Monday, May 21, 2007

A Leap Of Faith Is Not A Logical Proof

Wilf Hey, longtime contributor of the Programming column in PC Plus, and originator of the acronym GIGO amongst other achievements, died earlier this year.

Mr Hey's columns addressed fundamental issues of mathematics and programming, rather than specific languages, covering issues from sorting algorithms to traversing complex network diagrams. His thinking was always rigourous and clear, as is required for effective (and elegant) programming.

While looking him up on the interweb, EoR discovered that Mr Hey had, not so much a secret life, as a whole other side which demonstrates how apparently logical minds can still be partitioned off into sectors of illogicality.

Here is his article on Religion and the Bible: Is the Holy Book Trustworthy?. The argument effectively offers an unproven assertion, offers some possibly correct (but irrelevant argument), and reaches an impossible conclusion.

The writings of other religions and philosophies are often very valuable. They encapsulate the wisdom and experience of the best people this world has seen. But they do not represent the mind of God, our loving Father and Creator.

How does Mr Hey know that other religious writings do not represent the mind of god, as opposed to the Bible? Because the Bible says so. It becomes its own ontological proof. Of course, this is the same argument that adherents of other religions offer for their own particular version of theology.

Mr Hey then offers some woolly thinking. We find Plato reliable, he states, even though the earliest manuscript of his works we possess is from AD900. Yet we have copies of the New Testament from AD130. Ergo, the New Testament is reliable.

In fact, the New Testament is by far the best-attested ancient work, the runner-up for the prize being The Iliad. Homer's first major work exists in some 644 copies, the earliest of which is all of 500 years removed from its original.

All of those dates may or may not be correct, but they're not of relevance to whether the holy book is "trustworthy". Mr Hey then argues that there was scrupulous error checking by scribes to ensure there were no errors in the New Testament. Of course, all such manuscripts have errors and ellisions. Such as a surreal image of a camel passing through the eye of a needle instead of the clearer metaphor of a rope passing through.

Mr Hey's conclusion follows:

With these exacting methods, we can be certain that the oldest manuscripts we have of the Old Testament are virtually identical to manuscripts from hundreds of years earlier. So we see that what we read in the Bible today is reliably God's Word as He originally delivered it through the original authors. It can be trusted, as He can be trusted.

Now, the first sentence of that conclusion may or may not be true, but it has no connection with the second sentence. He could have just as easily argued that Moby Dick or Ulysses are virtually identical to their manuscripts. Therefore God is real. It just doesn't follow (of course, Ulysses with its numerous typographical errors probably isn't the best choice, especially when trying to argue that chronological closeness to source eliminates any copying errors). The final sentence of the conclusion is a standard religious confirmation.

It's not called a "leap of faith" for nothing.

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