Better Alternative to the Written Word?


(Brandon) #1

Greetings, everyone!

I recently had a friend/former co-worker post this on social media the other day, and found it to be an intriguing post. I’ll share the entire post below, and I’ll comment on my thoughts in the comments below, but I was curious what all of you thought about this. Thanks!

TL;DR Like software, the written word suffers from “semantic errors” - situations where the reader doesn’t know the original author’s intentions without consulting her for clarification. We need a better tool for communicating and keeping records so that knowledge, in spite of being written, doesn’t become lost to the centuries.

It just occurred to me that there is a fundamental problem underlying our primary technology of record-keeping and communication, The Written Word. Computer software suffers from the exact same problem.

It is impossible to determine the intentions of the writer without directly consulting her. This is one of the reasons why legal battles can go to such absurd places - nit-picking over clauses and semantics in written contracts. We don’t necessarily even take the intent of the written agreement – what the parties who signed it thought they were agreeing to – into account! This is where loopholes come from.

This phenomenon is also why liberals and conservatives interpret the constitution differently. They have two competing views of what the national founders intended to say when they laid out that sacrosanct blueprint for society. The various interpretations may never be rectified, because there is no way to verify them with the original authors.

As I said, software suffers from the same problem. There could be a defect in a computer program that sits dormant for years, before a particular scenario is encountered and the computer takes a totally unintended – and unforeseeable – course of action. The computer doesn’t have any way of knowing what the programmer wanted it to do – all the computer knows is exactly what it was told to do (see the comments for a joke about what would happen if humans operated this way).

When it comes to sacred scripture, the issue becomes even worse. Theistic mysticism solves the problem by consulting the Divine Author directly – evangelical Christians call this “allowing the Holy Spirit to guide you” as you make an attempt to interpret the text. (What usually happens instead is the interpretation is done through an unconscious synthesis of the text with previously absorbed theological instruction – but that’s beside the point). The point is that humans are fallible (or, if you prefer, our judgement is colored by sinful motives), and any such subjective interpretations are significantly less reliable than rigorous academic consensus – which itself fails again, for the same reason that we have such lively debates about the intentions of those who lived just a few generations ago – let alone 2000 years.

This is the primary reason why I am so opposed to using a static document from a lost age as the final authority on moral law. (That, and the writers of old did not have the social or historical context to consider many of the ethical dilemmas we face today, such as human cloning, ecology, and racism. Try as you might, you will not find a morally binding description of a fair, practical economic system or an explicit set of criteria for justifying a war in the Bible). I have additional concerns about treating Old Books (which I deeply value, don’t get me wrong!) as sources for absolute truth, but that’s a topic for another post.

Eventually, a great deal of knowledge and wisdom is lost to the point that it can never be recovered because of this limitation of bedrock technology of human civilization. Just as writing is undeniably superior to oral tradition, we need a better tool than the written word if we want to successfully preserve our ideas for longer than a few decades, let alone a few millennia.


(SeanO) #2

@bcodom As someone who does quite a bit of programming myself, I appreciate what your friend is saying here - no matter how well documented computer code is, there are very often things that are difficult to understand. But their argument is faulty. Someone who knows Java can generally tell what Java code is doing, even if they do not know exactly what the author was thinking. How? Because Java is a language that follows a set of rules - no matter what you are thinking, you cannot violate those rules - the compiler will not let you.

I’ve actually taken code with zero useful comments and dozens of files and reverse engineered it - rewritten it in another programming language. How? Because I understood the original language the code was written in. I couldn’t consult the author - but I could understand what the code was doing.

And that is where their argument is simply wrong. Bible scholars can understand what the Bible is communicating quite well. How? By studying the language and culture it was originally communicated in. That is the whole point of exegesis - that is why we have Bible scholars who spend their lives studying.

Do they get it perfect? No. Do they disagree? Yes. But is it hopeless? Not at all. By studying the original language and culture, even an unbeliever can come very near to the intent of the authors.

Now, your friend did get one thing right. Our hearts are very important in interpreting Scripture. We all see the world through the lens of our own heart. To that point, let us remember that Jesus said:

"Blessed are the pure in heart , for they shall see God " (Matthew 5:8)

Who can see God? Those whose heart is pure. George MacDonald makes a great point about parables (full quote below) - it is the person whose heart is pure that can truly understand them. A smart person can understand what they mean - but they cannot truly understand them in the sense of understanding ‘why’ they are true and sincerely desiring righteousness.

Are those thoughts helpful? Definitely feel free to discuss further - very fun topic :slight_smile:

George MacDonald

MacDonald makes a great point - parables are understandable to those with a pure and honest heart. A person whose heart is not right with God, no matter how intelligent, will only be hardened by them and incapable of perceiving their intent through action no matter how intelligent.

"This will help to remove the difficulty that the parables are plainly for the teaching of the truth, and yet the Lord speaks of them as for the concealing of it. They are for the understanding of that man only who is practical–who does the thing he knows, who seeks to understand vitally. They reveal to the live conscience, otherwise not to the keenest intellect –though at the same time they may help to rouse the conscience with glimpses of the truth, where the man is on the borders of waking. Ignorance may be at once a punishment and a kindness: all punishment is kindness, and the best of which the man at the time is capable: ‘ Because you will not do, you shall not see ; but it would be worse for you if you did see, not being of the disposition to do.’ Such are punished in having the way closed before them; they punish themselves; their own doing results as it cannot but result on them. To say to them certain things so that they could understand them, would but harden them more, because they would not do them; they should have but parables–lanterns of the truth, clear to those who will walk in their light, dark to those who will not . The former are content to have the light cast upon their way; the latter will have it in their eyes, and cannot: if they had, it would but blind them. For them to know more would be their worse condemnation. They are not fit to know more; more shall not be given them yet; it is their punishment that they are in the wrong, and shall keep in the wrong until they come out of it. ‘You choose the dark; you shall stay in the dark till the terrors that dwell in the dark affray you, and cause you to cry out.’ God puts a seal upon the will of man; that seal is either his great punishment, or his mighty favour: ‘Ye love the darkness, abide in the darkness:’ ‘O woman, great is thy faith: be it done unto thee even as thou wilt!’


(Matt Western) #3

Is it just me or is there an irony that he using the written word to communicate that we can’t use the written word? Is this not cutting off your own argument at the knees? I would ask him what alternative he/she might propose as an alternative to the written word for record keeping.

Words carry information, which in turn convey meaning. Words are not just words.

In order to reach the questioner behind the question (as Ravi Zacharias says), Your friend seems to mention both Information Technology and Legal fields. It would be interesting to know your friends primary field of expertise in order to ask questions from that angle.

From a legal point of view, eyewitness accounts are the only ones of value in a court case. The spoken word is used. But for historical record keeping the written word is used.

The 4 Gospel accounts are proveably an eyewitness account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lee Strobel’s the case for Christ movie (and book if they like reading), might be a soft launching pad for further connection with your friend?

I think the basic premise of the arguments of the post are not that strong, because it eliminates all historical records, and language itself, but we are not wanting to win an argument, we are wanting to reach people for Jesus.

The other thing of interest is the mention of ethics of modern technology - and discussion could be started : can there be a moral law with a moral law giver ?


(C Rhodes) #4

@SeanO beautiful explanation. @matthew.western you had me laughing out loud. The first author indeed pre-empts the value of his conclusions by concluding in the matter he says is not valid.

I thought those ideas were another way we manifest the assumption we possess the ‘greater’, more modern, more correct and more intelligent truths, we are indeed as gods. The author seems desperate to preserve the enlightenment that is assumed by humans today. But our conclusions are not a problem for GOD, how could they be? GOD would not be GOD if the transit nature of our world and the limitations of our times were capable of impacting Omnipresence.

The liveliness of the written and oral tradition of the Bible persists in its ability to retain its original purpose while remaining relevant in its current application to our lives. So, I insist it not be problematic for me. I believe GOD is not fazed by our ideas, no matter how many times and from what century we regurgitate the ‘genius’ of our reasons.

I accept my limitations as a human. I am okay with it, most days. But as the apostle said, there is a groaning within me to one day exchange my mortality for immortality. Meanwhile, I am happy to be living evidence that in the human effort and human confusion concerning GOD and His Word; my life is evidence that the arm of GOD has never been shortened by our reasoning. Out of human frailty, GOD rescues me as often as I need to be rescued. GOD finds me in the swirl of human limitations. GOD walks with me, GOD talks with me and assures me every day I am His own. Romans 7:18-24, 1 Corinthians 15:49-54 KJV.


(Matt Western) #5

Well put @cer7. It makes sense to me that everybody, at the level of their intellectual reasoning and capacity, and emotional makeup, are presented with a balance of evidence for both the existence of God, and his revelation and opportunity to respond to the restored relationship to Him through the person of Jesus Christ.
God will rightly and justly judge every individual with what we do with that weight of evidence, in response to the offer of Salvation through Jesus Christ. (actually it says that God the Father has given all judgement to Jesus Christ in Revelation). As Romans 1 says, those that deny God’s existence have to actually suppress that truth in their hearts, and then as it says later in the chapter God honours their freewill choice, and gives people over to a depraved mind.
I’ve mused at the question of ‘Why does a loving God send people to hell?’, and I’m starting to realise that God may actually be honouring a lifetime of free choices to reject the many hundreds of opportunities to listen to the evidence in a lifetime. Without wanting to branch off into ‘What exactly is hell according to the Bible’, imagine simply that all we see around us in which we find meaning, beauty and relationship - has it’s origin in God. If we reject God, we are eternally without any of this by our own choices. Very sobering to consider.

Of course, from Scripture, we also understand that God is a just judge, and that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:23 ). Very important not to speculate off too far into ones own imagination. We need to ground everything in Scripture.

Back to the original post, I’ve noticed that the same self-defeating circular logic is used in this paragraph also: Humans are fallible. All interpretations of written historical material are subjective. Even rigorous academic consensus of any historical material is subjective. Therefore nothing can be trusted. It begs the question: Does the author trust their own conclusions that they themselves, a fallible human, have drawn?

Therefore (in the following paragraph), based on this, the author rejects all written historical records, including the Bible. If we eliminate all written historical records, like the author has done, where are we looking for truth and therefore meaning - deeper and deeper into ourselves?

Also interesting that the author, is looking for a justification for war in the Bible. Not sure where that is going as there isn’t any conclusions drawn, or examples shown, by the author.

In John chapter 1, it starts by saying in the Beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word created everything. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

My basic understanding is the Greek word used in John chapter 1 is ‘Logos’, though I know nothing of Greek.

Logos. Logos, (Greek: “word,” “reason,” or “plan”)plural logoi, in Greek philosophy and theology, the divine reason implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form and meaning.

The Apostle John was using a Greek idea of the culture and declaring that Jesus Christ, in Person, is God revealed to us.


(C Rhodes) #6

I agree. In the original post the reasoning laments the fallibility of the human species, deciding that nothing can be trusted, and ends by saying trust what I am saying. I see human fallibility as providing the space that can only be filled and made whole by the presence of GOD. It makes sense that we were made to need the Lord. We were made for relationship with GOD. When we fail to fill that space with GOD, we live with reasoning that annihilates and devalues everything.


(Andrew Shaw) #7

I’d be interested to hear thoughts on the motivations to “reinterpret” a written document particularly the example given of the US constitution:

This phenomenon is also why liberals and conservatives interpret the constitution differently. They have two competing views of what the national founders intended to say when they laid out that sacrosanct blueprint for society. The various interpretations may never be rectified, because there is no way to verify them with the original authors.

I recently read Os Guinness’s latest book “Last Call for Liberty” which digs into some of the motivations of the Founders often juxtaposed against those behind the French Revolution around the same time.

I think that people reinterpret written documents, such as the Bible or the Constitution, not because they can’t see the original meaning but because they don’t like the original meaning, so they look for loopholes and alternative ways to read it that are more to their liking or suit their cause. As a green card holder I don’t get to vote in the US, so I should be careful how I say this, but it seems to me that the reinterpreting of the US Constitution in the past 50 years or so has little to do with interpreting something correctly and more to do with trying to work around it in order to advance a different ideology that has absolutely nothing to do with the original intent which is actually quite clear. I do commend Os’s book in this regard.