Old Books

freeimages.com/pcst, file#1560855I came across an article recently about the top ten new books to read in the coming year, and it reminded me of a statement by C.S. Lewis about the value of old books. With that in mind, I’d like to put Lewis’s statement out there for a new generation that may not be familiar with it, and give a few examples of how his assessment of new vs. old can help us today. I’ll refrain from any attempt at a top ten list, but hopefully, you’ll come away this week with a sense of what to include in your own “must read” list for the new year. Let’s start by rejecting what Lewis famously called “chronological snobbery”: “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” He continues,

“You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”[1]

What solution did Lewis propose?

“The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not of course that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”[2]

Let’s flesh that out a little. Reading old books helps us in the following ways:

  • It helps to protect us from repeating past mistakes. We may find our “new” problem was actually already soundly resolved centuries ago if we only do some research. As George Santayana remarked, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[3] As I’ve read more old books lately, I’ve been surprised at how many “modern” attacks against Christianity were being addressed by early Christians like Justin Martyr & Irenaeus over 1800 years ago.
  • Reading old books helps us to recognize timeless truths as we see some principles successfully applied to various situations over the ages. It eliminates the variables of time, geography and culture as we see that some things were just as true for the ancient Greeks and the Jews and the Romans as they are for us today.
  • Reading old books keeps us humble as we realize that our small contributions to history are only possible because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Yet this should also inspire us to follow in their footsteps and pick up where they left off.
  • Reading old books keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously. The long-term perspective that results from reading authors from a range of thousands of years helps us see just how silly some of our current seriously-held views are. Just as fashion trends come and go, ideological fads do too. And many of our current trendy views will seem just as ridiculous 100 years from now as parachute pants from the 80’s seem today.
  • Reading old books stretches us mentally. Yes, older books are often more difficult to read. The language tends to be more formal, and when it’s not, the slang used may be difficult to decipher without looking up some archaic words. But gold is rarely found without hard work, and there are some beautiful nuggets of wisdom hiding in some of those awkward (to us) passages. To draw a practical analogy, a lot of my professional growth as an engineer has come through trying to follow what a senior engineer had done to solve a problem that was beyond my skill set at the time. Don’t shy away from stretching yourself.

With that in mind, what will you read this year? The same faddish books that will be forgotten in a year? Or something that’s stood the test of time? Books you can read and safely let your mind atrophy without fear of any mental exercise being required? Or maybe something a little tougher to digest?  Books that will congratulate you just for showing up? Or books that will make you realize you’re in the presence of greatness, and inspire you to build on their foundation and pursue still greater heights? Books that will simply affirm your own views? Or ones that will challenge the errors you may be overlooking? Invest your reading time wisely this coming year.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (San Diego: Harvest/HBJ, 1955), p. 207-208.
[2] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 202.
[3] George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume I, 1905.


Intellectual vs Willful Rejection

face-questions-1567164-639x373I watched a debate between Dan Barker, from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Dr. Justin Bass recently. A closing statement is generally that last recap of your critical points that you want the audience to remember. Barker’s closing statement gives an interesting insight into the atheist mindset:

“This whole idea of “Lord”, … that we need a “Lord” somehow to worship, is an ancient idea … is kind of a psychological question, it’s not really a question of the fact. Even if Jesus did exist, even if I agreed with Dr. Bass 100% – yep, he rose from the dead, yep, there’s a God, yep, I don’t deny any of that – that does not mean that he is my Lord. If he did exist, if he created this hell that I’m going to have to go to, then let him prove to me what a huge macho man he is and send me to hell. I will go happily to hell. It would be worse of a hell for me to bow down before a Lord who would create a place like hell…. Regardless of the legend and historicity issue…Even if I agreed 100%, I would still reject that Being as a Lord of my life because I’m better than that…based on what I read in the Bible and what I see in church history, I cannot accept Jesus as Lord… To me, I think that’s more important than all this historicity stuff, which, you heard me admit, is a matter of probabilities; I might be wrong…That still doesn’t mean that Jesus is Lord. He is NOT the Lord of my life…”

I just want to make a couple of observations about his rationale here. What saddens me about this is the willful arrogance and disregard for the facts that he espouses. This is not being a “freethinker”. This is not being rational. This is the purely emotional response of a petulant child screaming “I don’t care what Daddy says is best for me, I want it my way!” To say that he would still reject Jesus as sovereign even if he agreed with all of the evidence pointing to Jesus’s rightful claim to that title, and to justify that with the notion that he is “better than that” strikes me as an odd combination of deliberate blindness and arrogance.

I also found it interesting that he doesn’t consider “all this historicity stuff” that important. Really? Christianity makes an extraordinary amount of claims that can be falsified. That should be a rational thinker’s dream. This isn’t some mystical religion of warm fuzzy feelings with no hard truth claims and no way to prove them right or wrong. And so far, the historical claims of Christianity have been consistently proven correct. Is that maybe why Mr. Barker doesn’t consider them all that important? Would he not consider historical confirmation important in other areas? I don’t know if he cares much about Julius Caesar or Galileo or any other classic historic figures, but I would think, as much as his organization likes misusing Thomas Jefferson’s “separation of church and state” comment, that questions of whether Jefferson existed and actually wrote that famous phrase would surely be important to him. But then if the historicity of someone like Thomas Jefferson is important, why not the historicity of someone far more important?

The western world literally dates history around the birth of Jesus. And if what Jesus said and did was accurately recorded, then that emphasis on His birth as the pivot point of all history is legitimate. Yes, we need to look at the evidence honestly, and openly, and be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if that’s to Someone more powerful, more knowledgeable, and in all other ways, better, than us. In that event, we have to be willing to lay down our pride and admit when we’ve met our match. And when it turns out that our adversary is actually the One who loves us more dearly than we can understand, then the only reasonable response is to quit rejecting Him and instead follow Him.

Maybe you agree with Mr. Barker that that would be hell for you. Well, God won’t force you into heaven. But that also means that the hell you may resent Him for establishing is also the place you are voluntarily choosing to go, and the place that God isn’t keeping you from entering against your will. Look at your objections honestly and see if they are legitimate intellectual questions seeking answers, or just stubborn pride. You may be surprised.

Below is the link to the full 3 hour debate/Q&A. Mr. Barker’s closing statement starts around 2:44.

You’re So Vain

freeimages.com/livingos“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you…”

Carly Simon may not have had in mind the exclusivity of truth claims when she wrote those lyrics back in the 70’s, but that charge of vanity is also sometimes leveled at anyone who claims to be “right” about something, especially in the realm of morality. I read an opinion online recently that any one religion feeling their beliefs are superior to another is “egocentric and self-centered”. But it’s only egocentric and self-centered if all views are equal. If, for instance, Jews were actually correct that Jesus was not God incarnate, but only a blasphemous rabbi, or if the Muslims were actually correct that Jesus was a prophet and nothing more, then I would not say they were egocentric for saying they were right and I was wrong. On the contrary, their statement would then be rooted not in themselves, but in the objective truth that Jesus wasn’t really God (assuming for the sake of argument that was correct). This is actually the opposite of egocentrism and self-centeredness because the nature of objective truth means that we can be genuinely right or wrong based on the object we make a statement about, not our subjective opinion of the object. This is really other-centered rather than self-centered.

In fact, it’s the relativist worldview that is egocentric, as it seeks to define truth relative to one’s own standard. But some things really are independent of any standard we invent. Think of it this way: suppose I were color-blind and about to eat poison fruit that looked identical to a certain edible fruit except for the critical detail that they are the 2 colors I can’t differentiate. Should you, coming up to me right before I take the fatal bite (not being color-blind and knowing the danger I was in), refrain from telling me the truth for fear of appearing self-centered? No! First off, that would be selfless of you to try to warn me of the danger I was in. But I also wouldn’t call you self-centered because your warning was not simply your own personal opinion, but rather your awareness of the objective toxicity of the fruit. It’s poisonous whether or not either of us are aware of it, and whether or not either of us do anything with that knowledge. Regardless of whether I think the poison fruit will kill me, I’d still be dead in the morning.

Likewise, there’s another poison called sin that is killing each and every person on this planet, and there’s only one cure: Jesus Christ. It’s not self-centeredness, but rather selfless love,  that motivates (or at least should motivate) Christians to try to warn people of the danger they’re in. “But”, you might ask, “don’t other religions think they are helping people just as much with their proselytizing, too?” Yes, I would say they probably do, and they are probably very sincere in those efforts. But that is precisely where objective truth comes into play. Being sincerely wrong doesn’t alter the consequences of our choices. And so it’s not vain or self-centered for the Christian to believe they’re right and others are wrong if their beliefs are grounded in the unchanging standard of God’s truth instead of their own opinions.

Some would accept that truth is conformance to reality, but then say that only applies to description, not prescription. In other words, moral values prescribing what is right and wrong are allegedly outside the scope of objective truth because these aren’t statements about “real” physical objects that can therefore conform to reality. Yet the same unchanging God who made all of our physical reality also prescribed certain behaviors as right and others as wrong, whether we agree with them or not. And if reality is that which exists, then if these laws have been decreed by God, and so exist, then morality is simply part of the non-physical portion of reality. Just as descriptions of the natural world will be truthful when they conform to physical (or natural) reality, behavioral prescriptions will also be true when they conform to that non-physical (or supernatural) reality.

In the general revelation of nature and the special revelation of the Bible, we have a unified message from the Author of all of reality. And our understanding of both nature and morality need to be rooted in God’s truth if we don’t want to be tossed about by every new wave of ideology that comes across the bow as we sail the seas of this life. Rather than self-centered vanity, this is a most humble reliance and focus on our Creator as the only transcendent source of Truth.

Deconstructing Dawkins 3 – A Case Study in Design

Schematic of the human eyeLast week, I wrote about some general problems I saw with Richard Dawkins’ claims of “sub-optimal design” in natural objects like the human eye. I recommended that we keep in mind our own finite knowledge and approach the matter with the same humility an engineer should approach a peer review of a colleague’s work. This week, we’ll need to get a little more technical to see Dawkins’ error, but let’s do a little “peer review” of that particular case of the human eye.

Dawkins’ problem with the eye is that the rods and cones (the photosensors) point toward the back of the eye, while the nerves (the “wiring”) come out the back of these sensors into the interior of the eye before being bundled up into an optic nerve that connects to the brain through a hole in the retina, causing a “blind spot” where there can’t be any sensors because of the hole and the nerve bundle. Admittedly, this is counter-intuitive. And yet, the eye is an amazing machine that the best human minds have not been able to rival. Whether it seems backwards to us or not, the eye seems to do better than we can with our “forward” thinking. Why might this backwards wiring actually be optimal?

Many times in my field, our structural systems are more complex than they could be otherwise because of other systems such as heating and air. Let’s face it, on a hot, humid, summer day in the Southern US, the best structure is useless if nobody can stand to be in the building because there’s no air conditioning. With the eye we have a similar issue: we need wiring (i.e. nerves) for data transmission, but we also need plumbing (i.e. blood flow) to supply energy – and lots of it. The rods and cones of the retina are so sensitive, that a single photon of light can be detected. This is because a series of enzymes massively amplifies this minuscule stimulus to useful proportions. But this enzyme activity also makes the photoreceptor layer of the retina have one of the highest metabolic rates of any known tissue[1] and the highest in the human body.[2] The energy for this is supplied by a bed of oversized capilleries immediately behind the photoreceptor layer that floods the layer with near-arterial levels of oxygenated and nutrient-rich blood to satisfy these high metabolic demands. This arrangement of blood supply allows a high packing density of the rods and cones making up the layer, which allows for increased visual resolution. In the opinion of biochemist Michael Denton, it is “hard to imagine how a standard-type capillary network to carry the necessary quantities of blood directly through the photoreceptor cell layer could be arranged without causing at least some decrease in the packing density of the photoreceptors and a consequent decrease in the resolving power of the eye.”[1] Considering also that blood strongly absorbs light, this plumbing system can’t be in front of the photoreceptors, even though that would allow for the nerves to be routed to the rear and more “tidily” as Dawkins suggests. In fact, any other arrangement in humans appears  to create bigger problems than it solves.

However, atheists have looked to the cephalopods like the octopus and squid as examples of creatures with good eyesight whose eyes are wired “correctly” – photosensors facing forward, toward the light, and nerves directed toward the brain – eliminating the admittedly minimal blind spot of the human eye. Although their visual acuity is comparable to some fish that have inverted retinas like us, octopuses operate in environments where ambient light is more diffuse or even negligible for the deep-sea dwelling varieties. Whereas we would actually need something to reduce the amount of incoming light if our sensitive photoreceptors faced the light like theirs, that placement is an advantage in their environments. Energy conservation can also be a design parameter. In fact, studies in different species of flies have shown that optical data transmission from photoreceptors increases with light, and there is an energy cost associated with photoreceptor activity which is at a minimum in total darkness and a maximum in full daylight. This cost can be significant as one species of fly tested used up to 2% of its total base metabolic rate just powering the photoreceptor layer of its eyes. And that was just the “ready state”, in total darkness. As ambient light increases, optical data increases, and with it, energy demands. However, the octopus’s copper-based blood, hemocyanin, only supplies roughly one-quarter of the oxygen as our iron-based hemoglobin.[4] Based on the experimental confirmations from the fly testing, it is reasonable that humans operating in full daylight will have a much higher metabolic demand than the octopus operating in the subdued light of shallow water or the near darkness of deep water. This then makes perfect sense for us to have the inverted retina we have, with its high-capacity power delivery system, while the verted eye of the octopus is more reasonable in their environment. Our inverted photoreceptors then appear to be the best possible solution, even with the introduction of a blind spot. However, this blind spot is situated in an area of each eye not used for focused vision, is in a different spot in each eye so that the input from the other eye compensates for it, is adequately corrected for in the image processing  occurring in the brain, and is actually a smaller blind spot (approx. 6°) than the most obvious blind spot for humans: our own nose, which blocks out a larger field of view for each eye.

One last thing to point out to armchair engineers like Dawkins is this: show me we can do better. If our eyes are so offensive, show how we could improve on them. Yet with all our scientific knowledge and advancements in technology and some of the best human minds working on a visual prosthetic for blind people, the pursuit of a man-made eye is still woefully primitive. It seems extraordinarily hypocritical to me to criticize another’s design, whether a fellow engineer’s or God’s, if I can’t even come close to designing something comparable. We are at the level of allowing a blind person to differentiate between light and dark, between the presence of a large opening like a door versus a solid wall, and between crude outlines of shapes that would make the old PONG computer game of the 80’s seem like an IMAX 3D movie. It’s easy to criticize something from afar. But in engineering, getting intimately familiar with the details of a problem is what makes or breaks a design. And the more we familiarize ourselves with the constraints and objectives of the human eye, the less we find to criticize.


[1] Michael Denton, “The Inverted Retina: Maladaptation or Pre-adaptation?”, 1999. Hat tip to blogger Wintery Knight for publicizing Denton’s research.
[2] Punzo, Xiong, and Cepko, “Loss of Daylight Vision in Retinal Degeneration: Are Oxidative Stress and Metabolic Dysregulation to Blame?”, Journal of Biological Chemistry, January 13, 2012.
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemocyanin, accessed 12/8/2015.

Deconstructing Dawkins 3 – Optimal Design Overview

Richard DawkinsRichard Dawkins has made much of the “appearance of design” in biology being a false positive, and the notion that living creatures actually exhibit bad design that negates the idea of an omniscient Creator. After all, why would God, if He existed, and if He was all-knowing, do things like wire the human eye “backwards”? This is, according to Dawkins, a sub-optimal design that any engineer would reject out of hand, or get fired if he submitted a design like this to his company. In fact, regarding the “backwards wiring” of the vertebrate eye, he admits that it doesn’t actually have much effect on vision, but “it is the principle of the thing that would offend any tidy-minded engineer!”[1]

Oh really? Since he decided to drag us engineers into this, I’d like to ask one question: what exactly do you mean when you talk about an optimal design? I can tell you most engineering designs end up being sub-optimal, regardless of how “tidy-minded” we may be. That’s because we routinely have to make trade-offs between competing goals. I have a book on wood-framed shearwalls that humorously highlights this issue with a side-by-side photo of an “engineer’s dream wall” and an “architect’s dream wall”. The engineer’s wall is very stout and very solid. The architect’s  preference (and most owner’s) is one completely filled with beautiful expansive windows. Which one is the “optimal” wall? Neither one of us is getting what we would call the optimum. Us engineers need some minimum amount of strength that the windows aren’t providing, and the architect needs some minimum amount of holes in our solid wall so the owner doesn’t feel like he’s living in a dungeon! Factor in things like cost and meeting building code constraints and “optimal” becomes a very subjective term with different meaning to different stakeholders. But this is the way most design goes. You can’t maximize one parameter without minimizing another, and at some point, you’ll have 2 (or more) parameters that conflict. Do you focus entirely on the first, or the 2nd? Do you balance them equally? Maybe a weighted average based on your best guess as to which one will govern more often? Unfortunately, no matter which route you choose, someone will come along later, with the benefit of hindsight, and ask why you didn’t do it some other way. But God, being omniscient, has perfect foresight, so that shouldn’t be an issue for Him, right? True, He won’t make a mistake in design due to lack of knowledge or not anticipating future conditions, but the aspect of competing design parameters still applies.

Versatility and specialization are two such competing parameters. Specialized designs seek to maximize a positive parameter like speed or strength, or to minimize some negative parameter like weight or waste, at the expense of other factors. This is evident in animals like peregrine falcons whose hollow bones minimize weight, while their aerodynamics maximize speed. Versatile designs, on the other hand, seek to balance the most parameters at one time to achieve adequate performance over a wide range of conditions. This allows the object to fulfill many roles, or to survive in a variety of unpredictable conditions and possibly even excel over more specialized objects if conditions are constantly changing. Humans, for example, are extremely versatile. We may not thrive as well on our own as more specialized animals in arctic or desert or tropical environments, but unlike most of them, the same human can generally still survive in all of them. And, besides this highly versatile body design, we have the brains to make tools, and shelters, and transportation to overcome our bodily limitations, such that we can even survive in places like outer space where no animals, however optimized, can survive.

So is God required to maximize all parameters that go into a design? No. Some may fall into the category of “square circles” where the parameters are simply mutually exclusive. Is He required to maximize the particular parameter we favor over another that He deems more important? No. As professional engineers, we can seek the input of peers if desired, but nothing says we have to take their advice. The engineer signing off on the design and taking full responsibility decides the direction of the design. Is so-called “bad design” evidence against God? No. It simply means we likely aren’t seeing the whole picture. My own peer reviews of other engineers’ designs have raised questions as to why they chose a particular route, but then they proved quite reasonable after getting those questions answered. It was typically my lack of knowledge of the background of that particular project, or my unfamiliarity with some certain condition they’d been burned by before that made me think they’d missed something “obvious” when they had actually thought through their design better than I might have if I’d been in their position.

Engineers must approach peer reviews with an attitude of humility, but even more so if the design being reviewed is God’s. If I can overlook the good reason a fellow human engineer made the design choices he did, then I should be all the more open to the possibility that I’ve missed something an omniscient Designer did consider. And this is where I would encourage people like Dawkins not to arrogantly assume that there is no good reason for something just because they can’t see it. Tune in next week as we focus on a couple of specific examples where the atheist claims of “sub-optimal” and “bad” designs in nature have actually turned out to be engineering masterpieces.

[1] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Penguin Books), p94.