Why Bertrand Russell isn't scary
These are my thoughts on a recurring motif in the work of one Cthulhu Mythos writer between 1996 and 2014. Spoilers for the RPG scenario The Last Equation (2010)! In it, author Dennis Detwiller describes a sequence of numbers. Its name, the Laqueus, is Latin for “noose”. The sequence is stated openly:
9 9 2 0 .2 2 9 9 8 9 2 1 2 .3 3 3
The Laqueus is variously described as a number, several numbers, a code, a key, an equation, glyphs, a cypher, an exemplary cryptogram, a “complex formula”, both a solution and a puzzle, etc. No mention is made of the dots, and no mathematical operations upon the Laqueus are ever shown. What does it mean?
A character in the scenario has, with an undescribed “calculation” of the sequence, unlocked “huge and previously unknown prime numbers. These primes in turn [reveal] odd mathematical structures”.1 According to the author, in its Mythos context the sequence represents “a pinhole through what we know as reality”. Mathematicians exposed to the sequence first begin to see parts of it cropping up in apparent coincidences, and then understand why: It contains “the entirety of existence”.
This is a recurring motif in Detwiller's work: reality aligned with surprisingly simple mathematics. The motif did not start with The Last Equation. The number sequence was first published, though not named, in “Agent Ivan’s Disappearance” (Detwiller, 1996), an early vignette for Delta Green, preceding the publication of the main setting sourcebook.
I cannot say whether the motif of reality as a mathematical puzzle was already on the author's mind in 1996, but I suppose it was. In the main setting book, he contributed some passages to the description of Majestic-12, a secret organization within the US intelligence community. One of these was the 1947 journal of a Dr. Anton Greist, which contains a variation upon the number sequence, followed by this passage: “Today my mind grasped the subtle complexities of reality as our limited organs fail to perceive it. The future unfolds at the beckoning of the past and it loops upon itself, collapsing in and forming the places we are and have been or will be.”2
It is possible to read The Last Equation as an explanation of the journal passage. It is not the explanation I expected. When I first read Greist's journal around 2003, I assumed he was under the influence of mind control or the generally inhuman truth about the world as Lovecraft himself described it, revealed to Greist by the technology of the Mi-Go, which was driving him mad. I think I was misreading the text.
The Last Equation proposes that numbers of direct, personal, perfectly mundane human importance are embedded in the Laqueus, in the manner of coded messages from one person to another. For example, contemporary US telephone numbers, ISO 6709 geographic coordinates on Earth, and a trivial encoding of coherent English sentences like “KILL THEM ALL” will all be prominent.3 The same with contemporary US notation for dates and times, etc. One significant set of Social Security numbers, license plates, bank accounts, and mortgage numbers add up to the Laqueus itself, treated as an integer.4
In the movie Knowing (2009), Nicolas Cage plays a professor of astrophysics who similarly finds dates and coordinates in a mad scrawl of numbers on a piece of paper. The numbers, he assumes, are prophesies from fifty years earlier. Specifically, the numbers spent that time under regular screws and a manhole cover, in a shallow hole in the ground. The mysterious piece of paper could have been planted very recently, but the professor is obsessed with the apparent predictions. Tracing one of these, he identifies a street intersection using coordinates given to hundredths of a degree. This is impossible, because 0.01° corresponds to a range of more than 1 km. The movie, like The Last Equation, appears based on the idea that numbers are scary, suggestive, and possibly magical. Both require the audience to shut down critical thinking.
In any sufficiently long string of random numbers, much as in the books of Borges’ “The Library of Babel” (1941), there will be sequences matching phone numbers, coordinates, and arbitrary encodings of English. It is an innate human cognitive defect to see meaning in such random occurences, a tendency called apophenia. In Detwiller's scenario, what would look like apophenia to an outside observer is not. It is genuine pattern recognition producing meaningful results. In other words, in Detwiller’s fiction the numbers are non-random. They genuinely describe the world of the story and predict its development5 like the numbers in Knowing.
In addition to describing the world, the Laqueus has several other effects: a feeling of being watched, a feeling of being compelled to commit violent crimes, and propagation of the Laqueus. None of these effects are motivated in the context of the narrative, where no watchers are shown to exist. There is no indication that the Laqueus is a means of deception, or that Delta Green's monsters exist as puppet masters outside of the number world.
Detwiller has continued to write elsewhere about reality as a mathematical puzzle. In a short story, he returns to the history of Majestic-12, describing the work of a Dr. Stephen Courtis—who succeeded Greist—as a “series of numbers that look like some accountant's scratch pad” and 34 equations.6 The last equation is explained with a simile, as akin to pondering a puzzle in mise en abyme.7 In another story, a Russian mathematician devises 34 “calculations” to produce a simulation of the real world, possibly identical to it.8
By somewhat sketchy inference, the Russian's 34 calculations are Courtis's 34 equations, which are the key to Courtis's series of numbers, which is also Greist's series of numbers, i.e. the Laqueus. In returning to this device over the years, Detwiller creates a sense of our reality as fleeting, and of people as less real or less free than they believe themselves to be. This is vaguely akin to Lovecraft's writing, where the rug is pulled from under human self-importance in a variety of ways, usually through godlike alien beings. In “From Beyond” (1934), Lovecraft describes lateral extensions of human perception by scientific means, with the same thematic results. In “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1933), Lovecraft himself connects mathematics to magic.
Although intended to be in Lovecraft's tradition, Detwiller's motif is less effective. Least importantly, the handling of mathematics itself is clumsy even on a superficial level. No distinction is made, for instance, between calculations and equations. Similarly, the Arabic glyphs that merely present numbers in base 10 are treated as if they had some innate mathematical significance even when arbitrarily rearranged, used in phone numbers, etc. Perhaps that is intended as an unclear supernatural premiss, but it isn't mathematics. It's more like Leiji Matsumoto's fetish for putting a lot of nines in the titles of his comics, as a cheap means of making them look ominous. Notice the five nines in the Laqueus.
For much of Lovecraft's life, mathematicians were labouring on a “logicist” project to describe a set of axioms and inference rules in symbolic logic from which all mathematical truths could be proven. They were trying to make mathematics similar to the way Detwiller depicts it: A universal system, potentially suitable for describing the universe but not based on the natural world. Fans of Lovecraft will be happy to note that non-Euclidean geometries were among the inventions that led to this project.9
The most important logicist work was the Principia Mathematica (1910-1913) by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, published just about 100 years before Detwiller's scenario, and equally outmoded. Around the time of Lovecraft's death, the logicist project was scuttled. Kurt Gödel proved that the Principia Mathematica was and had to be a failure in its main objective, despite the influence it would have in fields like computer science. A more practical mindset came to the fore, viewing mathematics as a toolbox built by people for human purposes.
Among experts, the idea of two pages' worth of equations encompassing the universe has not fired up the imagination since the 1940s. As Albert Einstein put it, “as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
Detwiller's idea is also of little practical value to Delta Green as a social activity: a game. One gamemaster proposed on the Delta Green mailing list that those who kill because of the Laqueus do so to avert, delay or mitigate Lovecraft's apocalypse, not, as Detwiller writes, because the number orders it.10 This simple change is of practical value. In the original, murder is tacked on to add tension, without motivation in the story, which makes it hard to run a game.
To return to the subject of Lovecraft's own writing, in every one of his Mythos stories, science and the supernatural point in a single direction: human beings are real, but marginal. Lovecraft evokes horror primarily by undermining the reader's natural false belief that she is somehow significant in a grand scheme. Incidentally, that very belief links apophenia to conspiracy theory.
A conspiracy theorist looks at details of a complex world, disregards randomness and complexity, and erects a pleasingly simple, cognitively manageable substitute. For instance, 9/11 is imagined as a carefully managed stunt to permit a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan, instead of a sign that US society is vulnerable to hideously complex external forces. The conspiracy theorist exults in her own putative insight and ignores the facts. This is very different from Lovecraft's thematic thrust, which he called “cosmicism”. His protagonists do often stumble on secrets, but the secrets simplify nothing. They lay bare a “vista” larger and less humane than had been imagined: unfathomable, inelegant, ugly. More complex than our own world, not less.
In the short story “Contingencies”, Detwiller adds some complications to his proposition that reality is 34 calculations, but it still sounds clean and simple, with no concomitant advantages for the literature or the game. Worse, in The Last Equation Detwiller takes trivial details of his contemporary American society, devised entirely for human convenience, and imagines them to be prominently integrated in what amount to fictional natural laws. Even if the individual characters are not ennobled or elevated by this conceit, it is anthropocentric, not Lovecraftian. And it doesn't star Nicolas Cage.
Dennis Detwiller, Adam Scott Glancy & John Tynes, Delta Green (1997), “Tagebuch”, p. 159. ↩
“The Last Equation”, p. 18. ↩
Ibid., p. 11. ↩
Ibid., p. 12. ↩
Dennis Detwiller, Tales from Failed Anatomies (2014), “Drowning in Sand”, p. 213. ↩
Ibid., p. 224. ↩
Dennis Detwiller, Tales from Failed Anatomies (2014), “Contingencies”, p. 199. ↩
David Farnell, letter to the DGML (2012-06-03). ↩