Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Engineers don't care about truth; good for them

For better or worse, the sciences (at least some?) are often taken to have, maybe even to take, the goal of uncovering truth. Questions arise at how scientific theories that are revised or thrown out get at the truth or an approximation of truth. It seems to me that in engineering endeavors, truth does not enter into the picture. At least not the standard Tarski-style version of truth or any other standard philosophical theory of truth. On my rough characterization of engineering, what works is considered to be most important. This leads to an idea of 'hacks', most often seen in computer science contexts. If your program is not working quite right, an ugly variable name and assignment can fix it. Theoretically this is move, using such a variable, is rather ad hoc, but it gets the job done which is the main point. Similarly, if you are building a mouse trap and a part isn't working quite right (having never built a mousetrap this will be vague) you can slap some extra glue and a reinforcing piece, for example, on to fix it. Truth doesn't enter into the picture. What works (praxis?) is the important concept. I think this is underappreciated in philosophy. That being said, I'm not sure how it fits into many philosophical theories since engineering doesn't fit into many philosophical theories. Not yet at least.


retsofaj said...

Carl Mitcham has done some work related to this issue. His "Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy" ( http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-through-Technology-Engineering-Philosophy/dp/0226531988 ) is a pretty interesting read (although it doesn't quite talk about the issues you've raised).

What's fun as an engineering educator is trying to navigate the divide between 'hacking' and "the right answer" as students seem to swing back and forth as to what they are comfortable with.

Shawn said...

Engineers do seem to be largely absent from philosophical discussion. Not sure why. Maybe there'd be more discussion if philosophical issues about technology were more mainstream in the US. In lots of philosophy, it's almost as if there are about four broad categories of occupations: mathematicians, scientists, philosophers, and other/folk.