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.