I first heard of the 23 enigma from William S Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, Nova Express, etc. According to Burroughs, he had known a certain Captain Clark, around 1960 in Tangier, who once bragged that he had been sailing 23 years without an accident. That very day, Clark’s ship had an accident that killed him and everybody else aboard. Furthermore, while Burroughs was thinking about this crude example of the irony of the gods that evening, a bulletin on the radio announced the crash of an airliner in Florida, USA. The pilot was another Captain Clark and the flight was Flight 23.
The 23 enigma can be seen in:
- Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's book, The Illuminatus! Trilogy (therein called the "23/17 Phenomenon")
- Wilson's Cosmic Trigger I: The Final Secret of the Illuminati (therein called "the Law of Fives" or "the 23 Enigma")
- Arthur Koestler's contribution to The Challenge of Chance: A Mass Experiment in Telepathy and Its Unexpected Outcome (1973)
- Principia Discordia
The text titled Principia Discordia claims that "All things happen in fives, or are divisible by or are multiples of five, or are somehow directly or indirectly appropriate to 5"—this is referred to as the Law of Fives. The 23 enigma is regarded as a corollary of the Law of Fives because 2 + 3 = 5.
The 23 enigma can be viewed as an example of apophenia, selection bias, and confirmation bias. In interviews, Wilson acknowledged the self-fulfilling nature of the 23 enigma, implying that the real value of the Law of Fives and the 23 enigma is in their demonstration of the mind's ability to perceive "truth" in nearly anything.
When you start looking for something you tend to find it. This wouldn't be like Simon Newcomb, the great astronomer, who wrote a mathematical proof that heavier than air flight was impossible and published it a day before the Wright brothers took off. I'm talking about people who found a pattern in nature and wrote several scientific articles and got it accepted by a large part of the scientific community before it was generally agreed that there was no such pattern, it was all just selective perception."
In the Illuminatus! Trilogy, Wilson expresses the same view, saying that one can find numerological significance in anything, provided that one has "sufficient cleverness".
In popular culture
Music and art duo The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (later known as The KLF and the K Foundation) named themselves after the fictional conspiratorial group "The Justified Ancients of Mummu" from Illuminatus!; the number 23 is a recurring theme in the duo's work. Perhaps most infamously, as the K Foundation they burnt one million pounds on 23 August 1994 and subsequently agreed not to publicly discuss the burning for a period of 23 years. 23 years to the day after the burning they returned to launch a novel and discuss why they had burnt the money.
In the Stargate Universe season 1 episode 14, titled “Human”, an imagined Dr. Daniel Jackson refers to the 23 Enigma in conversation with Dr. Nicholas Rush. The number 23 is also referenced in the episode as one half of the number of chromosomes in a human cell – 46, a number which appears frequently in the episode.
- Cahal, Milmo; Willetts, Tom (23 February 2007). "23 fascinating facts about the number twenty-three". The Independent. Archived from the original on 2020-11-01. Retrieved 27 November 2020.
- "Going loco over 'El Becko'"
- Robert Anton Wilson on the "23 Phenomena" Archived September 28, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
- Principia Discordia, pg. 23
- Robert Anton Wilson sees the clustering illusion everywhere, not just 23, Robert Anton Wilson Explains Everything (audiobook), December 2001.
- Cranna, Ian (1987). "1987 (What the Fuck Is Going On?) review". Q. Archived (via the Library of Mu) on 4 October 2016.Wikipedia:WikiProject The KLF/LibraryOfMu/479
- Pilley, Max (24 August 2017). "The Ice Kream Van Kometh: The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu Return". Drowned in Sound. Archived from the original on 26 February 2020. Retrieved 26 February 2020.
- Ellis-Petersen, Hannah (23 August 2017). "The return of the KLF: pop's greatest provocateurs take on a post-truth world". The Guardian. Retrieved October 23, 2017.
- Reid, Jim (25 September 1994). "Money to burn". The Observer. Archived (via the Library of Mu) on 16 September 2016.Wikipedia:WikiProject The KLF/LibraryOfMu/387
- K Foundation (8 December 1995). "Cape Wrath". The Guardian (advertisement). Archived (via the Library of Mu) on 16 September 2016.Wikipedia:WikiProject The KLF/LibraryOfMu/519
- "The KLF: Pop's saboteurs return after 23 years". BBC News. 23 August 2017. Retrieved 26 February 2020.
- Benecke, Mark (2011). "The Numerology of 23". Skeptical Inquirer. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. 35 (3): 49–53.
- Quotations related to 23 enigma at Wikiquote