Epimenides, Gödel, and the Bible

The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies! – Epimenides of Crete

This is the famous paradox of Epimenides—if he is a Cretan, and says, “Cretans are always liars,” then what he’s saying must be a lie—which means it’s true—which means it’s a lie—you get the picture.  A simpler equivalent is the statement, “This statement is false.”

One solution of this is to argue that there is a confusion of logical type.  That is, you have statements, such as “Epimenides is a Cretan,” which tell something about the world; and statements about statements, such as “This statement is false,” which refer to other statements, not to the outside world.  By this reasoning, the set of statements is a different set from the set of statements about statements, and so trying to assign truth or falsity to such a meta-statement is an error or a sign of incompleteness.

The great mathematician Kurt Gödel used a mathematical variation of this paradox in his famous Incompleteness Theorems to show that any self-consistent mathematical system must be incomplete in that it will inevitably contain statements that can be neither proved nor disproved by the rules of the system (to state it loosely).  At the risk of abusing the math for non-mathematical purposes, I think the points discussed above are helpful in looking at various scriptures held to be sacred by various religions.

First, no scripture is self-validating.  If a Scripture asserts that it is of Divine origin (e.g. Timothy 3:16) or free of error (e.g. the Qur’an 2:1), that in itself is not—cannot—be a logical justification for this belief.  If I say, “Believe me because I’m telling the truth,” this is equivalent to saying “I’m telling the truth because I’m telling the truth,” which is a tautology.  Likewise, the above quotes are tantamount to saying, “This scripture is inerrant and inspired by God because it says it is.”  I trust it is abundantly clear that anyone could sit down and write anything and throw in a line that says, “Everything in this book is true,” or “Everything in this is true because it came to me from God,” without thereby making this so.  Unless one has already made the leap of faith, such self-referential statements don’t make the Bible, the Qur’an, or any other scripture ipso facto true.

In the same way, statements by the author (or prophet or revelator) of the book are also insufficient.  It is no more valid for a person to say, in effect, “This is true because I say it is,” than it is for the book to do so.  Unless one already trusts the author for some other reason, he or she is not a font of proof.

Any proof of the book’s claims, then, must be external to the book itself.  Even these could not prove Divine origin, for reasons beyond the scope of this post; but they could give good evidence for such.  Demonstrations that a book is free from error would, in principle be possible. So, we have the following possible proofs—or perhaps better, “demonstrations”—on behalf of a purportedly holy book.

–It actually is free from error.  Of course, this is trivial.  If I wrote a book that consisted of nothing but 1 + 1 =2, 2 + 2= 4, and so on ad nauseam, it would certainly be free from error; but that wouldn’t make me a prophet!  So let’s refine it:

–Such a book would indicate its Divine and inerrant origin by an origin and/or transmission beyond normal or natural explanations; or it would contain explicit, unambiguous information that could not have been known by any means available to the author or his culture and which can be unambiguously demonstrated to be true.

Possible proofs of miraculous origin, in increasing order of probability:

–The book descends from the heavens as God’s voice booms, “Heed My word!”  The book is incorruptible, indestructible, and anyone who reads it sees it in his own language.

–The autographs (original handwritten copy by original author) survive perfectly and incorruptibly, and all copies made from it are perfect copies with no errors; all such copies are also perfectly incorruptible, no matter how much time has elapsed or what conditions they have been exposed to.

–The autographs may or may not endure, but all copies are exact and perfect identical copies of each other, allowing for lacunae that may occur with deterioration of paper over time.

No scripture or holy book meets these criteria.  So let’s try information that could not otherwise be known.   By this I mean information that is completely explicit and that could not have been known by any normal means of perception to the author or anyone else of his day.  For example, a document written in 3000 BC giving a full and accurate account of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto and all their moons; or a description by a document written in Central America in 1 AD of Europe, Australia, and Antarctica and a detailed description of their flora and fauna; or a description of nuclear physics in the 5th Century BC; or something else along that line.

Attempts have been made to argue such things for the Bible and the Qur’an, at least; but they always rely upon dubious interpretations of vague and ambiguous verses.  Nothing of the sort I propose here has ever been demonstrated.  Even worse, the Bible and the Qur’an, as well as many other scriptures, to the extent that they speak of verifiable events (reigns of kings, migrations of people, miraculous events such as the stopping of the sun at Jericho, etc.) are, bluntly, often in error on the things which they report, and can objectively be shown to be in error.

It seems, then, that if one is to have faith in any scripture, there need to be a couple of broad guidelines.  One, one’s faith must be restricted to faith, morals, and spirituality (even those have problematic nuances, but that’s for another day).  It won’t do to go to Scripture for lessons in history or science.

Two, one’s faith can’t derive from Scripture, no matter how much one may hold it in esteem, but must derive from some extrinsic source.  In other words, if I believe that the Divine does indeed speak through the Torah or the Gospel or the Qur’an in some way, it must be because there is something else I believe in, on other grounds, which leads me to put that faith in whatever book I hold sacred.

A description of how such a process would work—using myself as an example—is for the next post.

Part of the series “The Pretty Good Book

Posted on 16/08/2011, in Bible, Christianity, philosophy, religion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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