Black Diamond - for experts only...
Black Diamond – for experts only…

There is a trend I’ve noticed in debates (especially online) where it is put forth that who you are disqualifies you from making any statement on a controversial issue. Those familiar with logic will recognize this as the genetic fallacy, that a statement’s origin can determine whether it’s true or false. And yet it persists in the public square. Here are some examples, some of which I’ve been personally challenged with: you can’t speak about human behavior unless you’re a psychologist; you can’t speak about science without being a scientist; you can’t speak about abortion unless you’re a woman; you can’t speak about legal issues unless you’re a lawyer, and on and on. Since this is often brought up, let’s look at this in more detail.

First off, does someone trained in a particular discipline and working in that area have an advantage over the typical layman in discussing that topic? Certainly, but this doesn’t preclude other people from forming reasonably valid opinions on the same topic. For instance, if you want to know whether your office building can support a heavier rooftop air conditioning unit, by all means, call an engineer like myself to investigate that for you. We’ll apply our knowledge, experience, and specialized analysis software to your situation to work out the safest, best solution to the problem. But if you’re in your office, and the roof is starting to visibly sag, the sheetrock on the walls is starting to buckle inward, and you can hear loud noises as bolts suddenly snap, please, don’t think you need to wait on an “expert” to tell you that you need to get out! That situation doesn’t require an expert to say “Run!” There is a difference between needing the fine-tuned conclusion that a subject matter expert can bring to a topic and needing to establish the broad, basic solution that can be deduced by anyone applying valid reasoning to the evidence at hand. In the roof collapse example, it doesn’t really matter to the occupants whether the roof beams are failing due to lateral-torsional buckling or by block shear at the column connection. They can look at the ceiling getting closer to their heads, and listen to the building, and reasonably come to the same basic conclusion as the engineer: this building is collapsing and we need to evacuate. Likewise, you don’t need to be a psychologist to recognize the guy trying to run people off the road has some serious anger issues he needs to deal with. And lawyers, despite their expertise, actually don’t decide the guilt or innocence of a person charged with murder. They can only explain the case; average citizens on the jury make the decision.   This idea that only experts on a topic can speak on any level about that subject leads to blind faith in those experts, and is really a forfeiture of our responsibility to dig deep and understand the issues we face. Please understand, this is a standard I hold myself to as well. If you hire me as an engineer, and I make some crazy-sounding recommendation that I can’t explain any basis for, don’t blindly trust me either – by all means, call me out on it.

Something else to consider is that amateur enthusiasts often develop extensive knowledge in those areas that attract them. For example, I don’t often have to deal with liquefaction as a design consideration, but someone whose house collapsed in an earthquake because it was built on susceptible soil may devote their life to learning everything they can about liquefaction mitigation. Even though they may not have the engineering credentials that I do, I might still do well to heed what they say about that topic. I’d want to verify how they arrived at their conclusion, but we should never discount someone’s statements simply because of the person making the statements. You see, ultimately, the objective nature of truth determines the validity of the message, not the qualifications of the messenger.

Often, when I get this kind of pushback, the person I’m debating ironically also doesn’t meet the qualifications they demand of me before I can speak on the topic. By their own standard, they shouldn’t be voicing their opinion either. But typically, this is just a tactic for attempting to shut down the conversation. For example, one time, an abortion supporter told me I couldn’t comment on anything about abortion because I wasn’t a woman. And yet, the Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of abortion in 1973’s Roe v. Wade case were all men. The difference? Only that they were agreeing with her position.

Are we free from the duty of making informed decisions? Can we just “leave that to the experts?” Can we ignore the claims of those who aren’t experts? Not as Christians, we can’t. The Bible tells us to “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”[1] That may surprise some who assume the Bible demands a “blind faith” or a “leap in the dark”, but we actually aren’t allowed to check our minds at the door. We need to study the evidence, reason through the implications, and make the wisest, most discerning choices we can, in whatever the matter is at hand, even if we’re not experts.

[1] 1 Thessalonians 5:21, NASB.

The Engineer’s Faith

Leonhard_Euler - portrait by Jakob Emanuel Handmann, 1753.
Leonhard_Euler – portrait by Jakob Emanuel Handmann, 1753.

Engineering and faith might not be two words you normally associate, but faith is nevertheless an integral part of our profession. What tends to obscure this relationship for many today is the rather antagonistic definition of faith promoted by atheists as “belief in spite of the evidence.” Certainly, that is the last characteristic you’d want in the engineer designing your new home/office/hospital/school/etc. But as I’ve written extensively on this site (here especially), that is not the biblical definition of faith. Biblical faith is rather a warranted trust, or looking at the Greek root for the word, a divine persuasion. Let’s look at a scenario that exemplifies the correlation between biblical faith and “engineering faith”.

Suppose I told a client that an existing column in a building being renovated would need to be reinforced or replaced, at significant cost, or else it would fail under the new loads the owner wanted to add. Now suppose the owner didn’t like this and wanted to argue about whether this was really necessary (yes, this does happen). He could ask whether I’d ever actually seen a column that big fail. Or, supposing that part of the issue was tied to increased seismic loads on the existing structure caused by this new addition, he might ask if I’d ever experienced an earthquake, because he had, and it wasn’t that bad… In both cases, I’d have to answer “no”. So what is my basis for saying he needs to perhaps double the cost of his renovation? My trusted engineering books. Here’s why:

  • I trust the authors. While I’ve never personally seen a large column fail, I don’t have to have personally seen it to know it can truly happen. Various people over the years have performed tests, witnessed the results, and applied reason and logic to sift through the noise and ascertain the essence of different phenomena. Then they distilled all of that down into some of the elegantly simple theories we still use today. They have demonstrated themselves to be trustworthy with their meticulous attention to detail, their investigative diligence, and their relentless pursuit of the truth about how structures behave.
  • I trust their records. These early pioneers and those coming after them have written down very detailed accounts of these tests, their results, and their reasoning for how far their theories can be expected to be applicable to similar conditions. These have been preserved (or at least copies have been) for future generations of inquisitive engineers like myself. Names like Euler and Timoshenko still cast their shadows on much of our work long after they died.
  • I trust the transmittal of their works. Our engineering textbooks and reference books faithfully transmit these principles to my generation of engineers, even though we are far removed from the original authors, and may not have the resources to reproduce their findings. Their theories are also reproduced in a variety of books. If one publisher made an error in Euler’s column buckling formula, for instance, it could be readily verified by comparing it against other reference books on the same topic.

So then, even though I have never personally witnessed a W14x90 column fail in an earthquake, I can trust that my various books have reliably passed down to me the true results of research by trustworthy men indicating that would be the outcome in my example. The end result being that I can put some amount of faith – or trust – in what I’ve learned and apply it to the current project. Of course, men are still fallible, and their theories might be mistaken, but these basic principles are have stood the test of time sufficiently to persuade me to trust them.

Now, how does that relate to my Christian faith?

  • I can trust the biblical authors. God used a unique mix of people to write the Bible. Just looking at the New Testament, the first apostles were simple fishermen, who brought a simple, down-to-earth, eyewitness testimony to their records. Theirs was a record that said, “whether you believe me or not, I cannot tell otherwise, for this is what I saw, and heard, and felt – no more, no less.” Luke was a doctor who sought to record “a more orderly account” of the life of Christ. His account is an extremely detailed, first-rate history that has proven itself accurate over and over again. Paul was a Pharisee, a teacher of the Jewish religious law, himself taught by one of the leading teachers of his day. He explained the deep richness of the simple gospel message, connecting it to the whole backstory of the Old Testament. But in each case, these men have shown themselves to be trustworthy instruments of the infallible God.
  • I can trust their findings. Luke’s geography and description of various cultures of the time are born out by archeology. When Paul describes the fallen nature of mankind, he describes the world I observe; the results of his examination match reality. But moreover, he holds up a mirror to my own heart. I need look no further than my own life to recognize the soundness of his words.
  • I can trust the transmission of their records to me. They wrote early after the events they described, these writings were copied carefully, and on a massive scale far exceeding any other historical manuscripts, such that the integrity of their writings are adequately preserved by comparison of the variances between dispersed copies.

We all place our faith (or trust) in people and things that may prove all too fallible: the pilot of the plane you’re about to board, the engineer who designed the school you send your kids to, the political leader that promised you the moon, or objects as simple as the new tires on your car that you trust to not have a blowout.  But there’s really only One who warrants our complete trust. Have you studied His textbook, the Bible?

The Problem of Earthquakes

1999 Earthquake in Izmit, Turkey.  Photo Credit: USGS
1999 Earthquake in Izmit, Turkey. Photo Credit: USGS

The problem of evil or suffering in the world has often been used by atheists to attack the idea of the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God. Yet, much of the suffering in our world can be traced back to causes related to our free choices as humans. Even natural effects like birth defects in an area might be tied to hazardous waste deliberately covered up in the community, drug use by the mother during pregnancy, or to the use of lead-based paints in an older house, for example. In the first 2 cases we see the suffering was the result of malicious (or at least irresponsible) human activity, while the last one highlights our woefully finite knowledge of the future effects of our actions.

But the skeptic can turn to natural disasters and say that if God exists, these can surely be blamed on Him. We even tend to call them “acts of God” in our insurance policies. If He is all-powerful, and all-knowing, and desires the good of His creation, then surely He has either directly caused these horrible disasters, or known they were going to happen and refused to stop them. The skeptical reasoning then goes that either God is not good, or He is unable to stop these events (and therefore not worthy of being called “God”), or He simply doesn’t exist. It’s hard to see the misery and suffering in the wake of something like the Haitian earthquake of 2010 (magnitude 7.0 – 220,000 dead), or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (caused by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake – 230,000 dead), and not ask “Why?” But while I would agree with the skeptic that this is a legitimate question to ask, I propose an alternative response: that even as awful as things like earthquakes can be, they are actually a necessary part of human existence. Allow me to explain.

I’ve seen occasional comments about the role of plate tectonics (the process that results in earthquakes) in making earth suitable for life for a few years now (like in the 2004 book “Origins of Life” by Dr. Fazale Rana & Dr. Hugh Ross, both Christians), but the always thought-provoking blogger Wintery Knight recently shared 2 non-Christian sources that had come to similar conclusions. One was a 2013 Forbes.com interview with atheist paleontologist Peter Ward regarding his and agnostic astronomer Donald Brownlee’s view on the potential for life on planets outside our solar system. They had written on this in their book Rare Earth back in 2000. In the interview, Ward is asked about the common appeal to the sheer number of extra-solar planets as statistical evidence for life having formed elsewhere in the universe. He responds that “Without plate tectonics, we might have microbes but we’d never get to animals.” Tilman Spohn, director of the German Space Research Centre Institute of Planetary Research, also views plate tectonics as likely being essential to the existence of complex life on any planet. In 2009, he pointed NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine readers to plate tectonics’ role in 1) the formation of granite, a necessary element in forming continents, 2) the replenishment of key elements essential for life chemistry as we know it, 3) the generation of the earth’s protective magnetic field through formation of convection currents in the molten core, and 4) the recycling of carbon to regulate temperature on the planet. On that last item, it’s worth mentioning, with all of the concern over the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and mankind’s “carbon footprint” over the last few years, that 80% of the natural capture of greenhouse gases is accomplished through plate tectonics as carbon is captured in freshly exposed silicates that are eroded and pushed under the tectonic plates to be recycled in the earth’s mantle. The other 20% is sequestered by plants and animals storing carbon in their bodies, dying, being buried, and eventually being turned into deposits of hydrocarbons (i.e. “fossil fuels”).[1]

Now what is interesting about these proposals is the significance plate tectonics is having in whether non-Christian scientists view a potential alien planet as even capable of supporting life. It seems that as we learn more about the role of tectonic activity in our own world, it becomes increasingly unlikely that simply being in a “habitable zone” of a distant star is enough. Thus, despite the odds put forward of “700 quintillion” exoplanets throughout the universe, and statistically, some other planet surely having evolved life of similar complexity to us, it simply can’t happen without the earthquakes we fear and despise. Instead of being an indication of a cruel, uncaring, or nonexistent god, we are beginning to see that these earthquakes that inflict so much suffering are actually a part of a very special (and so far, entirely unique) habitat that appears to be especially designed to allow our overall flourishing.  Rather than evolutionary chance causing life on earth and potentially other worlds, what we keep running into is very deliberate, precise, design of systems of complex interacting systems indicative of an omniscient and omnipotent Creator.

Lastly, as an engineer, I’d like to point out that the extreme loss of life in the 2 earthquakes cited above should be compared with that in some other significant quakes. Chile has endured earthquakes like few countries in the world, including the largest earthquake ever recorded. But they have also worked hard to develop seismic-resistant buildings. The magnitude 9.5 Valdivia earthquake of May 22, 1960, the largest magnitude ever recorded, killed less than 6,000 people. Chile’s magnitude 8.8  quake in 2010  occurred only a month after the Haitian quake, and was roughly 500 times more powerful, yet less than 600 people died in Chile. Less than 20 people died in the magnitude 8.3 quake in 2015. In the 1964 Alaskan earthquake, the 2nd largest ever recorded at magnitude 9.2, 139 people died. Even the devastating 9.0 earthquake that struck Japan in 2011 killed less than one-tenth of the people that the 7.0 Haitian quake did. While earthquakes are serious business anywhere, their effects can be mitigated. It is good to remember that while these appear to actually be essential to the existence of life on Earth, they are also something we can design for. The experience of the Chileans, the Japanese, and Americans has shown that these major components of our planet’s lifecycle don’t have to be an obstacle to belief in God, for He has also given us the minds to work around these events, and the resources to implement those plans and prevent the suffering so often cited as “evidence” against God’s goodness. In fact, maybe the suffering caused by earthquakes is not so much evidence of God’s inadequacy, as it is our own, in our lack of cooperative development of disaster-resistant construction around the world.

[1] Hugh Ross & Fazale Rana, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (NavPress, Colorado Springs, 2004), p. 215.

Tools Without Knowledge

http://www.freeimages.com/photo/tools-1417865A couple of months ago, I stopped to help a driver on the side of the highway. It turned out to be a lady who had a flat tire. Asking if she had a spare, she said that she did, along with the tools to change it, but she just didn’t know how.  A few minutes later, I had her on her way, having also explained each step so she would know what to do in the future. This got me thinking.

Christians in America have more “tools” available to them than any other generation of Christians in history. The average American Christian has multiple Bibles in their home, often in different translations.[1] Many American churches offer book and/or video libraries for their congregations. Most churches will offer some level of training/discipleship/Bible study. It is mind-boggling how many free references are available online. Early Christians who risked their very lives for a chance to read and quickly copy down a partial manuscript of one of Paul’s letters would’ve fainted to see what we have available at our fingertips. Current Christians in repressive countries who face being executed or sent to labor camps for owning Scriptures would cry at the sight of 8 or 10 different Bibles gathering dust on the shelves of an American Christian’s home. I’ve been able to download (for ridiculously little money) entire reference libraries of Bible commentaries, systematic theology books, and collections of classic writings from the early church fathers to the puritan writers, all the way to the present. A person can carry an entire pastor’s library on their cell phone now. If I want to see what a particular Bible passage says in the original Hebrew or Greek, that is easily accomplished.[2] If I want to learn Greek to dig deeper, a basic understanding is also well within reach of the average person.[3] But “from everyone who has been given much, much will be required.”[4] We as Christians in America are really without excuse.

And yet, this is also the most Biblically illiterate generation of Americans. It is, in effect, like driving around in a mechanic’s truck, with enough tools on hand to completely overhaul the truck, and saying we’ll need to call for help to change the flat tire. Why is that? I think for the most part, we don’t ever make the time to learn what we believe or why we should believe it. A few years ago, I was living in blissful ignorance, content to believe in Christ for my salvation, but that was really the extent of it. I had started digging deeper into the Scriptures in high school, but had been lulled to an apathetic sleep after that. Then I went on a jobsite visit with an atheist colleague a few years ago. On the 3 hour drive back, he asked me something that had been bugging him:

“How can you call yourself a Christian and an engineer at the same time? Aren’t those kind of mutually exclusive?”

The question caught me off guard and shocked me out of my slumber. I answered at the time that I didn’t see how I could be an engineer – seeing the design in nature that far exceeds anything I would ever think up – and not be a Christian. But that answer was more based on intuition then. Since then, I started digging into the Bible, into cosmology, into genetics, into information theory, into philosophy, into logic, into epistemology, and anything else that relates to how we understand the world around us, one that I would say is God’s world. And if it’s God’s world, then there is no contradiction between science and Christianity, because God is the same consistent Author of both. Not that one needs to get into all of that to come to a saving faith in Christ, mind you; but it does confirm that every tool in the toolbox of life points to God the Creator of life. Whether we use the tools of science, or philosophy, or history, or theology, we keep coming back to God.

It’s been hard work reading and studying a diverse number of fields; I do have a “day job” as an engineer (that sometimes bleeds into the night and weekends as well). There are the typical chores of life to squeeze in as well – changing the oil in the car, home maintenance, and so on. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, for it has brought me closer to my God, for Jesus’s command to “love the Lord your God… with all your mind”[5] is like sweet honey to me. And I dare say it can be for you, too.

As J. Warner Wallace, former atheist cold-case homicide detective turned Christian case-maker, is fond of pointing out, the Bible tells us that some are called to be teachers and evangelists and whatnot[6], but all of us Christians are supposed to be able to give a reason for the hope that we have.[7] Can you?  Maybe it’s time to do a little self-evaluation. Is church something to endure once a week to “pay your dues”, or is it a chance to get some training that you can hopefully put into practice in the upcoming week?   Is your faith a warm, fuzzy, vague, feel-good, emotional crutch, or something you believe because it’s true? Is being a Christian simply “fire insurance” to get out of hell, or an exciting chance to serve under the King of all creation? As Chuck Colson said, “the church does not draw people in; it sends them out.” So choose today to learn to use the tools that God has put in your hands, and go out prepared for the opportunities He brings you!


[1] According to the 2014 State of the Bible survey by Barna, almost 9in 10 Americans own a Bible, and Americans (overall) average almost 5 Bibles per household.
[2] Check out www.biblehub.com for handy interlinear translations where you can read the the English Scriptures with the Hebrew or Greek above each line (like this).
[3] I recommend Basic Greek in 30 minutes a Day, by James Found (Bethany House, 2012), for a surprisingly effective way for the average person to learn a fair bit of Greek easily.
[4] Luke 12:48.
[5] Matthew 22:37.
[6] Ephesians 4:11.
[7] 1 Peter 3:15.