Tag Archives: Logic

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

In Defense of Logic

I received some surprising feedback lately from a fellow Christian pushing back against my emphasis on logic. The charge was even made that I “idolized” logic. Surprising (and saddening) as this is, I suppose it is worthwhile to review the role of logic in our lives. Now, I would never want to put anything, even logic, before God, but the simple fact of the matter is that we really can’t know God without logic. Don’t believe me? Let’s dig into that today by looking at 3 questions: What is logic? Is it necessary? And how does it apply to our understanding of God?

  1. First, what is logic? Is it some mysterious type of thought used by Vulcans, Mentats, and computers that is antithetical to Christianity?  Hardly. Logic is to thought as grammar is to language; it is the structure of thought. Logic is simply the organization of our thoughts into coherent structures that can have discernible meaning.  Without any further clarification, the statement “I am 5 feet tall and 6 feet tall”, would be nonsense to you. You might ask if I meant that my height was between those 2 numbers, or if I was talking about at different times of my life, or you might ask what the punchline was. Why would you not just accept that I existed in the form of 2 different body heights at the same time? Because it’s not possible. And we have a law in logic that puts that common sense notion into words. The law of non-contradiction states (in Aristotle’s formulation), that “the same property cannot both belong and not belong to the same subject at the same time in the same respect.” To have a body height of 5′ and 6′ at the same time, measured the same way, would necessarily be a contradiction and would be physically impossible. Because we cannot conceive any way something physical could be 2 different lengths at the same time in the same way, contradictions like that are truly nonsense. Now, it’s not like Aristotle (or anyone else) invented the laws of logic, anymore than Newton or Einstein invented gravity; these laws simply describe relationships that already exist. Logic is not a human invention, just a human discovery.
  2. Is logic really necessary? As Peter Kreeft points out in the preface to his logic textbook, “We all have used logic already, unconsciously, many times every day.” [1] He goes on to say, “One of the best remedies for bad reading and writing is good logic.” [2] Another professor laments that “logic is the very backbone of a true education, and yet it is seldom taught as such in American schools.”[3] While philosophy professors may bemoan the lack of logic instruction outside of their classrooms, that alone doesn’t make it actually necessary. In fact, you can certainly think without knowing logic, but only in the same way you can speak and write without knowing grammar – in both cases, the results will not be as coherent. Of course, the basics of logic, like the rather obvious law of non-contradiction,  are what we tend to call “common sense”, so even without knowing logic, it’s hard to not use it, even if used poorly at times. In fact, one typically has to resort to logic in any attempt to argue against it.
  3. So how does logic fit in with knowing God?  Classical logic systematizes our thoughts into three acts of the mind: understanding, judgement, and reasoning.
    • Understanding (or simple apprehension) is where we define our terms, where we understand what it is we are thinking about.  When we say that “God is good,” what do we mean by the terms “God” and “good”?  Many an unnecessary argument rages on because two opponents use the same terms but mean different things.
    • Judgement is that act of the mind where we make truth claims that must be accepted or rejected.Once we have our terms defined, judgement is what we say about those terms, those objects of our thoughts. We think about God, and judge that He is good. Our judgements are statements that are either true or false. There is no middle state between true and false, existence and non-existence, or any other condition and its negation (this is called the law of the excluded middle). If there is a middle option, then we have not been sufficiently specific in our initial statement.
    • Reasoning is where we establish why our judgements are true. This is the justification, warrant, or basis, for our statements or beliefs. Why do we think God is good? Think of valid reasoning as the foundation stones that support the structure made from true judgement of clear terms. Without valid reasoning, you can be accidentally correct about something, but your belief is just a house of cards waiting to be knocked over. Too many people rightly believe various truths about God, but for reasons like how it makes them feel, or that their parents told them these things. If they never dig any deeper to the real foundational reasons, then they are easy prey for the first skeptic that comes along and knocks these false supports out from under them.

Logic clarifies what is believed, deduces the necessary consequences of the belief, and applies it to difficult situations. [4]Let’s look at a prime example: the Trinity. This is core Christian doctrine. Indeed, it’s been said, “In the confession of the Trinity throbs the heart of the Christian religion: every error results from, or upon deeper reflection may be traced to, a wrong view of this doctrine.” [5] So why do we believe that God is triune? Because the church fathers had to wrestle with the tension between the clear teaching in the Bible regarding three divine Persons, and the equally clear teaching that the Lord our God is one God. But they very laboriously worked through precisely defining terms, judging what were true statements about those terms, reasoning through the serious implications of what they knew to be true, and applying that logic to discover this truth about the nature of God that we call the Trinity. The Trinitarian formulation is the result of resolving a paradox through logical reasoning.

As Professor Kreeft points out, the simplest and most important reason for studying logic is that “logic helps us to find truth”. [6] Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that He is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Any tool that draws us closer to truth can draw us closer to Him. And that’s worth defending.


[1] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 12.
[2] ibid. p140.
[3] D.Q. McInerny, Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, (New York: Random House, 2005), p. ix.
[4] Kreeft, p. 4.
[5] Herman Bavink, The Doctrine of God, p.285, as quoted in Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), p. 247.
[6] Kreeft, p.7.

A Two-Pronged Attack

Infantry land on Utah Beach on the east side of Cotentin Peninsula, while Airborne parachuted in from the west. US Army Brochure.

73 years ago, on June 6, 1944, the largest amphibious assault in history hit the beaches of Normandy, France, to begin a slow marathon to Berlin, the seat of Nazi power. To facilitate gaining a foothold on the Nazi-controlled continent, the landings at 5 separate beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast were also coordinated with airborne infantry dropping behind enemy lines to clear the way inland for the (hopefully) successful beach landings. The foothold was costly and took time, but it eventually led to Allied victory over Hitler. But what I want to discus today is a different kind of attack: one on a grander scale even than D-Day; an attack with bigger objectives than the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation; an attack formulated by a greater Supreme Commander than General Eisenhower.

What I’m writing of is God’s assault that He launches against the walled fortress of each human heart. You see, we are rebels every one, fit only for court-martial and subsequent execution by a perfectly just Ruler over all.  When the standard is perfection, there are no “little sins”, no peccadilloes, no “white lies”, no minor indiscretions. Not acing that test is the same as failing, and since none of us are perfect, we all fail. But God, in His sovereignty and amazing love and grace, doesn’t leverage His omnipotent power against us, obliterating us like so many flies in a nuclear blast.  Instead, His purpose was not to destroy us rebels, but to redeem us, to transform “children of wrath” [Eph 2:3] into “adopted children of God” [Eph 1:5].  How does He do that? There are many ways to analyze His strategy, but I see a two-pronged attack of reason and love at work.

We find justification for believing in God’s existence and in the truth of what the Bible records about Him through science and philosophy, or our observations of the world around us and our critical thinking. We can apply logic to the question of God’s existence in the form of arguments such as the Cosmological, Teleological, Axiological, and Ontological arguments, among others, and rationally deduce that God exists. With the Cosmological and Teleological arguments in particular, we can support those premises with our scientific observations of the universe around us. Indeed, the apostle Paul tells us that God’s eternal power and divine nature can be clearly seen from what is created, so that men are without excuse [Rom 1:20]. We can examine the historicity of the biblical manuscripts, their supreme coherence, both internally and with the external world,  and their explanatory power in comparison to other religions and ideologies, and see that Christianity provides the  most reasonable explanation of human history, of our paradoxical greatness and wretchedness, as Pascal would say.

Not everyone would surrender based on evidence and reasoning, though. Some might shy away from those avenues to God, thinking they were too complicated to bother with, or beyond their abilities. Some on the other end of the spectrum would dig in their  heels all the more in response to reasons contrary to their views. They would feel the directness of cold, hard logic, and batten the doors of their fortress all the more. Childishly, we can resent being told anything contrary to our desire for personal autonomy, even when it’s for our own good. But defenses strengthened against one attack may yield to another. And God has a flank attack:  He loves us. Not with some momentary warm fuzzy kind of so-called love that soon passes, but with a sacrificial love for those who hated Him. For, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” [Rom 5:8, I Jn 4:10,19], “the just for the unjust” [1 Pet 3:18]. Because He created us in His image [Gen 1:27], we have intrinsic value, even if the rest of the world tells us we aren’t smart enough, attractive enough, cool enough, or any other comparison they can find to feel better at our expense.  And when people look at our past mistakes and ask, “Who could ever love someone like that?”, the answer is, God. He did, He does, and He will. Love is a powerful craving in all of us, and we seek it in all the worst places sometimes. And those pursuits don’t satisfy, so we keep running to the next big thing that we think will be the end of our search. All the while, our loving Creator awaits, extending an invitation to each of us, not desiring that any should perish {Ezek 33:11], but still obligated by His perfectly just nature to punish all who reject his loving offer of salvation [Rom 2:4-6].

Some yield to God’s logic and others to His love,  but they are just two sides of the same divine battle plan to redeem a chosen people. For me, 25 years ago, my sinfulness, God’s perfection, and my need to come to Him on His terms rather than mine were as obvious and rational to me as 2+2 equaling 4. There was simply no justifiable reason to reject God’s gift. And the deeper I have dug, and the more I have researched other worldviews and religions, the more I “know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day” [2 Tim 1:12]. Whatever way God uses to reach you, don’t reject His offer. It does require unconditional surrender on our part – something our prideful hearts bristle at – but like the Nazis in WWII, we’re actually on the wrong side, and the best thing we can do is surrender to our just, but loving, Lord.

Of Movies and Church Corruption

Birkebeinerne Carrying Håkon Håkonsson – by Knud-Bergslien, 1868

I watched a Norwegian movie this past weekend called “the Last King” (that’s the English title, “Birkebeinerne” in Norway). The story takes place in the year 1206, and tells of 2 soldiers (Birkebeinerne) carrying the future king of Norway, Håkon Håkonsson, to safety when he was a baby. Because he and his mother were living in a village in territory controlled by an opposing faction in Norway’s civil war, the dangerous ski trek through a blizzard in the mountains, carrying a little baby, pursued by enemies wanting the baby (and any supporters) dead, makes for a great story. In fact, the epic true adventure is commemorated each year in Norway with the 54km (33.5mi) Birkebeinerrennet ski race, where participants carry a 3.5kg (8lb) backpack to pay tribute to the 2 soldiers carrying baby Håkon.

While I enjoyed the movie, there was a particular theme in the movie that caught my attention for its cynicism. Part of the plot of the movie is a villainous Catholic Bishop wanting to dominate all of Norway, who orders the hunting down and killing of the would-be heir to the throne. The audience is taken into the dark cathedral, where the Bishop gives his goons the following pep talk before dispatching them on their deadly mission:

“We have just received word from Nidaros. King Håkon is dead. The Birkebeinerne have lost their unifying force. The time of kings is past. But, the Church will always endure. When one man falls, another will take his place. And he answers only to God. We rule Eastern Norway. Western Norway is next. Soon the Church will have dominion over all of Norway. But one task remains. King Håkon is survived by a son. Today, an innocent boy. Tomorrow… our mightiest foe. The boy is being hidden on a farm in our territory. The man who finds the king’s son, shall enjoy great wealth all of his days. Show no mercy during your hunt for the child, for the Lord is eternally merciful, but He also requires sacrifices. Let law and order yield along the way… and bring me the boy’s head.”

Whether the Bishop in the movie is historically accurate or not, this evil Bishop is unfortunately how many people view the Church, and consequently Christianity. But is that an accurate portrayal? Reports of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church, the marital infidelity of Protestant pastors, greedy televangelists, charlatans of the “Prosperity Gospel”, and corrupt “Christian” charities stealing donations only add to the impression of a corrupt and scandalous church no better than the rest of the world, and indeed, worse for the hypocrisy. But let’s compare our movie villain, the Bishop, to what the Bible teaches.

  • The Bishop desires a physical empire for the Church, yet  Jesus told Pilate at His trial that His kingdom is not of this world [Jn 18:36]. Rather, while foxes had holes, and birds had nests, He had no home [Mt 8:20]. The warnings of the moral dangers of chasing wealth and power are too many to mention here. However, our dear Bishop could’ve at least remember the model pointed to in Hebrews where the author talks of heroes of the faith who “went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them.” [He 11:37-38] This desire for earthly power is not an example of the Church’s calling, but rather of the universal fall (corruption) of mankind explained in Genesis 3.
  • The Bishop offers lifelong wealth as a reward to the one finding the king’s son for him. Yet riches were never a motivation of Jesus, His apostles, or any of the early Christians. Jesus said to store up for ourselves treasures in Heaven rather than on earth, and that man cannot have both God and money as his master [Mt 6:19-24].  He even warned how easily riches could get in the way of one getting to Heaven [Mt 19:23-24]. Instead, we are to seek His kingdom and His righteousness first, and God will provide what we actually need [Mt6:33].
  • The Bishop specifically said to “show no mercy” and to kill an admittedly “innocent boy” who might become his foe someday. Jesus disagrees. As He put it, “Blessed are the merciful” [Mt 5:7], “Love your enemies, and pray forthose who persecute you” [Mt 5:44], and do not simply refrain from murdering someone, but rather do not even be angry with them [Mt 5:21-22]. Paul likewise said to “overcome evil with good”  [Ro 12:21]. A far cry from the Bishop here.
  • The Bishop’s reference to God requiring “sacrifices” in this context is just an awful perversion of God’s Word [Mk 12:33].
  • The Bishop said to set aside law and order to accomplish his orders. Yet Paul and Peter both told all Christians to obey the civil government whenever possible. The only real biblical exception is when civil obedience would require disobedience to God [Ro 13:1-7, 1 Pe 2:13-16, Ac 4:18-22]. The Bishop was right that we answer to God, but God has also said that we must answer to the rulers He has allowed to preside over us.

Is the Bishop’s behavior an example of Christian practice? Hardly! On the contrary, it’s strongly opposed to what Jesus actually says. In fact, the Bishop’s attempt to kill a baby he fears will become his enemy someday is more reminiscent of King Herod trying to have Jesus killed as a baby [Mt 2:13,16]! While the Bishop was a fictionalized church leader, the examples I listed earlier are very real headlines. Nevertheless, each of them is also behavior that clearly goes against the Bible. Discounting all of Christianity because of some of these bad examples would actually be to commit the logical fallacy of composition: “arguing from the part to the whole, ignoring the fact that what is true of the part is not necessarily true of the whole.”[1] Are these perpetrators corrupt? Absolutely. Do they invalidate Christianity? Absolutely not. Their behavior doesn’t flow from the Bible, and is, in fact, opposed to it.  So next time you’re tempted to cast a cynical look at Christianity because of disobedient Christians or people only claiming to be Christians [Jn 15:8,14,16], keep that cynicism focused on the person whose actions actually warrant it, and not the faith they are disgracing.


[1] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 87.

The Design Analogy

The DNA Structure – Illustration by Zephyris – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15027555

There is a theory, known as Intelligent Design (ID), that postulates that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”[1] Many people reject this theory out of hand, and yet it just won’t go away. Why is ID so persistent? I would suggest it’s because analogy is so powerful. We tend to think analogically. We use analogies to work through difficult problems. When we have difficulty understanding a concept, a common first move is to try to find some way the new concept is analogous to something we already understand. Of course, all analogies break down at some point. Otherwise the 2 things being compared would be fully identical. But analogies help us to correlate known causes or effects with newly observed ones. Think back to when you had trouble understanding something new, and a friend or mentor who knew you well enough to know what kind of concepts you understood well, said “It’s like this…” and related it to something you were familiar with, and it suddenly clicked.

The problem for the atheist seeking a materialistic explanation for the universe and the existence of intelligent life is that we can’t seem to avoid analogies – comparisons – to design. Intelligent Design is such a persistent idea because so much of nature is analogous to human design. It’s actually pretty difficult to describe many things in nature without using design-centric terminology: we commonly speak of the “genetic code” and the “blueprints” of DNA; different “body plans” of the each species; the fine-tuning of the universe with its “clockwork precision”; cellular “pumps” and “motors”, and the “wiring” of our nervous system; and the “purpose” of different natural components. Even Richard Dawkins defined biology as “the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose” and speaks of our bodies as consisting of trillions of cells “organized with intricate architecture and precision engineering into a working machine….”[2]  In fact, the human body has been compared to a “system of systems” similar to a building’s structural skeleton, architectural skin and functionality, and mechanical ventilation, plumbing, and electrical systems, except far more complex than anything any human has ever designed. The analogies between what we see in nature and the results of the human design process really do seem to flow rather readily, don’t they? Of course, the bacterial flagellum has become the poster-child for intelligent design, but why not? The analogy between it and an electric motor, both in function and even in individual parts really is uncanny. When searching for descriptions for natural processes and their results, all of these design-related terms keep rising to the surface as the most appropriate, fitting, terms to use. Why is that?

To answer why this whole debate between Intelligent Design and Naturalism even arises, let’s look at the what analogy really is. Peter Kreeft addresses this topic in his Socratic Logic textbook, where he makes several relevant points.

  • Analogies are often not meant as arguments to prove a case, but simply illustrations to better explain some part of it.
  • Arguments based on analogy do not prove anything with certainty, only varying degrees of probability.
  • Arguments from analogy are the most common kind of inductive argument and actually make up most of our daily inferences.
  • “Argument by analogy is an really an abbreviated form of induction and deduction together.”[3]

Now, I would say that ID isn’t simply attempting to make an illustration, but a proper argument, so let’s lay out some terms first. Induction is (typically) the process of drawing general conclusions based on observation of specific instances. The most basic form of induction is induction by simple enumeration. Think of statistics; you measure a certain part of a test population and induce some general conclusion from the sample you measured. The more you measure the more certain your conclusion. But generally, you cannot be certain except in the case that you measure every possible instance. Deduction is (typically) the process of reasoning that applies general principles to specific instances. Provided the premises are true and the conclusion logically follows from the premises, a deductive argument will provide certainty.

Now analogy is said to be a combination of the two because when we draw an analogy, we are thinking of multiple past instances of something, inferring a general conclusion from that previous track record, recognizing (perhaps unconsciously) the common essence tying those past instances together, as well as that common essence in a new instance, and applying that general principle to the new instance. Analogies provide us a shortcut for that thought process. The more cases we’ve seen, the more similarities between those cases and the new one under investigation and the more relevant they are, and the fewer the dissimilarities between them,  the more certainty we can have that the analogy is sound.

So why won’t Intelligent Design go away? Perhaps because we can recognize an intelligent mind behind all of our human designs, can infer that a mind is what’s required to generate any design, can recognize the twin pillars of design – choice and purpose – in many natural objects and processes we observe, and can therefore reasonably apply that concept of design to them even if we haven’t figured out the identity of the Designer yet. Of course, ID is just a scientific theory, and stops short of identifying the Designer, but we can apply what we know about the necessary attributes of this mystery guest to arrive at an identity. The question for my skeptical friends is this: if the evidence points to nature being the result of design, and the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, ontologically necessary, free agent known as God in the Bible is the best fit for the source of that design, will you follow the evidence where it leads?


[1] “Intelligent Design”, New World Encyclopedia. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Intelligent_design, accessed 2017-02-15.
[2] Both quotes are from Chapter 1 of Dawkins’ 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker.
[3] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St Augustine’s Press, 2010), pp.329-31.

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.

Building Arguments, Houses, and the Universe

Home ConstructionA while back, we looked at the Teleological Argument (the argument for the existence of God from the design observed in the natural world). You can click here to review that, but today I want to unpack a one-sentence version of this case presented in the Bible. Yes, one sentence. But first, we need some background on different ways of building logical arguments. Typically, these are put forward as a deductive argument called a syllogism: two premises and a conclusion that should necessarily follow from the premises. If it does, and the terms in the premises are unambiguous, and the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. Here’s a common version of the design argument in syllogistic form:

  1. Every design has a designer. (Major Premise)
  2. The universe was designed. (Minor Premise)
  3. Therefore, the universe had a designer. (Conclusion)

The typical design argument described above is called a deductive argument. Deduction uses the essential nature of something  to state a universal proposition and apply that with certainty to a particular case. The major premise that every design has a designer is the universal statement in the syllogism above. That is just part of the nature of design, so that will also apply to any particular object exhibiting design, even if that object is the entire universe. Because an essential characteristic applies to all members of a set, well-formed deductive arguments provide us with certainty about the conclusion. But deduction typically arrives at these universal propositions on the basis of a prior induction.[1] What’s that? Glad you asked…

Inductive arguments typically use sense perception to examine particular instances of a set of specimens and infer a general characteristic about the set. However, the inductive argument’s dependence on observing particulars means that its conclusion is never certain until we understand the essence common to all the particulars that explains why the conclusion must be so. Without that additional step of reasoning, the inductive conclusion can never be certain, only probable. [2]

Typically (for better or worse), we don’t take the time to organize our thoughts into formal inductive or deductive arguments. We take shortcuts. One very common shortcut is called argument by analogy. This is actually the most common form of inductive argument as everyone draws analogies at some point. Analogies actually combine four steps into one. That’s OK as long as the reasoning behind the shortcut is still valid. I came across a verse in the Bible that uses the analogy shortcut to condense the teleological argument into one sentence. Hebrews 3:4 tells us that “every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.” Let’s walk through the four steps together.[3]

  1.  Observation. The author observes that every particular instance of a house is the result of a builder.
  2. Induction. The author infers the universal principle that all houses require a builder.
  3. Understanding. The author understands why the universal principle is an essential and necessary part of the instances observed rather than just a coincidence. Anything which is built entails selection and assembly of parts by an agent so as to achieve an end-goal. That agent is the builder.
  4. Deduction. The author deduces an application to another instance from this universal principle. In this case, the principle of a required builder (agency), applies to “all things”, for we recognize assembly, and contingency, and purpose  – the signature of a builder – everywhere we look.

As in the modern teleological argument, it does not explicitly follow that God is the builder, but the author of Hebrews includes that credit in the conclusion based on the attributes of God that make Him the only possible option. While omnipotence and omniscience would be virtually required to build all things, it’s His immateriality and eternality that really make God the only logical possibility. These are the two attributes that would allow a potential builder to exist prior to the existence of space and time. For instance, even if a super-powerful, super-smart alien had the ability to design and construct a universe, as a material being, it would still require the existence of space in order to itself exist. Suppose that same alien were a truly immaterial, but non-eternal,  “ghost”. That might get around the dependence on space, but as best as we can determine scientifically, the universe had a definite beginning where space and time both came into existence together. Whatever begins to exist has a cause, and any potential designer constrained by time would therefore have to have a beginning along with the universe supposedly being designed by it. Shortening that law of causality to “whatever exists has a cause” is responsible for the typical misunderstanding of atheists like Richard Dawkins when they ask “Who made God?” They’re trying to demonstrate an infinite regress of causes, but forget that causality is predicated on something having a beginning. Eternality stops the infinite regress of causal events by allowing a first uncaused cause. That attribute can only be possessed by a necessary being, and there can only exist one necessary being. Therefore, God has to be the “builder” (or “designer”).


[1] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic, Edition 3.1 (South Bend: St Augustine’s Press, 2010), p.314.
[2] One exception to this is the “complete induction”, where we have examined every member of a set, and can draw an inductive  conclusion with certainty without recognizing the common essence.
[3] ibid., p.329-331.

Essence vs Accident

The School of Athens - Raphael (1511)
The School of Athens – Raphael (1511)

A friend hosts a video conference call of sorts each week where a guest speaker presents on a certain topic, and other participants can just listen in, submit questions or comments via a chat function, or dialogue via video with the guest speaker.[1] The guest speakers represent many different views, from Christian to atheist to Muslim, from supporting evolution to intelligent design, from pro-abortion to pro-life. It’s an interesting chance to hear a representative of an opposing view make their best case, and then open up to questions from anyone who agrees, disagrees, or is still trying to decide.

Last week’s speaker was Dr. Michael Behe, biochemistry professor at Lehigh University, and one of the more famous intelligent design proponents. In the Q&A, an atheist chemist questioned Behe at length on how to avoid false positives and false negatives when deciding something is the result of design.[2] I think that’s a fair question. For instance, if diagnosed with cancer, you wouldn’t want a false positive (being told you have cancer and going through an expensive and often painful treatment regimen unnecessarily), but you really wouldn’t want a false negative (being told the cancer was gone when it really wasn’t). Yet what I found particularly interesting was that in the course of the dialogue, the atheist revealed a determined adherence to the idea that design was only a human activity. So reluctant was he to admit even the possibility of a supernatural designer of nature, that he seemed unable to bring himself to admit the possibility of a completely natural, but alien, designer. Now, I’ve discussed design on this blog before (like here), and I used a rather cumbersome, but accurate, definition for “design”. Behe chose to use the following concise definition from freedictionary.com: “the purposeful or inventive arrangement of parts or details.” However one defines design, human involvement actually isn’t a specified requirement. That brings me to this week’s topic.

Why is design not necessarily limited to humans? What is it at the heart of design that helps us recognize it, regardless of source? To answer this, we need to understand a more basic question: what is required to classify something, to see different objects and recognize commonalities between them and assign them to the same universal categories? For instance, why do we put Chihuahuas and Saint Bernards in the same category of “dog”? Why group  pretty little redbud trees and rugged Joshua trees and majestic Giant Sequoias as “trees”? What is this abstract trait of “dogness” or “treeness” that allows us to make these groupings? In philosophy, there is the idea of essence and accident. Something’s essence (like forming branches) is that which a thing must have to be what it is (i.e. a tree). An accident is that which a thing can gain or lose and still remain what it is (i.e. greenness or redness of leaves). For example, skin color, ethnicity, physical appearance, level of intelligence, and so on are all accidental traits of humans, but none of those are what set one apart as human.

At the heart of the atheist’s objection seems to be a confusion between what is essential and what is accidental. In the case of design, there are two essential factors: choice,  and purpose (or a goal). A designer is one who makes choices between alternatives in order to achieve an end-goal. Whether that designer is human, alien, angel, demon, ghost, or God, the essential requirement for design is the presence of a mind capable of determining a goal and making choices to realize that goal. Notice I did not say “brain”, but rather “mind”. While a brain is a physical container and interface for a mind, an unembodied mind is certainly possible. The requirement for a mind still does not limit design to humans.

As Peter Kreeft highlights in his logic textbook, “the most important act of abstraction is the one by which we abstract the essential from the accidental.”[3] But the atheist in this case is only seeing the accidentals, the particular instances of design carried out by humans, and failing to abstract that out to the universal aspects of design that make it design regardless of who’s doing it. In saying that we can only infer human design from seeing something that appears designed, he is effectively hamstringing science. By the same logic, he could say that because he has only ever seen Bob design something, the claim that John also designed something is unsubstantiated. Yet the goal of science is to expand our knowledge beyond what we are already familiar with. We do that by observation of particulars, abstraction to universals, and application of those universals to new particulars. In this case, rather than saying that we can only infer human design from having observed humans designing, we proceed as follows: a) we observe humans designing many things, b) every case observed involved an agent making choices to achieve a goal, c) therefore, a Martian artifact exhibiting these traits could indicate the presence of a Martian designer at some point. Likewise, the presence of these essential design traits in biological systems in humans would justify the idea that a necessarily non-human designer was the cause of any design found in humans. Does that have implications that run contrary to atheist preferences? It does. But we must follow the evidence wherever it leads, even – no, especially – if that leads to our Creator.


[1] Jonathan McLatchie’s Apologetics Academy. Click here for archived videos of past presentations on his Youtube channel.
[2] Click here for the Behe Presentation. The dialogue with the atheist begins at about 54 minutes in & goes for 26 minutes.
[3] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, IN, edition 3.1), pp. 34-43, 110.

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.