Tag Archives: Science

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

Portraits of Christians – Nicolas Copernicus

Astronomer Copernicus - Conversation with God, by Jan Matejko, 1871.
Astronomer Copernicus – Conversation with God, by Jan Matejko, 1871.

Today I’d like to add to my previous series looking at examples of great scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who were Christians. We seem to have this stubborn notion in our modern minds that  science and religion are mortal enemies. The atheist mantra is that religion equals primitive, backwards superstition, while science is gradually replacing it in an ever onward and upward march to a rational utopia. Or so I hear… And yet I read the writings of many of the “fathers” of science, and I see a very different picture. Today, let’s look at Nicholas Copernicus, often called the “father of modern astronomy.”

Copernicus lived from 1473 to 1543, and was a canon (a church administrator/lawyer) at the Frombork Cathedral in East Prussia (modern Poland). He also wrote a memorable treatise on currency devaluation [1], and oversaw the defense of Olsztyn during an attempted invasion by the Teutonic Knights in 1520. However, Copernicus’ name would be nothing more than a footnote in the history books had not a young protestant math professor name Rheticus convinced Copernicus the Catholic to publish his life’s work. And so the 6 volumes of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres was published shortly before Copernicus died in 1543. This proposed the idea that the earth moved and was not the center of the known universe. This is commonly known as the heliocentric view, although geokinetic might be more appropriate, as Copernicus focused more on the earth’s movement than on the sun’s centrality in his magnum opus. While the warning on the title page  of “Let no one untrained in geometry enter here,”  is certainly justified, there are a few passages relevant to our purposes amidst all of the spherical geometry.

Speaking in the introduction about the worth of pursuing astronomy, he states, “For when a man is occupied with things which he sees established in the finest order and directed by divine management, will not the unremitting contemplation of them and a certain familiarity with them stimulate him to the best and to admiration for the Maker of everything, in whom are all happiness and good? For would not the godly Psalmist [Ps 92:4] in vain declare that he was made glad through the work of the Lord and rejoiced in the works of His hands, were we not drawn to the contemplation of the highest good by this means, as though by a chariot?” [2]

I’ve come across several atheist memes that try to lay claim to Copernicus and treat his book (which includes the quote above) as the beginning of the end for belief in God. But, I ask you, does the above quote from the man himself sound like anyone opposing God? On the contrary, Copernicus argues that astronomy draws us to worship God all the more. In fact, talking about things “established in the finest order and directed by divine management” sounds like a taste of intelligent design and the fine-tuning argument a few centuries early.

What made Copernicus pursue this lifelong quest? He tells the Pope in his book’s dedication to him, “I began to be annoyed that the movements of the world machine, created for our sake by the best and most systematic Artisan of all, were not understood with greater certainty by the philosophers, who otherwise examined so precisely the most insignificant trifles of this world.” [3]He then did a literature review, found some precedence for an orbiting earth, and proceeded with an investigation, open to that possibility in spite of what the great astronomer Ptolemy had said 1,400 years before.

It proved to be a long, tedious, detailed investigation crammed between his normal daily duties. He really was “moonlighting”. Not giving up, he wrote, speaking of the difficulties he encountered in his investigations, “Nevertheless, to avoid giving the impression that this difficulty is an excuse for indolence, by the grace of God, without whom we can accomplish nothing, I shall attempt a broader inquiry into these matters.”[4] Spoken like a true Christian.

“But wait!” the skeptic will say. “The church banned his book because of their narrow-minded opposition to the truth.” Let’s look at that. It is true that the Roman Catholic church put On the Revolutions on the Forbidden Books list, pending “correction”, although that was not until 73 years after it’s publication. During his lifetime, Nicholas was encouraged – no, prodded – to write his book by his good friend Tiedemann Giese, bishop of Chelmno. Nicholas Schönberg, the Cardinal of Capua, had written to Copernicus as early as 1536, recapping the salient points of Copernicus’ “new cosmology” and encouraging him, “with the utmost earnestness” to “communicate this discovery of yours to scholars”.[5] Cardinal Schönberg did not see heliocentrism as contrary to Scripture. Who might see Copernicus’ views as a threat to the church? Copernicus tells us in his dedication (again, to the Pope) that “Perhaps there will be babblers who claim to be judges of astronomy although completely ignorant of the subject and, badly distorting some passage of Scripture to their purpose, will dare to find fault with my undertaking and censure it.” [6] Hmmm… it seems that Copernicus thought, and was willing to say directly to the Pope, that only those distorting Scripture would see any fault in his work. He continues, “Astronomy is written for astronomers. To them my work too will seem, unless I am mistaken, to make some contribution also to the Church, at the head of which Your Holiness now stands.” [6] This should come as no surprise that Copernicus would believe his theory to be a contribution, rather than an overthrow, of the church. All truth is God’s truth, both the special revelation of the Bible and the general revelation of the world around us.  Therefore, true knowledge of the world around us contributes to our understanding of its Creator.

In July 1543, 2 months after Copernicus’ death, his friend Bishop Giese wrote to Copernicus’ young disciple Rheticus and mentioned a “little tract” Rheticus had written, regarding which, Giese said, “you entirely correctly defended the earth’s motion from being in conflict with the Holy Scriptures.” [7] Bishop Giese also wrote a treatise (now lost) called Hyperaspisticon,  “upholding the compatibility of Copernicanism with the Bible, if read properly.” [8] But, as Copernican historian Edward Rosen laments, both works failed to survive [their] passage into the clutches of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.[9] What’s interesting here is that in the heat of the Protestant Reformation, this Catholic bishop and Protestant professor could both agree that Copernicus’ theory did not conflict with Scripture.

What can we say about this alleged dispute with the church? Simply that Copernicus’ disagreement was with Ptolemy, the 2nd century Greek astronomer, not the church. Many in the church, along with most scientists in the world, both before Copernicus, and for 2 centuries after him, rejected Copernicus’ theory and accorded to Ptolemy infallibility that is simply not the domain of any man. That is always a recipe for disaster, particularly for the church, who should know better than anybody that no one is perfect but God alone. But as for Copernicus, he was a indeed a Christian, a faithful servant of his church, and a model scientist.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monetae_cudendae_ratio, accessed 2016-10-30. His premise was basically that bad money (i.e. devalued, or inflated) drives good money (with intrinsic worth, like bullion coins) out of circulation, either abroad or through  hoarding by the citizenry. This is actually still a very timely work almost 500 years later.
[2] Nicholas Copernicus On the Revolutions: Complete Works, Volume I, translated by Edward Rosen, 1992, Book 1 Introduction, p. 7.
[3] p. 4.
[4] ibid, p.8.
[5] ibid, p. xxi.
[6] ibid, p. 5.
[7] ibid, p. 339, notes for page 3, Line 38.
[8] ibid, p. 342, notes for page 5, Line36.
[9] ibid, p. 343, notes for page 5, Line 38.