Saturday, January 26, 2008


John Allen Paulos is professor of math at Temple University, "an extensively kudized author, popular public speaker, and monthly columnist for (archived or current) and the Guardian."

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new book, Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up, and reported the following:
Page 69 of Irreligion:

Now if our search for these sequences isn't conducted openly, if the cases in which we find nothing appropriate are discarded (nearby ELS's for "zucchini" and "squash," for example), if we go public only with the interesting sequences we do find, and if we compute probabilities in a simplistic way, then it is clear that these sequences do not mean what they may seem to mean on the surface. Performing a procedure one way and computing a probability associated with a different procedure is, to put it mildly, misleading. The real question isn't about the likelihood of particular ELS's appearing at particular positions in the text, but rather about the likelihood of some ELS's of vaguely similar significance appearing somewhere or somehow in the text.

Not surprisingly, when people look for ELS's in different texts, they find them. In the standard English translations of War and Peace, for example, there are nearby ELS's for "Jordan", "Chicago", and "Bulls," no doubt proving Tolstoy's basketball clairvoyance.

Almost all of the many biblical codes, whether from Jewish, Christian, Islamic, or modern sources, have defects similar to those of the Bible codes. The statistical paper mentioned in the Introduction may also illustrate a different, more subtle defect having to do with unintentional biases in the choice of sought-after sequences, vaguely-defined procedures, the variety and contingencies of ancient Hebrew spelling and variant versions of the Torah, or even Ramsey's theorem, a deep mathematical result about the inevitability of order in any sufficiently long sequence of symbols.

In this snippet it's clear that the topic is the so-called bible codes (and ELS's - equidistant letter sequences) purported by some to foretell future events.
More generally over the course of the book I present all the standard arguments for God's existence and point out the gaping logical lacunae in each of them. I also digress to discuss in a very informal manner mathematical notions of relevance such as complexity theory, logic, and recursion as well topics as disparate as Jesus versus Socrates, Thai-farang relations, and "Brights." I'm not above inserting humor, which some believe detracts from such a "serious" subject. In this sense also I'm not a believer.
Read an excerpt from Irreligion and learn more about the author and his writing at John Allen Paulos' website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue