local people, but others are distinctly alien in appearance. Asking what purpose this genetic meddling serves would be beside the point. To the Genies, continually spreading copies their DNA to more and more planets, storing it in as many different places and in as wide a variety of bodies as possible, is an end in itself.

One of the planets they visit is, of course, Earth, where the Genies are known as Walking Fish People, Little Doctors, or Greys.


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Undeveloped idea: Tarot triangles

The figure below includes 78 triangles: 22 “upside down” and 56 “right side up.”

The tarot deck includes 78 cards: 22 trumps and 56 suit cards. There should be some convincingly non-arbitrary way of mapping the one set to the other.

My first idea was to divide the figure into four “suits” thus:

For each of the four colors, there are 13 triangles that are only that color — frustratingly close to being perfect, since there are 14 cards in each suit.

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Saint-Sernin Basilica, the Tarot of Marseilles, and Whitley Strieber

In his book about tarot cards, The Path, Whitley Strieber says there is only one bit of evidence that tarot predates the late fourteenth century, “but it is an important one”:

This is an 11th century stone sculpture at the St. Cernin Basilica near Toulouse, of the 21st card in the Major Arcana, known as the World. . . . The sculpture is complete in every detail. This is not an ‘early’ card, but a fully evolved image, suggesting that at least this one card— which contains the whole path and all the other cards in its symbolism— was already completely formed, and therefore that the whole of the path that leads to it must have been known (p. 21).

This claim interested me enough that I did what Strieber himself obviously didn’t do: I looked up the sculpture in question to see for myself. An image of the Saint-Sernin sculpture can be found here. For comparison, the Jodorowsky-Camoin World card (the one used by Strieber) can be seen here.

“Complete in every detail” is, to put it charitably, a bit of an exaggeration. Here are some of the ways the sculpture differs from the card:

  • The central figure is male (Christ), not female as in the tarot card.
  • He is fully clothed in an ankle-length robe, not naked as in the tarot card.
  • He is seated on a throne, not dancing as in the tarot card.
  • He holds a book reading “Pax vobis” (Peace be with you) and raises his other hand in benediction, rather than holding a wand and a bottle as in the tarot card.
  • He wears a halo, absent in the tarot card, marked with a cross and the letters alpha, omega, and R. (Why R? I don’t know.)
  • The mandorla (almond-shaped nimbus) is a precise geometric shape, not a wreath of leaves as in the tarot card.
  • The angel is on the right (our right, Christ’s left) and the eagle on the left; vice versa in the tarot card.

The World card and the Saint-Sernin sculpture are certainly similar images, and it’s undeniable that must be some connection between them; but it is just as undeniable that, contrary to what Strieber says, the sculpture is an “early card” (or an early version of the image found on the card) and is not “complete in every detail.” And even if it were complete, does the World really contain “the whole path and all the other cards in its symbolism”? Where are the Lovers? The Devil? The Lightning-struck Tower? The World might “include” all these in some broad conceptual sense, but in its actual iconography? Can we honestly say that this image only makes sense as part of the 22-image set we call the Major Arcana?

Actually, the Saint-Sernin sculpture belongs to a well-known type of image, called a “Christ in majesty,” which can be found in many other churches, in illuminated manuscripts, and so on. A Google image search will turn up many examples. It is a perfectly ordinary bit of Christian iconography, representing Jesus Christ as described in the fourth chapter of Revelation, and can be fully understood without reference to tarot cards. Like many other images that predate tarot — depictions of the pope and of the devil, allegories of justice, temperance, and love, etc. — it sheds some light on the origins of the tarot images but provides no evidence for the antiquity of the tarot tradition itself.

If the Saint-Sernin sculpture is so far from being a tarot card “complete in every detail,” why does Strieber so describe it? It doesn’t appear that he’s being deliberately misleading; he just neglected to check up on the claims made by his source — which, thanks to the unusual spelling Cernin, was easy for me to find. Philippe Camoin, the cardmaker who created the deck Strieber uses, wrote a short article called “Ancient Tarots” which seems no longer to be available on his website. The following is from Camoin’s article; I’ve bolded the phrases which were lifted word-for-word by Strieber.

Remarkably, one can find at the St Cernin Basilica near Toulouse a stone sculpture from the 11th century, that looks exactly like Arcanum XXI.

Strieber’s bit about it being a complete, “fully evolved image” appears to be a riff on Camoin’s ill-advised use of the word “exactly.” Camoin, in turn, cites an article in French by Alain-Jacques Bougearel, which I have not been able to find and read.

As a maker of Marseilles-style tarot cards, Camoin has a vested interest in promoting the idea that tarot originated in southern France (rather than, as most tarot historians agree, northern Italy), so his willingness to fudge the evidence a bit is at least understandable. Less understandable is Whitley Strieber’s failure to perform even the most basic fact-checking. (It took me about 15 minutes in a public library to track down a high-quality photo of the basilica sculpture; it’s not that hard.) His credulous repeating of Camoin’s claim strikes me as an uncharacteristic failure of curiosity. Wasn’t he intrigued? Didn’t he want to see this sculpture? Apparently not.


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Religiously correct language

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (known as “Mormons”) may disagree with mainstream Christianity on such fundamental issues as the nature and identity of God, the means of salvation, the nature of marriage, and the extent of the scriptural canon, and they may follow “prophets” whom most Christians would consider false — but they still believe in Jesus Christ and the Bible, and their church even has “Jesus Christ” in its name. They are, therefore, clearly Christians — and to say otherwise is a hateful anti-Mormon slander.

Members of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (known as “Mormon fundamentalists”) may believe in Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, and their church may even have “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” in its name — but they still disagree with mainstream Mormonism on such fundamental issues as the nature and identity of God, the means of salvation, the nature of marriage, and the extent of the scriptural canon, and they follow “prophets” whom most Mormons would consider false. They are, therefore, clearly not Mormons — and to say otherwise is a hateful anti-Mormon slander.

Got it?

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The secret of the alphabet: Introducing S:E:G:

I’ve mentioned Simple English Gematria (S:E:G:) in a few posts before but never really discussed the system in any detail, mostly because the main idea is so simple (hence the name) that the briefest of parenthetical explanations is sufficient. Here’s how it works:

  1. Let A = 1, B = 2, C = 3, and so on, down to Z = 26.
  2. Find the value of any word or phrase by adding up all the letters.
  3. Go to town with the amazing coincidences that emerge.

That’s it. A cursory search of the Web will show you that there are many, many other systems of English gematria out there, but this one has the advantage implied in its name. The more arbitrary the system, the less impressive the results. (If A=100, B=101, etc., then “Hitler” adds up to 666! Yes, but who says A should be 100?) In the absence of any established system analogous to Greek or Hebrew numerals, the least arbitrary option for an English gematria is to number the letters in order.

I didn’t invent S:E:G: — I’m sure countless people have come up with it independently — but I did give it a name, a perfect name, which I hope will become standard. At first I called it English Ordinal Gematria, after the “ordinal gematria” (mispar siduri) tradition in Hebrew, which also numbers the letters in order instead of using their numeral values. But there was something frustratingly not-quite-right about that name. One of the first things the student of S:E:G: will discover is that the words English and gematria have the same value, 74. But the word ordinal? 73! I looked around for another name that would be a perfect match, which I finally found with the help of an article by Bob “Ouzo” Evenson which termed the system “English gematria simplex.” Lose the “x” and — bingo!

  • Simple = 74
  • English = 74
  • Gematria = 74
  • Simple English Gematria = 222

Not only does each word have the same value, but the sum is a significant-looking number, obviously of the same family as 666. So it’s settled: Simple English Gematria is the name for this system.

So that’s where the name comes from, but why is it abbreviated S:E:G:, with the colons and everything? Well, when I first got into this stuff I was a little self-conscious about it and felt the need to preempt ridicule by conspicuously poking fun at gematria and the occult in general (and believe me, there is much to poke fun at!). One of these protective jokes was to use the abbreviation E.’.O.’.G.’. (this was back when it was still called “ordinal”) and to refer to the triple dots as “magickal puncktuation” — all intended as a parody of Aleister Crowley. Later, after I’d switched to the name S.’.E.’.G.’., it occurred to me to check the gematria value of the joke phrase, and I was amazed.

  • magickal puncktuation = 222

The same value as the name “Simple English Gematria”! So the magickal puncktuation is no longer just a joke; it’s required. I switched from the Crowleyan three-dot puncktuation to the current colon variety because, aside from the fact that it’s more convenient to type, three pairs of dots is yet another reference to the number 222.

The most basic number in S:E:G: is 26. Not only is this the number of letters in the alphabet, but it also happens to be the value in Hebrew gematria of the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God (יהוה, usually rendered Jehovah or Yahweh in English). S:E:G: equates God with the alphabet:

  • God = 26
  • a-bee-cee = 26

Confirming the connection between the 26-letter alphabet and the four-letter name of God, S:E:G: equates counting to 26 with counting to four:

  • i ii iii iv v vi vii viii ix x xi xii xiii xiv xv xvi xvii xviii xix xx xxi xxii xxiii xxiv xxv xxvi = 1234

S:E:G: identifies the number 159 with 26:

  • twenty-six = 159
  • twice thirteen = 159

This number also encodes the mystery of the Trinity — that “the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet they are not three Gods, but one God” — or, written as an equation, “God + God + God = God.”

  • God = 26
  • God + God + God = 78
  • twenty-six = seventy-eight = 159

Also adding up to 159 are many other references to God’s name, the alphabet, and the S:E:G: system itself:

  • four letters = 159
  • atoms of Yahweh = 159
  • God’s sublime name = 159
  • Jesus H. Christ = 159
  • alphabetization = 159
  • the Roman alphabet = 159
  • holy letters = 159
  • inspired alphabet = 159
  • the words of God = 159
  • language of Adam and Eve = 159
  • cryptographic = 159
  • A means 1 and Z means 26 = 159

By combining two 159-phrases and adding the word “the,” we can derive another important number: 351.

  • twenty-six = 159
  • holy letters = 159
  • the twenty-six holy letters = 351

The number 351 is the 26th triangular number — that is, the sum of every integer from 1 to 26 — and is therefore the total value of the alphabet.

  • A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z = 351
  • Alphabet has twenty-six letters. = 351
  • twenty-six, number of the alphabet = 351
  • the terms of Simple English Gematria = 351
  • the interpretation of God’s language = 351

Another important number is 74. G=7 and D=4 — so, while 26 is the value of “God,” 74 suggests “G-d,” the respectful spelling used by some Jews. Several God-related words and phrases add up to 74:

  • Great I Am = 74
  • heavens = 74
  • chariot = 74
  • clouds = 74
  • elevated = 74
  • greater = 74
  • wiser = 74
  • parent = 74
  • ruler = 74
  • the king = 74
  • theism = 74
  • It’s God! = 74

Besides being a secondary number of God, 74 is S:E:G:’s number for Jesus. At least four different forms of Jesus’ name add up to 74 in S:E:G:. The Jesus of the New Testament and the Joshua of the Old are actually two versions of the same Hebrew name, which can be written in English as Y’shua. This name is also sometimes written as the Pentagrammaton (יהשוה, the Tetragrammaton plus the letter shin), which can be transliterated as IHShVH (this is the spelling favored by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn). All have the same value in S:E:G:, as does Lord Buckley’s name for Jesus of Nazareth.

  • Jesus = 74
  • Joshua = 74
  • Y’shua = 74
  • IHShVH = 74
  • The Naz = 74

In Greek gematria, Ίησους = 888, which is a multiple of 74 (74 × 12 = 888).

Many other Jesus-related words and phrases have the same value:

  • Jewish = 74
  • Messiah = 74
  • Son + God = 74
  • God and a man = 74
  • preacher = 74
  • parables = 74
  • donkey = burro = 74 (he rode into Jerusalem on one)
  • bitter = 74 (the bitter cup)
  • obedient = 74
  • killing = 74
  • cross = 74
  • forgave = 74
  • finished = 74 (last words)

The story of Jesus is recorded in four books of the Bible, each of which is called “The Gospel according to St.” so-and-so.

  • Gospel = 74
  • according = 74
  • to St. = 74

But Jesus is not the only Bible character whose number is 74. Although 74 × 12 = 888, the number of Jesus in Greek gematria, 74 × 9 = 666, the number of the beast!

  • DCLXVI = 74 (666 in Roman numerals)
  • Lucifer = 74
  • abominable = 74
  • accursed = 74
  • evil god = 74
  • fiendish = 74
  • horns = 74
  • old goat = 74
  • tempt = 74

Because 74 is the number of God and Christ as well as of the devil and the antichrist, there is more than one way to interpret the following equivalences.

  • tarot = 74
  • occult = 74
  • Muhammad = 74

Are tarot cards and other occult traditions good or evil? Was Muhammad a true prophet or a false one? S:E:G: fits with either interpretation.

It’s also worth drawing attention to the fact that “tarot” = “cross” = 74 — a nod to Whitley Strieber’s system of tarot symbolism as detailed in his book The Path. He claims that his system, which involves laying out 26 tarot cards (the 22 trumps, plus the 4 aces to represent the 4 suits) in a cross-shaped pattern, was revealed to him by a mysterious character whom he calls the Master of the Key.

  • the key = 74

Even the fact that Strieber uses 26 cards to represent the full 78-card deck is reinforced by S:E:G:, in which, as you will recall, “twenty-six” = “seventy-eight.” Strieber’s putting an entire suit on the same footing as a single trump card is also instructive. If each of the 26 cards in the cross were expanded into a full 14-card suit — creating such cards as the Ace of Chariots, the Seven of Fools, and the Knight of Temperance — there would be 364 cards in all. That’s the 12th tetrahedral number, just as 78 is the 12th triangular.

  • the majestic twenty-six-suit deck = 364
  • fourteen layers of twenty-six = 364

But getting back to 74, it is, as mentioned above, the value of each of the three words in the name “Simple English Gematria,” the total value being 222.

  • Simple English Gematria = 222
  • English-based isopsephia = 222 (Greek term for gematria)
  • letters as numerals = 222
  • to count from A to Z = 222
  • alphabetic numerology = 222
  • alphanumeric system = 222
  • the secret of the alphabet = 222
  • It is hidden in the alphabet. = 222
  • written patterns = 222
  • impossible coincidences = 222
  • numerous parallels = 222
  • God’s sacred handwriting = 222
  • The Word was with God. = 222
  • the language of the soul = 222

The number 222 is, visually, a series of three twos.

  • It’s two-two-two. = 222
  • the great triple-two = 222
  • a two twixt twain = 222
  • the second figure thrice = 222
  • a numeral thrice repeated = 222

Finally, 222 refers back to the divine 26, being the way one writes twenty-six in the trinary (base-three) numeral system — the system which would naturally be favored by a three-person’d God.

  • God writ trinarily = 222

I guess this post is about long enough now. I certainly don’t intend to list every significant coincidence I’ve found in S:E:G:, just a few of the most important numbers. I’ll close with one last note, though: Longfellow would have hated S:E:G:, which uses its “mournful numbers” (the mournful number 86, to be precise) to tell him exactly what he didn’t want to hear.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!…
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal…
(Psalm of Life)

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Harry, but:

  • the grave = 86
  • life’s goal = 86

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Voltaire asks the right question

Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary includes a dialogue between the Philosopher and Nature, in which the Philosopher poses the following question:

We are curious. I want to know how being so crude in your mountains, in your deserts, in your seas, you appear nevertheless so industrious in your animals, in your vegetables?

Nature’s reply is to dismiss the apparent difference (“Do you not know that there is an infinite art in those seas and those mountains that you find so crude?”), but the Philosopher’s question is a good one. However impressive seas and mountains (and stars, and everything else in the universe) may be in their own way, none of it even begins to compare with the astonishing complexity of the biological world. Why this chasm?

Darwinism answers Voltaire’s question. Natural selection is ultimately the only way extremely complex things can come into being, and so every extremely complex thing in the world is created, either directly (organisms) or indirectly (technology created by organisms), by replicators such as DNA molecules. The chasm is between things that were created by replicators and things that were not.

Creationism, on the other hand, can’t really answer the question. (Paley noticed how similar an animal is to a watch and how different it is from a rock — and concluded that animals must have been made by the same guy who invented rocks!) Of course there’s no reason why God can’t have created simple things as well as complex, but creationism doesn’t know what do with the obvious correlation between complexity and reproduction. In nature we find very complex things that reproduce and far simpler things that don’t. Conspicuous by its absence is anything truly analogous to the human technology typified by the watch — very complex things that don’t reproduce. To a creationist, there’s no obvious reason for this; it must just be how God decided to do things. From a Darwinian point of view, though, the absence of true “watches” in nature is precisely what we ought to expect.

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You say revelation, I say hypothesis

Bruce Charlton’s interesting new blog Scientists considering Christianity (the title refers to the intended readers, not to the writer) does not, regrettably, allow readers to leave comments, so I’ll just have to do my commenting here. I should mention at the outset, I suppose, that I myself am neither a scientist nor seriously considering Christianity.

In a recent post called Hypotheses and revelations, Mr. Charlton addresses those who think “that Christian revelation is arbitrary (or made-up) compared with scientific hypotheses or theories.” After describing the way hypotheses often occur to scientists suddenly and inexplicably in a flash of inspiration, he concludes that the formation of a scientific hypothesis is not itself a scientific process, and that hypotheses are no less “made up” than revelations. He closes with this (I’ve proofread it a bit):

My point is that hypotheses in relation to [science] are analogous to revelation in relation to religion — both come from outside of the system, but science is based on hypotheses in the same way that Christianity is based on revelation.

But the point is that in formal terms (in terms of systems theory, to be exact) Christian revelations are no more bizarre than scientific hypotheses. Or both are equally bizarre.

To say that a revelations and hypotheses are “analogous” is actually an understatement. I would go further and say that a revelation simply is a hypothesis. Prophets and scientists come up with their ideas in pretty much the same ways — hunches, flashes of intuition, even dreams or visions (see Kekulé). The choice of words, “revelation” or “hypothesis,” is simply a reflection of one’s opinion about where the idea came from and how trustworthy it is. If you think it came from God and is therefore True, you call it a revelation. If you think it came from God-knows-where but might turn out to be true after being tested, you call it a hypothesis. Revelations are not a category apart; rather, a “revelation” is just a hypothesis you don’t feel the need to test.

When Mr. Charlton introduces the issue — “that Christian revelation is arbitrary (or made-up) compared with scientific hypotheses or theories” — he’s being a little sneaky, lumping hypotheses and theories together. Once he’s convinced you, correctly, that a hypothesis is no more reasonable or “scientific” than a revelation, you’re meant to conclude that revealed religion is therefore just as reasonable as science. But while Christianity has hypotheses aplenty, in the form of “revelations,” it offers nothing as robust as a good scientific theory — that is, a hypothesis that has proven itself through rigorous and systematic testing.

Of course religious people test their hypotheses, too, after a fashion, since they don’t indiscriminately accept every purported revelation (Christians, for example, don’t generally accept the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad), but the testing is of a very different — and, it must be said, rather arbitrary — sort. Christianity generally focuses on the source of the hypothesis: Did he have a vision? Did your heart burn within you? Is that in the Bible? In science, on the other hand, the source of the hypothesis is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether the hypothesis originated in a hunch, a dream, a bit of wishful thinking, or even in scripture; all that matters is whether it can be tested and how well it passes those tests. If a hypothesis consistently makes true predictions, we accept it, regardless of where it came from; and if it doesn’t, we don’t.

John Dominic Crossan had the right idea:

And only when [the] human normalcy [of “revelation”] is accepted can a proper response be offered. It should not be this: We deny the fact of your vision. It should be this: Tell us the content of your vision. And then we will have to judge not whether he had it or not, but whether we should follow it or not. (The Jesus Controversy, p. 7)

And so did William Blake:

The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbet; watch the roots,
the lion, the tyger, the horse, the elephant, watch the fruits.
(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

So, yes, Christian doctrines seem arbitrary compared with scientific theories. But the difference lies not in the admittedly arbitrary hypotheses/revelations that provide the raw material for both disciplines, but rather in the differing ways in which hypotheses are tested or validated. — whether by the objective tests of the scientific method, or by the arbitrary ones prescribed by various religions.

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Filed under Philosophy, Revelation, Science