Or How the Law of Five Inoculated Me against Conspiracy Theories
It’s an old cliche that’s no less accurate for being hackneyed that the books that most profoundly affect us in adolescence, like the music we listen to, can affect us for the rest of our lives.
Certainly one book I read in my early teens has not only stuck with me for the rest of my life, but imparted lessons I’ve been deeply grateful for.
The book I speak of is Robert Shea’s and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy.
How to adequately describe Illuminatus!? It’s a psychedelic science-fiction detective story, an anarcho-capitalist manifesto, a sprawling experiment in non-linear narrative and an extended literary shitpost, all wrapped up in 800 pages of sex, drugs rock’n’roll, science-fiction and horror.
But, most importantly, Illuminatus! is a satire of conspiracy theories.
The central plot of Illuminatus! is the idea that an evil conspiracy, the Illuminati, have been secretly running the world for most of human history – indeed, even before human history. Depending on who you believe (the characters of Illuminatus! are not exactly reliable narrators), the Illuminati are responsible for everything from the Fall of Atlantis to the Kennedy assassination. In fact, all human history is the story of the epic battle between the Illuminati and the anarcho-capitalist libertarians known variously as the Discordians or the Justified Ancients of Mummu (JAMs).
If all of that sounds ridiculous, it’s meant to be (one of the main protagonists lives in a yellow submarine, after all) – and that is the great gift that Illuminatus! imprinted on my adolescent brain. Having, at such a relatively young age, seen nearly every conspiracy theory imaginable satirised so wonderfully, I wasn’t about to be taken in when I encountered them “in the wild” in later life.
One of the most interesting and insightful plot devices in Illuminatus! is its continuous references to numerology and the number five in particular. This is explicitly formulated as the “Law of Five” and the associated “23 Enigma”.
The Law of Five states that all things happen in five, or are divisible by or are multiples of five, or in some way relate to the number five, given enough ingenuity on the part of the observer. “23” is thus an important corollary to the Law of Five, because 2 + 3 = 5.
Consider, for instance, in the Discordian greeting and response: “Hail Eris; All hail Discordia”. The greeting, which salutes the Classical goddess of chaos and anarchy, has two words and three syllables. The response has three words and five syllables.
Ah, you might respond: while the greeting is obviously 2 + 3 (making 5), the response is 3 + 5, which makes eight. Not so fast, my sceptical friends: eight is in fact two to the power of three (2 x 2 x 2). Thus we find 2 + 3 = 5 hidden, as it were.
By now you’re no doubt thinking, oh, well, you’re just twisting things any way you can in order to fit them to your theory.
And that’s the point.
As Robert Anton Wilson himself, the whole point of the Law of Five is that, “When you start looking for something you tend to find it”.
The Law of Five is a working example of such failures of critical thinking as apophenia (mistakenly perceiving connections and meaning between unrelated things), selection bias, and confirmation bias. That’s why the important clause of the Law of Five is “given enough ingenuity on the part of the observer”. Conspiracy theorists are often quite clever, but they turn their ingenuity not to critically analysing the data, but to making the data fit what they have already made up their minds about.
But Illuminatus! is not all one-sided sneering at conspiracy theorists as deluded foil-hatters. The authors routinely mix very real conspiracies (the Illuminati were a genuine secret society in 18th century Europe, for example) with the most absurd extrapolations. Someone indeed conspired to kill Kennedy, but Illuminatus! cleverly turns that fateful day in Dallas into a lunatic free-for-all among competing assassins from the Mafia, the CIA, John Dillinger, the Illuminati and more (“How many guys does it take to kill a president these days?” one of the assassins exclaims).
That’s the important lesson of Illuminatus!: sometimes conspiracies are real enough (even as they were writing the novel, Wilson says, Watergate was unraveling before their eyes), but that doesn’t make every wild conspiracy theory true.
Whenever you’re tempted to squeeze the facts into the neat, round hole of your preferred conspiracy theory, remember the Law of Fives.