Numbers, more than letters

Numerals have a long history behind them. The earliest numeral notation appeared about 6,000 years ago. But it is only recently that numbers have declared war on letters. Only recently have we, first in the West, and then nearly everywhere else in the world, started to replace letters with numbers.

The ambiguity of the written word is being ‘resolved’ by numbers. Statistics instead of hermeneutics. And it all began with the ‘discovery’ of the number zero in Europe, which of course was not a discovery at all, but an import from faraway lands, in particular the Hindu-Arabic zero already at home in Muslim Spain in the 11th century. The word ‘zero’ itself comes from the Arabic sifr (صفر) meaning ‘noting’, also the root of ‘cipher’.

But a word or a sign in this case can hardly do anything on their own. The Zero Revolution in the West opened new possibilities in maths, leading to scientific breakthroughs. The zero-led Scientific Revolution was a zero-sum game, shifting the focus from a word-based understanding of the world, the Logos of ancient and medieval metaphysics, to a number-obsessed cultural paradigm.

Next time you count your likes on social media or seek the truth value of a claim through recourse to statistical analysis, or decide which view to give credence to based on fact and logic, you should remember how indebted we are to the place of numbers in our culture.

It is the numbers rather than words that have the last word. It is the numbers that decide, numbers that carry the weight, numbers that build and that everything is built on.

In the beginning may have been the Word, but the Number is in charge.

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