Content to Doubt?

face-questions-1567164-639x373Last week, in sketching a portrait of scientific giant (and devout Christian) James Clerk Maxwell, I ended by asking if you are content to doubt. I’d like to expand on that question a little bit before continuing with that series.

What is doubt?

Doubt can be defined as disbelief, uncertainty, or lack of confidence in something.[1] One could also describe it as a condition of being unpersuaded or unconvinced of the truth of a statement.[2] Something each of these have in common is the idea of negation; doubt rarely expresses itself as a clear, positive assertion, but rather acts like a virus on other positive statements, parasitically draining them of their perceived strength. Suppose, for instance, that you say you think it will rain tomorrow, and your friend says that they doubt it. They haven’t come out and made a direct counterclaim that it won’t rain, but… they’ve still conveyed the idea that your statement may be wrong. Do you find yourself doubting now too? Do they know something you don’t? Like a virus, doubt, too, is often contagious.

Why do we doubt?

Let me give you the best reason to doubt before I give the more common one. Discovering contradictory evidence is a great reason to doubt a proposition. We know from logic that two contradictory statements can’t both be true at the same time in the same way. So when we find a legitimate contradiction, that should cause us to doubt our previous belief. However, contradictions are often only apparent ones, and we have to be willing to dig deeper before automatically assuming we found a contradiction in those cases. But there is a much more common reason for doubt, and that is emotion. Often, we don’t like the implications of a belief, particularly if they go against our own self-interest, and so we hope for a contradiction to find a way out of the obligation. We fuel our doubts out of selfishness. Other times, it is peer pressure and the fear of being an outsider that makes us wonder if our beliefs are wrong. But in any case, emotions are fickle things, and not a good reason to doubt our beliefs.

How do we overcome doubt?

  1. Examine it. Your doubt will typically be the conclusion of an unexamined syllogism (a logical argument, typically 2 premises and a conclusion). So first, supply what the missing premises would need to be to arrive at that conclusion.  Hidden premises are the bane of sound reasoning; so expose them here! A lot of times, this step will reveal the supposed reasons are completely unrelated to the conclusion. For instance, someone may doubt the existence of God, and come up with alleged contradictions in the Bible as the source of their doubt. Sorry, but the Bible could be completely made up, and God might still exist. Keep digging.
  2. Face it head-on. I said earlier that doubts tend to leech off of actual positive statements. To face doubt head-on, first express it as a positive assertion. Bring it out into the light and make it boldly say what it really is. If you have doubts about the existence of God, then don’t cover it up by saying you have “doubts” or “reservations”. Say “I think the proposition ‘God exists’ is more likely false than true.” Now you’ve actually made a claim, and he who makes the claim bears the burden of proof. A lot of time is spent trying to get out of the burden of proof these days, but this is a good thing to make your doubt into a claim with a burden of proof. Really! That forces you to recognize the need to justify your doubts just as much as the previous beliefs you’re now doubting.
  3. Don’t stop short. Think like an opposing debater looking at your argument for weaknesses. Recognize that while a weak link in your beliefs may have caused your doubts to begin with, your doubts also likely have some weak links. And yet, remember that weak links don’t necessarily refute a conclusion (on either side of the issue); they just show where you’ve failed to justify that conclusion, either in your initial belief or in your current doubt. You’ll likely need to keep repeating Step 1, forming a syllogism out of each premise, making it a conclusion needing supporting premises, and so on, until you get down to either some bedrock that will support your doubts, or shifting sand that shows your doubts to be unreasonable. Apply logic at each step. Are your terms clear, or are you equivocating on the meanings of words? Are your premises true? Does your conclusion at this particular level of your digging necessarily follow from your supporting premises under it?
  4. Recognize your own limitations. Get input from other perspectives, not just those that confirm your doubt. When you have doubts, you’re leaning toward a particular contrary position, and it’s all too easy to look for support in the direction you’re already leaning. Debates are great resources for expanding your perspective and thinking outside the box. A book author (or blogger) can get on a soapbox and conveniently ignore things, whether out of deceit or simply out of enthusiasm for his view. But a debate, and especially those in the form of published, written dialogues between opponents, can show you the best, fairest look at both sides of an issue because each side has to at least try to respond to an opponent critiquing their views.
  5. Finally, be honest and follow the evidence where it leads. In the Bible, Ezekiel tells us that God does not desire that anyone should perish[3], and Paul tells us that God has appointed our times and places that we might find Him, though He is not far from any of us.[4] One of Jesus’ disciples earned the notorious nickname “Doubting Thomas” because of his doubts about Jesus’ resurrection, but it’s good to remember that Jesus didn’t strike him dead for doubting; instead, He appeared to Thomas, showed him the evidence that it was really Him, and told him to “stop doubting and believe.”[5] As Matthew Henry says in his commentary on this passage, “There is not an unbelieving word in our tongues, nor thought in our minds, but it is known to the Lord Jesus; and he was pleased to accommodate himself even to Thomas, rather than leave him in his unbelief.”[6] Friend, He can do that for you today also. “Seek, and ye shall find.”[7] But don’t let doubt stop your seeking.

[1],, accessed 2016-06-28.
[2] Though not defined as “unpersuaded” in most dictionaries, it still seems to apply here and has a basis in New Testament Greek. When Jesus told Thomas to “stop doubting and believe” the evidence standing before him, the word translated as doubting is ἄπιστος (apistos), which is the negation of the Greek word for faithful or believing, πιστος (pistos). The Greek root for faith is the word πείθω (peitho), meaning “to be persuaded of what is trustworthy”.[] Hence, doubt can be seen as being “not faithful because unpersuaded, i.e. not convinced (persuaded by God)”[]
[3] Ezekiel 33:11, NASB.
[4] Acts 17:26-27, NASB.
[5] John 20:27, NIV.
[6] Matthew Henry’s Commentary, John 20:26-29.
[7] Matthew 7:7, KJV.

Portraits of Christians – James Clerk Maxwell

James_Clerk_MaxwellAs we continue this series examining the Christian faith of the great men of science, I hope you enjoy today’s subject as much as I’ve enjoyed learning about this amazing man. Now, let’s look today at the scientist who paved the way for Einstein. In fact, Einstein summarized this man’s contributions by saying “One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell.”[1] A 1999 poll of 100 leading physicists ranked Maxwell as the 3rd greatest physicist of all time (behind Einstein and Newton). But while modern scientists ranked Newton ahead of Maxwell, Einstein himself, when asked if he stood on Newton’s shoulders, replied, “No, I stand on Maxwell’s shoulders.”[1] That’s pretty high praise coming from the man whose name is practically synonymous with revolutionary genius.

So what exactly did Maxwell do to earn this reputation? He crammed a lot into a short time considering he was only 48 when he died. Studying the nature of colors and color-blindness and producing the world’s first color photograph would’ve been noteworthy by itself. Astronomers would still remember him today just for settling 2 centuries of debate by proving through mathematics that the rings of Saturn couldn’t be solid as originally assumed Astronomer George Biddell Airy called this “one of the most remarkable applications of mathematics to physics that I have ever seen.”[2] And while his engineering work was more obscure, it was enough to get him in the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame[3] and impress this engineer! But his truly world-changing work was in developing the equations of electromagnetism bearing his name. Einstein divided scientific history at Maxwell because Maxwell connected electricity with magnetism as different aspects of the same electromagnetic waves, and concluded that light was also this type of wave. This transitioned science from a particle-centric view of physics to a wave-centric view that then opened the door for nearly every modern technology we enjoy. There is little that is “high-tech” that is not affected by this paradigm shift in physics. Think of your X-rays and MRI’s at the hospital, your cell phones and GPS and coffee shop Wi-Fi, the radar at your airport, the microwave oven in your kitchen, and on and on. And these are just some of the common practical reminders of the impact of Maxwell’s equations.

Now that we’ve established Maxwell’s credentials as a giant of science, what did he think of God? Did he give the subject much thought? Did he apply his sharp mind to theology? Indeed! Although he was quieter about his faith than Robert Boyle and wrote no papers or books in defense of the faith like Boyle, Maxwell nonetheless showed himself to be a very devout – and thoughtful – Christian. Although he had grown up in a Christian home, he was a notoriously and insatiably curious boy, and he didn’t just apply this curiosity to the physical world around him. In a letter to his friend Lewis Campbell in 1852, written while pursuing a Fellowship at Cambridge, Maxwell wrote at length of his thoughtful investigation of Christianity (condensed here, believe it or not):

“Now, my great plan, … is to let nothing be wilfully left unexamined. Nothing is to be holy ground consecrated to Stationary Faith, whether positive or negative. …. The part of the rule which respects self-improvement by means of others is: —Never hide anything, be it weed or no, nor seem to wish it hidden …. Again I assert the Right of Trespass on any plot of Holy Ground …. Such places must be exorcised and desecrated till they become fruitful fields. Again, if the holder of such property refuse admission to the exorcist, he ipso facto admits that it is consecrated…. Now I am convinced that no one but a Christian can actually purge his land of these holy spots. Any one may profess that he has none, but something will sooner or later occur to every one to show him that part of his ground is not open to the public. Intrusions on this are resented, and so its existence is demonstrated. Now, I do not say that no Christians have enclosed places of this sort. Many have a great deal, and every one has some. No one can be sure of all being open till all has been examined by competent persons, which is the work … of eternity. But there are extensive and important tracts in the territory of the Scoffer, … and the rest, which are openly and solemnly Tabooed, … and are not to be spoken of without sacrilege.

Christianity—that is, the religion of the Bible—is the only scheme or form of belief which disavows any possessions on such a tenure. Here alone all is free. You may fly to the ends of the world and find no God but the Author of Salvation. You may search the Scriptures and not find a text to stop you in your explorations. You may read all History and be compelled to wonder but not to doubt. …

The Old Testament and the Mosaic Law and Judaism are commonly supposed to be “Tabooed ” by the orthodox. Sceptics pretend to have read them, and have found certain witty objections … which too many of the orthodox unread admit, and shut up the subject as haunted. But a Candle is coming to drive out all Ghosts and Bugbears. Let us all follow the Light.”[4]

Moreover, his collected letters to his wife show a sincere faith as they read the Bible when together and apart. In his letters, though he professes to be no expert on interpretation of Scripture, he nevertheless expounds on their shared reading with sincerity and piety and the utmost respect for the passage.[5] In fact, his friend and biographer summed up this trait of Maxwell’s when he wrote, “a spirit of deep piety pervaded all he did, whether in the most private relations of life, or in his position as an appointed teacher and investigator, or in his philosophic contemplation of the universe. There is no attribute from which the thought of him is more inseparable.”[6]

After Maxwell’s death, Colin Mackenzie, his cousin and one of the executors of his will, said  that he remembered Maxwell saying in his latter years, “I have looked into most philosophical systems, and I have seen that none will work without a God.”[7]

At his painful death from stomach cancer, his doctor noted, “No man ever met death more consciously or more calmly.”[8] This is only fitting for a Christian, who, like the Apostle Paul, could say “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.”[9] Yes, this giant of science gave Christianity a good deal of thought, and saw it to be quite reasonable, – indeed, the only reasonable way to live. Friend, do you have doubts of the truth of Christianity that you are content to leave as doubts? Follow Maxwell’s lead and leave nothing willfully unexamined, especially your doubts. Rather, let those doubts push you to seek the truth incessantly, and not rest in convenient answers. If you persist, you will find that they eventually lead you right back to God.

[1], accessed 2016-06-21.
[2], accessed 2016-06-21.
[3], accessed 2016-06-21. Maxwell developing the “von Mises” yield criterion almost 50 years before Richard von Mises was particularly interesting to me.
[4] Lewis Campbell & William Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell (London: Macmillan, 1882), pp. 178-80.
[5] ibid, pp. 309-10, the letters of May 2nd & the 6th, written to her during their engagement, for example. Also the letter of May 16th (p.312) recounts his frustration at his inability to speak more clearly the truth of Christ to a mutual acquaintance.
[6] ibid, p. 429.
[7]ibid, p. 426.
[8] ibid, p. 412.
[9] 2 Timothy 1:12, NASB.

Portraits of Christians – Robert Boyle

The_Shannon_Portrait_of_the_Hon_Robert_Boyle-smallDid you enjoy chemistry or hate it in school? Personally I liked it in high school, although I didn’t learn how fun it could be until college.  But then I had a college prof who did things like demonstrate the usefulness of balancing chemical equations by having the class calculate what the optimum ratio of oxygen to methane was to make a desktop cannon shoot a rubber stopper the farthest. Let me tell you, seeing the professor accidentally shoot out one of the lecture hall windows really reinforced in my mind the power of chemistry! But even if you didn’t have cool profs that helped students learn to love that rigorous science, we all still owe many of our modern conveniences to that field of study. And for that, we can thank Robert Boyle, the “Father of Modern Chemistry”. But his contributions weren’t just to chemistry. In fact, if you’ve ever gone scuba diving, used an air pump or a compressor to air up a tire, or used a refrigerator, air conditioner, or heat pump (all compressor-driven), you’ve taken advantage of Boyle’s Law – that the pressure exerted by a gas is inversely proportional to it’s volume.

So who was this Robert Boyle? He lived from 1627 to 1691. In 1663, he was elected a Founder Fellow of the Royal Society in England, one of the first societies dedicated to the advancement of scientific knowledge. He was well-read in a variety of areas of science that would later become their own specialties, as well as literature and philosophy. He was a scientist’s scientist: notorious in his devotion to experimental verification and the scientific method, and “addicted to natural philosophy” as science was then called. And yet, he was also a devout Anglican who wrote multiple apologetics books defending the faith of Christianity. What’s that? Yes, the “Father of Chemistry” also wrote treatises like “Considerations on the Reconcileableness of Reason and Religion”, “The Christian Virtuoso”, “Treatises on the High Veneration Man’s Intellect Owes God”, and “Some Considerations Touching the Style of Holy Scriptures”. He was especially opposed to atheism, and his final will had instructions for the endowment of a series of lectures to be delivered each year in defense of the Christian faith. The Boyle Lectures proceeded from 1692 until the 1930’s and were recently revived in 2004. He believed that all humans are of one race descended from Adam & Eve (as the Bible teaches). He heavily funded missionary work and translation work, personally financing the  Irish translation of the entire Bible. As a director of the East India Company, he used his position to sponsor (at his own personal cost) Bible translations into Malayan and Arabic to help the natives of any lands the trading company visited find the truth of God. This is a good reminder of how God calls us to be about His business whatever our business happens to be. We cannot compartmentalize our faith and separate it from our “business life” as some today would have us believe. He undertook to learn not only the more common classical languages of Greek and Hebrew for reading the New and Old Testaments in their original languages, but also Syriac (Aramaic) and even Chaldean (to read passages in the book of Daniel).

He distinguished himself as a layman with his appetite for theology, and was recommended to enter the ministry. And yet, he turned it down. Why? “He knew that the irreligious fortified themselves against all that was said by the clergy with this—that it was their trade, and that they were paid for it. He hoped, therefore, that he might have the more influence, the less he shared in the patrimony of the church.” [1] There’s a lesson here for Christians today. Skeptics still use this same objection today (although I can’t help but notice that it doesn’t stop them from buying cars from salesmen paid to sell them, but I digress). If you are a Christian, you have an opportunity to go places your pastor will never get to go, to talk to people that would tune out your pastor, to be an “ambassador for Christ”[] with no “profit motive” to question. We all have some amazing opportunities to partake in the work of God’s kingdom. Would that we seized the chance to minister to others in our own vocations like Boyle did!

Robert Boyle took great pains to make the case that not only do you not have to check your brain at the door to be a Christian, but also that being a Christian actually makes you a better philosopher and scientist. Atheists have attempted in the last century to latch onto science as their own domain, one foreign to Christians. Yet, the study of God’s creation really only makes sense when you recognize the Author of it (or, even more basically, that it does have an author). In fact, atheist scientists must stand on the shoulders of Christian giants of science to make their observations. See you next time as we look at another portrait of one of these giants!

[1] Henry Rogers, introductory essay (p. xvi) to “Sacred Classics: or, The Cabinet Library of Divinity”, Vol. 28, edited by Cattermole & Stebbing, London, 1835.

Breaking the Accident Chain

Me at the Airport
“A long time ago, in a Cessna far far away”

Several years ago, I invested the time and money to get my private pilot’s license. I can attest to the truth of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous quote “Once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.” But our temporary habitation among the clouds is a fragile thing, maintained only through the pilot’s continual vigilance, and even then always uncertain. Storms, fuel limitations, pilot disorientation, mechanical failure, and migrating birds are among a host of factors that may bring a plane crashing back down to earth. That place we long to be is not a stable position, and there is more working to bring us back down than there is to keep us aloft.  And so pilots have made a habit of reviewing the final reports of NTSB accident investigations to (hopefully) learn from the often fatal mistakes of others rather than learning the same deadly lesson themselves. My aviation magazine had a regular feature each month titled “Never Again”, a somber warning written by pilots who had survived a near-accident, but realized how it could’ve easily turned out differently.

Now, every accident investigation and every personal story of survival reveals a series of cause and effect events – links in the so-called “accident chain” – that, if stopped prior to a point of no return, would have prevented the accident. What often happens is the pilot doesn’t realize the danger he’s in, and so continues down the causal path leading to the accident. Call it tunnel vision or target fixation, or “gotta-get-there-itis”, the pilot often ignores red flags pointing to a growing problem. Sometimes they see the warning signs, but underestimate their seriousness, maybe due to problems like hypoxia (low blood oxygen level, typically from flying too high in an unpressurized aircraft). Other times, they think they can make it through this event because they’ve managed to somehow pull a solution out of thin air before. This blind faith in their own “luck” or in their own abilities without any understanding of how they previously survived their bad choices is particularly dangerous.

Spiritually, many are not aware of the danger they are in. Whether through apathy (“I don’t want to think about that…”) or willful rejection (“How dare you tell me I’m a sinner!”), people continue down a causal path that can only result in God’s judgement and their condemnation. But just like the pilot flying into a storm, understanding the reality of the danger is the first step. Hence, the Christian focus on man’s sinfulness and God’s holiness. God’s supreme love for us, and His action to rescue us, falls on deaf ears until we understand our need to be rescued. Like the pilot suffering from hypoxia, we may feel everything’s going just fine, even as we unknowingly approach the time of our own crash. The Bible warns that “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.”[1] We can choose to ignore warnings like that; we can choose to ignore the “close calls” with death that should be wake-up calls; we can think this flight will never end, that this physical life is a stable thing that won’t plummet downward and be over before our next breath. Or we can face the seriousness of the situation and prepare accordingly.

I’ll leave you with a frequent memory from my flight training. My flight instructor was always fond of cutting the throttle on me when I was most preoccupied, sometimes with a statement like, “Uh-oh, your engine just died – now what?”, and sometimes more sneakily later in my training.  As I would trim for best glide speed and frantically try to remember the last suitable emergency landing spot I’d seen, Walt would remind me that I should already know where I’m going to try to land before the emergency. Do you know where you’ll be “landing” spiritually when you die? Have you made the needed preparations beforehand? The Bible gives another warning about the danger of delay when it says “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.”[2] You don’t know when your time on this earth – this training flight, if you will – may come to an unexpected end. Don’t assume there’ll be time to “get right” before you die. That’s why the Bible says the right time is “today”. Plan well for eternity, and you’ll break the links in the spiritual “accident chain” that lead to an eternity separated from God.

[1] Hebrews 9:27, KJV.
[2] Hebrews 4:7 NASB.