The Number Three: A Metaphysical Mystery

When George Simpson opened his eyes from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed into the number three.

In fact, not all instances of the number three, but this one in particular: 3.

There he is.

George is static, stuck between a colon and a period. His three-ness does not particularly bother him—in fact, it is perhaps immensely more relaxing than being a human. All of his worries as a human seem far distant.

But he’s not unaware of the immense responsibilities that come with representing the number three. George doesn’t know if he’s imagining it, but he feels a profound connection with all instances of the number three, from the few times it’s been mentioned in this very manuscript to the instance where, just now, I said the number “three.” He represents a long and storied legacy that began almost as soon as humans developed the capacity to hold up fingers and think.

He wonders whether his family will be concerned now that he is a number. Or for that matter, how will they know that he is a number? Even if they somehow find out that he has become the number three in this manuscript, how will they know which number three he is?

Of course, we know which one he is. He is the number three expressed only a few paragraphs ago.

George has decided that though it is concerning that his family and friends will have no idea that he has become the number three, he has deeper issues to contend with: the entire situation reminds him of a scenario from his favorite book, in which the protagonist turns into a cockroach. George has wondered all his life whether such a thing would be possible, and now that he is the number three he supposes that it must, indeed, be so.

George laughs to think that anyone could doubt that becoming a cockroach is possible when he himself has been transformed into a number.

He is not so concerned with the how or why, but more deeply troubled by the what.

What is he, now that he is the number three? He can feel his three-ness, but being three is not the same as being a human. He used to feel and stretch his limbs, he would drink water when he was thirsty and sleep long into the mornings. He wouldn’t say there is anything physical to his being now. He can no longer feel his own “body.” Threes don’t have eyes to see, or skin to touch. But yet he exists!

And yet another issue: by what mechanism does he think? Surely threes have no brains, so where is the container of the mind? George is not sure what to make of the fact that at this very moment he is contemplating his existence, and yet has no way of verifying any mechanism for that existence. He finds the situation vaguely spooky, if not outright alarming.

George has thought about these issues for a while but has decided that it is probably not so concerning after all. Now that he is the number three, it is not really within his nature to wonder about such fundamental problems. George is content to just continue being the number three.

But wait— George remembers something similar happening to the protagonist in the cockroach story. After being a cockroach for a while, the protagonist embraced his cockroach-ness and slowly forgot who he was, losing his very humanity. George can’t be sure quite yet, but he doesn’t think he’ll forget his humanity—there’s no reason to, now that the unreliable firings of his bygone neurons have no chance to misfire or wither away or misalign. If George loses his humanity, he decides, then it is by his own design.

The real question here, George thinks, is whether or not he can trust his memories. He remembers being human, but now he is the number three. Where can he go, what can he do to verify those memories? There’s no way for him to return to the places he’s been and compare the images in his head with the real world, so how can he know that being human wasn’t some elaborate dream that he, a lowly three, just made up? Try as he might, George can’t imagine any good criteria to judge the truthfulness or trustworthiness of his memories—he only knows that the memories exist, and don’t change (again—no brain to change the memories, so they remain immutable).

Oh dear! Poor George, thinking so hard about his three-ness, has rendered his very existence into a hazy misremembered kind of dream, and can’t even clearly articulate where he ends and the other mundane, lifeless letters and numbers and punctuation marks begin. George almost regrets the amount of thought he’s put into these matters, but then stops to laugh at his own worries—if his own existence and identity bother him so much, then evidently, his humanity isn’t so gone after all!