Friday, October 23, 2009

Bible Math Problem of the Day

Sometime about 960 BC, King Solomon built the so-called "first" temple in Jerusalem. Detailing the construction of a brass-cast vessel, 1st Kings 7:23 (King James) reads:
And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about.
An essentially identical description is in 2nd Chronicles 4:2. Each suggests the Old Testament set the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter -- π or pi -- equal to 3.

Now, at least in Euclidean space, everyone knows that pi = 355/113 = 3.1415929. (Irrational joke; kidding). So, a ten cubit diameter sphere would be more than 30 cubits round. Do these Old Testament passages prove god not infallible and the Bible not literally true?

Some say yes. Yet three verses down (Kings; Chronicles), the vessel is described as having "the thickness of . . . an handbreadth, and the brim of it like the work of the brim of a cup." As a result, believers argue that the "handsbreadth" (the thickness of a human palm) or the flare of the cup-shape top account for the missing circumference. Others use gematria numerology interpretation of scripture to decode the text as adding 111/106 cubits to the circumference, which would be considerably closer to Solomon's actual 31.4159265... cubit sphere. And closer than what would have required under Indiana's famous, failed, late 19th century effort to declare pi equal to (among other things) the ratio 4:5/4 = 3.2.

Who is right and what does it mean? I dunno (outside of rejecting any inevitable conflict between religion and science). Just thought it research- and essay-worthy.

(via reader John B., The Straight Dope, Hatless in Hattiesburg)


OBloodyHell said...

Measure with a micrometer, mark with chalk, cut with an axe.

This argument is so doubtfully bogus it's flat out ridiculous.

Is God going to actually bother telling some guy not that far out of the caves that the aaaaaaaaactual circumference is exaaaaaaaaaaaaactly...?

Or is He going to put it in simple terms that the bozo can grasp? It is, in fact, a reductio ad absurdum as the claimants make, but the "absurdum" part is on their end, not His.

Is there a particular reason to expect exacting accuracy in this document at this location? It was describing in layman's terms the object in question, not giving precise directions to the builder.

I don't think the average bozo in 1000BC gave a rat's ass that pi is 3.14159 26535 89793 23486 26433 ... and change....

Actually, no "human" knew it that accurately until around the Renaissance.

This was an era when the calendar shifted as much as 3 months off at a time before getting corrected (Caesar crossed the Rubicon on 1/10/49BC -- but it was actually mid-autumn!)

While there was certainly some interest in accuracy at times, most of it was derived via jackleg common sense and geometry, not by actually calculating numbers out to multiple decimal places, which, well, didn't exist, of course.

Many mathematical historians believe the Greeks would have derived at least differential calculus, if they hadn't been saddled with Roman numerals instead of modern("Arabic") place notation.

I tend to suspect that their resistance to the concept of fixed limits (see "Xeno's Paradox", which is only a paradox if you don't grasp that the value of an infinite summation of 1/x = 1 -- understanding limits and "infinite sums can be fixed values" are critical to even differential calculus) and the lack of a real understanding of the concept of "zero" would have inhibited that, but I am hardly an expert on the subject.

But in short, anyone who makes this claim that The Bible is "flawed" because of this is just an idiot.

suek said...

I assumed that somebody was just tired of discussing the frustrating politics of the day...

There has to be _some_ reason why this was a topic of discussion!

Actually - I've felt the same way about the evolution theory. I have some problems with it from the standpoint of mutations and probabilities...but the fact is, we're here. Who cares how we _got_ here. I believe the Bible was given to us for moral/social guidance - I don't think God sat those Old Testament writers down and discussed biology, genetics, dna etc with them. How ever would you get such ideas across to them? From a scientific standpoint, it would be like explaining to children how they got here...!

Chris said...

As has been noted before, there were no truly standard measurements then, usually using whatever was on hand (no pun intended, as this did include a person's hand) to make measurements, usually making for a somewhat inaccurate measurement. If we assume that God's Word was written through man's voice, this seems like a reasonable "mistake".

But I have also heard another suggestion. Perhaps God decided that this called for the use of significant digits. Using one significant digit (10, 5, 30), then the highest accuracy that pi can be measured to is one digit. That is, pi would be calculated at 3. Use this the next time someone wants to start making the Bible an argument in science.

OBloodyHell said...

> Actually - I've felt the same way about the evolution theory. I have some problems with it from the standpoint of mutations and probabilities...

1) I've never had any issues with regards to evolution and God. It is the other, flip side of the idiots who think the above "mathematical" argument somehow "disproves" the Bible.

Evolution is science. It has nothing to do with faith. If it is science, you don't NEED faith. Faith is about those things you CANNOT be certain about, those things which you do NOT have a means to test and verify.

As far as your concerns, the best explanation, assuming I'm betting correctly on your issue with probabilities, is that of the "thousand monkeys" problem -- if you had a thousand monkeys typing away at typewriters, it would take a trillion years (whatever) to type "Romeo and Juliet".

HOWEVER -- suppose they weren't typing on typewriters, but word processors. And anytime the monkeys typed something that wasn't Romeo and Juliet, it would backspace.

The amount of time in this scenario for one of the monkeys to type R&J is quite reasonable.

"That's not fair"? Why not? That's the function being performed, in essence, by so-called "natural selection" -- if something gets typed which is wrong, it gets deleted.

Yeah, it's a bit more complex than that, but it's an obviously applicable example.

More in the next entry....

OBloodyHell said...

All right. One thing Christians need to figure out, you cannot justify God by claiming that the "world is too complex to exist without him".

You cannot prove God by reason.

Assume He exists. If He wanted to prove to people He existed, then He would part the heavens, shine a golden light down on our cowering faces, and say: "Hey, stupid! I'm HERE!".

He does not do this, ergo, for some reason we don't know or understand, He wants us to have Faith in Him, not to have proof.

Now, it comes from the above fairly obvious truism that, if He created a universe which could not possibly exist without Him, then he's just failed at that obvious thing, that of not proving he exists to us, of requiring us to develop Faith. So we must conclude that, in fact, the universe, and the human presence in it, IS fully consistent with His not existing....

So whatever mechanism He used to create this place, he either left clues to an alternative explanation which is at least adequate to our intellectual capacity to understand, or He used a mechanism which, while He might have placed it in motion does not actually require His presence to have placed it in motion.

The universe does not require Him to exist in order for it, and man, to be here.

To assume anything less requires belief that God is less than fully competent. And that's kind of a self-defeating notion, isn't it? I don't know about you, but I'm not a worshiper in the church of God the Vaguely Incompetent.

suek said...

>>Evolution is science. It has nothing to do with faith>>

Yes, you're correct. I stated it incompletely.

What I mean is that I have no problem with evolution being the means by which we were created. I also don't really have a problem with a spontaneous creation. I do believe there is a God, and that all things are possible with Him.

I don't claim to know the facts of how we came to be. I think evolution is possible, but when you consider that speciation requires a certain amount of breeding incompatibility, and then you consider the infrequency of mutations, I think there's a problem that I simply haven't seen discussed by evolutionists. I certainly have no problem with evolution within a species, but speciation? I don't think I've seen adequate explanations. I get frustrated with the simplicity of the explanations used by evolutionists.

Perhaps I've been away from the science of genetics too long - but I just think that those who use evolution within species to explain speciation don't usually know what they're talking about.

The fact of the matter is that the "how" doesn't really matter. Just as who your ancestors were doesn't matter (in this country, anyway) - it's what you do with your own mental and physical assets that determines your individual outcome, it doesn't matter how we came to be what we are, it matters what we _do_ with what we are.

O Bloody Hell said...

> I get frustrated with the simplicity of the explanations used by evolutionists.

Do you get frustrated with the simplicity of the explanations proffered by particle physicists explaining their theories? How about mathematicians explaining high-order manifold concepts?

There's a reason it's a specialty field. It's far enough along that the average person would have to take months of study just to get to the point of really Getting It. (I confess I don't know how deep your knowledge of genetics goes, but unless it's well beyond the basic-course level in college, I would not be surprised that/if you "know enough to be dangerous")

One thing to grasp about evolutionary concepts is that much of the science behind it also has widespread applications in other fields. As a result of this, if you invalidate evolution, you are likely to wind up invalidating those fields, too, and THEY have a great deal of verifiable real-world data to justify their results in. So it's not simply a matter of how much you can directly verify evolution, it's how much you can verify stuff RELATED to evolution that reflects back upon it.

suek said...


Lets start again. Is it your position that all of those individuals who want evolution taught in the schools (vs creationism or ID) are evolutionary science experts? If so, then we disagree. For the most part, those I'd define as the evolutionists are not scientists, and lack even basic-course level genetics.

Knowledge...well...I don't know what level I'd come in at. I'll just take the basic level genetics. Don't want to assume.

Still, even at that basic level, there are some problems with speciation, which is necessary if you want to get to evolution. If you don't agree, please point me to info where I can learn more.

Even if the biological problems are assumed solved, you still have a certain amount of probability problems - rate of mutations within a population, possibility of reproduction given that rate of mutation - that sort of thing.

I don't understand the applicability of your last paragraph - are you saying that we "can't" deny evolution because the evolution theory is the support for too much other stuff? Or are you saying that the science of too much other stuff supports evolution?