Tag Archives: Engineering

The Fallacy of “Sub-Optimal” Design

Ever hear people like Richard Dawkins rant about the so-called “sub-optimal designs” in nature that must obviously disprove the existence of any omniscient Supreme Designer? As a practicing professional engineer, I find it a little annoying. Let me explain why.

What exactly is an “optimal design”? When I worked for a steel joist manufacturer, our designs were typically all about minimizing weight. It was often a very tight-margin business, and if we could save another pound of steel, that was a good thing. But, least weight doesn’t always equal least cost to produce. Sometimes, it was worth it to consolidate a bunch of different optimized least-weight designs into a big run of identical pieces, even if it meant some of them were a little heavier then needed. Just think about how much faster you could work at producing something if your instructions said that the next 1000 pieces would be made exactly like the first one, instead of having to look at the directions before every piece to see what had changed. The efficiency of repetition in our shop sometimes made a design that was not optimized for weight actually the most optimal design for us regarding least total cost (i.e. we traded a small material cost increase for a large labor cost decrease).

In my current role as a structural engineer, I’m reviewing shop drawings right now on a colleague’s project where I designed the seismic bracing for him. He unfortunately had some severe architectural constraints on his project with regard to permissible beam depths and flange widths in the walls these braces were in. After spending a couple of weeks trying to work out a solution with more conventional means, I finally came across an example of a different configuration in one of my reference books that we were able to make work in our situation. Would I call it an optimal design? Not hardly, but I was thrilled just to find anything that would meet those kinds of high demand loads with the restrictions we had.

Why do I bring up these two examples? To illustrate a couple of general points regarding optimum designs.

  • Optimization is always with respect to specific parameters. If you’re paying by the ton of steel, the most optimum design may very well be the one that weighs the least. If you’re the contractor erecting the building, the most optimum design might be the one that can be erected the fastest, or with the fewest jobsite workers. If you’re the owner of the new building, the best design may be the one that balances material costs, construction costs, and lifecycle costs for an overall lowest cost of ownership. Parameters like weight, cost, speed, strength, resilience, flexibility, lifespan, redundancy, etc. are always optimized at the expense of others. It is meaningless to talk of an optimal design without specifying what parameter is optimized. By the same measure, it is also meaningless to speak of something being a sub-optimal design without knowing what the original designer was trying to optimize for. I can say a military tank design is suboptimal for speed, and that may be true, but that isn’t where the tank was designed to excel: that heavy 4″ thick armor that slows it down so much also responds to incoming fire far better than trying to drive a race car into battle! Just because you would optimize for a particular parameter, doesn’t mean the original designer (or anyone else) would.
  • Constraints limit what is possible with regard to optimization. Looking at the end product of our seismic bracing design might appear to the fabricator to be a little odd when building it, not knowing the limits we were having to work within. Even a peer reviewer, knowledgeable of engineering design, might wonder why we didn’t simply use a much bigger beam, as is typical for these types of braced frames. But, if they’re like me, they’ve learned to ask why a puzzling design was chosen before they start throwing stones at it. In engineering, we deal with design every day – creating our own designs, reviewing the designs of colleagues, even sometimes having to try to guess the original design intent behind 100+ year-old buildings being renovated. And though it can be tempting to immediately deride some design that isn’t how I would design it, I’ve found an attitude of humility very appropriate when looking at the designs of others. For sometimes, the designs I thought were poor were actually quite innovative solutions to constraints I wasn’t aware of. But then I tried to run an alternate design that should’ve been “better,” and I ran into the same constraints the original designer did, and found the original design to be the only viable option after seeing the complete picture.

This is just a couple of reasons I think the bad design argument fails. It essentially reduces to saying “Because I, a person of limited knowledge, can’t comprehend some particular design chosen by an allegedly all-knowing Designer, He must not exist.” What hubris! Moreover, it seems to go even further by thinking that these odd cases outweigh the abundance of cases of brilliant-appearing designs in nature, many of which have spawned a whole field called biomimetics.  This field of study, which attempts to improve existing human designs or innovate new ones based on designs seen in nature, would not exist except that so many natural objects solve design problems we struggle with in ingenious ways. Indeed, I would say we have sufficient positive examples of exceptional design in nature to warrant an humble, inquisitive stance toward the supposedly “sub-optimal” cases we don’t fully comprehend yet. But really, isn’t that the attitude good science is founded on anyway?


Photo credit: By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-23805-1665 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5349654

Being Able to Answer

Moses & Aaron Speak to the People - James Tissot c.1900
Moses & Aaron Speak to the People – James Tissot, c.1900

As I left the office this past Saturday, I thought about why I was there on a beautiful fall weekend instead of working on home repairs (or this blog). I’m actually giving a presentation on delegated steel connection design to an audience of my fellow structural engineers shortly, and this was critical prep time for that seminar. This upcoming presentation and the preparations for it got me thinking about how we as Christians make our presentation of the good news of Jesus Christ to a skeptical world. I see 4 parallels to consider:

  1. Preparation
    • I’d be a fool to think I could stand up in front of 40 or 50 other engineers and explain something to them without having spent any time preparing. Even having several years of connection design experience doesn’t necessarily translate to being able to effectively communicate that knowledge to others. It takes both knowledge of what to say, and practice in how to say it.
    • Likewise, as a Christian, it is prudent for me to do my homework before I need to explain to someone what it means to be a Christian. And just sitting in a church pew listening to preachers expound on God’s Word, even for decades, doesn’t necessarily translate to me being able to do that clearly when I’m asked. Knowledge and communication are two different things. Speaking and answering questions on the spot takes practice. Have you thought through what you would say if you were asked about what you believe and why you believe it? In my case, I was asked how I could call myself a Christian and an engineer at the same time. Weren’t those mutually exclusive? I hadn’t prepared for that, and it caught me off-guard. Don’t miss an opportunity to speak truth into someone’s life merely from lack of planning.
  2. Motivation
    • In my job, I’ve been focused on structural steel connection design for several years now, but knowing I’ll be presenting on that topic, and that there will be a Q&A time afterwards, is motivating me to confirm my typical assumptions to make sure I know what I’m talking about. I’m reviewing things I haven’t dealt with in a while to refresh my memory in case they come up in the Q&A. As I build the slides for my presentation, I’m digging down into those specifics to verify I’m not saying anything inaccurate, and to deepen my knowledge in those areas that might generate more questions. Anticipating tough questions changes your attitude toward preparation.
    • In the same way, writing this blog every week the last 2 years, knowing that I’m opening myself up to any and all questions and criticisms, has forced me to prepare accordingly. If it hadn’t been for this, I probably wouldn’t own half the books I own now – books on systematic theology, church history, doctrine, apologetics, logic, science books (from outside my field of engineering), and books from atheists and skeptics diametrically opposed to my views. I probably wouldn’t be trying to learn Greek and Latin either if it weren’t for engaging in apologetics. And now, when I go to church each week, it’s not something to check off the task list; it’s a trip back to my “base” to resupply with vital life-giving insights before heading back out on patrol for the week. Are you just looking to “coast” through life, or are you “on point”?
  3. Reward
    • In college, my Metallurgy III professor had us students rotate through teaching 3 days that semester. We were each assigned 3 different alloys and had to develop a lesson, slides, and handouts for our fellow classmates for each of our teaching days. He then graded us on how well we’d researched it and presented our findings, as well as our presentation. Standing up and lecturing on the weldability of titanium alloys was far tougher work than just being tasked with reading the textbook and working out some homework problems. As far as I can recall, that was the only class I ever had where the professor had the students teach most of the class, but it forced me to learn so much more that way. And as I’m being reminded in my current presentation research, that still holds true.
    • As a Christian, being “prepared to give an answer” [1 Peter 3:15] also has some great rewards. Each week of writing blog entries and doing research for future posts has gotten me reading and learning things I never would have otherwise. And even if nobody ever challenges me on some issue I invested a bunch of research in – even if nobody ever reads this blog! – wrestling with tough questions and the whole preparation process of digging deep into God’s word and into His magnificent revelation of Himself in the world around me  has been richly rewarding. Just like training for a marathon, some rewards simply aren’t achievable without serious investment and hard work. Are you a Christian missing out on those kinds of rewards in your life? While I wish I’d started earlier, it’s not too late! Jump in!
  4. Attitude
    • Presenting always requires an attitude of humility. None of us know it all, so there’s no point acting like we do. Even if I were generally more knowledgeable in my specialty than an audience, someone in the crowd may have direct experience with a peculiar issue I haven’t dealt with or studied yet. And of course, in spite of all the preparation, you can never anticipate every question. Rather than putting up a show of nonexistent knowledge, the better response is to simply say “I don’t know, but let me dig into that and get back with you.”
    • Likewise, whether presenting the gospel message to one seeking salvation, or “contending for the faith” [Jude 3] with an aggressive skeptic, we should share the “truth in love” [Eph 4:15], answering their questions with “gentleness and respect” [1 Peter 3:15]. Speaking the truth in love means telling someone the truth, even if it’s something they don’t want to hear, but in a way that demonstrates that you value them and care about them. The truth can be brutal at times, but we are to share it with gentleness. Respect means treating them with the same courtesy we would want. That entails not being condescending or lying to them and acting like we know stuff we don’t. It means actually looking for answers to their questions we don’t know and then following-up with them. Sometimes, my own presentation style is my biggest enemy. May our attitude never be a hindrance to someone recognizing the truth of the gospel.

Jesus commanded His disciples to go and make disciples [Matt 28:19-20]. Peter tells all Christians to be able to give an answer to those who ask the reason for the hope that we have [1 Pet 3:15]. Jude tells Christians – not “special forces” Christians, just Christians – to contend for the faith [Jude 3]. All of these involve being able to communicate God’s truth to a waiting world. You and I may never be preachers or traveling evangelists, but that doesn’t mean “spectator” is a job description in God’s kingdom. So like Timothy, let’s dig in, and be diligent to be workmen not needing to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth [2 Tim 2:15].

The Engineer’s Faith

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

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

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

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

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

Now, how does that relate to my Christian faith?

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

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

Tools Without Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

Deconstructing Dawkins 3 – A Case Study in Design

Schematic of the human eyeLast week, I wrote about some general problems I saw with Richard Dawkins’ claims of “sub-optimal design” in natural objects like the human eye. I recommended that we keep in mind our own finite knowledge and approach the matter with the same humility an engineer should approach a peer review of a colleague’s work. This week, we’ll need to get a little more technical to see Dawkins’ error, but let’s do a little “peer review” of that particular case of the human eye.

Dawkins’ problem with the eye is that the rods and cones (the photosensors) point toward the back of the eye, while the nerves (the “wiring”) come out the back of these sensors into the interior of the eye before being bundled up into an optic nerve that connects to the brain through a hole in the retina, causing a “blind spot” where there can’t be any sensors because of the hole and the nerve bundle. Admittedly, this is counter-intuitive. And yet, the eye is an amazing machine that the best human minds have not been able to rival. Whether it seems backwards to us or not, the eye seems to do better than we can with our “forward” thinking. Why might this backwards wiring actually be optimal?

Many times in my field, our structural systems are more complex than they could be otherwise because of other systems such as heating and air. Let’s face it, on a hot, humid, summer day in the Southern US, the best structure is useless if nobody can stand to be in the building because there’s no air conditioning. With the eye we have a similar issue: we need wiring (i.e. nerves) for data transmission, but we also need plumbing (i.e. blood flow) to supply energy – and lots of it. The rods and cones of the retina are so sensitive, that a single photon of light can be detected. This is because a series of enzymes massively amplifies this minuscule stimulus to useful proportions. But this enzyme activity also makes the photoreceptor layer of the retina have one of the highest metabolic rates of any known tissue[1] and the highest in the human body.[2] The energy for this is supplied by a bed of oversized capilleries immediately behind the photoreceptor layer that floods the layer with near-arterial levels of oxygenated and nutrient-rich blood to satisfy these high metabolic demands. This arrangement of blood supply allows a high packing density of the rods and cones making up the layer, which allows for increased visual resolution. In the opinion of biochemist Michael Denton, it is “hard to imagine how a standard-type capillary network to carry the necessary quantities of blood directly through the photoreceptor cell layer could be arranged without causing at least some decrease in the packing density of the photoreceptors and a consequent decrease in the resolving power of the eye.”[1] Considering also that blood strongly absorbs light, this plumbing system can’t be in front of the photoreceptors, even though that would allow for the nerves to be routed to the rear and more “tidily” as Dawkins suggests. In fact, any other arrangement in humans appears  to create bigger problems than it solves.

However, atheists have looked to the cephalopods like the octopus and squid as examples of creatures with good eyesight whose eyes are wired “correctly” – photosensors facing forward, toward the light, and nerves directed toward the brain – eliminating the admittedly minimal blind spot of the human eye. Although their visual acuity is comparable to some fish that have inverted retinas like us, octopuses operate in environments where ambient light is more diffuse or even negligible for the deep-sea dwelling varieties. Whereas we would actually need something to reduce the amount of incoming light if our sensitive photoreceptors faced the light like theirs, that placement is an advantage in their environments. Energy conservation can also be a design parameter. In fact, studies in different species of flies have shown that optical data transmission from photoreceptors increases with light, and there is an energy cost associated with photoreceptor activity which is at a minimum in total darkness and a maximum in full daylight. This cost can be significant as one species of fly tested used up to 2% of its total base metabolic rate just powering the photoreceptor layer of its eyes. And that was just the “ready state”, in total darkness. As ambient light increases, optical data increases, and with it, energy demands. However, the octopus’s copper-based blood, hemocyanin, only supplies roughly one-quarter of the oxygen as our iron-based hemoglobin.[4] Based on the experimental confirmations from the fly testing, it is reasonable that humans operating in full daylight will have a much higher metabolic demand than the octopus operating in the subdued light of shallow water or the near darkness of deep water. This then makes perfect sense for us to have the inverted retina we have, with its high-capacity power delivery system, while the verted eye of the octopus is more reasonable in their environment. Our inverted photoreceptors then appear to be the best possible solution, even with the introduction of a blind spot. However, this blind spot is situated in an area of each eye not used for focused vision, is in a different spot in each eye so that the input from the other eye compensates for it, is adequately corrected for in the image processing  occurring in the brain, and is actually a smaller blind spot (approx. 6°) than the most obvious blind spot for humans: our own nose, which blocks out a larger field of view for each eye.

One last thing to point out to armchair engineers like Dawkins is this: show me we can do better. If our eyes are so offensive, show how we could improve on them. Yet with all our scientific knowledge and advancements in technology and some of the best human minds working on a visual prosthetic for blind people, the pursuit of a man-made eye is still woefully primitive. It seems extraordinarily hypocritical to me to criticize another’s design, whether a fellow engineer’s or God’s, if I can’t even come close to designing something comparable. We are at the level of allowing a blind person to differentiate between light and dark, between the presence of a large opening like a door versus a solid wall, and between crude outlines of shapes that would make the old PONG computer game of the 80’s seem like an IMAX 3D movie. It’s easy to criticize something from afar. But in engineering, getting intimately familiar with the details of a problem is what makes or breaks a design. And the more we familiarize ourselves with the constraints and objectives of the human eye, the less we find to criticize.

 


[1] Michael Denton, “The Inverted Retina: Maladaptation or Pre-adaptation?”, 1999. Hat tip to blogger Wintery Knight for publicizing Denton’s research.
[2] Punzo, Xiong, and Cepko, “Loss of Daylight Vision in Retinal Degeneration: Are Oxidative Stress and Metabolic Dysregulation to Blame?”, Journal of Biological Chemistry, January 13, 2012.
[3]Denton.
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemocyanin, accessed 12/8/2015.

Deconstructing Dawkins 3 – Optimal Design Overview

Richard DawkinsRichard Dawkins has made much of the “appearance of design” in biology being a false positive, and the notion that living creatures actually exhibit bad design that negates the idea of an omniscient Creator. After all, why would God, if He existed, and if He was all-knowing, do things like wire the human eye “backwards”? This is, according to Dawkins, a sub-optimal design that any engineer would reject out of hand, or get fired if he submitted a design like this to his company. In fact, regarding the “backwards wiring” of the vertebrate eye, he admits that it doesn’t actually have much effect on vision, but “it is the principle of the thing that would offend any tidy-minded engineer!”[1]

Oh really? Since he decided to drag us engineers into this, I’d like to ask one question: what exactly do you mean when you talk about an optimal design? I can tell you most engineering designs end up being sub-optimal, regardless of how “tidy-minded” we may be. That’s because we routinely have to make trade-offs between competing goals. I have a book on wood-framed shearwalls that humorously highlights this issue with a side-by-side photo of an “engineer’s dream wall” and an “architect’s dream wall”. The engineer’s wall is very stout and very solid. The architect’s  preference (and most owner’s) is one completely filled with beautiful expansive windows. Which one is the “optimal” wall? Neither one of us is getting what we would call the optimum. Us engineers need some minimum amount of strength that the windows aren’t providing, and the architect needs some minimum amount of holes in our solid wall so the owner doesn’t feel like he’s living in a dungeon! Factor in things like cost and meeting building code constraints and “optimal” becomes a very subjective term with different meaning to different stakeholders. But this is the way most design goes. You can’t maximize one parameter without minimizing another, and at some point, you’ll have 2 (or more) parameters that conflict. Do you focus entirely on the first, or the 2nd? Do you balance them equally? Maybe a weighted average based on your best guess as to which one will govern more often? Unfortunately, no matter which route you choose, someone will come along later, with the benefit of hindsight, and ask why you didn’t do it some other way. But God, being omniscient, has perfect foresight, so that shouldn’t be an issue for Him, right? True, He won’t make a mistake in design due to lack of knowledge or not anticipating future conditions, but the aspect of competing design parameters still applies.

Versatility and specialization are two such competing parameters. Specialized designs seek to maximize a positive parameter like speed or strength, or to minimize some negative parameter like weight or waste, at the expense of other factors. This is evident in animals like peregrine falcons whose hollow bones minimize weight, while their aerodynamics maximize speed. Versatile designs, on the other hand, seek to balance the most parameters at one time to achieve adequate performance over a wide range of conditions. This allows the object to fulfill many roles, or to survive in a variety of unpredictable conditions and possibly even excel over more specialized objects if conditions are constantly changing. Humans, for example, are extremely versatile. We may not thrive as well on our own as more specialized animals in arctic or desert or tropical environments, but unlike most of them, the same human can generally still survive in all of them. And, besides this highly versatile body design, we have the brains to make tools, and shelters, and transportation to overcome our bodily limitations, such that we can even survive in places like outer space where no animals, however optimized, can survive.

So is God required to maximize all parameters that go into a design? No. Some may fall into the category of “square circles” where the parameters are simply mutually exclusive. Is He required to maximize the particular parameter we favor over another that He deems more important? No. As professional engineers, we can seek the input of peers if desired, but nothing says we have to take their advice. The engineer signing off on the design and taking full responsibility decides the direction of the design. Is so-called “bad design” evidence against God? No. It simply means we likely aren’t seeing the whole picture. My own peer reviews of other engineers’ designs have raised questions as to why they chose a particular route, but then they proved quite reasonable after getting those questions answered. It was typically my lack of knowledge of the background of that particular project, or my unfamiliarity with some certain condition they’d been burned by before that made me think they’d missed something “obvious” when they had actually thought through their design better than I might have if I’d been in their position.

Engineers must approach peer reviews with an attitude of humility, but even more so if the design being reviewed is God’s. If I can overlook the good reason a fellow human engineer made the design choices he did, then I should be all the more open to the possibility that I’ve missed something an omniscient Designer did consider. And this is where I would encourage people like Dawkins not to arrogantly assume that there is no good reason for something just because they can’t see it. Tune in next week as we focus on a couple of specific examples where the atheist claims of “sub-optimal” and “bad” designs in nature have actually turned out to be engineering masterpieces.


[1] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Penguin Books), p94.

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.

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!