Tag Archives: Epistemology

Philosophy – Hiding in Plain Sight

“Philosophy”, by Raphael, 1511

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

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

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

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

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

[1]This is apparently the actual quote, contrary to what most of us heard growing up: http://www.twainquotes.com/Death.html
[2]Here is one philosopher’s thoughtful response to Stephen Hawking’s cutting off of the branch he sits on: https://philosophynow.org/issues/82/Hawking_contra_Philosophy.
[3] Here are 2 interesting responses to Tyson’s comments, the first providing a good recap of the comments: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/massimo-pigliucci/neil-degrasse-tyson-and-the-value-of-philosophy_b_5330216.html, and http://www.realclearscience.com/articles/2014/05/22/why_does_neil_degrasse_tyson_hate_philosophy.html
[4] AISC 360-16, Commentary J4.3, Block Shear Strength”, p16.1-446. published by the American Institute of Steel Construction, 2016-07-07.
[5] For the geeks: https://www.aisc.org/Experimental-Investigation-of-Steel-Joist-Design-for-Ductile-Strength-Limit-State#.WXa4A1G1vcs. For everyone else: http://www.newmill.com/pdfs/flex-joist.pdf

Content to Doubt?

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

What is doubt?

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

Why do we doubt?

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

How do we overcome doubt?

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

[1] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/doubt, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/doubt, accessed 2016-06-28.
[2] Though not defined as “unpersuaded” in most dictionaries, it still seems to apply here and has a basis in New Testament Greek. When Jesus told Thomas to “stop doubting and believe” the evidence standing before him, the word translated as doubting is ἄπιστος (apistos), which is the negation of the Greek word for faithful or believing, πιστος (pistos). The Greek root for faith is the word πείθω (peitho), meaning “to be persuaded of what is trustworthy”.[http://biblehub.com/greek/3982.htm] Hence, doubt can be seen as being “not faithful because unpersuaded, i.e. not convinced (persuaded by God)”[http://biblehub.com/greek/571.htm]
[3] Ezekiel 33:11, NASB.
[4] Acts 17:26-27, NASB.
[5] John 20:27, NIV.
[6] Matthew Henry’s Commentary, John 20:26-29.
[7] Matthew 7:7, KJV.

Cultural Belief

USA_EarthThere’s a common atheist objection to Christian belief that goes like this: “You just accept Christianity because you were born in America. If you’d been born in India, you’d likely be Hindu.” Well, statistically, that’s a strong possibility. But do you see any problems with this as an objection to the tenets of Christianity? First and foremost, it doesn’t address the truth claim of Christianity. Regardless of statistics, is Christianity true or not? Well, the atheist assumption here is that all religions are equally false, so they don’t actually address the only question that really matters. But if we’re trying to see if one of those religions isn’t false, then that’s a bad assumption from which to start. Secondly, the origin of our beliefs does not refute the truth of the proposition. The idea that it does is called the genetic fallacy. We can believe a true statement for bad reasons, and we can believe a false statement for what appeared to be very good reasons. Moreover, let’s turn the scenario around for a moment. The Soviets and Red China mandated atheistic education in their schools. We could just as easily say that a Chinese or Russian atheist is such only because of the culture he grew up in. Again, there would be a statistically higher probability of a person being an atheist in a country where that’s all that was taught in the schools, but it is certainly not a foregone conclusion. Clearly, it does not follow that the American Christian, the Indian Hindu, or the Russian atheist hold those beliefs only because of where they were raised. In fact, the atheists typically saying this are western, having grown up in the US where atheism is a minority view among the general population. So by their own existence as atheists, they show that the predominant culture does not determine what we believe.

Let’s look at this a little more in a different light. Suppose two people live in two different cultures that each have a certain belief about the roundness or flatness of the earth. Suppose the “Flatters” culture instructs their citizens from their youth up that the earth is flat, while the “Rounders” culture likewise instructs their citizens that the earth is – you guessed it – round. However, regardless of what either culture tells their eager young students, the earth actually is a certain shape, objectively. It may be flat, or a sphere, or some completely different shape that neither culture had considered (Ringworld, anyone?). Even if one’s culture consistently said the world is flat, you could still freely reject that false knowledge, right? Meanwhile,  if that young citizen of our imaginary realm of Rounder only believed the earth is round simply because of his culture, he doesn’t have an issue with knowledge, but with epistemology. The knowledge (i.e. “the earth is round”) is correct. It’s his epistemology – the justification for his belief – that may be lacking (i.e. “I believe the earth is round because my culture told me so and I’ve never looked for any supporting evidence”). This is why the apostle Peter tells us Christians to be able to give the reason for the hope that we have.[1] Knowing the “what” is great (for the one in the know), but understanding the “why” behind it is how you help others accept the truth you already know.

Now, if I grow up in a Christian culture, I have been given a “shortcut” to true knowledge that someone growing up in another culture might not have. This is similar to knowing that the earth is round when they think it’s flat. I have a head start compared to them, but my having a shortcut or head start doesn’t invalidate the knowledge I have a shortcut to. This brings a significant responsibility, though. Will I leave others to grope in the dark for the truth, as Paul described,[2] while I relax, content in my knowledge? To quote Paul again, “May it never be!” My friend, if you are a skeptic that’s used that objection leading off today’s post, I encourage you to set aside this shallow objection and dig deeper. And if you talk to Christians who can’t answer your question, don’t be content with that. Keep asking. Relentlessly pursue truth. If you’re a Christian reading this, know that you’ve been given a blessing not to be wasted or taken lightly. You, too, must dig deep to be ready to answer the tough questions when they come. I can’t say I’ve worked out all the answers myself, but I welcome the company of both skeptic and fellow believer on this expedition as we dig for gems of truth. 🙂

“And Jesus said, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; nobody comes to the Father but through Me.” – John 14:6

[1] 1 Peter 3:15, ESV.
[2] Acts 17:26-27, NASB.

He Is Risen!

The Incredulity of St Thomas - Matthias Stom - 1621My wife and I went to see the movie Risen this past weekend, about a (fictional) skeptical Roman Tribune investigating the claims of Jesus being risen from the dead. So this seems like an appropriate time to finish up our look at the evidential nature of the apostle John’s gospel with a look at some of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances recorded there.

First off, we start John chapter 20 with Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s followers, reporting to John and Peter that the tomb is open and Jesus’s body has been taken. Peter and John ran to investigate for themselves. John got there first and looked in the tomb and could see the linen wrappings lying there. Peter rushed in and saw the wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth lying separately, rolled up in a place by itself. I like John’s attention to details in things like this. John then records that he entered the tomb, “and he saw and believed.” But he goes on to say that they “did not yet understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.” And so they went back to their homes, perhaps to try to make sense of what was happening, while Mary lingered at the garden tomb, weeping. And so it is that she becomes the first witness of Jesus after the resurrection. She came back to the disciples, telling them “I have seen the Lord,” and gave them a message from Him. That evening, Jesus suddenly appears before them, in the locked room they were gathered in, where He showed them both His hands and His side. This miraculous entrance and presentation of His mortal wounds left no question as to whether this was Jesus or not. Yet Thomas was not with them, so they joyfully proclaimed to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he didn’t believe them.

Whether “Doubting Thomas” deserves all of the bad reputation he has or not, he nevertheless famously responded that unless he personally saw the nail imprints and put his finger in the nail holes and his hand into the spear wound, he would not believe. He had Mary, John, and Peter’s testimony of the empty tomb. Granted, that could simply mean grave-robbing, or relocation, as Mary had first assumed. But then he had Mary’s testimony of seeing and talking with Jesus. Perhaps she was hysterical in her grief. But then the rest of the disciples had now seen the evidence Thomas specifically wanted, and reported it to him, and it still wasn’t enough.

I sympathize with Thomas in his desire for personal verification, but we all have to understand that we can’t verify everything directly. In fact, most things in life are such that we can’t directly verify them and have to accept the testimony of others, whether they be historians, or scientists, or eyewitnesses and subject matter experts in court, or simply friends that have been places and seen things we haven’t. Therefore, when Jesus reappeared in the locked room a week later, when Thomas was there, He reprimanded him for his unbelief. But first, He offered Thomas the evidence he had asked for: “Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing.” John doesn’t record for us whether Thomas followed through on his earlier statement, but I suspect he didn’t feel the need to once he was face to face with Jesus. What John does record is Thomas’s quite sensible response to Jesus: “My Lord and my God!”

At this point John records a verse that often gets taken out of context to try to say that Jesus prefers a “blind faith” to an evidential faith. Let’s look at verse 29 now: “Jesus said to him, ‘Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.'” Is that what Jesus means here? I don’t think so. Note that Mary thought the body had been taken until she saw Jesus herself. Note that John says he believed when he saw the scene in the empty tomb. Note that Jesus was now showing Thomas what He had shown the other disciples the week before that caused them to tell Thomas that they had unequivocally seen the Lord. I don’t think He was talking about the other disciples believing without seeing.

While the disciples were able to see the truth of Jesus’ claims directly, there are two groups of people prevented from believing on the basis of direct sight: those separated by space and time from the events. Everyone to whom the disciples were sent to testify, all over the world, could not directly see these things. All of us that have lived both before and after that time can not directly see them either. Yet the letter to the Hebrews, in the famous “faith chapter”, tells of saints like Abraham, living prior to Jesus, who trusted in God’s promises, “having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance.” [Heb. 11:13] And in Jesus’s “high priestly prayer” recorded in John 17, He prays to God the Father both for His disciples and “for those also who believe in Me through their word.” [John 17:20]

We use our minds every day to reason through competing possible explanations for events that we weren’t able to witness directly based on what we do know about them. We still have an evidential basis for our conclusions, just not complete enough to draw a conclusion without some reasoning. Just as a jury can become rationally convinced of the details of a crime without having seen it firsthand because of applying reason to the partial evidence they have, God can and does convince us through our minds as well as our senses.  And here in John 20:29, I would suggest that Jesus is simply stating the value of using the minds He has created us with to recognize His truth even when we don’t have all the answers yet.

Making It Personal

engineering-plansThere was an interesting article in the May 2015 issue of Civil Engineering magazine that got me thinking. Their ethics column dealt with the question of misuse of a professional engineer’s seal and made the following statement:

“Inherent in the message carried by a P.E. seal is the element of personal knowledge. With so much trust placed in an engineer’s assessment of professional documents, it is essential to know that the engineer is certifying the documents not on the basis of blind trust or an unsubstantiated belief in another’s work but because he or she has had sufficient personal involvement with the documents to know whether or not they meet the standards of the profession. Accordingly, the requirement of personal involvement looms large both in state licensing laws governing the use of an engineer’s seal and in the codes of conduct….”

Looking at this aspect of my life as a professional engineer and as a professing Christian, I see some parallels between the two.

  1. Personal knowledge is required in both cases. I shouldn’t stamp engineered designs that I didn’t personally design or thoroughly review. Likewise, I shouldn’t hold my Christian beliefs (or any, for that matter) just because they were my parents’ beliefs, or because they are generally socially acceptable where I live. I have to own them; I have to make them mine. But I don’t do that simply by accepting someone else’s beliefs unquestioned. They may be right, or they may be wrong; and ideas have consequences – some more serious than others. If I mistakenly trust a friend’s incorrect directions and take a wrong turn, the effects may be pretty minimal. But if the stakes are higher, like a life-or-death decision, it’s critical that I take full responsibility for that decision and choose wisely. If my eternal future is at stake, that’s not a decision I should (or even can) delegate to someone else. That’s on me, and “not to decide” is to decide.
  2. Blind trust or unsubstantiated belief may be accidentally correct, but that’s simply not sufficient for important decisions. A bad engineering design passed through supervisors and peer reviewers without adequate scrutiny can endanger thousands of people. A false belief, accepted blindly, can condemn countless people to an eternity apart from God. So it’s critical for each of us to examine ourselves, to understand both what we believe and why, and to verify that our beliefs are well-grounded, justified, coherent, and truthful. Our beliefs need to be warranted.
  3. Personal involvement – i.e. action – is required. If I’m stamping calculations or drawings done by someone else, it’s incumbent on me to personally act in a couple of ways. First, I need to take whatever action necessary to verify what I’ve received is correct before I stamp it. However, I also can’t fall victim to “paralysis by analysis”. I can either accept them as justified or reject them as insufficient, but I need to decide one way or the other. In examining my own beliefs, or prospective beliefs, I have to recognize that short of being omniscient, I won’t have every possible question answered to the nth degree when it comes to making a decision, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t make a reasonable, well-informed decision based on the evidence I do have. The absence of exhaustive data doesn’t mean I don’t have sufficient informative data to take action.

I want to avoid so-called “blind faith” in both my engineering and my Christian life. I want to “know whom I have believed” as the apostle Paul wrote[1]. In the words of Elton Trueblood, “Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation.” Rather than being blind, only Christian faith is sufficiently well-founded to allow trust without reservations to be warranted. God doesn’t ask us to put our trust in just anything. In fact, He doesn’t want us trusting our eternal life to anyone other than Him. This is why the apostle John tells his readers to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”[2] This is why Jesus pointed people to evidence of His authenticity, attested to by the miracles He’d done in the sight of those questioning Him.[3] This is why God always reminded the Israelites that He was the God who had led them out of Egypt, who had miraculously fed them in the wilderness, who had driven their enemies before them when they were ridiculously outnumbered by vastly superior forces.  These reminders were a constant call to put their trust in His proven power and love and faithfulness, in His repeated demonstrations that He is the only one worthy to be worshiped and obeyed. It’s a call He still issues to us today, to “taste and see that the Lord is good”[4], to “come and see”[5] for ourselves that He is our only hope, and to make Him our personal Savior.

[1] 2 Timothy 1:12, NASB.
[2] 1 John 4:1, NASB.
[3] John 10:22-39, Luke 7:18-23, NASB.
[4] Psalm 34:8, NASB.
[5] John 1:46, NASB.