Monday, March 28, 2016

The Resurrection and Apollo XIII

“Who would believe what we have heard?”
—Isaiah 53:1
The Resurrection of Christ certainly makes for a riveting story, but is it reasonable?  In the end what is reasonable or unreasonable depends on the base premises involved. For many, the Resurrection generally adheres to one of three premises—lies, lunacy or legend.
  • The early Christians intentionally deceived others about the risen Christ.
  • Or they were delusional enough to actually believe it.
  • Or stories about Jesus were exaggerated over time into an elaborate myth.
Remember that early Christians were not converted by the sword. In fact, it was the precise opposite. If you did convert, you would face “the sword” or at least by ostracized from your already established culture and community. In the logic of the human condition, people will follow the path of least resistance without a strong impetus to do otherwise. Would mere stories convince so many without other compelling evidence? There are exceptions to every rule, but it’s easier to do nothing than to turn your life upside-down listening to the legends of liars and lunatics. But suppose they already felt ostracized by their culture and were desperately looking for a revolution and a savior? This would have plausibly appealed to the “fight or flight” instinct, but the new Christian faith was not about taking up weapons or running away from problems.
The other leg of “legend” or “myth” was covered in my last post. I think the myth theory runs into a serious problem with “time”. Some may still dispute the first-century date for the Gospels, but no one disputes that Paul's letters were written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses to Christ. If so, there is not even one generation with which to build-up such a fantastic myth as the Resurrection, which was indispensable to the early Christian faith.
The Resurrection might still be dismissed as not credible simply because that sort of thing just doesn’t happen. The paradigm that says “that just doesn’t happen” is one reason for using analytical problem solving, which trains people to go wherever the data leads, and on occasion it leads us to places in spite of our intuition and our experience. One of the case studies we review in a problem solving class I teach where I work is the Apollo XIII disaster. I’m more familiar with accident than the average person and one aspect of it reminds me of the Resurrection.
Apollo XIII was well on its way to the moon when at fifty-four hours and fifty-two minutes into the flight the origin of that famous phrase was born; “Houston, we have a problem.” The word “problem” is an overgeneralization; the first specific deviation reported to Houston was “Main Buss B undervolt”. This meant that one of the two main power distribution panels for the command module had fallen off in electrical output. A “large bang” was another deviation reported at the same time as the first. A few minutes later another deviation was reported; Main Buss A undervolt. Apollo XIII was suddenly losing electrical power and no one knew why.

Engineers on the ground immediately began some incident management (action to the effect) by reducing electrical consumption on the ship. About thirteen minutes after reporting the first deviations more came in. There was a sudden loss of oxygen in one of the two main cryogenic oxygen tanks and a gradual loss of oxygen in the other (oxygen was used on the ship not only for breathing, but also to generate electricity. I’d imagine this was because batteries powerful enough for the ship would have had been too heavy to take into space). The ship’s crew also reported that the ship was “venting” something out into space. With the ship rapidly losing both electricity and oxygen 205,000 miles away from earth the situation could hardly have been any more critical.
While putting contingents in place to deal with the problems effects, NASA engineers also began analytical problem solving to find the cause. This was done even though they had no possibility of amassing all the data they would have liked. After analyzing whatever relevant data was available, the number two oxygen tank suddenly bursting was a possible cause that explained all the observed deviations better than anything else suggested. There was one difficulty with this proposed root-cause. NASA engineers knew that their equipment was the best and safest ever invented. The very idea of a main oxygen tank just bursting in deep space was simply not credible; this is what their experience and intuition told them.
Faulty instrumentation or what we might call “bad data” was another proposed cause.1 This idea may have made some people feel better. If true, it would mean that the gauges and alarms were just malfunctioning. If the gauges and alarms were “lying” or “acting crazy” so-to-speak, then there was no real danger and the mission could probably continue. Although I’ve never dealt with a life and death situation at work, I can relate to the true cause of a complex and costly problem eluding us because it was counter intuitive; it flew in the face of our knowledge, experience and intuition. When this happens the natural tendency is to pick a theory you like better and then build-up assumptions until it fits all the available facts. Preferred possible causes tend to be under scrutinized, while unwelcome possible causes tend to be over scrutinized.

The cause was indeed a rupture of the number two cryogenic oxygen tank. This cause could have been easily dismissed because “that just doesn’t happen”, but this is where all the data lead and the engineers were disciplined enough to go there. Clear-headed logic in a crisis saved the crew. Had the true cause remained unknown much longer, it would have delayed the planning to get the crew back home and there was no time to spare.
Houston celebrates the return of the Apollo XIII crew.
If there were no oxygen tanks on board, one bursting would truly be impossible. Someone insisting that the tanks did not exist would first need to be shown otherwise. Once it is made clear that the tanks are actually there, one rupturing could be at least considered. I think the same can be said in regard to Christ, His followers and the Resurrection. Even if you believe in God you can still ask questions. Were they liars, lunatics, legends or speaking “Truth”? One could answer “I don’t know”, but those willing to believe a particular theory would do well to remember the purpose of the historical method and a principle of analytical problem solving. An historian or problem solver cannot always “prove” or recreate past events. In such a case, he or she works to present a theory that will best explain the most data.
Without being either gullible or cynical, which theory explains the most data given no possibility of amassing all the data you would like to have?
“Thought is dangerous. Thought can bring you to the door of truth. There are all kinds of reasons for wanting that door to stay shut. Men cannot endure the light.”
—Anthony Esolen

1 Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, Lost Moon, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), p. 96.


  1. Once it is made clear that the tanks are actually there, one rupturing could be at least considered.

    which theory explains the most data given no possibility of amassing all the data you would like to have?

    You are exactly right. One needs to consider what is plausible or imaginable.

    We don't dismiss ideas/solutions as impossible when we’re trouble shooting, if we know the ideas/solutions are at least plausible based on realized data (even if we have incomplete data).

    The NASA team’s approach was one of critical thinking and creative problem solving. It was a matter of “determining backwards”, of putting together the data to fill the need or to fill the hole-- a process of elimination on the fly -- to solve the problem. The same strategy is what is used in the business sector in trouble shooting, as you obviously know. It’s also a good approach to use in conversations about the Big Bang.

    This is the sign of a well-trained mind. One that peels back all that seems plausible and one that asks, "What don't we know yet? What is the missing variable that is plausible in all of this?" Asking the right questions is paramount in finding the best answer or solution to a problem.

    The NASA team had to get creative with what they already knew and they worked with the known data to find the solution. Great critical thinking on display. Makes some good points for an interesting post. ;)

    Hey, when’s your book out?

    1. Hi Nubby,
      Sounds like you have some background in critical thinking. Anything specific, like Six Sigma or something?

      As for the book. I have proposals out to 8 publishers so far; 3 have said "No Thanks". I have 4 more to contact. Push comes to shove, I'll do a selfy (self- publish.

      Thanks for asking!

  2. Yes, Six Sigma, Shainin, DOE’s. Six Sigma and Shainin are much better than DOE’s as you illustrate in your post, because the answer is actually data-driven, whereas DOE’s look for variables and interaction in the experiments, and give much softer results. The results don’t really result in flagging the problem.

    I like your thinking, sir! Hope to read that book soon. All the best.