Can a Monkey Type “Hamlet” Given Enough (Infinite) Time?

You’ve heard this before. Give a monkey an infinite amount of time on a typewriter and he/she will eventually type out Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. The idea is that no matter how impossible it might seem it’s just a matter of time. If the monkey has an infinite amount of time it will happen. Atheists and skeptics like to use this to illustrate the point that given the current theory of the multiverse which posits an infinite number of universes it is only natural that a universe like ours will exist so there is really nothing special about it. All this talk of fine tuning means nothing since infinite time plus matter will eventually produce a universe that can sustain life. No need for God.

In his book Why Science Does not Disprove God Amir Aczel explains how this really does not work. He writes,

“The heart of the argument here is the immense power of infinity. If you allow infinity to enter any argument, anything can happen—even monkeys typing Hamlet. The play has about thirty thousand words, and if we assume an average of five letters per word, that is about 150,000 characters that the monkey needs to get right and in sequence. So the probability of getting it right the first time (leaving out spaces and punctuation, which would make it even more difficult) is one divided by 26 raised to the power 150,000, which is a number very, very close to zero—but not identically zero. Making the number of trials equal to infinity ‘forces’ the answer to be 100 percent. It is simply a mathematical fact that has no meaning outside the realm of pure mathematics and does not describe the real world in any way. So playing the ‘monkey typing Hamlet’ game is not a good approach to real-life situations, and real universes—of which we know only one. . . . And it isn’t science, since it’s not based on any reality, any experimentation, or even any viable theory. It is simply a ‘forcing argument’ that allows you to prove anything you like. It’s just like proving that a monkey can type Hamlet despite the unreality of the whole idea: the only reason it works is that infinity is such an overwhelmingly powerful concept. It you ‘go to infinity’ (whatever that may mean, since infinity is inaccessible to us), you can pretend to prove anything. So the multiverse and the infinitely many copies of you and me that Brian Greene seems so eager to assume must exist out there (where, exactly?) mean absolutely nothing and really have no place in any scientific argument about nature, life, and our universe and where it came from.” (pp. 165-67)

In another place he adds color to what this would really entail.

“The monkey typing forever, meaning producing infinitely many replications of 26 characters, will theoretically produce not only the whole of Hamlet–in fact, the monkey will do it infinitely many times!–but also every piece of writing ever created in history, including all the works in the lost great library of Alexandria, as well as Virgil, Dante, Hemingway, Jane Austen, Salman Rushdie, and the U.S. Constitution; and every letter any person in history has ever written to another person, or would have written, or might write, or could write, or will ever write; and every possible grocery list, and every possible presidential election speech. You can see just how preposterous all of this becomes when you try to apply an abstract mathematical concept to the real world. And by the theorem I’ve alluded to, it may take “forever” for these things to happen.”

The idea is simply crazy and adding “infinity” to it to give it credibility won’t help.

Why Science Does not Disprove God is from Willow Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins). It is a hardcover with 304 pages and sells for $27.99.

Amir D. Aczel, Ph.D., received graduate degrees in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Oregon. He is the author of the acclaimed Fermat’s Last Theorem, which has been published in twenty-eight languages and was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and many other works of nonfiction. In 2012, he was awarded a Sloan Foundation grant for his groundbreaking research on the origin of numbers; in 2004, he was awarded the prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. From 2005 to 2007, Aczel was a visiting scholar at Harvard University. He is currently a research fellow in the history of science at Boston University. He also writes for Discover magazine, regularly publishes in Scientific American, and has written science pieces for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Why Science

Mark 13, the ESV, and Essentially Literal Translation

A primary feature of the ESV is its claim to be an “essentially literal” translation. It states, “Within this framework we have sought to be ‘as literal as possible’ while maintaining clarity of expression and literary excellence. Therefore, to the extent that plain English permits and the meaning in each case allows, we have sought to use the same English word for important recurring words in the original.” (From the Preface p. viii)

In The Word of God in English Leland Ryken rightly argues that “Biblical authors will sometimes repeat a word or phrase in order to emphasize it, or to make it clear that they are still talking about the same subject.” (p.308) He says the ESV is superior to other translations in being consistent about this translation practice. (See his complete discussion on pages 308-17.) He faults the NIV and the TEV in particular on their translation of the Greek word for abide in John 15. He argues that a variation in translation loses something and therefore the reader does not have a transparent view to the Greek underneath the English translation. Had the NIV and TEV been consistent in their translations it “would have led to a more accurate communication.” (311) Mind you, of the seven occurrences of this Greek word in John 15 the NIV only varies once (in verse 16). This single change, Ryken, says is “almost as good” as the ESV.

This brings to me to my reading of Mark 13. In Jesus, the Temple and the Coming Son of Man Robert Stein argues that 13:5-23 forms a “unified whole” in part because of the repetition of the Greek word blepete (13:5, 9, 23). (p. 71) Here’s a sample of how it is translated by other English versions in the order as it appears in the chapter (5, 9, and 23). Notice that the translation that purports to be the most literal, the NASB, translates it three different ways.

ESV – “See,” “be on your guard,” “be on your guard”

NIV – “Watch out,” “be on your guard,” “be on your guard”

HCSB – “Watch out,” “be on your guard,” “must watch”

NRSV – “beware,” “beware,” “be alert”

NET – “watch out,” “watch out,” “be careful”

NAB/NABRE – “See,” “watch out,” “be watchful”

NASB – “See,” “be on your guard,” “take heed”

New Jerusalem Bible – “take care,” “be on your guard,” “be on your guard”

REB – “be on your guard,” “be on your guard,” “be on your guard”

RSV – “take heed,” “take heed,” “take heed”

KJV – “take heed,” “take heed,” “take ye heed”

Lexham English Bible – “watch out, “watch out,” “watch out”

ASV – “take heed,” “take ye heed,” “take ye heed”

These last five translations show that it is possible to translate the word with the same English word or phrase. So what is it about this passage that made the ESV translators alter the RSVs “essentially literal” translation to a less literal translation (as understood by Ryken and others)? Both are “permitted” by plain English. Both maintain “clarity of expression.” I don’t see how one is more literarily excellent over the other. This is just one example of where the advertising of a translation does not match its actual practice.

Whether you agree or disagree with Stein about the unity of the passage the ESV fails to do what it tells its readers it will do—translate the same Greek word with the same English word. (For a book that highlights this divergence between Bible advertising and actual practice see One Bible, Many Versions by Dave Brunn.)

The Interpretive Difficulties in Mark 13 (some of them)

This weekend I started Jesus, the Temple and the Coming Son of Man by Robert Stein. The book is a commentary on Mark 13 commonly known as the “Little Apocalypse” or the “Olivet Discourse.” A simple chapter but one that contains numerous interpretive difficulties. Here are just a few:

  • In 13:6 did Jesus mean that false teachers would come claiming to be him (i.e., Jesus of Nazareth, the risen Christ) or the Jewish messiah longed for by non-Christian Jews?
  • Was the prophecy of 13:10 fulfilled already in apostolic times (cf. Paul’s statements in Rom 16:26; Col 1:6, 23 that the gospel had become known ‘to all nations’ [RSV]), or does it still await its fulfillment?
  • What does Jesus mean by the ‘abomination of desolation’ (ESV) in 13:14, and does his/its appearance involve the events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 or the future coming of the Son of Man?
  • Is the language of 13:24-27 to be understood literally or figuratively? Is Jesus using this imagery in the same manner as the Old Testament prophets (cf. Js 13:9-11; Jer 4:23-28; Ezek 32:5-8; etc.)—that is metaphorically?
  • Does Jesus teach in 13:24 that his return as the Son of Man would occur immediately after the fall of Jerusalem in 13:14-23?
  • What does Jesus mean by ‘this generation’ in 13:30, and was he wrong in his prediction?
  • How do Jesus’ other sayings on this subject, such as Mark 8:34-38 and Matthew 25:1-46, and the additional comments we find in the parallel accounts (Mt 24:1-51 and Lk 21:5-36) help us understand Jesus’ teaching in Mark 13? (18)

Later he adds,

“Yet even among scholars who have the same goal understanding the meaning of the author of Mark 13, there exist many differences about how this chapter should be interpreted. This is due in part to the presence of numerous crux interpreta in the chapter. The most important of these involves the two questions found in 13:4. Does Mark understand ‘When will [these things] be?’ (13:4a) and ‘What will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished? (134b) as a two-part question in which the same issue (the destruction of the temple) is addressed? This would then be a tautology and essentially an example of synonymous parallelism. Or does he understand them as two different questions in which the second introduces something quite different (the coming of the Son of Man) not found in the first (the destruction of the temple). This would then be an example of step parallelism.” (45-46)

Another difficulty which he notes is “acknowledged by most scholars” is “that the sayings of Jesus in Mark 13 were not all proclaimed at the same time and in the same order. If, as is probably, some were taught by Jesus at different times, the order and the logical progression of the arrangement in 13:5-37 is not so much that of Jesus as that of Mark.” (33)

I will read with great interest how he navigates these difficulties, and many more, in the short span of 138 pages. Stein is also the author of the commentary on Mark in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Academic).

Jesus, the Temple and the Coming Son of Man is from IVP Academic. It is a paperback with 157 pages.

Robert H. Stein is senior professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

He is the author of An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, Difficult Passages in the New Testament, Luke (New American Commentary), A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, Studying the Synoptic Gospels: Origin and Interpretation and The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction.

Jesus, the Temple

2014 Bible Conference at West Canon Baptist Church

Today and tomorrow my co-worker, Joel, and I will be hosting a book table at the 2014 Bible Conference at West Canon Church Baptist Church.

You’ll notice the Monday evening event is free and open to the public featuring Voddie Baucham. This has always been a favorite book table for us and we are delighted that we’ve been invited back. If you can make it out for all or part of it we’d love to see you. See the website to register or call the church at 616-974-6740. Cost is $50.00 for individuals or $75.00 for a couple. It is free to seminary students.

Here’s the schedule for Monday:

Noon – Registration

1:30PM – Main Session: Gary Gilley, “The Centrality of Christ” (Colossians)

3:15PM – Discussion: Gary Gilley, “Spiritual Formation”

7:00PM – Main Session: Voddie Baucham, “Male Headship” (free to public)

On Tuesday:

8:00AM – Breakfast

8:30AM – Prayer and Praise Session

9:00AM – Main Session: Voddie Baucham, “Female Role in Marriage”

10:30AM – Main Session: Gary Gilley, “The Centrality of Christ” (Colossians)

11:30AM – Ladies’ Refresh

11:30AM – Lunch Break

1:00PM – Discussion: Gary Gilley, “Cessationism”

3:00PM – Main Session: Voddie Baucham

Reflections on Running My First 5K

I don’t normally post on weekends any more but today I thought I would make an exception since this is a personal note. If someone had told me six months ago that I would be running a 5k I would have said, “You don’t know me very well, do you?” The last time I ran was when I was in the Air Force (that was a long time ago) and I hated it then. I had problems with shin splints and only did the minimum that was expected. But today I ran a 5k. What changed? A lot actually.

In early May my doctor told me I had Type 1 Diabetes. My A1C was 11.5 (it’s supposed to be under 7!). My weight was 191. He gave me three tasks: lose 20 pounds, go on medication, go to diabetes classes. I went to the classes which gave me insight into my new life-long diet. I was not going to try any fad diets. This was going to be the way I eat from that day forward. I also started walking at night. I gradually started running part of the way and then I found myself running more and more. No problem with shin splints and I was starting to enjoy it. Go figure! When I followed up with my doctor I had lost 25 pounds and my A1C was 5.8! He was stunned and said he had never seen anyone lower their A1C by half in just 4 months time. I was happy that he was happy. A couple of my coworkers started challenging me to run a 5k. I thought they were crazy but I eventually surrendered to their pleas and today was the result. It was a 5k sponsored by Cornerstone University and it was fun. It was cold as we started (around 45 degrees) and it has been a while since I’ve run outside. I could immediately feel the difference between running on cement as opposed to the treadmill. But I originally started running outside so it just took some adjusting. I quickly warmed up and was glad I opted for short sleeves and shorts. Before you know it I was approaching the finish line. I thought I would give a burst of speed at the end but the course was harder than I anticipated and I was not out to set any records–just finish. My unofficial time was about 32 minutes which is really good since my goal was 35 minutes. [Update: My official time was 28:49.0! Way past my wildest expectations.] My daughter (Bethany) met me at the finish line. She ran to me and gave me a big hug saying, “I’m so proud of you.” It is a moment I will cherish forever.

My total weight loss to date has been 37 pounds! I can’t believe it myself. I started with a 40 inch waste and now I’m down to a 32. The biggest downside (if you can call it that) has been I’ve spent a lot more time away from reading (which explains some of the gaps in my blogging). I cook more, run more, and had classes to attend which occupied several of my nights.

I did title this post as running my first 5k. Yes, I think I’ll do another. You guessed it–those same coworkers are starting to talk about a 10k. Where does it end? Only a few of you knew of my diagnosis and I’ve appreciated your encouragement and prayers as I’ve walked/run this new path.

In Store Now: “Psalms” by Tremper Longman III

This week we received a new commentary on the Psalms by Tremper Longman III in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary (TOTC) series. I know what some of you are thinking. Didn’t Derek Kidner write the commentary on Psalms in that series? Yes, he did. Is it out of print? No, it’s not. And I’m very thankful for that since I love Kidner on the Psalms. Kidner’s commentaries are now part of the “Kidner Classics Commentaries” along with his commentary on Jeremiah. This is certainly a win-win situation. The TOTC gets a nice updated edition on the Psalms and the classic set by Kidner is still available for those who have grown to love him and, like me, enjoy introducing him to others.

Here’s an excerpt from Longman’s commentary on Psalm 23.

“Verse 4 envisions God’s guidance through a time of utmost distress. Continuing the path metaphor, the psalmist imagines the path leading through the darkest valley or, according to another translation, ‘the valley of the shadow of death.’ The latter more traditional rendering derives from splitting the Hebrew world ṣalmāwet (deep darkness) into two words: ṣēl māwet (shadow of death). The former rendering has been considered more likely, however, since a cognate word was found at Ugarit. The traditional rendering continues, though, because the psalm is often used to console those who are nearing death. Of course, the translation ‘darkest valley’ simply broadens its application, certainly not excluding the difficult time of facing death.” (135-36)

“The NIV renders the final colon of the psalm: I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. The house of the Lord, of course, is the temple, and no-one actually lived there. The temple, though, was where God made his presence known among his people. The psalmist thus proclaims that he will live in the light of God’s presence.”

“The translation for ever gives a wrong impression, at least when the psalm is read in its original Old Testament context. The phrase is literally rendered ‘for length of days’, that is, for the duration of the psalmist’s life. After all, the teaching about the afterlife developed during the late Old Testament (Dan. 12:1-3) into the intertestamental period and blossomed in the New Testament. Reading Psalm 23 in the light of the New Testament indicates that it is true that the psalmist and others who put their trust in God will live in his presence forever.” (137)

For a defense of the traditional rendering and interpretation of verse 4 see Derek Kidner.

Psalms by Tremper Longman III is from IVP Academic. It is a paperback with 479 pages and sells for $18.00.

Tremper Longman III (PhD, Yale University) is Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. He is also Visiting Professor of Old Testament at Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and adjunct of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. He lectures regularly at Regent College in Vancouver and the Canadian Theological Seminary in Calgary.

Longman is the author or coauthor of over twenty books, including How to Read Genesis, How to Read the Psalms, How to Read Proverbs, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, Old Testament Essentials and coeditor of A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible. He and Dan Allender have coauthored Bold Love, Cry of the Soul, Intimate Allies, The Intimate Mystery and the Intimate Marriage Bible studies.


Around the Web

Here’s just a few things I found of interest.

Roger Olson suggests “Leaving Behind ‘Left Behind’” He writes, “Seeds of doubt about the rapture were planted in my mind by a book that was supposed to offer biblical and theological support for it—Things to Come by dispensationalist theologian Dwight Pentecost. I read it when I was nineteen or twenty and sensed something was wrong. Why would it take hundreds of pages of convoluted exegesis and argument to establish something so simple? I thought the book’s case for the “secret rapture” was weak and yet it was supposed to be the most scholarly case for it yet published!”

Tim Gombis has an excellent post on Exegetes at Church. “Biblical exegesis is all about critical analysis of the details of a text and critical scrutiny of other exegetes’ work.  Several times after intense and involved class discussions, someone has commented that it must be tough to go to church.  If you’re analyzing the nitty-gritty of a text so closely, emphasizing each feature as crucial, how do you put up with sloppy preaching?” (Emphasis mine.)

Fr. Stephen Freeman asks “Has Your Bible Become a Quran?” “Thus, at the outset I will state:

  1. The Bible is not the Christian Holy Book.
  2. Christians (and Jews) are not People of the Book.
  3. Submission to God is not a proper way to describe the Christian faith

Further, any and all of these claims, once accepted, lead to fundamental distortions of Christianity. An extreme way of saying this is that much of modern Christianity has been ‘Islamified.’ Thinking critically about this is important – particularly in an era of renewed contact with Islam.”

With all the hoopla over the Catholic Church’s Synod on the Family Fr. Barron says “everyone should take a deep breath.” “John Thavis, a veteran Vatican reporter who should know better, has declared this statement ‘an earthquake, the big one that hit after months of smaller tremors.’ Certain  commentators on the right have been wringing their hands and bewailing a deep betrayal of the Church’s teaching. One even opined that this report is the ‘silliest document ever issued by the Catholic Church,’ and some have said that the interim document flaunts the teaching of St. John Paul II. Meanwhile the New York Times confidently announced that the Church has moved from ‘condemnation of unconventional family situations and toward understanding, openness, and mercy.’ I think everyone should take a deep breath.”