Philosophy – Hiding in Plain Sight

“Philosophy”, by Raphael, 1511

“The report of my death was an exaggeration.” [1] Those famous words of Mark Twain might also apply to the subject of philosophy. You may have heard about Stephen Hawking’s low opinion of philosophy [2], or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s ramblings against the subject [3]. What many scientists today conveniently forget is that philosophy is inescapable; the only question is whether your philosophy is valid or not.  Because it forms the framework that supports your worldview, philosophy is often hidden in plain sight, so to speak.

Some areas of knowledge typically grouped under the umbrella of philosophy that are absolutely critical to successful science are logic (how we think rationally about anything), epistemology (the study of how we can know that we rightly know something, or how we justify our beliefs), and ethics (you know – that we shouldn’t fake the data, fudge our numbers, plagiarize, etc). Can you see why scientists who think the tree of philosophy is nothing more than so much firewood are really attacking what supports their own little treehouse? Science can provide us an amazing view of the world, but only when it’s supported by good sturdy philosophy. Data is little use without interpretation, and good philosophy provides that wisdom needed to interpret the data truly, consistently, fairly, without bias, and without going beyond what the data can support.

Because philosophy is so foundational to much of life, it remains behind the scenes for most of us. But sometimes you get reminded of its presence and effect in even the mundane tasks. I’m one that likes to read the commentaries in the backs of the various design standards and learn why various requirements or recommendations are instituted. And in the commentary for Chapter J of AISC’s Manual of Steel Construction [4], I came across an explanation for why a particular definition of cross sectional area in combination with a particular safety factor are used for one formula. In the body of the specification, you’re just given the formula and the safety factor for block shear strength, with no explanation. But the commentary points out that block shear is a rupture (or tearing) phenomenon rather than yielding, and therefore , the requirements shown are consistent with the design philosophy of  another chapter that deals with tensile rupture.  You see, our design philosophy may be behind the scenes, but it drives how we implement our specific designs. As engineers, our first duty is actually not to our employer or our customers, but always to protect the public safety. That’s actually part of our code of ethics.

One way that works itself out in practice is by trying to control how our designs fail in a worst-case scenario. Failures due to tensile rupture,  shear rupture, or compressive buckling can be sudden and catastrophic. A sudden failure of the main roof framing of a large venue might kill hundreds or even thousands of people. A slow ductile yielding on the other hand, can result in massive amounts of noticeable sagging before the final collapse, allowing ample time for evacuating people and repairing the problem before it collapses. And so our design philosophy is twofold: to design a structure that safely supports its intended loads with some margin, and to steer any potential failure toward failure modes that are more predictable and controllable. This is especially done when designing for earthquakes where we fully expect massive damage in the design-level earthquake,  but we try to control where the damage occurs and how it fails so as to protect life at all costs. For example, we’ll design braced frames where the braces act as “fuses” (like a circuit breaker in your house) that will eventually fail only after many cycles of ground shaking, leaving the rest of the building (relatively) intact. A former boss of mine applied the idea of a tensile “fuse” – with that nice, slow,  predictable failure mode – to open-web steel joists like what you see in many retail stores [5].  So you see, one aspect of our philosophy  can can have far-reaching effects. Our philosophy also provides direction in new or uncertain conditions. Going back to the steel manual, there are some spots where the authors explain what the intent of certain provisions are, which is a significant help in applying those provisions to scenarios the authors possibly didn’t anticipate.  We can see that something may not violate the letter of the law, but it does the spirit, or intent, of the law (or vice versa). These are all cases where our philosophy helps guide us, and without some overarching framework, our endeavors are fractured and adrift.

Of course, I’ve mentioned “valid” and “good” philosophy throughout this post. Not all philosophy is created equal. The system Hawking and Tyson advocate is, or very nearly is, scientism, a self-refuting idea that trusts the methods of science to be applicable to all pursuits of true knowledge. but just as philosophy (in general) is a tree that supports science, it needs its roots in good soil to actually be able to support anything. That soil is the truth of God’s Word. In the end, it seems that the real beef against philosophy is that philosophy done right basically points out to us that ideas have consequences, and that it’s wise to foresee the good and bad consequences of our ideas and avoid the bad ones. This self-critique – this admonition to “know thyself” –  can get us out of our typical comfort zone in our narrow specialties and force us to ask the bigger questions of life. For some worldviews like atheism, there simply are no answers to those questions, and it can make people like Hawking and Tyson uncomfortable with the whole endeavor. But our comfort should never hinder our search for truth or our desire for wisdom, and philosophy simply means “love of wisdom.” So be wise and don’t fall in the trap of scientism; examine your own philosophical grounding and make sure it’s rooted in the only source of truth – God.

[1]This is apparently the actual quote, contrary to what most of us heard growing up:
[2]Here is one philosopher’s thoughtful response to Stephen Hawking’s cutting off of the branch he sits on:
[3] Here are 2 interesting responses to Tyson’s comments, the first providing a good recap of the comments:, and
[4] AISC 360-16, Commentary J4.3, Block Shear Strength”, p16.1-446. published by the American Institute of Steel Construction, 2016-07-07.
[5] For the geeks: For everyone else:

What I Found

“Still Life with Bible” – Vincent Van Gogh, 1885

Atheists will sometimes ask what it would take for a Christian to walk away from Christianity. I think Paul addressed that in his letter to the Corinthians when he stated that if Jesus was not raised from the dead (i.e. bodily, as an actual historical event occurring in space and time), then our faith is in vain, we are to be most pitied of all men, and we should abandon this then-false religion, for we would be false witnesses against God by saying God raised Jesus from the dead if He didn’t [1Cor 15:14-19]. This emphasis on actual, objective, historical events that could be investigated is a really bad way to start a false religion, but a great way to proclaim truth. Per the apostle Paul, Christianity stands or falls with the Resurrection.However, an atheist probably would not be content with a Christian leaving Christianity simply to turn to Judaism.  For, of course, refuting Christianity would still not eliminate the need for God. But the desire, nonetheless, is still for us to leave all religion and join their atheist ranks. So that got me thinking: what have I found in Christianity that I would be leaving if I were to oblige the atheist missionary? Well….

I have found Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover[1]; Aquinas’ First Cause[2]; the “Highest Good” that the ancient philosophers sought for; Anselm’s “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” [3]; the Necessary Being upon which all else depends for existence; the Fine-tuner of the universe that explains the Goldilocks dilemma we face when we examine the universe; the Enabler of abiogenesis, without whom life cannot come from non-life; the Source of all the information we find encoded in our own DNA; the Designer behind all the “apparent design” in biology that frustrates Richard Dawkins; the Mind that explains the consciousness of our minds that scientists can’t explain; the Truth that explains objective transcendent truth [Jn 14:6]; Love that explains how and why we love [1Jn 4:19]; the Grand Artist that explains aesthetics[4] in what should be a cold, cruel, survival-focused universe; and the Author of life [Acts 3:14-15 ESV]. It would be intellectual suicide for me to give up all that. But the atheist is asking me to do far more than just drop an intellectual stance.

I have also found the One who loved me from before the beginning of time [Rom 5:8, 2Tim 1:9, Eph 1:4, 1Jn 4:9-10]; a perfect Father [Rom 8:15-16]; the Savior of my soul [Lk 2:11, Jn 4:42]; my Redeemer who rescued me [Ps 19:14, Job 19:25]; the One who made me in His image and gives me intrinsic value [Gen 1:27, Gen 9:6, Matt 6:26]; my Mediator before a just and holy God whom I could never satisfy in my sinfulness [1Tim 2:5]; my Counselor, Advocate, and Intercessor [Jn 16:7-14, Rom 8:26-27]; my source of freedom – truly beautiful, joyous freedom! – [Jn 8:32,36]; my Comforter in times of trouble [2Cor 1:3-5]; the delight of my heart [Ps 35:9]; my Peace when all around me is turmoil [Jn 14:27, 2Thes 3:16]; my steadfast foundation in the tumultuous craziness of life [Lk 6:47-48]; my Hope of glory [Col 1:27];  and the Architect of my eternal home [Heb 11:10]. Yeah, I found all that, too.

Christianity is not simply a rational intellectual viewpoint, but a relationship with my Creator. It isn’t simply some sterile, isolated idea or opinion, but rather the very presence of my Creator. And you ask me to give up that relationship, and all those answers to life’s questions to boot, and be content with the loneliness and unanswered questions of atheism? Are you crazy?! Maybe, but I’m not!

[1] “Aristotle has an argument … which he makes in Book 8 of the Physics and uses again in Book 12 of the Metaphysics that there must be an immortal, unchanging being, ultimately responsible for all wholeness and orderliness in the sensible world.” Sachs, Joe. “Aristotle: Metaphysics”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[2] “It is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.”  See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Vol. I, Question 2, Article 3, 2nd way.
[3] See this previous post for a refresher of St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument, based on Plantinga’s reformulation of it last century.
[4] Or, “that best and most systematic Artisan of all”, as Nicolas Copernicus would say in his preface to “On the Revolutions”. See Nicolas Copernicus, Complete Works: On the Revolutions, translation and commentary by Edward Rosen (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 4.

Some Truth About Truth

Today, I wanted to share with you some insights about the nature of truth. I’ve shared in the past about objective truth (here, here, and here), but today I wanted to share a nicely summarized list of some of the consequences of that objectivity, drawn from Frank Turek’s and Norm Geisler’s book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. Let’s jump in!

  1. “Truth is discovered, not invented. It exists independently of anyone’s knowledge of it.” Suppose NASA were to announce tomorrow that the presence of intelligent  life had been confirmed on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. If that were true, it would not become true because they said it. It would be true based on there actually being aliens living on Titan. It would be true whether or not humans ever discovered it. There is nothing we could do to make that statement true (short of moving to Titan ourselves).
  2. “Truth is transcultural; if something is true, it is true for all people, in all places, at all times (2+2=4 for everyone, everywhere, at every time).” There is no “Western truth” versus “Eastern truth” or”modern truth” versus “ancient truth”. When the Nazis claimed Jews were subhuman, that was not true for them and false for the  rest of us; it was a lie regardless of who said it, when they said it, where they said, and whether or not their culture condoned them saying it.
  3. “Truth is unchanging, even though our beliefs about truth change.” People in our generation put an undue amount of trust in “science” to eventually reveal all knowledge and fix all problems, but the history of science is often one of trial and error. We laugh now at some of the seriously-proposed theories of only a few years ago and how far from the truth they were. But  notice that when we propose a new model to better explain gravity or the wave-like and particle-like behavior of light, it is not gravity or light that are changing, but rather our understanding of them. New theories presuppose that there is such a thing as objective truth, for it was the old theory’s “missing the mark” of an independent truth that required a new theory.
  4. “Beliefs cannot change a fact, no matter how sincerely they are held.” You can sincerely believe you can fly (unaided), but if you jump off a bridge, gravity will clear up that sincerely wrong belief very quickly. It’s good to be sincere, but we should always strive to be correct in our beliefs as well.
  5. “Truth is not affected by the attitude of the one professing it.” Nobody likes being corrected by a jerk, but humility or arrogance about the truth does not change the truthfulness of a statement. Questioning the truthfulness of a statement solely because of the attitude of the person espousing it would actually be a form of the genetic fallacy – the idea that the origin of the information alone can prove it false.
  6. “All truths are absolute truths.” There cannot be any relative truth. One might be tempted to say some statements are statements of personal truth, relative to the person making the statement and not applicable to anyone else. The statement “I like chocolate ice cream” might be true for John and not for Bob. But if we get more specific, we can see how even this can be absolute: “At 9:30 on July 11, 2017, John liked chocolate ice cream” is true for all people in all places at all times, if that particular man named John really did like chocolate ice cream then.
  7. “All truths exclude their opposites. Contrary beliefs are possible, but not contrary truths.” People like to assume things like “all religions are basically the same” without actually supporting that claim. But consider what just 3 religions say about one person in particular. Christianity claims that Jesus is God, eternal and  uncreated, the only mediator between God and man, who took on human nature and lived a perfect sinless life, gave His life as an atoning sacrifice for our sins that we may be reconciled to God, and rose from the dead, the first fruit of a future resurrection available to all who trust in Him. That’s a significant claim! Judaism claims He was a blasphemous and traitorous rabbi who deserved the death sentence He received, and importantly, stayed dead once He was killed on a Roman cross. Islam claims that He was a true prophet, but one who was spared death on the cross, never claimed to be God, and is not the source of our salvation. These are contradictory beliefs, but each is still believed by many different people. While it is possible that all religions could be false, what is completely impossible is that they could all be true when they have contradictory tenets. If one is true (like Christianity), any others that contradict it are necessarily false.
  8. Let me add one more characteristic to the list: Truth is independent of the medium used to carry it. A true statement is true regardless of whether it is handwritten on paper, spoken out loud, typed electronically, or only thought in private and never communicated. It is true whether it is in English, or Chinese, or any other language. It is not the atoms of ink embedded in a particular pattern on the paper, or the magnetized molecules forming the binary bits of electronic data on a computer hard drive, or the molecules of air in a particular waveform of sounds, or even the neurons in the brain of the person thinking about it that make it true. This idea that information is immaterial is the basis for translation: we can say that “the apple is red” and “la manzana es roja” are equivalent statements because they both convey the same immaterial concept – the specific color of a  specific object (i.e. a red apple). And they are both true statements, regardless of how the statements are communicated, if the object actually is a red apple.

Our culture today likes to say things like “everything is relative”, and “there are no absolutes.” If you’ve accepted those popular mantras, my hope is that I’ve shown you good reasons why those relativistic slogans just don’t work in real life. Objective truth has certain implications that we can see manifested in the world around us. And when we recognize that relationship between truth and reality, it empowers us to boldly discern the truth that is out there waiting for us, rather than being stymied by walls of lies masquerading as contradictory truth claims that can’t be questioned. When we recognize that real truth can’t be “true for you, but not for me”, we then have the freedom to peel back the layers of opinions and perspectives and interpretations on controversial issues until we find the real nugget of truth underneath it all. And that is a beautiful thing, my friends, and worth the work.

Points 1-7 are from Dr. Frank Turek & Dr. Norman Geisler, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), pp. 37-38.
Point 8 , regarding the immaterial nature of information (and, consequently, of true information) is from Dr. Werner Gitt, Without Excuse (Atlanta: Creation Book Publishers, 2011), p. 124.

Atheist Objections: Occam’s Razor

William of Ockham, stained glass window in Surrey, England

I came across the following application of Occam’s Razor on the site and thought this warranted a closer examination lest anyone be swayed by their example.

“The relevance to atheism is that we can look at two possible explanations for what we see around us:

  • There is an incredibly intricate and complex universe out there, which came into being as a result of natural processes.
  • There is an incredibly intricate and complex universe out there, and there is also a God who created the universe. Clearly this God must be of non-zero complexity.

Given that both explanations fit the facts, Occam’s Razor might suggest that we should take the simpler of the two–solution number one.”

Is this a legitimate use of Occam’s Razor? First, a refresher on Occam’s Razor. is correct when they say that William of Ockham (a priest, by the way) is the one commonly credited with the idea that we should “not multiply entities unnecessarily.” In other words, look for the minimum needed explanation for an event. Internet conspiracy theorists would do well to keep this principle in mind. When one sees the suspicious behavior of a couple of people,  a worldwide conspiracy should not be the first thing that comes to mind.  For instance, if an elaborate government conspiracy comprised of hundreds of people can explain the evidence, but so can two guys embezzling government funds on their own, don’t default to the giant conspiracy between the government, bankers, corporations, and space aliens unless you find further evidence that can’t be explained by just the two crooks.

Now, what is the difference between the 2 explanations for the origin of the universe above? Both accept as a given our observations of an “incredibly intricate and complex universe.” The first claims that this intricacy was the result of natural processes, while the second claims that God was added to the mix. Their conclusion is then that God is the “unnecessary entity” that Occam’s Razor advises against.  However, God is not an entity added to the natural processes of the first situation; in discussing the origin of the universe, God and natural processes are competing alternatives. Therefore, this is not a case of unnecessarily added entities. We have precisely one “entity” in each scenario: either nature alone, or an intelligent agent (i.e. God).  They are both proposed causal agents.

Let’s look at another example to explain this difference. I might observe a pot of water boiling on the stove. Is this the result of natural causes or intelligent agency? Which multiplies entities needlessly? The notion that my wife made a conscious choice to put a pot of water on the stove a finite time ago (for it hasn’t boiled dry yet) is a pretty straightforward explanation. We could step the explanation back farther to note that she first retrieved the pot from the cabinet and filled the pot with water, and at some prior point she bought the pot from the store.  But with an intelligent agent, those are hardly extraordinary possibilities.

How would a purely naturalistic explanation proceed? If there’s no agent to put the pot on the stove,  maybe an earthquake  shook it into place there, and a conveniently placed roof leak filled it full of water. A falling ceiling tile could potentially hit the switch just right to turn on the stove to heat  the water. But then where did this stove and pot and water even come from in a world where we ignore the possibility of free agents to procure these components? Well, maybe the stove is actually the result of erosion of a metal-rich piece of rock, and what appears to be copper wiring is really just the remnants of veins of copper ore. And the house it’s in is just an accumulation of storm debris. And the pot is actually a hollowed-out remnant of a meteorite. In fact, maybe a meteorite impact is why the roof leaks and the ceiling tile fell on the stove switch! Explaining the actions of free agents, even fairly simple actions, gets outlandish pretty quick when we don’t allow free agency as an explanation. But that’s nothing compared to trying to explain how everything that exists came to be by purely natural causes. But if we ignore the possibility of an agent who can choose to cause chains of events, and can choose between different options along the way, and can direct those processes through to their planned end, then we have to multiply entities needlessly, and endlessly, to compensate. And after all of our manipulation of freak accidents in just-right orders to explain what we want to have happened, we are left with a tale that smacks of ad-hoc, contrived wish fulfillment.

Does Occam’s Razor favor the naturalistic origin of the universe? No, in the end, Occam’s Razor shaves off the proposed natural causes and reveals the real cause: the intelligent, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of the universe. Only a volitional being that existed eternally and transcended space and time could choose to bring those into existence, thus allowing any natural processes to even be possible. For natural processes are not possible without a nature to occur in, and if we’re talking about the origin of nature, then that cause must be outside of nature. Nothing can cause itself. Therefore, the most reasonable cause is a free agent outside of nature. But you can call Him God.