A few months ago (this post has been lurking semi-forgotten in my drafts folder for a while) my colleague Richard Boyd posted a piece on our company Arup Thoughts blog advocating a closer relationship between engineering and philosophy, either cunningly or coincidentally timed to coincide with the release of the documentary Ove Arup: The Philosopher Engineer. As an engineer with an interest in philosophy I found it an interesting article and one that I mostly agree with.
One part that I am slightly sceptical about is his closing suggestion that closer ties with philosophy would be a solution to the perceived low status of engineering in the UK. Philosophy, after all, has its own issues with public perception and for much the same reason; not enough people know enough about what it is to understand the role it plays in their lives. The key problem in both cases is, I think, educational – I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that neither engineering nor philosophy is explicitly taught in schools. Similarly, just as the title of ‘engineer’ has become devalued to the point of meaning ‘guy with a spanner’ in the eyes of the British public, so ‘philosophy’ has come to be seen as dealing with things of little practical use, while those areas of it which have been arguably most successful have rebranded themselves as separate disciplines (‘natural philosophy’, for example, is now ‘science’) and do not seem keen to admit to their occasionally eccentric parentage. A philosophy of engineering might gain us some kudos in certain academic circles, but it is unlikely to sway the denizen of the Clapham omnibus whose support is rather more important to the health of the profession.
However, I certainly do agree that there are benefits to engineers engaging with philosophy beyond membership of the tweedy beardy club. Engineering education, as Richard correctly points out, is one area where an improved understanding of what we actually do as engineers is desperately needed. Also, as an entirely general point I think that looking into disciplines outside of our typical sphere of interests is a beneficial, perhaps even vital, thing to do. It is where different disciplines rub up against each other that the spark of innovation is most likely to be ignited. My own dual role as an engineer/software developer allows me insights into both sides that a pure specialist in one or the other might not see so easily. I suspect that the same is true of the intersections between engineering and many different fields, among them philosophy.
Of course, ‘Philosophy’ is a fairly broad subject area. The two bits of it I personally find most interesting and practically useful are epistemology (the study of knowledge and how – or if – we can attain it) and the study of values (what it is that drives people’s actions, including – but not limited to – ethics).
So, to get the ball (or trolley) rolling, I’ll contribute an observation that touches on these two areas. Specifically, I’ll talk about what I think is the key difference that separates the engineering mindset from a purely scientific one.
Scientists (and, sometimes, Philosophers) try to model the universe in as much detail as possible. Engineers, on the other hand, model the universe in as much detail as is significant for the task we are trying to perform.
It might sound like I am insinuating that engineering is easier – but as an engineer I’m of course not going to admit any such thing. While we might typically dwell at a somewhat lower level of detail than – for example – a quantum physicist, the extra burden of judging significance is… well, significant. Even if we typically ignore the deeper physical laws for the purposes of design we must still possess some understanding of them in order to determine their insignificance in the first place. Significance is also, of course, contextual and will shift from project to project. It can be hard to judge and doing so is an acquired talent – one easy way to distinguish a young engineer from a more experienced one is that the younger engineer will attempt to model every nut and bolt (metaphorically, but also sometimes literally) of a problem that an older engineer would quickly pare back to the bare essentials.
The above applies to mathematical and analytical modelling but it also, I think, tends to spill over into a more general engineering mindset. Engineers (myself included) tend to be practical people who’s first reaction to any problem will be to attempt to find a solution. The approach described above helps us to do this; we can deal with complex situations but avoid losing sight of the bigger picture by becoming bogged down in minutiae. Our skill set typically scales quite well to different types of problem because of this.
On a deeper level, I think it also affects our personal preferences, especially as they relate to design. We tend to place great value on efficiency, simplicity, clarity of purpose and so on. These tend to mesh quite well with the desires of architects (who usually want minimal structure) and clients (who usually want minimal cost) but will not always exactly align.
However, there may also be darker consequences to the stereotypical engineering mindset. Particularly as they relate to our engagement and understanding of topics outside of our own specialisation, such as science and indeed philosophy.
One semi-famous example of this is the ‘Salem Hypothesis‘, which was first proposed by Bruce Salem and is available in two flavours. The ‘weak hypothesis’;
In any Evolution vs. Creation debate, A person who claims scientific credentials and sides with Creation will most likely have an Engineering degree.
And the strong;
An education in the Engineering disciplines forms a predisposition to Creation/ID viewpoints
The evidence supporting this hypothesis is largely anecdotal, so I’ll initially respond in kind. I did indeed have a friend on my (engineering) degree course who was a creationist; although rather than being driven to it he was one already when he started the course and simply remained one at the end of it. I can’t say that I was aware of any particular creationist agenda in the course material, but neither was there any part of the course that particularly called such a worldview into question (I did have a go at arguing him out of it myself, but only halfheartedly) – it’s not really a topic that is particularly relevant to the engineering syllabus (although if the use of genetic algorithms becomes more widespread, perhaps that will change). I suspect that rather than an engineering education driving people towards creationism, it is just easier for somebody who is already a creationist to come out the other side unscathed than it would be in more strictly scientific courses, where I imagine such a view would generate rather more conflict.
However, I do not think it wise to completely dismiss the Salem Hypothesis or its broader implications. It has also been observed that engineers have a tendency towards more general religious and political extremism. A 2009 paper examining the backgrounds of jihadi terrorists found that they were three to four times more likely to come from an engineering background than from other similarly technical areas.
Again, we can dissemble and say that this can be accounted for by the fact that terrorism is a fairly practically demanding occupation and it is not really surprising that it is one where the technical, organisational and leadership skills of engineers are well-suited. It may also be the case that extreme religiosity predicts an interest in engineering rather than the other way around – it is not hard to imagine that people who have been conditioned to view modern academic science as ‘the enemy’ but who are nonetheless technically minded could find an acceptable outlet in the more theologically permissive field of engineering.
Likewise, we could explain away the prominence of engineers in far-right philosophical/political movements such as Objectivism by pointing to the prominence of engineers in their source texts. Whatever her faults, Ayn Rand appreciated the importance of engineers and engineering. It is not too difficult to see how a philosophy which paints engineers as heroic underappreciated geniuses shackled by repressive and small-minded bureaucrats might win a few fans among the profession.
If the point of comparison is with similarly science-orientated degrees, I’ll also note that the observed effect could actually be due to a tendency among scientists to adopt majoritarian, middle-of-the-road politics (perhaps erroneously assuming that the consensus view in other fields has survived the same rigorous gauntlet the scientific one has), leading to engineers appearing more radical by comparison.
However, while there are other factors to be considered and much of the supporting evidence is somewhat shonky, I do think that there may be something to the suggestion that engineers have a propensity for fundamentalism. As with any such generalisation it is only a tendency and will only actually manifest in a small minority of the given group, but if that minority will be larger in engineering than elsewhere it seems sensible to question why that might be.
If the observation on the engineering mindset made above holds true, there is an obvious danger in determining what aspects of a problem are or are not significant. Within engineering itself, this can usually be quantified in some way and decisions made accordingly. In other fields, it can be more difficult or impossible to numerically express the significance of certain factors. This can mean that the engineer’s natural desire to simplify can easily go too far and result in a harmful oversimplification.
How, for example, might we quantitate the value of a human life? I myself would argue that we cannot – that the sum total potential value of any human being can never be known in advance regardless of the yardstick being used and that consequently (with very rare exceptions) the taking of a life cannot be logically justified. Nonetheless, there are situations where we might be called upon to factor human life, happiness, freedom and so on into our calculations. The best-practice engineering response to such situations is to always err on the side of caution, but not all engineers always follow best practice.
I‘ve often seen the fact that the majority of the Chinese politburo are engineers used to laud the widely-applicable skills of the profession, but there is also a less positive spin that could be put on that information, given that nation’s less-than-spotless human rights record. The stereotypical engineer’s obsession with practicality and efficiency may, in some circumstances, begin to look more like ruthlessness.
The charge that engineers tend towards radical politics is also something I find hard to rebut, since my own politics tend away from the mainstream (albeit towards Georgism, which might best be described as ‘far-middle’ and, I would argue, does not engender the same fundamental lack of compassion as the two more traditional poles). The suggestion that engineers find the political middle-ground unsatisfactory due to the mish-mash of contradictions and logical inconsistency which it contains is certainly something that I recognise in myself. My instinct for logical purity I think I do owe somewhat to engineering, where a failure to respect the logical consistency of the natural world will almost inevitably lead to disaster. (So too, I would say, in politics; it’s just that there perpetual structural collapse is the norm, so it’s harder to pick out causal links.)
I’m not in any way religious, but I can see the same thing applying within that sphere. Having made the initial leap to accepting a particular text as holy and infallible, I can imagine the same mindset would lead to taking that text and its interpreters literally over the slightly more pick ‘n’ mix approach of moderate religion. The path to fundamentalism may be a logical one, even if it requires a starting point which is itself very much illogical.
Such erroneous assumptions may be another thing to which the engineering mind is particularly susceptible. The design process typically has one or more target criteria in mind, with the various aspects of the design assembled to suit. Such goal-orientated thinking is anathema to fields such as science and philosophy where (ideally) the outcomes of a logical process must be accepted regardless of how well they fit in with preconceived biases. An engineer who comes to such a subject still firmly embedded in the problem-solving mindset of design could easily fall into the trap of merely rationalising their existing beliefs rather than being open to new ones.
None of these intellectual pitfalls are exclusive to engineers. Nor, I suspect, are they genuinely more prevalent within engineering than within many other vocations. Furthermore I think all academic disciplines (including philosophy) have similar problems with insularity and institutionally embedded worldviews. However it is worth discussing, being aware of and prepared to guard against such inclinations, especially when engaging in fields outside of our formal training. If we want to engage in philosophy we must make sure that we are doing so as philosophers of engineering, not engineers of philosophy.
As all the best philosophical ramblings do, I’ll end on a paradox. The engineering mindset may not be one that is naturally suited to engaging in philosophy, but the best way to address that issue is to engage in philosophy. Problems inevitably arise with any mode of thought or set of values that is applied uncritically without awareness of the context of its development. Philosophy can give us the tools to make that assessment and act on it, making us better philosophers and perhaps better engineers as well.