Philosophy of Engineering

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Engineering, Change and Identity

In order gain a feel for the philosophical influences acting on the engineering profession I have started receiving daily news alerts from google. These snippets of current affairs can provide interesting insights into the wider issues that underpin the industry and inform philosophical debate.

By way of illustration, take today's batch of news items. Two stories rise to the attention of the philosophical enquirer - The first from the UK, by Douglas Friedl in "Scotland on Sunday" and the second from the USA, by Jim Mackinnon in "The Beacon Journal".

The scottish news article voiced the views of the local engineering industry, who were lamenting the downgrading of engineering in Scotland and suggested that engineering has lost its visibility despite the fact that it provides a vital foundation for the regional economy. In response to this allegation the article quoted the Scottish Enterprise agency who made the distinction between "advanced" engineering sectors that optimsed cross-cutting opportunities between industries and "traditional" engineering sectors (energy, construction and aerospace) that did not. The Enterprise agency considered that the future favoured these advanced engineering sectors over the traditional ones. It may be surmised therefore that it is not that engineering has lost its visibility or has been downgraded, rather that it is advancing and changing.

This advancement and change was the focus of the second article in The Beacon Journal. The article considered that the globalisation of sience and technology has resulted in an acceleration of; change, the development of new concepts and the application of new approaches. This effect is happening across all industries and disciplines and the article proposed that the only way to keep up with the pace of change was to create new collaborations, partnerships and systems for communication. And perhaps one may sympathise with the Scottish industries who are caught up in this whirlwind of change - for change can be hard to understand and accept and even harder to implement.

When change occurs we often seek to anchor ourselves to the set of core beliefs and values that have defined us and to which we have a desire to remain attached. In terms of the engineering industry it is the concepts, theories, skills and abilities that define what it is to be an engineer. In the new world of "advanced engineering" we must decide which of these are fundamental to enable the concept of "engineering" to live on. I am reminded here of Descartes search for fundamental truths and an insightful volume I more recently encountered, Viktor Frankl's "Man's search for meaning".

Engineering is perhaps having an identity crisis, which in itself is nothing new, but perhaps the crises which it perceives are getting closer to the core of its being. Its problems may be more existential, that is to say relating to its very meaning of existence. To overcome this semi-neurosis (semi- because we cannot say that engineering as a whole suffers from this kind of concern) Viktor Frankl would suggest that engineering must recognise that such problems result from being locked into memories of the past and to move forward engineering must focus on the future. To put it another way; engineering needs to move away from thinking about what it can do for society to thinking about what society expects it to do.

This may involve a philosophical paradigm shift or a retrenchment of established philosophical principles. Either way food for the mind of the philosophical enquirer

Friday, July 07, 2006

Engineering and Descartes

So how about Rene Descartes? An interesting fellow, 1596-1650 and penned the now famous line “Cogito ergo sum” (for you Latin scholars and much corrupted by my sociological friend – “Have spanner so am engineer”, irreverent but curiously apt). Rene was a man frustrated with the state of things in his profession and dared to think up new ideas as to how his profession could move forward.

In doing so he applied a rigorously logical approach to his endeavours. Essentially he set out to strip bare the theoretical framework of his profession until he could find its fundamental source (or truth). His method involved four steps:

First – never accept anything as true that he did not know to be evidently true, that is to say, avoid precipitancy and prejudice
Second – divide each of the difficulties that he examined into as many parts as possible in order to best solve it
Third – start by thinking about the simplest and easiest part to solve before moving to the more complex objects
Fourth – check everything, taking care to have omitted nothing

A blueprint for engineering method? Are Engineers Descartian disciples? Do Engineers pay sufficient homage to Descartes?

Perhaps the philosophers out there in cyber space can shed more light on the works of Descartes and how they relate to the world of philosophy and of course engineering. Should Descartes be regarded an engineering hero, having contributed deliberately or inadvertently to the development of engineering thought?

Questions, questions!

For those with an interest, Rene Descartes: Discourse on method and the meditations, in the Penguin Classics series is a very good read (only a slim volume, always the best I find).

Sunday, June 11, 2006

More Engineering and Theology

Ok no interesting replies to my posting, but I don’t want to give up on this topic just yet.

On another forum, some comments suggested it would not be a good idea prescribing ever more “stuff” for inclusion in engineering curricula. I agree, and worry that this tendency to over prescribe leaves little time for deep learning and results in a spoon-feeding approach; and I ask myself is that good for the profession?

I have always seen my engineering career as a journey, a never ending path of learning along which I am driven by a love for the subject. As such the few years spent as university have long-since become only a small part of what makes me an engineer.

This may be likened to some form of religious devotion, something spiritual, something beyond the materialist and utilitarian application of scientific principles to problems. Rather it may be characterised by a desire to understand the nature of engineering knowledge and how that knowledge can be used for the benefit of mankind the universe and everything. To some extent, it seems this zeal is missing from new entrants to the engineering profession; it seems the profession may be losing touch with its soul.

And what can theology teach us? Well theology is very much about nurturing the soul and it serves as a reminder of what values we should focus on if we are to put the soul back into engineering. I would hazard a guess that a foundation for life-long learning and dedication is more about soul than about science.

To some extent this is exactly the sort of question that needs to be address by a forum exploring the philosophy of engineering and so I appeal to readers to consider this topic; for I wonder – How important is the soul to the profession? If it is, how do we nourish it? And if we do, when do we start?

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Philosophy of Engineering?

I see a few blogs on this subject and I wonder - how frequently do engineers ask themselves why do they do what they do?

Like all other professions, the body of knowledge that constitutes the sphere of engineering continues to grow. The education of engineers is thus forced to focus on increasingly specialised areas of knowledge with the threat that the greater meaning of engineering is lost.

At its heart, engineering is about production. Engineers take materials from the world about them and reshape them for the betterment of mankind. This requires a conscious effort and the application of logical thought to satisfy a perceived need.

As a logical process, engineering involves the formulation of concepts, the design of solutions and the creation of physical manifestations of those solutions. It utilises resources that may be inert, semi automated or even living and it is driven by an instinct for survival, a need for protection and desire to develop.

Engineering is not free to be applied at will to any perceived need, but must work within cultural constraints and adhere to the moral and ethical standards of the society in whose service it is employed. Not withstanding such limitations, its proponents do aspire to achieve the both artful and efficient utilisation of resources and the attainment of ultimate truth in the solutions derived from their efforts.

In essence, to grasp the greater meaning of engineering requires the development of philosophical concepts such as a cognitive awareness of life, self, others and the external world. This needs to be blended with a higher understanding of science, the environment and society. And as servants for society engineers, through their education, should acquire knowledge of a sense of duty, sentiment and humility.

Engineering is therefore not just about mathematics, design, experimentation and manufacture; it is about epistemology, ethics and metaphysics. If engineers desire to truly understand themselves, their profession and their role in society, they need to include in their education the study of philosophy and perhaps by that they may enrich even this learned field by developing their own philosophy of engineering.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Engineering and Theology

So there I was reading an interesting paper titled "Theology and the outcomes-based curriculum: the value of not knowing" in the 2006 spring edition of the "Discourse" journal when I became struck by the familiarity of the narrative.

The question struck me; could it be that there are parallels between the teaching of theology and the teaching of engineering? It seemed that there were.

The paper (by Darlene Bird) outlined how theological education in the UK has been impacted by the modern trend in education to have outcomes that are "useful" for the British economy and that learning for learning's sake was now regarded as "a bit dodgy". The paper sought to counter this view and proposed an argument in support of an education not restricted by such narrow, materialist and utilitarian outcomes. Focussing on the teaching of theology in a higher education setting the author argued that students should be exposed to the uncertainties and unknowns of this world and that the system should provide the necessary space for open enquiry and discovery. Through such exposure students will be free to develop more independently.

I felt somewhat swayed by the idea that engineering education may be set free from the shackles of overly prescribed curricula.

The argument went on to reflect on how this utilitarian shift has been accompanied by the redefining of knowledge as a commodity which intern has led to the dominance of an "operationalist" ideology in higher education. The jargon associated with this paradigm focuses on skills, competencies and outcomes and seems devoid of the notions of wisdom, reflection and self-awareness. Education was perceived as having more to do with "training" than with "educating" with little room for transformativity; a process whereby not just the student is changed but the acquired knowledge is transformed in the mind of the student.

This point again struck a chord with me as I remembered the discussions I have had with others on an Engineering and Philosophy E-Forum relating to the importance of truth, honesty, knowledge and wisdom in the engineering profession.

It seems that the theological fraternity has been resisting this trend, which the paper described as reductionist and impoverished and favouring product over process. Education, it was argued, should be transformative, have a profound impact on a person's life, inducing changes in perspectives and attitudes and foster a lifelong quest for wisdom, respect for one's own integrity and that of others, self-examination in terms of the beliefs and values adopted for one's own life and the challenging of prejudices.

Weighty stuff I thought, but not so different from discussions on the E-Forum relating to engineering ethics, sustainability and the duty engineers have to society

The paper concluded by suggesting that a higher education should challenge beliefs and expose prejudices, it should open up the space for students to ask questions - questions that have no answer - and it should provide the opportunity for students to reflect on how they would respond to not having an answer, to not knowing - or acknowledging that they do not know - which is the beginning of wisdom. True knowledge, the author wrote, does not lie in the recitation of facts or in the acquisition of skills: true knowledge has to do with understanding - and facing up to - our human condition.

I felt convinced, challenged and enthused - what direction should the engineering profession be driving towards? A skills base or a knowledge base? Surely one cannot exist without the other? Should the education system focus on knowledge and employers provide the skills training? Some philosophical and some practical questions - perfect Philosophy of Engineering material.