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Hoare’s Dictum

simplicitySir 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 intellectual 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.

You ask if radium exists? Pierre and Marie Curie gave a procedure for producing it. Refining radium from pitchblende is a lot of work, but there are no difficult philosophical impediments.

You ask how old the universe is? The scientific literature documents the experiments and data by which cosmologists conclude that there was a Big Bang. Again: lots of work, but we laypeople can easily access the conclusion.

You ask if God exists? I suggest: “Of course God exists. He’s sitting right over there!” or something equally straightforward. But no—we get convoluted, complicated arguments that fall on the wrong side of Hoare’s Dictum. There’s the Transcendental Argument, a long philosophical dissertation puzzling over what grounds logic and whether a mind must exist to hold it. If you break free by showing how it fails, there are seemingly endless variations that the skilful apologist will throw out, like Donkey Kong throwing barrels.

The Ontological Argument is another convoluted argument. 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. Here again, there are myriad variations that the apologists expects the atheist to rebut, ignoring the fact that they have the burden of proof.

Many arguments for God’s existence claim to be simple and straightforward—“the Bible is obviously correct” or “nature proves God exists” for example—but are mere assertions rather than arguments backed with evidence. Or, we’re told that the Bible says so: “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).

To the rest of us, this sounds like, “Of course the Emperor has new clothes!”

When hit with convoluted argument like these 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.

I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God,
“for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.
— Douglas Adams

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 10/22/11.)

About Bob Seidensticker

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