The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 15 Feb 2006

Biblical infallibility and pi
Two recent minor themes of the blog have been the value purportedly given for π in the Bible, and the value of serendipity and random browsing in the library. Here's a story about the Library Gods and how they sometimes shower you with blessings, if you let them.

I went to the Penn library today to see what I could turn up about Robert Hooke's measurement of the vibrational rate of strings. (Incidentally, Clinton Pierce had an excellent suggestion about this, which I will relate sooner or later.) I checked the electronic catalog for collections of essays by Hooke, and found several; I picked a likely one and wrote down its call number. Or so I thought; I actually wrote down the call number of the previous entry by mistake. Upon arriving at the appropriate place in the stacks, or so I thought, I realized my mistake when I found the wrong book instead of the right one.

But two shelves up, another title caught my eye: Mathematical and Philosophical Works, by "Wilkins". On a hunch, I took it down. The hunch was this: I knew from an essay by Jorge Luis Borges that at once time a certain bishop John Wilkins had invented a language in which the meaning of each word would be immediately apparent from its spelling.

(I don't have an example handy, so I will make one up. All words that begin with "p" are animals. Words beginning with "pa" are birds, those with "pe" are fish, and so forth. Words beginning with "pel" are fish with fins and scales. Words for fin-fish that live in rivers and streams all begin with "pela". "pelam" is a salmon.)

So I took down the Wilkins book to see if it was the same Wilkins, and indeed it was. Wilkins was one of the founders of the Royal Society, and was its first secretary. I had wanted to read the book about the philosophical language anyway, and here, I thought, was my chance. (It's titled An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, if you want to look it up.)

The volume I took down turned out to be a collection of some of Wilkins' work. It did not have the philosophical language essay in it, but only a short summary, written much later. But it did contain Wilkins' book Mercury about the state of cryptography and steganography in 1641, which will be invaluable for the day when I attain my dream of writing a book on the history of digital information processing before 1945. And when I opened it at random, the first thing that I saw was an extensive discussion of the Biblical passages from the books of Kings and Chronicles concerning the value of π.

This discussion appears in Wilkins' book The Discovery of a New World, or, a discourse tending to prove that (it is probable) there may be another habitable world in the moon. This book is divided into two parts, the second of which is on the question of whether the Earth is a planet. There is, as you would expect from a book on the subject written in 1638, an extensive discussion of the Biblical evidence on this question.

Wilkins comes down very strongly against the Bible on this matter. The entire third chapter is devoted to arguing:

That the Holy Ghost, in many places of scripture, does plainly conform his expressions unto the errors of our conceits; and does not speak of divers things as they are in themselves, but as they appear to us.
The chapter begins:

There is not any particular by which philosophy hath been more endamaged, than the ignorant superstition of such men: who in stating the controversies of it, do so closely adhere unto the mere words of scripture.
(By "philosophy", here and elsewhere, Wilkins means what we would now call "natural science".) Wilkins then quotes an earlier author on the same topic:

"I for my part am persuaded, that these divine treatises were not written by the holy and inspired penmen, for the interpretation of philosophy, because God left such things to be found out by men's labour and industry."
And he quotes John Calvin similarly:

It was not the purpose of the Holy Ghost to teach us astronomy: but being to propound a doctrine that concerns the most rude and simple people, he does (both by Moses and the prophets) conform himself unto their phrases and conceits. . .
For example, Wilkins cites Psalms 19:6 ("the ends of heaven") and 22:27 ("the ends of the world"), Job 38:4 ("the foundations of the earth"), and says "all of which phrases do plainly allude unto the error of vulgar capacities, which hereby is better instructed, than it would be by more proper expressions."

After much discussion and many examples, Wilkins finally concludes:

From all these scriptures it is clearly manifest that it is a frequent custom of the Holy Ghost to speak of natural things, rather according to their appearance and common opinion, than the truth itself.
So much for Biblical inerrancy. The following chapter is devoted to the demonstration "That divers learned men have fallen into great absurdities, whiles they have looked for the sects of philosophy from the words of scripture."

In the course of my (limited and cursory) research into the analysis of the Biblical value of π given in Kings and Chronicles, I learned something that I found shocking: to wit, that this is still considered a serious argument, at least to the extent that the world is filled with knuckleheaded assholes arguing about it. I don't think I can remember encountering any other topic that seemed to attract as many knuckleheaded assholes. The knuckleheaded assholes are on both sides of the argument, too. On the one hand you have the biblical inerrancy idiots, for whom words fail to express my contempt, and on the other hand you have the smug and intellectually lazy atheists, who ought to know better, but who are only too happy to grab any opportunity to ridicule the Bible.

If John Wilkins, who became a bishop, was able to understand in 1638 that it is a stupid argument, and that all the arguing on both sides is pointless and ill-conceived, why haven't we moved on by now? We have the Wonders of the Internet; why are we filling it up with the same old crap? Can't we do any better? Will we ever lay this one to rest? Isn't there something else to argue about yet?

But no, we still have knuckleheaded assholes trying to get special creation and 4,004 B.C. into school curricula. It's almost as though the Enlightenment never happened. It's obvious, of course, that these losers have missed out on the mainstream of twentieth-century thought. But next time you bump into them, remember that they've also missed out on the mainstream of seventeenth-century thought.

And atheists, please try to remember that just because stupid people flock to stupid religions, that it doesn't have to be that way, and remember the example of Bishop John Wilkins, who wrote a whole book to argue that when the Bible conflicts with common sense and physical evidence, you have to keep the evidence and ignore the scripture.

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