Tag Archives: Scientism

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

Foundational Assumptions

Liquefaction in 1964 Niigata Earthquake
Liquefaction in 1964 Niigata Earthquake

There’s a saying about what happens when you assume, but the fact is that we all have to make assumptions at some point. You can’t build a structure without some baseline support like footings or piers; and you can’t build a theory, a philosophy, a worldview without some basic assumptions. In engineering, a common assumption is that a few test borings on a job site will inform you of the soil conditions across the site enough to complete your foundation design safely. We assume uniformity unless the test borings indicate otherwise. Some of the areas of my state are notorious for holes and caverns called karst formations. A geotechnical engineer colleague told a group of us of one case of a test boring showing solid rock about 10′ from a proposed footing location, only to pour the concrete footing and not fill up the hole. The reason: the concrete dumped in the hole had broken through the roof of a previously unknown small cavern…. Site uniformity is sometimes a very inappropriate assumption. Hopefully, like good structural foundations, your foundational assumptions for your beliefs are well-grounded. For instance, whether you believe that objective truth exists will determine a great deal of what you can reasonably believe. I say “reasonably” because one can, of course, believe whatever one wants, but if you want to hold reasonable views that are not self-contradictory or absurd in their actual application, then you need to have good foundational assumptions.

On what do you build your worldview? Relativism is the view that truth is relative to each culture, time, or even to each person in some forms. It is a lot like soil sensitive to a process called liquefaction. It seems to support weight alright when things are good, but when an earthquake hits, it turns to quicksand and provides absolutely no support. Scientism, the idea that science, or more specifically, the scientific method, is the only way of knowing truth, is a lot like those problematic karst formations. The scientific method, and science in general, is rock-solid in its area of applicability. Where it’s dangerous is when used outside of those areas. Science is great at describing stuff in the natural world, at telling us what is. My whole career as an engineer is predicated on science’s correct descriptions of the way the natural world works. Where it falters is when it’s asked to prescribe, to tell us what ought to be. We can do social experiments to see if people are selfish or mean or hateful, but science can’t tell us why they ought not be that way. In the areas it was designed to be used, science is trustworthy, but outside of those areas, it’s like building on Swiss cheese. Atheism and secular humanism often go together, as one denies God while the other elevates man to God’s position of ultimate authority. Yet this has turned out to be like building in a swamp full of peat and other “compressible material”: the higher one tries to build, the more weight one puts on the foundation, and the more it sinks. As the last century’s experiments in Communism – which were solidly and proudly atheistic – proved, man without God makes for a foundation of morality that sinks to frighteningly awful depths. Is there anything solid we can build a philosophy of life on?

There’s a saying that to build high, you have to dig deep. In other words, a house may be able to sit on a simple slab-on-grade, but a skyscraper will often have foundations going several stories underground. And when you dig down and hit something solid like Manhattan bedrock, you have the makings for some of the tallest buildings in the world. When building your framework of beliefs, some ideas will be necessarily self-limiting. They simply can’t hold up under examination. On the other hand, the Christian worldview is able to encompass all of reality because it is uniquely authored by the Creator of all reality. That is why Jesus was able to compare those who heeded His words to those building on rock:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”
– Matthew 7:24-27, NASB.

Build smart. Build your life on the only solid rock – Jesus Christ.