An Information Theory View of the Catholic Church

network-sept132013Imagine if you will that you’re an information engineer, and you’ve been handed a task. God himself has literally come down to Earth, walked among the people, and spoken. In fact, He’s spoken quite a bit. Your job now is to record everything that He taught. You have some important requirements.

  • The Word Of God must not be added to – only what He actually said shall be recorded.
  • The Word Of God must not be subtracted from – everything He taught must be preserved.
  • The Word Of God must be accessible – the people must be able to learn what He said.
  • The Word Of God must be preserved for all time – it must not be allowed to fade from this world.

If you’re working with modern computer systems, this isn’t all that bad. You’d set up a data center, maybe on the cloud somewhere. You’d initiate regular backups, both on-site and off-site. You’d make sure you had one heck of a disaster recovery plan. Budget for plenty of bandwidth. But the storage requirements aren’t really all that bad. He was only around for a few years, after all.

Now imagine that you’re given this task in a pre-information age society with a 90% illiteracy rate. Instead of modern computing devices, your information storage and retrieval system consists of human beings. Which have the following characteristics:

  • Data storage is unreliable. You can’t actually count on people to remember what they’ve learned.
  • Data deteriorates over time. The human brain forgets.
  • Retrieval is unreliable. Even if people remember it right, they can’t necessarily say it right.
  • Communication is unreliable. Even if it’s remembered right and said right, it might not be heard right or understood right.
  • Corruption is inevitable. Some people will deliberately corrupt the data and spread a false message.

And all of that is under the best of circumstances. Every one of those characteristics can be made worse by disease, old age, injury, war, famine, even bad weather. In short, for the given task, human beings are a really terrible information network. So what do you do? How do you build your system so that it meets the goals above?

I submit that if you gave the task to an information theorist you’d end up with something that looks an awful lot like the Catholic or Orthodox churches. Here are some of the great characteristics of that system, given the tasks as outlined:

  • It has very high redundancy.
  • It has very strong error detection.
  • It has very high error correction.
  • It has very high data accessibility – even to those who aren’t prepared to understand the full depth of it.
  • It has very high longevity – the system has lasted two thousand years.

The mother church catches a lot of flack, and some of it is deserved. But for its primary purpose in life it is beautifully – some might even say immaculately – designed.

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