20 January 2007

God's comic: The Bible Code

No, not His comic book, or His comedian, or even His court jester or fool--something no ruler can afford to do without. What I mean here is that... God's a pretty funny Guy.

I started thinking about this because of the great comedian, Bill Hicks (dead, you know), who treated the conundrum of fundamentalist christian faith in the following monologue/hypothetical conversation:
Fundamentalist Christianity. Fascinating. These people actually believe the world is twelve thousand years old. Swear to God! "Based on what?" I asked them.
"Well, we looked at all the people in the Bible, and we added them up all the way back to Adam and Eve, their ages--twelve thousand years."
"Well, how fucking scientific! Okay. I didn't know that you'd gone to so much trouble, there. That's good. You believe the world's twelve thousand years old?"
"That's right."
"Okay, I got one word to ask you. A one word question. Ready?"

You know, the world's twelve thousand years old, and dinosaurs existed, they existed in that time, you'd think it would have been mentioned in the fucking Bible at some point. And lo, Jesus and the disciples walked to Nazareth, but the trail was blocked by a giant brontosaurus... with a splinter in his paw. And O the disciples did run a shriekin': "What a big fucking lizard, Lord!" But Jesus was unafraid and he took the splinter from the brontosaurus' paw, and the big lizard became his friend. And Jesus sent him to Scotland, where he lived in a loch for oh, so many years inviting thousands of American tourists to bring their fat, fucking families and their fat dollar bills, and, oh, Scotland did praise the Lord. Thank you, Lord, thank you, Lord. Thank you, Lord."

But get this, I actually asked one of these guys, "OK, dinosaurs fossils--how does that fit into your scheme of life? Let me sit down and strap in." [mimes sitting down and strapping in]
He said, "Dinosaur fossils? God put those there to test our faith."
[contorting face in an almost simian manner as he attempts to understand] "Thank God I'm strapped in right now here, man. I think God put you here to test my faith, dude. You believe that?"

Does that trouble anyone here? The idea that God... might be... fuckin' with our heads? I have trouble sleeping with that knowledge. Some prankster God running around: "Hu hu ho ho. We will see who believes in me
now, ha ha." [mimes God burying fossils] "I am God. I am a prankster. I am killing Me. Hu hu ho ho."

You know, you die and go to St. Peter. "Did you believe in dinosaurs?"
"Well, yeah, there were fossils everywhe--" CRASH! [screams and mimes falling into Hell]
"You fucking idiot! Flying lizards? You're a moron! God was fucking with you!"
"It seemed so plausible.... AAAAAAAAH!"
"Enjoy the lake of fire, fucker."
Yes, who knew God was such a comedian! LOL!!!

Okay, I told you that story to tell you this one.

I recently caught a History Channel program devoted to a hypothesis called "The Bible Code," which claims that one can find the history of the world (important shit, like the Kennedy assassination and the leveling of the WTC) and perhaps even predict future events (like nuclear apocalypse) by way of a code hidden in the Bible. If you go check the Wikipedia link, it'll explain the ELS (Equidistant Letter Sequence) Bible-Code-Decoder technique better and faster than I can (and in a MUCH more nuanced way than the History Channel managed, I might add, and in just a couple paragraphs. I had to sit through an hour of typical History Channel sensational bullshit. With commercials. But more on that after your educational break).

Edited down (slightly) from Wikipedia:
Bible codes, also known as Torah codes, are words, phrases and clusters of words and phrases that some people believe are meaningful and exist intentionally in coded form in the text of the Bible. These codes were made famous by the book The Bible Code [by Michael Drosnin ~L.], which claims that these codes can predict the future.... [Emphasis added. ~L.]

The primary method by which purportedly meaningful messages have been extracted is the Equidistant Letter Sequence (ELS). To obtain an ELS from a text, choose a starting point (in principle, any letter) and a skip number, also freely and possibly negative [i.e. 3, 75, 1,776, -15, or any number. ~L.]. Then, beginning at the starting point, select letters from the text at equal spacing as given by the skip number. For example, the bold, red letters in this sentence form an ELS--the word SAFEST. (The skip is -4. Spaces and punctuation are ignored.)

[~L. note: Like this, though I'm actually fudging a little for clarity because the skip is -4:
t[skip 3 letters]his s[skip 3 letters]ente[skip 3 letters]nce f[skip 3 letters]orm a[skip 3 letters]n ELS
Now read the red letters backwards: TSEFAS = SAFEST. So, neat, right?]

Often more than one ELS related to some topic can be displayed simultaneously in an ELS letter array. This is produced by writing out the text in a regular grid, with exactly the same number of letters in each line, then cutting out a rectangle. In the example below, part of the King James Version of Genesis (26:5–10) is shown with 33 letters per line. ELSs for BIBLE and CODE are shown. Normally only a smaller rectangle would be displayed, such as the rectangle drawn in the figure. In that case there would be letters missing between adjacent lines in the picture, but it is essential that the number of missing letters be the same for each pair of adjacent lines.

Arrange the letters from Genesis 26:5–10 in a 33 column grid and you get a word
search with "Bible" and "code." Myriad other arrangements can yield other words.

Although the above examples are in English texts, Bible codes proponents usually use a Hebrew Bible text. For religious reasons, most Jewish proponents use only the Torah (Genesis–Deuteronomy).
As you can see, the technique allows you to form a rectangle of letters (sometimes in Hebrew and only using the Torah), in which you can find more words that relate to your original search term. In the age of computers, it is possible to plug a letter array. like ARMAGEDDON. into an ELS program, which will search the Bible until it finds that letter combination (remember, backwards or forwards) somewhere, no matter how many other letters come between the A, R, M, A, G, E, D, D, O, and N. Then you make a rectangle out of the whole text that comprises the word and then circle other words that appear in the rectangle, which sometimes seem to have a very queer, surprising relationship indeed to the original ELS search word. Yet, I had questions, even as I was watching this miracle unfold. I reveal them here:

1) Do other words show up that have nothing to do with your search? You know, you look up ABRAHAM LINCOLN and you find F-R-E-E-D and S-L-A-V-E-S in your rectangle--cool! Thank you, Lord, thank you!--but you also find T-A-M-P-A-X and C-H-E-E-S-E-W-H-I-Z. Your ways are mysterious, O Lord.

2) I started becoming suspicious when one of the amazing proofs featured on the History Channel show (which drew heavily on Michael Drosnin's book, The Bible Code) came from a search using MANONTHEMOON, and the result was--I will never forget it as long as I live--S-P-A-C-E-S-H-I-P. Spaceship? First of all, there's a Hebrew word for "spaceship"? Really? And even if I accept that, am I supposed to believe that the omniscient Creator of the Universe thinks of the lunar landing as involving a fucking spaceship? Doesn't He have a few other words above the third grade level that He could use to describe this technical and complex operation? It's like even God is impressed, "And then they made a spaceship. And it was good. And God clapped His hands together and said, 'YAY.'"

On a similar note: one of the famous claims of the Bible Code was that it had predicted the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. While some of the nearby terms that occurred in the ELS were thrillingly compelling [e.g. "AMIR" (the name of Rabin's killer) and "TELAVIV" (the location of the murder)] others were disappointingly, well, retarded--I just can't describe it any other way. I mean, ASSASSIN WHO WILL ASSASSINATE is an impressively long sentence for the Code, but that said, it's pretty damn lame. This is proof of a prophecy? I don't know, I guess I just expect better from God....

3) So, then I started thinking: couldn't someone try this technique with Ulysses or some other long novel--hey, maybe the phone book--and see what happens? Well, some doubters did me one better. According to Wikipedia, an Australian mathematician named Brendan McKay found ELS letter matrices related to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabin in Moby Dick. In the Rabin word cluster, McKay discovered the killer's first and last name, the university he attended, and the purported motive, "Oslo," for the accords named after that city. But here is the absolute best part (also from the Wikipedia piece):
Other people, such as US physicist Dave Thomas, found other examples in many texts. In addition, Drosnin had used the flexibility of Hebrew orthography to his advantage, freely mixing classic (no vowels, Y and W strictly consonant) and modern (Y and W used to indicate i and u vowels) modes, as well as variances in spelling of K and T, to reach the desired meaning. In his television series John Safran vs God, Australian television personality John Safran worked successfully with McKay to look for evidence of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York in the lyrics of Vanilla Ice's repertoire
Can you imagine anything more delicious? O Reader, how I laughed and laughed. But is it just me, but doesn't it seem almost like that fossil-faking, prankster God of ours is laughing too? In His way, I mean. If He is behind the Bible Codes--and indeed He is supposed to be behind all things, after all--if He is behind the Bible Codes, it can only be to fuck with our heads. If the childish blahblah-babble through which these "messages" arrive to us weren't enough to kill your willing suspension of disbelief, it doesn't strike me as very clever to discover part of the Lord's secret design using a letter-skip technique and a computer. I can only imagine the disgust with which Maimonides would have greeted the very idea of this magical Bible code. God's not that easy. So all this clearly means is that God's having a bit of fun at our expense. "Hu hu ho ho. I am killing Me!" Hey, it's His universe, right? We just live in it.

The image “http://www.research-systems.com/images/wtc-render-lowres.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Incontrovertible proof! The WTC disaster turns up in the Bible Code! It's true, look!
Check out the huge size of this rectangle--someone needed a LOT of letters to get
this puppy to make sense. Um, and THIS is a convincing word cluster:

WORLD, MANHATTAN, CENTRE (spelled the British way),
What the hell is "vapour of smoke," anyway? And then there's
the mysterious letter E hanging there. It clearly can't be
anything but the 911 attacks!

I understand this sort of mania for meaningfulness. Honest. Suffering is the feature of mortality that draw us to religion as such. There must be a reason why this is happening to me, so if it can fit into a larger, even cosmic, meaning, if I can find personally relevant material in the Torah using the Bible code (and people have) or if the reality as I understand it is upheld by these telegraphic messages from the Torah using the same decoder ring, then there is meaning to existence. How can you argue with this hunger for meaningfulness that so readily accepts S-P-A-C-E-S-H-I-P and A-S-S-A-S-S-I-N-W-H-O-A-S-S-A-S-S-I-N-A-T-E-S as proof of a higher power, whose secret code we have cracked? You cannot. The most important feature of the ELS system is that it always knows what it's looking for when it makes its search. It's like a metaphysical game of Scrabble or Boggle: you begin with the knowledge that you're searching for a sense, a letter string or strings that make sense and that are similar to the term that prompted the search. This is why we never hear about C-H-E-E-S-E-W-H-I-Z in the result--it might be there, but since it doesn't fit the frame in question, the appearance of "cheese whiz" is omitted from the report.

Last April, I posted on something I consider similar to the phenomenon we see in the Bible code--the entry concerned the way numbers can line up in dates and time, for example on May 6th the date will be 05/06/07. When we notice this happening, there's often a tingle or a shiver that goes through us, like an unsettling order has been revealed. I like this comparison precisely because the meaning that shows up in a consecutive number sequence is minimal yet a recognition comes out of it, as I said, as though time were seeing you. The moment feels profound somehow, but it's just chance that you noticed the date.

The Wikipedia entry on the Bible Code also mentions this interesting tidbit: apparently "[t]he primary objection advanced against Bible codes of the Drosnin variety is that information theory does not prohibit noise from appearing to be sometimes meaningful." The difference between the "noise" of the time/date system that lines up numbers in a surprising (yet always inevitable) sequence and the noise of textual information that uses letters, is that letters form words and words signify better than numbers. Hence the very spooky phenomenon of the Bible code, but credulity is begged by the necessity of knowing what you're looking for, the silliness of some of the word results, and the rejection of results that do not match the desired result (CHEESEWHIZ).

And this brings us, of course, into the domain of psychoanalysis. Yes, I actually told you that story to tell you this one. And do not misunderstand, all roads do not lead to psychoanalysis by any means, but when a metaphor that does lead there presents itself, I'm getting on it to see where it goes. The Bible isn't a person, therefore it doesn't have an Unconscious, but the way words emerge from a letter sequence using the Bible code, is interestingly similar to the phenomenon that happens in analysis. The biggest difference is that if TAMPAX turns up, it is just as valid and valuable as ASSASSINWHOASSASSINATES. Humans can uncover Unconscious connections using free association, but the Bible code functions only by way of forced association; therefore, the results of the Bible code searches will always say more about the person running the search than it ever could about history, the future, God, or anything else. It's a ghost story, a parlor trick, a computerized Ouija board. Let it pass.

And now, something suggests itself: what if meaningfulness as such is noise in the information system? People are always reflexively searching for meaning and motivation, or at least expectant of it, and usually expectant of a certain meaning ("Why do I always date the same kind of GUY?!"). That doesn't mean there is a lack of meaning (there's always too much) or there isn't an ethics (these things can be agreed upon to some degree), but that we exist in a world made up of the history of a network of cultural codes wherein we swim as individuals, and we each have a subjectivity based on an Unconscious (our own) that is essentially a kind of non-sense, yet impels us toward certain directions, relationships, identities. This makes ignorance of the history of cultural codes and of the individual's unconscious drives two things we cannot afford to bear. That's really all I'm saying. Now compared to the Bible Scrabble game of the code--and make no mistake, it is a game--the concept of the mobile spark of meaningfulness, the noise of meaning and the meaning of noise seems a lot more intricate, subtle, interesting, and even haunting than finding a way to get your Bible to spell out "S-P-A-C-E-S-H-I-P."

See? I told you God was a funny Guy.