“Breadth and Depth”

Breadth Depth“Breadth and depth” is a term used to denote the knowledge expected of applicants for the Civil Professional Engineer exam. The morning exam tests for general engineering knowledge over a wide area (breadth), while the afternoon exam wears you out in one area like structural or water resources (depth). I took an online class on structural connection design last fall from Dr. Bill Thornton, one of the leading experts in the world in that area, that reminded me of this distinction. While he is a very capable engineer in general, I probably would not have signed up for the class if he had been teaching on concrete design, or timber design. I’m sure he could’ve taught me a thing or 2 in those areas as well, but the draw of his class was that he has devoted much of his long engineering career to one specialty, structural steel connection design, and become a world-renowned expert in that area. He has exemplified having a wide general knowledge base and a thorough specialty knowledge. What lessons are there for us here?

While academic and professional learning is beneficial, and striving for the higher end of the spectrum is admirable, there is an area of learning that can yield rewards far beyond one’s career, even into eternity. In Paul’s final letter before his execution, he tells Timothy to “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”[1] But how do you handle accurately something with which you aren’t familiar? Your first time using any new tool, toy, computer program, or any other unfamiliar item is often pretty clumsy. How do you get better? You study it and practice it. So then, as Christians charged with the solemn responsibility to “go and make disciples of all nations”, we have to ask ourselves, are we striving to develop “breadth and depth” in our spiritual knowledge? It seems there is a spectrum of different degrees of knowledge possible, both in the secular sense (like Dr. Thornton’s career) and in the spiritual sense (like our daily walk with Christ):

  • Shallow knowledge over a narrow area – Are you an “amateur Christian?” Is this Christian life just a Sunday hobby for you? John 3:16 is powerful, but the Bible is an inexhaustible gold mine of truth being overlooked if that’s as far as you’ve explored your beliefs. God will not be a hobby for anyone!
  • Shallow knowledge over a wide area – Are you a “jack of all trades and master of none”? Do you know a lot of different Bible stories and comforting verses, but only scratched the surface in terms of meaning, significance, and connection? All those separate stories are joined up below the surface as part of God’s big story. Dig deeper!
  • Deep knowledge over a narrow area – Are you a “specialist”? So fascinated with eschatology (end-times), angels, or some other narrow field that you’ve neglected all other areas? Focus on an area of study is great for growth, but just like an athlete that only trained one arm or one leg, unbalanced growth isn’t necessarily good. Diversify!
  • Shallow knowledge over a wide area & deep knowledge over a narrow area – Are you a “hybrid”? Both a specialist and a generalist? Have you dived in and become an “expert witness” in one area (i.e. the historical reliability of the New Testament), but are still able to answer general questions outside that area? Great! Now pick a new area to grow in!
  • Deep knowledge over a wide area – If you’re in this boat, quit reading my blog and start your own! This level of knowledge is a rare and special blessing not to be kept to yourself, so start applying all that knowledge! Every generation needs a Charles Spurgeon, or a C.S. Lewis to shed God’s light on all different subjects in profound ways. Is there a point where you’ve “made it”? No, not this side of heaven. But like I said earlier, God’s Word is inexhaustible, so never stop learning!

So which one are you? More importantly, which one will you become? “To whom much was given, of him much will be required.”[2] Here in America, one can easily, relatively cheaply, and with zero risk to one’s life, accumulate a biblical reference library that many preachers in other countries couldn’t amass in a lifetime, and might very well die for if they did. We have multitudes of Christian radio stations that are illegal in other countries. The internet has opened the floodgates of study materials, podcasts, blogs, curriculum (often free), and even online degree programs. We have more ability to study and understand God’s Word and share with others than humans have had since Jesus was here to ask in person. We are… without excuse.

[1] 2 Timothy 2:15, NASB.
[2] Luke 12:48, ESV.

“You Can’t Handle the Truth!”

cant-handle-the-truthIn the movie “A Few Good Men”, Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson famously go back and forth in court with Nicholson finally shouting back from the witness stand the classic line “You can’t handle the truth!” The truth can certainly be a powerful, devastating force at times. But what is truth? The Bible records Pilate asking Jesus that very question almost 2,000 years ago.[1] It’s a big question, but let’s look at one small aspect now.

Truth can be defined as the “ideal or fundamental reality apart from and transcending perceived experience.”[2] This indicates that truth is not subjective since it “transcends perceived experience”. In other words, a statement is true when it corresponds to the object it describes rather than the perception of the observer. Hence, it may be described as objective truth. A color-blind person may incorrectly perceive some colors, but the actual color may be  independently verifiable by the wavelength of light being reflected from an object. That a particular apple’s appearance corresponds to what we call “red” is then objectively true regardless of how, or even if, we perceive it. Likewise, the statement that there is life on other planets may or may not be true; but if true, it will be because of such life existing and not because of our knowledge of it.

What then are we to make of claims today that “everything’s relative”, or that something may be “true for you, but not for me”? First, isn’t it a little ironic to use an absolute term like “everything” to deny absolutes? In fact, both of these statements are actually self-refuting. They “commit suicide” as Greg Koukl would say. What’s implicit in the relativist’s first statements is that everything is relative except their absolute statement. How convenient. But “everything” includes that statement, which puts it in the same category as saying “white is black”. Their 2nd  claim implies that statements may be simultaneously true and false for 2 different people, except for their statement that is assumed to apply equally for everyone. But I can simply apply the claim to itself and say that “true for you, but not for me” is exactly that – not true for me – and ignore it. Ideas have consequences, and because of this self-refuting nature, the concept of relative truth can lead to very real absurdities. Bob may sincerely believe that he can jump off a cliff and fly (without a hang glider or other aid), while his friend John sincerely believes he can’t and pleads with Bob not to jump. Is this a case of “true for Bob, but not for John”? Is John wrong to try to help his friend see his error?  Applying his knowledge of physics and its correspondence to reality to the situation tells John his belief that John will plunge to his death would actually be true for both of them, in spite of Bob’s sincerity to the contrary. That Bob cannot fly on his own is true for all people, for all time, and in all places. That is the nature of truth; we do not create it by our beliefs or statements, but rather discover it.

We can determine when statements about our material world are true (i.e. the law of gravity) by testing them. But what about immaterial truth claims? Are these actual truths or simply opinions? Can we test for truth? Yes. A true statement will always satisfy the 3 fundamental laws of logic[3]:
The law of identity – a statement is identical to itself and different from another statement. A thing is what it is. Saying “Hitler was evil” and saying “Hitler was good” are not equivalent!
The law of noncontradiction – a statement cannot be both true and false at the same time in the same way. For a very clear (if somewhat harsh) verification of this law, the medieval Muslim philosopher Avicenna proposed this demonstration: “Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.”[4]
The law of excluded middle – a statement is either true, or its negation is true. There is no middle state between existing and not existing.

There are other tests for truth, but these are foundational prerequisites, for no matter how coherent or comforting a claim is, if it fails these tests, it simply can’t be true. And this is how “relative truth” fails.

[1] John 18:38, NASB.
[2] “Truth”, Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language,  1996 ed.
[3] J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 132. See also D.Q. McInerny, Being Logical, (Random House, 2005), p. 26-28.
[4] Avicenna, The Book of Healing, Part IV, Metaphysics I, commenting on Aristotle, Topics I.11.105a4–5, published 1027.


RetroTVWhat is one thing that all “reality TV” shows have in common (besides being unrelated to reality for the most part)? Drama, and lots of it! Making a “mountain out of a molehill” seems to be mandatory for all participants. But maybe that aspect isn’t too far from real life; between work, school, our friends, and our family, we may have the makings for a lot of drama in our lives, too. Some people seem to thrive on drama and make drama where there wasn’t any before. What is it that defines this type of personal drama? While drama has historically referred simply to performing or acting out stories before groups (i.e. theater), we usually have a little more in mind when we think of someone as a “drama queen”, for instance.

Drama is all about every little event being “big”, critical, life or death, whether in reality or the TV shows that lay claim to that title. Drama magnifies our little annoyances while simultaneously minimizing the sometimes big problems others are enduring. Drama focuses on the short-term rather than long-term because what seemed so important at the time often fades in significance with the perspective of time. But treating a small insult as the trivial thing it really is hardly keeps viewers “tuned in” to shows on the TV screen (or on the screen of our personal life). Yet Christ tells His followers to think long-term, seeking His kingdom and His righteousness, to expect trials and not dwell on them, and even to pray for those who persecute them.[1] The Apostle Paul tells us to bless those who persecute us and not to repay evil with evil, but rather to overcome evil with good.[2] Peter tells us it is better, if God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil and not to be surprised at suffering as Christians.[3] And the Apostle James tells us to “consider it all joy when you encounter various trials.” [4] What? Was he crazy? Putting up with trials may be admirable, but he didn’t seriously expect us to be joyful when things go wrong or people hurt us, did he? Actually, he did, because our joy comes from God, not our circumstances. And God can use our actions in those bad circumstances to cause a chain reaction beyond our best hopes.

Much of what I do as a professional engineer is built on applying Newton’s third law – that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. But with people, it doesn’t seem to be such a linear, predictable relationship. Our actions, unfortunately, often cause disproportionate  reactions that can spiral in a dramatic, but vicious, cycle. But what if we broke that cycle before it even started, and our responses played out the life-changing (good) drama that only Jesus Christ can work in us and in others through us? Imagine, for example, a reality TV show where the stars didn’t take every little thing and blow it out of proportion, but instead forgave the one who had insulted them. Imagine the “constructive drama” that would unfold by living out the forgiveness and grace of God in our daily interactions with people. Could that vicious cycle become a cycle of grace and love, of “provoking one another to love and good works”[5] with results exponentially good rather than bad? It could, but not in our own strength and wisdom. Been there, tried that, failed miserably. Maybe you have, too. That’s because only the Holy Spirit in us can accomplish that superhuman love for others that is really the distinguishing mark of a true Christian: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”[6] How does this Christian love react to drama? Paul provides a famous description of this kind of drama-quieting love in his letter to the Corinthians. Though often used at weddings, this love is to color all our relationships:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”[7]

Selfish drama can’t survive that kind of selfless love. Until next week, God bless! 🙂

[1] Matthew 6:33, John 15:20, Matthew 5:44, NASB.
[2] Romans 12:14, 17, 21, NASB.
[3] 1 Peter 3:17, 4:12-19, NASB.
[4] James 1:2-4, 12, NASB. See verses 3 & 4 for why we should be joyful in trials.
[5] Hebrews 10:24, KJV.
[6] John 13:35, NASB. Also see “The Mark of the Christian”, a powerful little book by Francis Schaeffer from 1970.
[7] 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NIV.

The Bookcase

BooksThis week’s entry is the posting of a new page on this site called The Bookcase, a collection of some of the reference books I’ve found useful in my studies. Hopefully, you may find something beneficial for particular questions you might have as well. As this will be a growing list, I’m posting it as a permanent page rather than a weekly post. Check it out in the menu at the top of the page! If you have specific questions and want recommendations, just ask. Thanks 🙂

Irreducibly Complex Bridges

20100703-bridges7This week, I want to take a break from the series on defining Christian terminology to look at something from the talkorigins website that an atheist friend sent me a while back claiming to show how Michael Behe’s term “irreducible complexity” (IC hereafter) is “plainly silly” using an example of a stone bridge. If you’re not familiar with any of this, Michael Behe wrote a book in 1996 called “Darwin’s Black Box”, questioning evolutionary theory and proposing that some observed biological systems defy evolutionary explanation because they are “irreducibly complex”. Behe has defined this term as “a single system which is necessarily composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.”[1]

Think of an engine stripped down of all unnecessary parts. You can’t remove parts like the pistons, the spark plugs, the crankshaft, etc, without making the system nonfunctional. The theory of evolution rests on functioning (specifically, self-replicating) organisms reacting to unguided mutations and subject to natural selection to filter the resulting set for specimens with improved survivability. But natural selection doesn’t work on a nonfunctional system as there’s no improvement to select for. Appeals to “neutral evolution” where a mutation doesn’t have to have an actual benefit are just an appeal to chance, which is already stacked against evolution as most random mutations are harmful.[2] In our engine example, this means that adding a crankshaft to some cylinders won’t fulfill any function that could allow the engine to survive while the other parts like pistons and spark plugs are being gradually added. If you’ve ever had some daunting DIY repairs to do on your own car, you know there are some repairs where you can replace one component each night after work and still get to work the next morning while the overall repair is in progress, and then there are those long weekend projects where the car will be “dead” until the repair is completely done. An IC system is likewise dead until it’s complete.

Now, with that background, the talkorigins site has an interesting critique of Michael Behe’s idea of “irreducible complexity” where the author suggests that a “Mullerian Two-Step” defeats Behe’s entire argument. Is this “Mulllerian Two-Step” a dance move named after scientist H.J. Muller? Well, kind of – it does sidestep the key issue. In the words of the talkorigins author, “Only two basic steps are needed to gradually evolve an irreducibly complex system from a functioning precursor: 1) Add a part. 2) Make it necessary. It’s that simple. After these two steps, removing the part will kill the function, yet the system was produced directly and gradually from a simpler, functional precursor.”[3] The author’s argument is that a bridge composed of 3 stones may have a topping stone added, which does not add any functionality to the bridge, allowing the removal of the original middle stone, making the added topping stone necessary to the function of the bridge (see the illustration from the talkorigins page below).

Mullers Stone Bridge Allegedly, this proves that an irreducibly complex structure can be developed from piecewise addition of parts in accord with evolutionary theory. Yet, if you notice, the original 3 stone bridge in his example is already irreducibly complex. No single stone can be removed from his “functional precursor” without destroying it’s function. All 3 stones are required to be in place and working together to have a passable bridge. So what does this devastating argument actually prove? Simply that one irreducibly complex structure can be transformed into another irreducibly complex structure with stepwise, evolution-like steps. This does nothing to explain away the original irreducible complexity, which is the core objection to unguided evolution.

When you see atheist claims to destroy/devastate Christianity (or anything else opposed to a materialistic worldview, such as Intelligent Design/Irreducible Complexity), step back and carefully look at a) the assumptions, b) the connections between premises, and c) the conclusions, and you’ll likely find the claims of obvious superiority exaggerated. Whether you subscribe to Behe’s arguments or not, this “Mullerian Two-Step” is based on a flawed foundational assumption that the precursor is functional but not irreducible also. Therefore, it simply isn’t a valid defeater for Behe’s theory.  Next contestant?

[1] Behe, M.J. 2004. “Irreducible Complexity: Obstacle to Darwinian Evolution.” In Debating Design: from Darwin to DNA, Ruse, M. and Dembski, W.
See footnote 2 of the talkorigins article for an admission of this inconvenient truth from H.J. Muller himself: “…for this reason we should expect very many, if not most, mutations to result in lethal factors ….” Other scientists have made similar admissions, and, of course, our own experiences of diseases like cancer seem to confirm this daily.
[3] http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/ICsilly.html, accessed 2015/03/03.