All posts by Jason

I am a Christian engineer with a desire to help people understand the rational basis of Christianity.

Skeptical of Skepticism

Scale smallAs an engineer, I realize that we can sometimes be a pretty skeptical – even cynical – lot. We are to put the safety of the public first, and so our job often requires us to be critical of whatever we’re reviewing, looking for anything deficient that might endanger future occupants or users of our designs. We are always under pressure to develop more efficient, optimized solutions to save time, money, labor, space, etc. And so we have to be critical of even our successful designs. Sometimes we are called to peer review another engineer to critique their design. Forensic investigations may require us to specifically look for what went wrong with another engineer’s design. As Scott Adams has pointed out in his funny, but often cynical, “Dilbert” comic strip, every engineer wants to retire without any major catastrophes being tied to his name. So skepticism often comes with the territory in engineering, and often serves us well as we seek out the best course of action among many mediocre choices, and more than a few really dangerous choices.

Because of that, I understand why a lot of my colleagues are skeptical of Christianity, and I don’t fault them for it (to an extent). A certain amount of skepticism is healthy. In fact, Jesus told His disciples to be “as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16). A healthy skepticism makes us look carefully at what’s before us and not get taken in by every half-baked idea that comes along. The word skeptic actually comes from the Latin “scepticus” meaning “thoughtful, inquiring” and the earlier Greek “skeptikos” meaning “to consider or examine”. Thoughtful examination is certainly not a bad thing. But one thing I’ve noticed is a tendency to a one-sided skepticism (e.g. skepticism of Christianity without any corresponding skepticism of atheism). That is where I think we do ourselves a disservice. Our design codes often describe particular accepted methods, and then allow a catch-all case like “… or alternative generally accepted methods based on rational engineering analysis”. We engineers take pride in our openness to alternatives as long as they can be backed up with proof. Yet if we don’t give one side of a debate a chance to prove itself, and give the other side a free pass, are we really exercising  “thoughtful examination” of the issue? I don’t think so. We need to thoughtfully consider both sides of the debate to draw our conclusion.

One thing I’ve found in looking at atheistic arguments is that they often employ circular reasoning by assuming that the supernatural is impossible as they argue that there is nothing supernatural. I can’t assume what I’m trying to prove, and neither can they. It’s a logical fallacy for both of us. I’ve seen several cases of atheist forums referencing Biblical “absurdities” where the Bible doesn’t even say what they considered absurd. And yet many won’t look up the reference for themselves to verify the truthfulness of the atheist claim. Folks, that just won’t fly. I don’t ask for a free pass for Christianity, but I’m not giving one out to atheists, agnostics, or anyone else either. If you have a case, then know it, make it, support it, defend it. It takes more work to do your own research instead of just forwarding a link from a blog or web page supporting your view, but it’s worth it. In engineering, we often hand-verify the output from new unfamiliar software. It’s tedious and time-consuming, but once we understand how the program arrived at it’s answer, once we have confirmed the truthfulness of the output, we can use it with confidence; and if something changes, we’re more likely to recognize false output. Similarly, studying my own side and the opposing view with fairness takes time, but I want the truth, and I know it’s worth it. Consider this, whether Christian or not: if Christianity is true, and there is something beyond this physical life and our status in that later stage is determined by choices we make here and now, wouldn’t it be of the utmost importance to determine if that were true? I could die in a car crash tomorrow, so I’d better not put off that decision. If atheism is true, then that’s the end of me. It seems a little unfair that I didn’t live very long, but that’s the way it is (possibly). If Christianity is true though, then that’s a total game-changer, and I better know the answer to that question for myself and not just rely on others to determine my fate.

The Engineering of a Disciple

Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles smallA friend and I met up for coffee the other day and talked a lot about discipleship and it got me thinking about some parallels between the Christian act of discipleship and the process of apprenticeship in the engineering field. For those not familiar with the process of becoming an engineer, it typically involves attending an accredited college of engineering, passing an 8 hour exam in the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE exam) the junior or senior year, graduating, and then apprenticing to a practicing Professional Engineer (PE)  for a certain time (typically 4 years), and finally passing an 8-16 hour exam for licensure as a Professional Engineer. While there’s some variance from that in different states and different engineering disciplines, that middle step of being an Engineering Intern (EI) or Engineer-in-Training (EIT) is an apprenticeship and is typically an important step. This is where theory meets application, where the rubber meets the road. Formal apprenticeships aren’t as common in various fields as they used to be, but it can be a really good way to pass on knowledge and skills to successive generations. An apprenticeship to a master of a craft often distinguished a long line of masters from the average craftsmen.

What are the parallels between apprenticeship for engineers and discipleship for Christians?

        1. Both are intentional.  They are not casual engagements lightly entered into. They have specific goals from the outset and require commitment and hard work.
          1. An engineering apprenticeship has a specific time frame with specific expectations at the end of that (i.e. take the PE exam and become a practicing engineer like their mentor).
          2. A disciple should be intensively trained for a time with the expectation that they will be a discipler like their mentor.  Then at some point they have to “go into practice” on their own.
        2. Both are personal. They are typically one-on-one engagements or with small groups.
          1. A PE can’t mentor an entire class of EI’s very well. It takes commitment of time and resources. The PE should review the progress made by the EI, know them well enough to discern shortcomings and improvements, and council them accordingly, remembering that the same approach may not be applicable for every apprentice.
          2. Likewise, your preacher can’t disciple you and 1000 other people in 1 hour every Sunday morning. Discipleship is an individual investment. A sermon is just a block of instruction, while discipleship is more of a relationship.
        3. Both are long-term. Neither is a quick fix or short term process.
          1. For engineering interns, this is typically a 4 year process.
          2. For disciples, there’s no set time, but for Jesus’ disciples, it was a 3 year process.
        4. Both are developmental. Neither one should ever be static or stagnant. Rather, each is molding the person toward a future desired condition.
          1. For engineers, the EI should be taking on progressively more responsibility under the supervision of the PE, showing increased understanding of engineering concepts and a better grasp of engineering judgement, and working toward becoming a licensed PE.
          2. The disciple should be growing in their trust in God, knowledge of Scriptures, and discernment. They should grow to be a  “workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” in the words of the apostle Paul to his apprentice Timothy.
        5. Both are cyclical. They form part of an ongoing lifecycle.
          1. With some exceptions, EI’s have to apprentice under a practicing engineer before they are eligible to sit for the PE exam. Afterwards,  they will generally supervise an EI at some point in their career, thus contributing to the ongoing cycle of engineering training and the growth of the profession.
          2. Jesus’ last words to the original disciples were to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt 28:19-20).” Likewise, in Paul’s final letter, written to his disciple Timothy, he tells him, “the things you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will also be qualified to teach others (2 Tim 2:15).” As my friend pointed out, in this one verse, we see four generations of disciples, from Paul, to Timothy, to faithful men, to the ones they would teach.

I think we have to each look at our lives and ask ourselves who we’re following, and who we’re raising up to take our place. Are we learning from good teachers or bad? Are we even trying to learn from somebody else, or are we each trying to go our own way? Maybe it’s time to lay down our pride and seek out a good mentor/teacher/role model, and in humility learn from them. Maybe you feel like you’re not qualified to teach anyone. But just like the engineer has experience the intern hasn’t gotten yet, the intern has experience the new graduate doesn’t have. We all have something we can share with someone lower down the chain from us and lovingly give them a hand up.

Design Defined

Engineering_design_drawings smallI’ve heard a lot of criticism of “intelligent design” (ID), the idea that certain features of the universe and of living organisms are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than unguided naturalistic processes. But I have to ask, regarding intelligent design, is there any other kind? If we see the appearance of design, is there any other explanation besides intelligence? Let’s first define design. Design is a very broad task, with lots of different types, but a good (if somewhat laborious) definition is:

A specification of an object (or process), manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints.

That could really apply to things as diverse as engineering or developing a new soup recipe, but let’s break that down with an example.  I’m an engineer, so here’s an example from an actual job I worked on earlier this year that illustrates each of these criteria. I (the agent) designed a chevron brace connection (the object) to resist a 665,000# earthquake force (the goal) in Little Rock, AR (the environment) using steel tubes, gusset plates, bolts, & welds (the primitive components) to satisfy the 2006 International Building Code (the requirements) without obstructing a doorway (a constraint).

This example is representative of a typical design, but it’s simply not something we see occurring without intent. We don’t accidentally design things.  Water may erode the Grand Canyon, but wind and rain don’t hit the Black Hills of South Dakota with intent to sculpt giant faces into the cliffs. Erosion causing Mount Rushmore is not a reasonable theory! We recognize the design of Mount Rushmore and understand that someone designed it, even if we don’t know who (Gutzon Borglum in that case).  So back to the original question. Is there any other kind of design besides intelligent design? Not really, and here’s why.  Two things jump out from the above definition: an agent, and a goal.  The components, environment, requirements, and constraints add to the definition, but the heart of any design is a person with a purpose. And purpose is not a characteristic of chance or even “natural selection”. It is the result of choice, and choice requires intelligence. Rocks, trees, bacteria, the wind, a piece of steel – none of these can have goals or plans on their own. Only sentient beings can do that. So it seems that design requires intelligence by definition.

Interestingly, Richard Dawkins wrote that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Here the Christian and the atheist agree on the presence of appearance of design in nature. Basically, the atheist argument is that this evidence is a false positive, an indication of design when there isn’t any, while the Christian claims that our observations are accurate and the appearance of design is, in fact, indicative of actual design. So at what point do we say, “If it walks like a ducks and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck and not a time-traveling homicidal shape-changing cyborg disguising himself as a duck, or an advanced alien holographic projection of a duck”? Much like a duck simply being a duck, I think we can say that a powerful, knowledgeable, willful Master Designer being behind all the apparent design we see in nature is a simpler and less far-fetched explanation than what we have to derive in a strictly materialistic universe. Today I just wanted to address the necessity by definition for a designer in any true case of design, and the corequisite of purpose, both of which are absent in a world governed solely by natural selection. Stay tuned as we dig into the case for actual design in upcoming weeks.

An Engineer’s Perspective on the Great Commission

Great Commission SG EL Paso smallStructural engineers in the United States have some options when it comes to designing structural connections (i.e. the bolted or welded joints between beams, columns, and braces, and such). They can a) do the design themselves when they design the rest of the structure, b) provide the loads and let the fabricator’s steel detailer pick standardized connections out of the AISC Steel Manual, or c) provide the loads and delegate connection design responsibility to the fabricator’s engineer.
In my job, structural steel fabricators come to me because the Engineer Of Record (EOR) has chosen that last option. The EOR has basically given the fabricator a general concept of the types of connections desired, and the load capacity needed, and given them freedom to accomplish that per their own preferences, as long as their engineer (me) provides calcs showing that it will work and signs off on them, and the final design is compatible with the EOR’s intent. In the end, though, the EOR is called the engineer “of record” because he is the one taking responsibility for the entire structural design. So he’ll review the reports, drawings, and calcs from different parties, and approve or reject them based on whether their work conforms to his design intent. Sometimes, the EOR rejects something because the fabricator or a specialty engineer misunderstood his intent. Other times, they understood what was needed, but simply made a mistake. But generally, the end result is that the EOR utilizes the particular expertise of each delegated design professional to contribute to his overall design in their own unique ways.

So what does all that have to do with the Great Commission from Jesus?? And what was the Great Commission again?

Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

The delegated design process actually reminds me of how God seems to work here. He desires that all should come to know Him and He is all-powerful. He could certainly make Himself apparent to all.  So why doesn’t He? Why does He choose to work through very fallible humans like us? I’m not going to claim to know the reason God might have for doing something, but here’s some possible reasons I see from my own experience as to why He would delegate responsibility to us.

  1. I care more about the outcome of a project when I have a personal investment in it. Our firm may not be the EOR for a particular project, but when I am involved in a project as connection designer for another firm, I care about the project and usually  keep up with news of the project long after my role is done. It’s not just another jobsite I drive past. It’s one I had a role in making successful. Likewise, when God allows us to play a role in His plan, we become personally invested in His work. We accomplish His work, but in so doing, we also are worked on and changed.
  2. I think one of our great joys in heaven will be to see the people who are there because of what we said or did in service to God. The apostle Paul talked about the Thessalonian Christians he had preached to being his crown in which he would glory in the presence of Jesus when He returns. Maybe you’ve gotten a little taste of that in this life, having followed a mentor into a vocation, or having been able to introduce someone to a group who followed in your footsteps. As nice as it might be to hear someone say, “I went into engineering because of you”, how much better to see a crowd of people in heaven saying “Thank you for sharing the gospel with me. We’re here because of you!”
  3.  The Bible tells us that we were created to bring glory to God, and that He has given each of us different gifts. An EOR might coordinate a group of different specialty engineers to create an elegant and efficient building utilizing the knowledge and skills of each specialty engineer even though each one only focuses on a certain niche. None of them may be able to accomplish the total design individually, but the building comes together when they are all coordinated. Likewise, God may build a more inspiring and beautiful structure when He uses each of us to play a part than if He simply overwhelmed us with His power and knowledge. I may very well get to heaven and be simply floored to find out all the intricate ways God has designed my life to draw me to Him,  and then used me to draw others to Him.

So is that the reason God gave us the Great Commission? Not necessarily, but it is one engineer’s thoughts on why the greatest Engineer of Record of all time might have delegated His plans to us the way He did.

 

 

Tolerance (plus or minus)

"Close!"
“Close!”

Tolerance. It’s a frequently used term in our society, both as an insult and as a source of pride. We say things like:

  • “You should be more tolerant.”
  • “Why are you so intolerant?”
  • “I consider myself a tolerant person.”

What does any of this mean? Frequently, the heinous charge of intolerance is leveled at someone claiming another person’s actions are immoral or that their beliefs are wrong. After all, “why can’t we all just get along?” Because some things we can tolerate, and some things we can’t because of their consequences. Why couldn’t the Jews just “get along” with Adolph Hitler? Because their view that they should live was incompatible with his view that they should all be killed. The difference in views there preclude any idea of tolerance. That’s an extreme example, but many people today misunderstand what tolerance is, thinking it is to agree with all views (even contradictory ones), and they view it as the supreme virtue. However, to tolerate something inherently means that you do not view it as correct. Nobody merely  tolerates views they agree with; rather they believe them, cherish them, etc. For example, we might enjoy a freshly brewed gourmet coffee, but only tolerate a cheap, bitter “cup o’ joe” at a jobsite where it’s below freezing.

As an engineer with some experience writing 2 quality control manuals for a previous company, I think the tolerances we dealt with in fabrication can shed some insight in this area as well. We used to have a saying at that company that “It’s got to be exactly right!” to which some of us would jokingly add “plus or minus 1/8″…” We knew that despite the best intentions of the slogan, nobody gets things exactly right every time, and especially not in a fast paced production environment. But we also understood that some errors won’t affect the usefulness of the final product significantly. Hence, we specify the value we want, and then add tolerances to it to show what range of actual results we’ll accept. For instance, if I design a roof truss to be 120′ long and it gets built 119′-11 7/8″, that generally won’t impair it’s use. If it’s a foot short, it likely won’t fit, but if it’s somehow “made to fit” by an overzealous worker at the jobsite, people’s lives may be in danger from the roof collapsing.

Just like our truss above, ideas have consequences, and so we put limits on what is acceptable. Yet that range of acceptable values doesn’t necessarily mean they are all correct. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter because it’s a pass/fail criteria – it can pass with flying colors or “by the skin of it’s teeth”. Often, however, the target value is the sole correct value, and we can only tolerate the wrong values that are not detrimental. In the case of values that are both wrong and detrimental, we would be negligent to tolerate those. In fact, a good inspector isn’t going to just go along rejecting products that fall outside of the tolerances while never telling the worker that he’s building bad products. He’ll notify the worker that he’s wrong and needs to change what he’s doing to get back into a tolerable range. In fact, if it’s a gradual decrease in quality, the inspector can see the trend developing and notify the worker before it gets out of tolerance and keep him in line with the company standard.

Going back to the truss example, what would happen if the welds on the truss were half the size they were supposed to be, and the inspector saw this, but let it go without calling attention to it? The next winter when a bad snowstorm hits the now-completed building and truss welds fracture, and the roof collapses and kills people, who’s responsible for those deaths? The production workers who made the bad welds? Sure. But what about the inspector? At the very least we might say he was negligent, but if it came out that he had recognized the welds were defective and let them go anyway, we would surely say that he didn’t act ethically, that he had an obligation to flag the error to be corrected.

So can a person be “tolerant” and still believe something is not correct? Absolutely. Likewise, can a Christian be tolerant and loving, but still tell someone when they’ve stepped outside the standard or are in danger of stepping over that line? Yes, actually, they can. Should they? If our inspector was ethically obligated to point out error in the interest of saving lives (even if it hadn’t been his specific job duty), then it seems that someone who has become a Christian, and now knows the end result of the path we’re all traveling without God, is also obligated to warn people of the danger they’re in before it’s too late.

Of Moment Frames and Church Hymns

Concrete moment frames destroyed in 1994 Northridge quake
Concrete moment frames after 1994 Northridge quake

One song that we sometimes sing at my church has a verse from an old hymn mixed into it:  “I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name”.

In my profession, we use different types of frames to resist earthquakes and wind forces.  In our area, two types dominate: moment frames and concentrically braced frames. Over the years, I’ve gotten to attend seminars and read trade journal articles about other types of frames like eccentrically braced frames, buckling-restrained braced frames, and special truss moment frames that attempt to withstand wind and earthquake forces in their own way, and with varying levels of efficiency. But always, I am reminded that even with the best plans, the latest tools, the newest techniques, the most up-to-date research, the most complex analyses, and the most complete calculations, they are all still fallible and not completely trustworthy, just like the “sweetest frames” that were rendered into rubble during the Northridge earthquake of 1994.

Despite our best attempts to make trustworthy frames of our own to withstand life’s unexpected disasters, there is only one sure foundation, only one support who can take our heavy burdens without yielding, only One who is worthy of all our trust, no matter what. That the fallible designs of our minds and the imperfect works of our clumsy hands are not the best there is; that we don’t have to resign ourselves to only being able to trust in things or people that have disappointed us before and likely will again; that rather we can “wholly lean on Jesus’ name” as the one stable and unmovable framework in our lives; that’s something to be grateful for!