Word of the Day: Hoare’s Dictum

C.A.R. Hoare and his wife stand outside Buckingham Palace after he was knighted by the queenSir Charles Hoare was a pioneer in computer science.  He observed:

There are two methods in software design.  One is to make the program so simple, there are obviously no errors.  The other is to make it so complicated, there are no obvious errors.

This applies to logical arguments as well: you can make the argument so simple that there are obviously no errors.  Or you can make it so complicated that there are no obvious errors.

A simple, straightforward argument for God’s existence might be, “Of course God exists.  He’s sitting right over there!”  Many arguments claim to be simple and straightforward—“the Bible is obviously correct” or “God obviously exists” for example—but are mere assertions rather than arguments backed with evidence.

Lots of apologetic arguments fall on the wrong side of this Hoare’s Dictum.  The Transcendental Argument, for example, is often a five-minute dissertation about what grounds logic and whether a mind must exist to hold it.

The Ontological Argument goes like this.  First we define “God” as the greatest possible being that we can imagine.  Two: consider existence only in someone’s mind versus existence in reality—the latter is obviously greater.  Three: since “God” must be the greatest possible being, he must exist in reality.  If he didn’t, he wouldn’t meet his definition as the greatest possible being.

When hit with an argument like this for the first time, you’re left scratching your head, unsure what to conclude.  These arguments are effective not because they’re correct (in fact, they fall apart under examination) but because they’re confusing.

The colloquial version of the argument is:

If you can’t dazzle ’em with brilliance, then baffle ’em with bullshit.

Photo credit: Microsoft

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  • Hoare’s Dictum” has been defined in computer science as, “Premature optimization is the root of all evil,” so perhaps this use should be Hoare’s Second Dictum.
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  • Paul

    “…the evidence points to their not being a God…”

    You’re anthropomorphizng the evidence. The evidence can’t physically point you in a particular direction. Human beings must interpret the evidence. And here’s the thing: we all have the same exact evidence. Someone can look at the exact same evidence as you and come to the conclusion that God does exist. The interpretation of the evidence comes from one’s worldview. You have an active belief that there is no God. I examine the evidence and came to the conclusion that Zeus does not exist. So, I have an active belief that Zeus does not exist.

    • epeeist

      The interpretation of the evidence comes from one’s worldview.

      The last resort of the theist, truth relativism.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      You argue for symmetry–you and I each have our biases, and we interpret the same facts in different ways. Neither is guilty of error (or both are).

      But it’s easy to imagine an objective viewer. Take a Hindu or some other non-Christian believer. He has no trouble believing the supernatural, so ask him to evaluate Christianity’s supernatural claims. He’d reject them. So, no, I don’t think my viewpoint is biased.

      I have no god belief. There simply isn’t the evidence. I don’t know what “an active belief that there is no God” means.