Tag Archives: investigation

Qualifications

Black Diamond - for experts only...
Black Diamond – for experts only…

There is a trend I’ve noticed in debates (especially online) where it is put forth that who you are disqualifies you from making any statement on a controversial issue. Those familiar with logic will recognize this as the genetic fallacy, that a statement’s origin can determine whether it’s true or false. And yet it persists in the public square. Here are some examples, some of which I’ve been personally challenged with: you can’t speak about human behavior unless you’re a psychologist; you can’t speak about science without being a scientist; you can’t speak about abortion unless you’re a woman; you can’t speak about legal issues unless you’re a lawyer, and on and on. Since this is often brought up, let’s look at this in more detail.

First off, does someone trained in a particular discipline and working in that area have an advantage over the typical layman in discussing that topic? Certainly, but this doesn’t preclude other people from forming reasonably valid opinions on the same topic. For instance, if you want to know whether your office building can support a heavier rooftop air conditioning unit, by all means, call an engineer like myself to investigate that for you. We’ll apply our knowledge, experience, and specialized analysis software to your situation to work out the safest, best solution to the problem. But if you’re in your office, and the roof is starting to visibly sag, the sheetrock on the walls is starting to buckle inward, and you can hear loud noises as bolts suddenly snap, please, don’t think you need to wait on an “expert” to tell you that you need to get out! That situation doesn’t require an expert to say “Run!” There is a difference between needing the fine-tuned conclusion that a subject matter expert can bring to a topic and needing to establish the broad, basic solution that can be deduced by anyone applying valid reasoning to the evidence at hand. In the roof collapse example, it doesn’t really matter to the occupants whether the roof beams are failing due to lateral-torsional buckling or by block shear at the column connection. They can look at the ceiling getting closer to their heads, and listen to the building, and reasonably come to the same basic conclusion as the engineer: this building is collapsing and we need to evacuate. Likewise, you don’t need to be a psychologist to recognize the guy trying to run people off the road has some serious anger issues he needs to deal with. And lawyers, despite their expertise, actually don’t decide the guilt or innocence of a person charged with murder. They can only explain the case; average citizens on the jury make the decision.   This idea that only experts on a topic can speak on any level about that subject leads to blind faith in those experts, and is really a forfeiture of our responsibility to dig deep and understand the issues we face. Please understand, this is a standard I hold myself to as well. If you hire me as an engineer, and I make some crazy-sounding recommendation that I can’t explain any basis for, don’t blindly trust me either – by all means, call me out on it.

Something else to consider is that amateur enthusiasts often develop extensive knowledge in those areas that attract them. For example, I don’t often have to deal with liquefaction as a design consideration, but someone whose house collapsed in an earthquake because it was built on susceptible soil may devote their life to learning everything they can about liquefaction mitigation. Even though they may not have the engineering credentials that I do, I might still do well to heed what they say about that topic. I’d want to verify how they arrived at their conclusion, but we should never discount someone’s statements simply because of the person making the statements. You see, ultimately, the objective nature of truth determines the validity of the message, not the qualifications of the messenger.

Often, when I get this kind of pushback, the person I’m debating ironically also doesn’t meet the qualifications they demand of me before I can speak on the topic. By their own standard, they shouldn’t be voicing their opinion either. But typically, this is just a tactic for attempting to shut down the conversation. For example, one time, an abortion supporter told me I couldn’t comment on anything about abortion because I wasn’t a woman. And yet, the Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of abortion in 1973’s Roe v. Wade case were all men. The difference? Only that they were agreeing with her position.

Are we free from the duty of making informed decisions? Can we just “leave that to the experts?” Can we ignore the claims of those who aren’t experts? Not as Christians, we can’t. The Bible tells us to “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”[1] That may surprise some who assume the Bible demands a “blind faith” or a “leap in the dark”, but we actually aren’t allowed to check our minds at the door. We need to study the evidence, reason through the implications, and make the wisest, most discerning choices we can, in whatever the matter is at hand, even if we’re not experts.

[1] 1 Thessalonians 5:21, NASB.

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.

“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.