“Spaghetti Bowls” & The BIG Picture

Large highway interchange under construction in South AfricaEvery week for the last couple of years I have driven through a large highway interchange under construction just a few blocks from my office (and probably will for another year).  Recently, a large portion of my commute has turned into a multiyear construction zone as that highway and it’s associated bridges and ramps are reworked to add more lanes. This isn’t as bad as it might sound. I actually enjoy watching these large-scale construction projects, and try to see as much as I can while driving through (without causing an accident).
For a classic “spaghetti bowl” interchange, multiple elevated highway crossings are being built at the same time from one end of the project to the other. Some interchanges can have 5 different levels of highways crossing over and around and through each other in a dizzying display of coordinated chaos. While the new interchange here is no record-breaker, there were still 7 cranes in a relatively small area lifting multiple girders into place after the Friday afternoon rush hour one day.  Coordination like that and long-term sequencing of future events that often have to be completed in a specific, precise order to even be feasible are critical to the success of one of these projects. Complications like weather and working around existing traffic with minimal interruption  only add to the challenge.
As an engineer, I know that every step of the project has already been mapped out long before spectators like me ever see the actual construction begin. Even knowing that, it’s still fascinating to watch large projects like interchanges take shape. When you see several ramps being started at various points around the perimeter of the interchange, it can make for a lot of questions of how they’ll eventually snake through the future maze of crossings to connect. Ironically, all my questions 2 years into watching this project unfold were already answered on the plans before I even knew this project was going to be built.
Similarly, we see life unfolding little by little, never seeing the detailed plans except in hindsight, if at all. Some might say there is no “master plan” at all. I think our view is a very narrow and short-sighted, ground-level view that leaves us bewildered by new changes. We make plans to merge or exit, and suddenly find barricades across our path and a giant “DETOUR” sign confronting us. Meanwhile, God, that greatest of engineers, sees the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10) and is arranging the construction zone of this world according to His master plan.  Sometimes it may inconvenience us, sometimes we may even suffer in the process (Acts 9:16), but we can know that His plan is the best overall good that can be accomplished in this world. Paul tells us in Acts 17 that “…He determined the times set for them and the exact times they should live. God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each of us.” And God told Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).  We can take comfort in the fact that whatever we may go through in this broken world, it’s not a surprise to God. His plans are robust ones; He can take all of our hurts and pain, and even our rebellion, and accomplish His plan. In fact, in the story of Joseph, we see that He can even take the  betrayal of one’s own family and turn it for good : Joseph told his brothers “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:19-20). Will we always see the good result in the end like Joseph? Not necessarily. Many missionaries have been killed by the very people they desperately loved and to whom they wanted to bring the good news of Christ, and the fruit of that sacrifice didn’t reveal itself till many years later. But our faith – our trust – is not in chance or karma or serendipity. We trust in the all-knowing Creator who designed all we see, from the smallest subatomic particles to the largest galaxies, from the simplest salt crystal to the complex system of tens of trillions of cells making up our own bodies. He lays out the master plan – the big picture – and fine-tunes the details like no human engineer ever has. Just a thought from my commute to yours 🙂

Alphabet Soup

DNA_animation


I explained a few weeks ago how any kind of observed design actually requires a designer, by definition. If we correctly observe design, we can reasonably infer the existence of a designer. But how do we know we’ve correctly observed intentional design?  We don’t want false positives or false negatives (while thinking you were healthy when you had cancer could be fatal, mistakenly thinking you had cancer when you don’t, and having an unnecessary amputation isn’t desirable either). And so the atheist is often concerned that we Christians are falsely attributing intentional design by God to naturalistic processes. Let me start by saying I appreciate those concerns. So today, let’s look at the evidence for intentional design in nature in the form of information.

The presence of information is a key part of confirming design because true information is always the result of intelligence. Waves makings ripples in the sand are an unguided process that may generate patterns, but not information. On the other hand, someone writing their name in the sand has guided the movement of the sand so as to convey data (their name) using symbols (letters) arranged in a non-random order (J-O-H-N) with a goal (for others to know that John was there).  If we walk down that beach later and find that name in the sand, we recognize this was not the work of the waves, but rather an intelligent agent, because codes (i.e. the English language) are not generated by physical-chemical processes alone. Meaning is conveyed by the willful choice of certain letters to form certain words in a certain order, but natural processes do not possess a will – only intelligent agents do. This then takes us back to the causal agent required of design.

If I hand you a piece of paper that has been moved at a constant speed under an eyedropper filled with ink, will the series of evenly spaced dots provide you any information? The repetitive pattern of dots are arranged as they are out of necessity. What if the ink drops were splattered randomly on the paper where there was no pattern whatsoever? The first is highly specified (identical spacing and size of dots) but repetitive and not complex. The 2nd is complex (in that it would be very difficult to intentionally reproduce it), but completely unspecified. Either way, no useful information is conveyed. But what if the ink drops were from an inkjet printer that was plotting a set of framing plans for a skyscraper? Has information been conveyed? Certainly, but how can we know that? The symbols on the paper exhibit specified complexity. They are a product of neither chance nor necessity. They also have a clear purpose: If you follow the instructions presented, with the materials specified, in the order prescribed, you will have successfully constructed a tall building. These characteristics can differentiate legitimate information from repetitive patterns and random noise.

Now let’s apply what we know about information to DNA.  Deoxyribonucleic acid is composed of 4 bases (Guanine, Adenine, Cytosine, and Thymine) attached to the famous double helix backbones of sugars and phosphates. These bases match up in pairs (G&C, A&T).  One DNA molecule can have 220 million of these base pairings. The entire human genome, the transcript of all the base pairings in all of human DNA, is 3.4 billion units.  Printed out in small font, this takes over 100 volumes of 1,000 pages each. While DNA is still mind-blowing 50+ years after it was discovered, and we’ve still only scratched the surface of understanding it, does assigning letters to these bases and filling books with them make this a language? Are these letter sequences conveying information? Actually, the ability of DNA to store and transmit information has not been lost on scientists. In 2012-13, 2 different groups managed to encode text, pictures, and audio data into DNA’s code, synthesize actual DNA from it, then sequence that DNA to get the original data back with 100% accuracy.  In fact, DNA makes for a far more stable data storage medium than our current typical magnetic disks. It’s also estimated that one cup of DNA could store 100 million hours of hi-def video[1].

Let’s compare this 4-letter “alphabet” to some other alphanumeric codes. Consider this: our common number system is called Base 10 because it uses the ten digits 0-9. Our computers use “binary”, a Base 2 system that only uses the numbers 0 and 1, because these can represent physical states of on and off. Hexadecimal (Base 16) has been used in computers to reduce storage requirements. It uses the digits 0-9, then adds the letters A-F. In this way, you can count to 15 with only 1 digit (F) compared to the 4 digits needed in binary (1111). The English alphabet that I’m using to communicate right now is a sort of Base 26 code. You have 26 symbols to use for each character, and if that’s not enough to convey an idea, then you need to keep adding characters to form words, stringing those into sentences, paragraphs, books, and rambling blogs…. Knowing how base systems work, what do we see when we look at DNA? We see a Base 4 code for conveying information. Interestingly, a 2006 paper in the Bulletin of Mathematical Biology asked the question of why DNA is a Base 4 code and not a binary code, or Base 6, Base 8, etc, and concluded that Base 4 actually maximizes the rate of replication over every other option.[2] Dr. Werner Gitt looked at DNA from a data storage standpoint and concluded that the 4 letter “alphabet” and 3 letter “words” (codons) used by DNA for synthesizing proteins were the most efficient system possible in terms of minimizing space requirements in the cell, simplifying encoding/decoding of the data, and maximizing redundancy for error checking[3]. So the framework for efficiently storing and communicating information is there, but is there actually information there? Like the set of framing plans, if you follow the data found in human DNA you will end up with a human. In fact, this is carried out every time a baby is conceived as a new human is constructed from the plans found in its DNA.  The data found therein is extremely specific, highly complex, and has intent or end-purpose. Therefore, it does indeed seem to be true information, requiring an intelligent source, and providing an additional jigsaw piece in our design puzzle.


1. http://phys.org/news/2013-01-dna-storage-million-hours-hd.html
2. “Why is the Number of DNA Bases 4?”, by Bo Deng, Dept. of Mathematics, University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Published in the 2006 Bulletin of Mathematical Biology.
3. “Without Excuse”, by Werner Gitt, PhD, 2011.

The Storms of Life

Minots Ledge Lighthouse, Mass. coast
Minots Ledge Lighthouse, Mass. coast

On November 15th, 1860, the lamp of the rebuilt lighthouse on Minots Ledge in Massachusetts was turned on for the first time. The notoriously rough seas of the area had shipwrecked dozens of ships and destroyed the first lighthouse erected on iron pilings cemented into the stone of the reef a few years earlier, and that after only a few months in operation. After that lighthouse on iron stilts was destroyed in the 1850s, it was replaced with the current one made out of 2,360 tons of granite. In fact, the first 40 feet of the lighthouse is solid granite made of interlocking stones chiseled precisely to interlock with each other and the jagged rock ledge it’s built on (check out the blueprint at the bottom of this post). Interestingly, this particular “jobsite” was only available to work on for about 2-3 hours a day at low tide in calm weather, took 5 years to construct because of this, and was the most expensive lighthouse ever built in the US. But 154 years later, and this solid rock still stands, it’s light still visible 15 miles out to sea, even though waves have occasionally gone completely over the top of the 97′ high lighthouse. While the lighthouse isn’t particularly beautiful on its own, the addition of especially horrendous and otherwise destructive waves makes it very photogenic and awe-inspiring. It is the storm that highlights the hidden character and strength of the lighthouse.

Sometimes, storms come into our lives that threaten to destroy us: disabling injuries, natural disasters, long-term illnesses. Maybe you’ve been through a car wreck with months or years of recovery (if at all). Maybe a tornado, hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami has literally wiped away all signs of your “life” in a matter of seconds. Maybe you’ve battled cancer, where the doctor’s “good news” was surgery and/or months of chemotherapy or radiation, followed by tests and hopes of cure/remission, only to be set back by the cancer returning twice as aggressive. Or maybe  you’ve just received the crushing diagnosis of late-stage cancer and you only have weeks to live. Sometimes the storm in your life is the stress of caring for a loved one with a terminal disease, the heartbreak of seeing your children go down a dark path in life where you fear for their life, or the anxiety from losing one’s source of income (but none of the bills). It seems there are a thousand different ways to be beaten and battered by life’s storms, and so few ways to stay standing.  Similarly, there were many inadequate ways to build the lighthouse at Minots Ledge, but one way that has stood strong through the worst of storms.

Are there lessons here for us? I think so. First off, if our life is founded on the Rock of Christ and dovetailed into that Rock of Ages such that the storm surge increases the strength of our foundation rather than pulling it apart, then we can stand firm even when the storms of life submerge us, just like the Minots Ledge lighthouse. In fact, our steadfastness in the face of overwhelming odds may very well be the “photograph” someone else needs to see in the depths of their life storm to encourage them and keep them from giving up. But the key is the foundation. An iron will is useless with feet of clay, but the whole spectrum of human effort is like subtle grades of clay compared to the bedrock that is Christ Jesus.
Second, the lighthouse doesn’t just sit on the solid rock, but is fitted to it like a jigsaw puzzle and pinned in place; it has become one with the rock ledge.  Likewise, knowing about God isn’t enough. That’s like just sitting on the surface of the rock waiting to be swept off by the first storm.
Third, the individual stones of the lighthouse dovetail together beautifully. This is exemplified when Jesus tells us “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Our beliefs are fragile when they’re compartmentalized. But when they interlock together in an emotional, spiritual, and intellectual fortress fitted into the unmoving rock of Christ, we are storm-proof in Him.

Minot's Ledge Drawing - courtesy of http://research.archives.gov

Lost Compasses

compass_smallMy latest bulletin from the Oklahoma Engineering Board had an article about engineering ethics and the following excerpt struck me.

It has taken generations for professional engineers and professional land surveyors to create the level of public trust that they have been afforded. Unfortunately, years of competent and ethical conduct can be destroyed very quickly by one unethical decision. One such serious breach of the public trust happened in Oklahoma just a few years ago.  A city’s Public Works department was racked with a bribery scandal involving one of its own professional engineers and other professional engineers in the private sector. After pleading guilty to the charges, the professional engineers were sentenced to jail time and assessed large fines.  Following disciplinary investigations and hearings, the Board revoked each of their PE licenses.  As a way of explanation for this unethical and illegal behavior, the attorney for one of the engineers told the court that his client had ‘lost his moral compass’. [emphasis mine]

I used compasses a lot in the Army. They’re nice tools. They’re also susceptible to error. I remember the Land Navigation course at Camp Williams, UT had one mountainside that was very iron-rich. Finding waypoints in that area was difficult because of the havoc magnetic materials wreak on compasses. You had to work off of known points and correct the heading your compass was telling you in those areas. Otherwise, you could truly go around in circles. You may get through most of the course trusting this handy little tool, but if you follow it when it clearly doesn’t match up with reality (i.e. I know that mountain is to my north, but my compass says it’s to my south…), then you are setting yourself up for failure, much like these unnamed engineers did. In fact, as I learned in the army, and as my cross-country flights for my pilot’s license later reminded me, compasses don’t match up exactly with reality to begin with. We say a compass points north, but a compass actually points to magnetic north, which generally does not line up with  true north. So as useful as a compass is for pointing you in roughly the right direction, precise navigation with one requires using a map that tells you the “declination angle”, or how much magnetic north and true north differ in your area. Where I lived, it was a 15.3° difference.

It really comes down to a matter of truth, whether that’s true north versus magnetic north when you’re physically lost, or truth versus error when morally lost. It can be said that something is true when it correlates with reality. If it is objectively true in this manner, then it is true regardless of our perceptions or rationalizations. Reality, then, is a known reference point that we can use to check  ourselves.  For instance, even if I’m red-green colorblind, there are tests one can do to verify that the color of light being reflected off of some grass is, in fact, green, thereby validating the statement that “the grass is green”.  But what of non-physical questions such as the ones that typically form ethical dilemmas? We need a known point of reference in those areas also to calibrate our “moral compasses” and correct them if needed.  What “known point”, – what benchmark – can straighten our meandering paths through ethical quagmires?

  • As our position changes, it should be unchanging for us to figure out how far off track we are (like a  “resection” in land nav).  If unchanging, this known point, or standard, would be applicable universally, i.e. multiple people could reference it to “fix”, or locate, their position on the map.  Likewise, a good ethical reference point should not be subjective. It should apply equally to all, from Mother Theresa to Adolf Hitler.
  •   A known point is also applicable without respect to time. You could likely figure out your location each year on vacation in Yosemite by looking for Half-Dome or El Capitan as those huge cliffs aren’t moving year to year. Using the snowplow on the side of the road as a reference point because it’s been in the same spot your entire week of vacation likely won’t help next year. Another example of this is how a homeowner’s property lines may be determined off a monument marker a surveyor set as a known point over 100 years prior. Likewise, a good ethical reference point should be just as valid whether it’s 2014, or 1914, or 2114.
  • A good known point is easily identifiable. Trying to shoot an accurate compass bearing to “the 15th tree down from the 3rd boulder over” when there’s a giant rock spire jutting from a barren mountainside a few hundred feet away is just silly. Use the obvious landmark. Likewise, a good ethical reference point should be obvious. For instance, if your ethical standard requires lengthy research on your part to agree that something as horrible as say, torturing babies for fun, is wrong, then I strongly suggest you find a better ethical “landmark”.

Is there a system of ethics that can provide us the known point we seek? A comparison of the several different and highly nuanced ethical systems and variations of each will have to wait for another day (and probably take several posts to even scratch the surface) but consider this: the combination of deontological and classic virtue ethics found in the Christian Bible provides an unmoving reference point in the character of God that applies equally to all people in all places and at all times. It explains the notion that some things really are inherently wrong (like torturing babies for fun) and are not “wrong for you but OK for me”.  It provides a readily identifiable reference for us in God’s holy character. “Is this activity I’m considering (i.e. bribery) in line with God’s character?” No? Then don’t do it! Done, compass calibrated. Move on down the road.

Engineering a “More Perfect Union”

Constitutional Signing_Small
Today, on this Election Day here in the US, I want to take a break from talking about correlations between engineering design and Christianity to point out similar correlations with our electoral system. Sometimes tiresome political ads and mudslinging candidates can make us forgetful of what a well-planned system of government we were given. Have you ever gotten a kit with detailed instructions for assembling all of the parts that have been carefully designed to work in unison efficiently once fully assembled? Have you ever skimmed through the directions of a complicated kit, or even ignored them entirely, and finally, hours or days later, had to start over again following the directions to the letter? Engineered products often have interdependent parts and require assembly in a particular order to function, whether talking about a skyscraper, a sports car, or your kid’s Christmas gift. It turns out the same applies to elections.

Our Founding Fathers were all too familiar with our fallen human nature so thoroughly explained in the Bible. They and their ancestors had come to these shores fleeing the abuses of power resulting from that propensity toward evil. They had seen for themselves the tendency of kings toward such abuses, as described in the Bible millennia before in 1 Samuel 8.  So they decided to eliminate that possibility by forming a very weak, decentralized government through the Articles of Confederation, but it was too ineffective to take it’s place among the nations of the world.  And so they sought to form a “more perfect union”, a government limited in its power over the people, accountable to the people, with power spread out in different branches and with the branches countering each other through many “checks and balances” to prevent the inevitable power plays that people dream up when given authority over others. They also recognized the tendency of a true democracy to deteriorate into mob rule, a “might makes right” condition best described as 2 wolves and a sheep deciding on dinner.   The middle road between tyranny of the government and tyranny of the majority was our Constitutional Republic, a government bound by the Rule of Law rather than the whims of the men in authority or majority.  But one key component of this experiment in self-governance was an informed, dutiful, and moral citizenry: informed both on current issues and history, so that they can make wise decisions for the future and not repeat the mistakes of the past; dutiful in that they would not be apathetic and leave their responsibility for self-governance in the hands of those all too eager to assume more authority; and yes, moral, in that only a moral people will do the right thing, even when it’s not in their own self-interest. In the words of our 2nd president, John Adams, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

So, much like a thoughtfully designed product (which it is, really), our political system has some key components that are vital to its functioning correctly. And when we try to operate it without those parts in place, we will continue to be frustrated by it malfunctioning.  Let’s look back to the instructions left us by the designers of our Republic, and get back to building it and maintaining it as it was intended. While this 2014 election has come to a close, may I heartily ask a future favor of everyone – study to know what and who you’re voting for, take part in your governance all the time, not just once every 2-4 years in a general election, and vote for what is right and not just what is popular, or “feels good”, or benefits you personally at the expense of others.

A Second Look at the Evidence

Necker Cube smallAs a kid, I always loved drawing things isometrically (3D). It was fascinating how the addition of a few lines and/or some shading could suddenly turn a flat square into a 3D cube, or the flat letter “A” into a more “real”, more “solid” A-shaped object. But occasionally you draw the lines wrong or you shade the wrong part and you don’t get the perspective you planned.  For instance, dashed lines  in a drawing are generally understood to mean that that line is obscured or hidden from the viewer’s perspective.  This convention and it’s inclusion in a drawing help us figure out the orientation of the drawn object in 3D space even though the drawing is clearly only a flat representation of a non-flat object. So what happens when we draw the dashed lines as solid, too? The top picture at the right is called a Necker Cube. Because it’s missing that additional information about which lines would be hidden from view, it can be interpreted by our brains a couple of different ways, depending on how each of our brains fills in the missing info.  Most people look at it and say they are looking down on the cube from the right, so that the top, right, and front sides are visible. Others see it and say they are viewing it from below and to the left, so that the bottom, left, and front sides are visible.  Sometimes, the interpreted image flip-flops between the two as our brains try to fill in the missing information and make some consistent object of  what our eyes are seeing.  But some people see the cube one way and find it almost impossible to see it oriented the other direction. The middle and bottom pictures have the appropriate lines dashed for confirming which cube faces are towards the viewer. Removing the dashed lines entirely, or shading the faces described can also convey that.  Unlike some of M.C. Escher’s drawing that would use contradictory visual cues to show physically impossible scenarios (like staircases supporting themselves in a kind of loop), The Necker Cube is simply incomplete visual information. It is lines without any distinguishing cues to guess the intended orientation.

What does any of this have to do with Christianity? Just like 2 friends can look at the top cube and see the same cube oriented different directions, Christians and atheists often look at the same evidence in history books or through telescopes and microscopes and come to different conclusions. Two people can look at the testimonies in the Gospels or the evidence of creation pointing to its Creator, and not see it. They interpret it one way, maybe over and over again, and never see it the way I see it. Then they see the exact same thing they’ve seen a hundred times, but it flips, and suddenly everything’s different. Was the evidence contradictory or just incomplete? Did they have life experiences that have “hard-wired” them to see things a certain way? Praying for healing for a friend or family member and seeing that person die anyway, for example,  can bias people against God, regardless of what evidence they might see for Him. As a Christian, my hope is that I can fill in the missing information – those dashed lines –  that someone needs to see the evidence from the true perspective.  Have you been looking at an incomplete picture, seeing a materialistic universe with no place in it for God? I encourage you to take another look at the evidence with me each week.

Reliable Transmission

Isaiah Scroll vs Camera smallI talked to an atheist colleague recently who said that if Jesus appeared on the front steps of the capitol here in Little Rock in all His splendor, and did some miracles and ascended up in front of the TV crews, then he would be the first to bend the knee. But otherwise, he wouldn’t believe.

I told him that Jesus did make an appearance just under 2000 years ago, and did miracles for 3 years, and 4 biographers wrote about it, testified about it, and published their accounts, and we still read them today. He responded that those didn’t count, and that we couldn’t trust that eyewitness testimony. Interesting. I asked how we could know that George Washington existed. He said that we had historical records to prove it. Yes… from eyewitnesses like Ben Franklin saying that George was there at the Constitutional Convention… so why believe Ben and the other eyewitness patriots more than John and the other eyewitness apostles?

Also, why does Jesus need to come and prove Himself over and over again to each and every person throughout time? He’s not some genie in a bottle at our beck and call. If Jesus really was God, isn’t it a little arrogant to tell Him, “Once wasn’t enough. I won’t believe until you come and do a personal song and dance for me.” Seriously?

I told him that if he saw Jesus and believed, that would be a pretty momentous occasion, and he would probably want to document that on his own, in addition to the TV crews. Maybe with pen and paper, or on a blog, or social media, or a little cell phone video, something. Now what would someone say who finds some documentation left behind by him of this momentous event 2000 years from now? (Assuming that any of the video he counts as strong evidence survived more than a few years.) Their skepticism of my friend’s account in no way discounts the truthfulness of his recording what happened. If it happened, it happened, whether or not he documents it sufficiently to justify skeptics 2000 years from now who might argue that they won’t believe it because he only used video and not whatever super-realistic holographic sci-fi ways they have of documenting events in the future. Whether I testify in court, or write down what happened for you to read, or (now) record the audio/video of an event, or use some as yet nonexistent technology, the event objectively happened. Method of transmission doesn’t change the truthfulness of eyewitness testimony of an event.

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.

At the intersection of faith and design