Monday, 4 May 2020

This Stunning Picture Caught My Eye.....

The image above caught my eye when shared on Facebook. Its creators have called it a Bible Visualisation Graph. Here's Chris Harrison, one of its developers, describing how the image was developed and what the viewer is seeing:

"This set of visualizations started as a collaboration between Christoph Römhild and myself. Christoph, a Lutheran Pastor, first emailed me in October of 2007. He described a data set he was putting together that defined textual cross references found in the Bible. Together, we struggled to find an elegant solution to render the data, more than 63,000 cross references in total. As work progressed, it became clear that an interactive visualization would be needed to properly explore the data. Instead we set our sights on the other end of the spectrum –- something more beautiful than functional. At the same time, we wanted something that honoured and revealed the complexity of the data at every level. This ultimately led us to the multi-coloured arc diagram. The bar graph that runs along the bottom represents all of the chapters in the Bible. Books alternate in colour between white and light gray. The length of each bar denotes the number of verses in the chapter. Each of the 63,779 cross references found in the Bible is depicted by a single arc – the colour corresponds to the distance between the two chapters, creating a rainbow-like effect."

What are we to make of it? Is the pattern pretty? Yes, I’d say so. Is the Bible Divinely inspired? Yes, absolutely. But even with both of the foregoing being true, the kicker question is this; is the Bible arc pattern significant in any meaningful way beyond a lot of mathematical noise and pretty rainbow-like pattern? This is a complex matter, for which I'll attempt a cross-examination here.

For the prosecution
I'm not convinced that the internal cross referencing is as remarkable as many people jumping on the bandwagon are claiming. There is, no doubt, a power law of connectivity between the Old Testament and New Testament (and within the two Testaments), but the magnitude of cross-referencing is first and foremost because of the length of the book and its complex but cohesive narrative. Once we drill down into the accretive layers of the pretty pattern, what's most important here is not so much the number of connections, but the power and significance of those connections. After all, if we looked for all the cross-referencing of common themes in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, then we could likely find a similar pattern of connectivity as the Bible arc, especially if we studied the texts in a linear fashion (the same would probably be true if we looked for thematic connectivity in something like Derek Winnert's book of film reviews or Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - we'd probably see something similar, albeit not quite as powerful).

The other problem with deciphering patterns of this kind is that they are only as meaningful as the imputations of the beholder. As I said in my essay on free will:

"Whether we are talking about information in Shannon terms, or even as a more generalised concept, information can't reasonably be treated merely as some kind of intrinsic property embedded in the system itself - it is necessary that information should be seen as an extrinsic property of a system too. That is to say, a system contains information by virtue of its relation to another agent or system capable of perceiving, interpreting and responding to that information. For example, a computer program, a set of songs, or a bunch of holiday snaps burned onto a disk is information only inasmuch as it consists of patterns that can be used by that computer as instructions. Likewise the Bible only contains information by virtue of its relation to minds that have the capacity to correctly interpret the meaning though cognitive instructions. We must always bear in mind that expending resources on information through interpretation and analysis requires a second descriptive sense, because it is "information" intrinsically and yet also "information + mind" extrinsically."

When it comes to the Bible, a seven year old boy might be able to determine meaning in the texts but distil no meaning from the cross-referencing; whereas a Bible scholar would incorporate profound evocation of meaning into the patterns that young boys would not. In other words, the real remarkability of text patterns is always likely to find its provenance in the complexities of human thinking and the associative psychology and culture that bootstraps the meaning behind the context. What might make the Bible arc patterns insignificant beyond their immediate attractiveness to the eye is that we could probably take any linear text (say the complete works of Shakespeare, or a set of historical encyclopaedias) and form links between parts of the text at random and generate a similar pattern to Harrison and Römhild's pattern.

For the defence
Even if all the above is true - and I think it is - there is no question that the Bible is the most remarkable book in the world in terms of its multi-layered connectivity and profound complexity. And whether you're a Christian or not (I am), let me tell you one thing with absolute certainty: if you don't try to evaluate the Bible through the starting lens of 'This is the most astounding book ever written', your interpretation of it will be grossly inadequate to the task of uncovering its deeper rewards.

I suppose for the contemporary mind such as ours, a good way to illustrate this is to think of it as a book of stunningly complex hyperlinked text. We all know what hyperlinks are in the modern age. If you surf the Internet you can traverse the digital globe through a vast nexus of connected web-pages, knitted together by hyperlinked functions (like this). The Internet is the world's most remarkable modern achievement - but what makes it remarkable is the collective bottom-up intelligence behind it. It is the best living example of evolutionary emergence of complexity and order spontaneously created in a decentralised fashion without a designer. Nobody sat down one day and planned the Internet as a fait accompli phenomenon - it is a global system of interconnected computer networks that evolved over time, and it is still evolving, in a cumulative step by step process of trial and error that tailors to our tastes and needs like a simulacrum of mind itself. It provides a microcosmic example of where the complex emergence of order occurs not from being designed top down, but by a long natural selection-type process.

In the manner that's most significant here, the Bible is the opposite of the Internet - it is the ultimate top-down work in nature. But it is also the ultimate bottom-up work too (a fact many Christians are woefully incompetent at grasping), as the writers are afforded the dignity and grace to colour and flavour the narrative with the intensity of human perspective - both positively and negatively, but always authentically humanly. The scriptural accounts involve the huge conceptual wiggle room to factor in the whole gamut of human qualities and flaws: they form the substrate of every future human narrative henceforward from its creation.

Regarding the mathematical function on the x-axis of Harrison and Römhild's pattern representing the 64,000 textual cross references found in the Bible - this leads us to the 64,000 dollar question, regarding to what extent this zooming in on the informational content gives good reason to think that Divine choreography is behind the process. I've already said that the patterns themselves probably aren't compelling enough on their own. But given that the Bible consists of 66 diverse books, written over 1500 years, in different geographical places, by people who often never met - the overarching narrative and nexus of connectivity seems to be remarkably too complex to have been fashioned by mere human insight, and with too coherent a narrative and interconnected, cohesive complexity to be written without the inspiration of God.

The information band-width of the Bible and its granular tenets that form the central narrative of the Christian love story between God and humankind (especially the prophecies about Christ's Incarnation, written hundreds of years before the New Testament) is too broad and ingenious for such a tapestry of complex, consistent, internally self-referencing, integrated thought and ideation to have been written by mere men. The fact that the 66 diverse books of the Bible, written over 1500 years, in different geographical places, by people who mostly never met can encapsulate the rich and diverse historical, cultural and psychological complex of the range of authors and contributors, yet also imbue the ingenious coherence of a single author and not of a contrived message between writers, is testament to its majesty.