Tag Archives: investigation

“Hard Evidence”

Lab Experiment“I don’t think there’s anything he could say that would convince me – I need hard evidence,” said an atheist friend when I invited him to come with me to  a presentation on the reliability of the Bible. That got me thinking about evidence and our desire for more of it. After all, “seeing is believing,” right?

This November marks the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein publishing his theory of general relativity. Only 10 years earlier, in 1905, Einstein had published not one, but four, paradigm-shifting papers, including his special theory of relativity and his proposal of mass-energy equivalence, from which we get the famous equation E=mc². Since then, his theories have been repeatedly confirmed. Special and general relativity did not simply provide a competing theory compared to classical Newtonian physics; they encompassed Newtonian physics. In relatively weak gravitational fields, special relativity reduced to Newtonian formulas at speeds much slower than the speed of light (our typical earthbound experience). General relativity expanded on that to provide an explanatory framework that could account for objects travelling at all speeds and through any gravitational field. It explained what Newtonian physics could and couldn’t explain. That’s powerful.

How did Einstein develop this powerful theory? Can you tour the lab where he huddled over a workbench full of special scientific equipment, or see the telescope he tirelessly spent long nights peering through, looking for evidence of gravitational lensing, or examine his lab journals of dutifully recorded experimental results? Not really. Einstein worked as a simple patent clerk in his “miracle year” of 1905, and was still doing “thought experiments” when he developed general relativity. He was short on evidence, but long on problems to think through. He proposed 3 scenarios unexplained by Newtonian physics that relativity would need to correctly explain for it to be true: 1) the slight changes in Mercury’s orbit around the sun already observed by others, 2) the deflection of light by the sun that Newtonian physics predicted, but not accurately, and 3) the color change (redshift) of light passing through a gravitational field that was completely unverifiable at that time.[1] While he could compare his theory’s predictions to  Mercury’s orbital changes measured by others, he had no way to confirm the other 2 tests. In fact, the evidence to support his theory only trickled in over many years, the most conclusive confirmations  of it after his death in 1955. Sir Arthur Eddington confirmed the deflection of light by the sun’s gravity in 1919 when he measured the slight curvature of starlight bending in the gravitational field of the sun during a solar eclipse. But it was decades before sufficiently precise measurements could confirm gravity’s miniscule color-shifting effect on light here on earth. In the years since, though, several other effects have verified Einstein’s unproven theory.

In fact, Einstein’s general theory of relativity touches most of our everyday lives  in one very real, but surprising way. Our cars, planes, cellphones, and even wristwatches now have the ability to tell us where we are because a of wonderful cold-war invention called GPS. But engineers designing the GPS satellites originally didn’t think they would need to account for gravitational redshift in the signal timing. This change in color of visible light is actually an effect of time dilation; time actually runs faster in a weaker gravitational field. And so the clock on a GPS satellite will run 38 microseconds faster, per day, than the same clock on earth, which is enough to produce invalid location results. This would also handicap our cell phones that use this precise timing to handle transferring calls to new cell towers seamlessly.

So did the lack of hard evidence in any way detract from the truthfulness of his theory? No, that’s because we don’t create truth, we only discover it. If something is true, it’s true whether we know it or not, and whether we understand it yet or not. The GPS clocks ran faster whether the original engineers admitted it or not, and whether you and I fully understand it or not. Can Christianity be true without measurable, scientific evidence? Absolutely.[2] But there’s a deeper question here. Is experimental observation the only way we come to know truth? No. In fact, the “thought experiments” Einstein relied on were simply exercises in sound reasoning that scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers have used for millennia. As Einstein understood, there are many times where it is impossible to obtain “hard evidence” for something. It may be a unique, non-repeatable event, or it may be something infeasible to test at the present time, but that doesn’t have to stop us from investigating. Albert Einstein didn’t limit himself to experimental evidence, but rather used his mind to go where science couldn’t yet, and he changed the world. Don’t let your desire for a certain type of evidence keep you from investigating the truth of Christianity and changing your world.

[1] Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004), p. 87-88.
[2] Not that there isn’t a wealth of evidence for the truth of the Bible, but that’s a subject for another day.


Blind Faith?

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at FreeDigitalPhotos.net“Blind faith”. I’ve heard atheists use the term as an insult to Christian opponents – “I believe in science and not blind faith like you.” Surprisingly, I’ve heard some Christians use it almost as a badge of honor  that they had such complete blind faith.  So what is the biblical perspective on faith? Is it really “believing something strongly in spite of a preponderance of evidence to the contrary” as atheists would claim? Is it a step into the unknown, taking God at His word, so to speak, with no reason whatsoever, as some Christians would claim? Or is there another option? What does the Bible itself say?

Hebrews 11:1 is the most famous definition of faith in the Bible: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Here, and in most other places translated as “faith”, the Greek word used is πίστις (pistis) or one of its related forms. This word can be translated as faith, belief, trust, confidence, or proof. Looking at secular Greek sources, Herodotus used it to refer to a pledge or military oath[1].  Other secular authors such as Aeschylus, Democritus, and Appian used the word to denote evidence from the senses or from eyewitness testimony, or proof of intent deduced from observed actions [2].  The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo used the term pistis in his writings 156 times with the sense of evidence in over 50% of those instances [3]. Aristotle used the term to describe various “proofs” for convincing someone of your case through reason and logic [4]. This word for faith sounds like it was often used by secular sources as a justified belief based on observation, logical or philosophical reasoning, or testimony and solemn oaths. But we can dig a little deeper yet. The word pistis is derived from the Greek word πείθω (peitho), meaning “to persuade”. Are you persuaded blindly by any assertion you hear, or by evidence, by sound reasoning,and by common sense? It makes sense then that Aristotle would use pistis to describe the proofs of the art of rhetoric (persuasion).  It seems that Biblical faith is anything but blind. Rather, it is “God’s divine persuasion” [5]. It is also interesting that the word translated in Hebrew 11:1 as “conviction” in the NASB translation is ἔλεγχος (elegchos) which means proof, and is derived from ἐλέγχω (elegcho), a verb meaning “to convince with solid, compelling evidence; to expose, refute or prove wrong.” [6] Faith could be said to be God’s divine persuasion of the reality of the supernatural things we can’t observe with our natural senses.

So then, if our faith is more of an evidentially persuaded trust by definition, are there any supporting passages to confirm that is what biblical writers like Paul understood when using words like pistis and elegchos? Below is a partial list of supporting passages.

 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he [Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” Matthew 22:37-38

“And because of His words, many more became believers. They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.’” John 4:41-42 (NIV)

 To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.” Acts 1:3 (NASB)

 But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good…” 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (NASB)

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 1 John 4:1 (NASB)

We are to love God with all that we are, including our mind. Jesus repeatedly appealed to the evidence He presented to people, not the least of which was Him being alive after being scourged, crucified, and having a spear run through His chest.  Paul tells us to  examine everything carefully, while John urges discernment specifically in spiritual matters. In the end, I have to say that we don’t check our brains at the church door, and if we do, we’re not following the example set before us in Scripture. For while blind faith in the truth may still benefit us, it is an accidental benefit that could just as easily be a blind faith in error (such as cults). Thorough, honest investigation only destroys faith in error; but it only builds faith in what is true.

[1] The Histories, Book 3, Chapter 8, Herodotus. Viewable in English or Greek at The Perseus Project.
[2] Pistis as “Ground for Faith” in Hellenized Judaism and Paul, David M. Hay, Journal of Biblical Literature, 1989, 3rd Quarter, p. 461.
[3] ibid. p.463.
[4] Rhetoric, Aristotle, Book 1, Chapter 1:3, 4th century BC, Kindle Edition. The word pistis or one of its forms is translated as “proof” here and throughout the rest of the 3 books.
[5] Biblehub.com word study of pistis (Strong’s #4102).
[6] ibid, word study of elegchos (Strong’s #1650).

Hide & Seek

Paul speaking to the Athenians at the AreopagusOver the last couple of decades in the engineering field, I’ve had the opportunity to use several different pieces of software aimed at speeding up different aspects of engineering design. At my current job, I use several different programs for specific tasks like wood design,  steel design, or general purpose structural analysis. When they work like I think they should, life is generally good. On the other hand, when the results aren’t what I was expecting… well…. Deadlines approach quickly as I try to figure out whether the program has a bug in it, or if it is calculating something I’ve been neglecting all these years. Did the software  developers interpret some building code statement differently than I did? Who’s right? I hate not knowing why something isn’t working, and when these things happen, I’ll spend the time to get to the bottom of it. Several times, I’ve found serious program bugs that the developers corrected when I reported them. Other times, I learned I was the one that was wrong. But every time, I learned far more about a particular aspect of building design in the process of researching the issue than if things had gone smoothly. In a deadline-driven world, though, it’s all too easy to do a cursory review and say “Oh good, looks like it worked, moving on.”

Philosopher Peter Kreeft makes an interesting point about this: “We investigate what we are surprised by, not what we already know or think we know and take for granted [1].” A common complaint about God is His “hiddenness”. The skeptic says, “If only God would plainly reveal Himself to me, I would believe.” But inherent in that seemingly open-minded statement is a demand housed in the word “plainly”; namely, that God reveal Himself to me in the time and place and method of my choosing. Not only would this be different for each person, but it also would reduce God to some genie working miracles on demand. Our desire for God to make Himself known to us in the way we choose is, in effect, a desire to reverse roles and make Him subservient to us.

Instead, God has revealed Himself in His own way, first through the general revelation of the natural world, with it’s grandeur and design that are apparent to the simple and unlearned, and yet, ironically, even more apparent the deeper we explore fields like astronomy and genetics. Second, through the specific revelation given the various prophets and writers collected in the Bible. So why does He not give us “more”? It might be that He does not reveal Himself to us completely to keep us searching. Like a puzzle, we fill in what we know of Him from general and special revelation, but if He gave us every piece of the puzzle, would we still hunger and thirst for Him? Would we think we had Him all figured out (as if we could figure out an infinite God) and stop chasing after Him to focus on something else we don’t grasp yet? By keeping some of Himself just out of view, does He excite our curiosity and drive to learn? Could a deliberate hiddenness be one way He draws those to Himself who wouldn’t otherwise come to Him, who would be content with where they are? The apostle Paul, in his discussion with the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17, states that “…[God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us…” The word translated as “seek” comes from the Greek word ζητέω (zeteo), meaning “to seek in order to find; to seek in order to find out by thinking, meditating, reasoning; to strive after.” This isn’t casual skimming here; this is intensive searching, analyzing, studying. This is like the last 10 minutes of an open-book final exam – pages are flying as you frantically search for what you can’t quite remember. The word “find” comes from the Greek word εὑρίσκω (heurisko) meaning “to find, learn, discover, especially after searching” or “to find by inquiry, thought, examination, scrutiny, observation, hearing; to find out by practice and experience.” To use the college example again, this isn’t flipping the textbook open to the right page and stumbling on the answer. It’s more like the time in college I spent most of the night working one awful thermodynamics homework problem – I was definitely groping for the answer then![2] And if we ignore the collection of direct communication that God has provided, even if it’s maybe not what we want to hear, then we will be groping in the dark, though He is “not far”.

[1] Peter Kreeft, Summa Philosophica (South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine’s Press, 2012), p. 16.
[2] FYI: if your teacher normally assigns multiple problems and you get an assignment with only one problem, watch out! 😉

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.