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Numerology

Numerology is the art of converting virtually anything in life to a pure number, then using that number in an attempt to divine some meaningful insight about reality. "Art" is definitely the word for numerology, as opposed to "science." The term numerology covers an incredibly diverse selection of practices, virtually all of which are utterly ridiculous.

The practice of numerology is an outgrowth of an ancient -- and more respectable -- practice known as gematria. Although there are scattered examples of its use in ancient Greece and Mesopotamia, the most widely known form of gematria is primarily a Jewish mystical practice grounded in the structure of the Hebrew language.

The letters of the Hebrew alphabet have numeric equivalents, and these numbers are relevant to the construction of words. If you add the values of the letters in a word, the total is the value of the word. Related words have related gematria.

Gematria played a starring role in the movie Pi (1998), which offered as an example the words "father" and "mother." If you add the numerical values for each word in Hebrew gematria, you get the number 44, which is the gematria value for "child" -- which is what results when you combine a father and mother.

Even in Hebrew, a language in which the numerical values are closely integrated, gematria is considered more of a game than a useful pursuit (except as part of kabalistic practices). And numerology proper takes you one step further from any sort of practical application.

In numerology, you extract numbers from names, or places, or birthdays, or whatever else happens to be at hand. The numbers are then connected to meanings, either a prognostication of the future or an analysis of a situation or personality.

No one would dispute that numbers and applied mathematics are an important part of how the world works, but numerology has nothing to do with those pursuits. Numerology isn't science, but it isn't really religion either.

Unlike I-Ching, tarot cards or even astrology, there is absolutely no underlying philosophy or logic in numerology. There's no one historical tradition for numerology, and there is no consistent way to do it.

The most common form of numerology involves using your name. (Others will use your date of birth, or some other randomly selected starting point.) The letters of your name are assigned numerical values, based either on an improvised code or some sort of diagrammatic setup, then a series of reductions are performed to get the number down to within a certain range.

The range you are shooting for depends on the numerology manual you happen to be consulting. For instance, some numerology schemes are designed to work with the i-Ching, so you keep reducing the total name number until it's 64 or less. Others, like the so-called "Life Path" system, reduce to one of 11 values. Kabbalistic numerology will shoot for values that fit with a set of 10, 11 or 22.

These numbers are then, more or less arbitrarily, used to determine your future or describe your personality. There are endless reasons why this system should produce essentially random results.

For one thing, the ordering of English alphabet letters is pretty much meaningless, so number schemes based on that order are also meaningless. Many numerologists use a grid called the Pythagorean square to determine their values, which sounds very impressive but in reality is not a process which Pythagoras would have endorsed in the slightest.

So the process by which letters are converted to numbers is arbitrary, and the assignment of names to children (particularly is Western cultures) is extremely abritrary. Do two arbitrary commodities somehow add up to a significant piece of information?

The problems only deepen the more you look at it. What about nicknames? What if your family was originally named Sapperstein and your father changed it to Sapp? What about middle names? Initials? Confirmation names? Would two people with identical names, "John Smith" for instance, have identical characteristics and identical futures? What about "Humbert Humbert"? If you legally change your name in court, can you also change your "Life Path"?

There is simply no reason that your name should contain any significant information about you, let alone a number derived from your name using no particular method. And most numerologists can't even tell you why your name should contain said information, either. They're just sure it does.

Some people would promote numerology on the basis of the general interconnectedness of things. This is always an emotionally compelling argument, since things are indeed deeply interconnected at many levels.

But even if everything is interconnected, that doesn't mean everything can be used to produce reasonable information about everything else. The number of dimples on an orange is not likely to correlate in any meaningful way to a satellite's orbital decay, nor to the mating habits of squid. For that matter, it isn't even likely to correlate to the price of oranges. Chaos theory strongly suggests you'll get a more accurate fortune-telling result by flipping coins or rolling dice than by the name method of numerology.

You can make a last desperate bid and argue that numerology is simply a crutch, a tool used as a way to channel some sort of innate psychic power. This argument is frequently used to justify the use of tarot cards or palmistry.

The problem here is that tarot cards and palmistry are interactive mediums upon which the fortune-teller has a great deal of latitude to impose his or her own insights onto a reading. Numerology offers no such opportunity. You do some elementary school math, and you look up the results in a book, a pamphlet or on a Web site. Individual prowess simply doesn't enter into it.

On the bright side, numerology is a great occupation for people who aren't psychic, aren't particularly charismatic and aren't especially burdened with conscience. You can charge the rubes anywhere from $10 to $100 to perform a few second-grade transformations and look up the result in a book. Hell, you don't even have to do the math correctly, since the resulting reading is going to be total bullshit anyway. Why knock yourself out?


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