Posted by: Eric T. Kerr | 2 December, 2008

Engineering Archetypes

Last month I was privileged to be part of the second workshop on Philosophy of Engineering at the Royal Academy of Engineering, London. A great deal of information was exchanged over those three days but I’d like to use this space to focus on that pertaining to epistemology and the construction and machinery of engineering knowledge. I hope to do this through reflection on ‘archetypes’.

Any substantial body of literature acquires its own recurring archetypes, and analytic epistemology is no different. One archetype that is frequently brought in to illustrate instances of testimony, for instance, is the Court Witness (I capitalize it because of its only partial resemblance to actual court witnesses). I call to the stand Robert Audi, A.J, Ayer, Keith De Rose, Michael Dummett, Elizabeth Fricker, Alvin Goldman, and Alvin Plantinga (I’m sure there are others) who have all used CW examples as a paradigm of testimonial knowledge (or justification, reductionism, transferrance, etc.) Testimonial knowledge is adequately described, at least this is the implication, as analogous with a court witness asked to report or ‘speak to’ an event which they have perceived through some more basic source of knowledge (e.g. seeing it happen). CW thus transfers knowledge from speaker to hearer.

My issue here is not with the appropriateness of CW as a catch-all for testimonial utterances, but with the shared reliance on CW as a suitable archetype to wax theoretical. Other archetypes would include a kind of Baconian scientist – a lone investigator of Galileo’s ‘book of nature‘; the ‘skeptic’ (who appears like Jung’s ‘trickster’ – was it Crispin Wright, Michael Williams, or Duncan who recognised that the skeptic is not a ‘real’ adversary in that sense but a ‘psychological’ one that highlights incoherence in our concept of knowledge?); the chess player. Those are off the top of my head; there will be others.

Epistemological archetypes are mythical and thematic: they are mythical to the extent that they embody highly-idealized abstractions of real-world inquirers, and thematic to the extent that they serve to sustain a particular – usually individualist as opposed to social/collectivist – story of knowledge and epistemic practices. Make no mistake, their role is no less significant in driving a story forward in philosophy than in the dramatic arts. Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, et al. have uncovered many of the archetypes that play a part in our psychological and literary lives; I think it would be an interesting project to uncover those that feature in philosophical ‘thought experiments’ and ‘intuition pumps’. If all this sounds a little Rorty ‘philosophy as overlapping texts’ I apologise. It’s only meant to be critical about the way philosophers select particular examples to illustrate their conceptions of what they are studying and how these illustrations frame the debate in a particular way.

I’m not on any mission to rid philosophy of these archetypes. No question they have their uses and are, probably, irreducible features of our psyche whether or not we recognise them in paper. Why is this relevant to philosophy and epistemology of engineering? The perceptive reader may guess what I’m about to introduce: let’s call this archetype The Engineer. In what follows, I intend to sketch – through the use of archetypes – how engineering knowledge differs from scientific and how the engineer can contribute to a thoroughgoingly social epistemology. There was a lot of talk at the workshop about how philosophy and philosophers can help solve engineers’ problems; I want to ask how engineers can help solve philosophical problems.

Caveat: much of this is compiled from how I heard engineers (both practising and university-based) describe their approach and my own contact with a couple of British university engineering departments. It should not be taken as gospel regarding ‘what engineers do’ but does resemble engineering practice and is instructive to social epistemology in a unique way.

The Engineer is fundamentally a pragmatic communitarian who, in Billy V. Koen‘s words, uses a set of heuristics to “cause the best change in an uncertain situation within the available resources.” This is the engineering method. The Engineer is tasked with ‘improving’ the world in some way and consequently desires a method that would maximise her chance of success, but also to minimise risk, cost, and time. The method is always, then, a sacrificial, compromising heuristic: you cannot please everyone. Here is Koen’s definition of heuristic:

A heuristic is anything that provides a plausible aid or direction in the solution of a problem but is in the final analysis unjustified, incapable of justification, and potentially fallible. (Koen, Discussion of the Method, p.28)

If you ask engineers, you will find that no two will approach a problem in the same way. Each has acquired their own set of heuristics – learned from school, university, practical experience – which they use to solve problems. Many of these may not be at all easy to codify; examples abound of instances where an engineer will attempt to solve a problem through ‘rules of thumb’, ‘judgement calls’, and the like. Estimations made on the basis of extensive practical experience and, crucially, trial and error. There is no correct approach in engineering; the best approach is the one that, in hindsight, brought about the best results.

Another aspect that must be emphasized is that some problems are, in William James’ terms, ‘pressing’. They call for a decision to be made. Consider the following example (again from Koen): Suppose I ask you to tell me how many ping-pong balls you could fit in this room. Typically, the non-engineer does not give an answer. The engineer, on the other hand, always will. If I gave you 30 seconds, I’d expect a back-of-the-envelope calculation. If I gave you a couple of minutes, I’d expect you, perhaps, to quickly measure the walls. If I told you your life depended on an accurate answer and gave you a few weeks, I’d expect you to fill the room with ping-pong balls and count them. The point is that an engineering answer, a perfectly correct engineering answer, depends on the resources available to dedicate to the problem.

As we have already seen, the engineer’s best solution to a problem is found by trade-offs in a multivariant space in which criteria and weighting coefficients are the context that determines the optimal solution. There is never an implication that a true, rational answer even exists. The answer the engineer gives is never the answer to a problem, but it is his engineering best answer to the problem he is given – all things considered. (Koen, p.61)

If you are standing on a ravine being chased by gunmen, to paraphrase James’ well-worn example, you have to decide whether you can make the jump or not. Back to epistemology, I submit that this is a significantly more desirable archetype with which to characterize a general theory of knowledge than CW or any other of the host of dominant archetypes ‘in the literature’. What is most striking about it is its communitarian aspect. The ‘ping-pong example’ (which I believe originated at MIT) is slightly misleading in that it presents just two agents: one to set the problem, the other to solve it. In reality, the engineer rarely works alone. Rather she must cooperate and compromise with a range of others, both from within engineering and in other fields representing competing interests: financiers (providing the money and, perhaps, setting a time-limit), politicians, environmental and ethical campaigners, and many others must often all be satisfied and whose interests will play a significant role in influencing what results. Other limiting factors include limits in technology, the limits of the natural world and human capabilities. All must be taken account of to reach an objective. Furthermore, engineering is increasingly a “global, entrepreneurial profession.” The engineer cannot, in other words, be constructed epistemologically as a lone-wolf.

With all this in mind, then, how does engineering knowledge differ from scientific knowledge. Is it accurate to say that all engineering knowledge consists in the content and application of heuristics? Here is an oft-quoted remark by the engineer and physicist, Theodore von Karman:

The scientist merely explore that which exists, while the engineer creates what has never existed before.

Whereas science models the natural world, engineers attempt to create a new world within socio-technical systems. Granted, this is done using science and mathematics, but strictly as tools to accomplish the ultimate objective of new infrastructure, products, services, etc. The model is instrumental to the problem-solving process, the model is not the problem itself. Further, there is no 1:1 correlation between process and model; the engineer may select from a number of available models.

There is a lot of space for engineers to employ analytic philosophy to answer certain, perhaps more abstract or theoretical questions that must be answered to answer certain problems or improve the effectiveness of heuristics, but also for analytic philosophers to reacquaint themselves with the state-of-the-art in science and engineering so that they don’t make the same mistakes of misdescribing what they’re talking about. Peter Simons spoke very eloquently on how his work as an ontologist and merelogist was inspired by study of aeronautical engineering (after all, these are the greatest artificial ‘parts and wholes’ we have) This was a recurring bone of contention at the workshop with many dismissive remarks about philosophers’ descriptions of ‘virtual machines‘ or ‘mirror neurons’.

I suggest the engineering archetype in part because it does not come with so much connotational baggage as other professional tropes. Fundamentally, this is about how we, as philosophers, choose to characterise the agents and bearers of knowledge and whether we choose to recognise the philosophical significance of a plurality of social roles and conventional behaviour causing differing phenomenological, ontological, and epistemological constructions of the world.

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Engineering and philosophy share much common interest in our contemporary world: a perceived insecurity of their relation to the natural sciences (engineering departments throughout the UK are being renamed to ‘engineering sciences’ (we have our own examples in PPLS). An optimism that a better world can be forged (admittedly, this is a more widespread phenomena in engineering but surely there would be many fewer philosophers if we didn’t feel that epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, etc. can make the world better). However, for all their commonalities, the vast majority of professionals that make up engineering and philosophy are notable for their distrust and disdain for the other’s chosen career.

We are all familiar with the usual slights: philosophers are ivory tower-dwelling intellectual elitists with no concern for the “real world”; engineers are mere technicians with no taste for the refined pursuits of the academe. Consider as analogous a split found in some scientific institutions between the ‘theoretical’ and ‘experimental’ practitioners and how each division often views the other. I, for one, cannot quite get a grip on why both parties are so reluctant to cooperate but I have some understanding of the history that has produced such skepticism. Even on a personal level I acknowledge that the stereotypes (archetypes, even) of the philosopher and the engineer play a substantial role in why individuals do not inquire any further into the others’ discipline. It is these stereotypes that we must be careful not to become.

[If anyone out there is, like me, interested in this project to bring together philosophers and engineers in a new and exciting field, get in touch]



  1. This is very interesting stuff Eric, thanks for posting it. On the point that it could be impossible for there to be real live sceptics and yet scepticism could remain a genuine philosophical problem nonetheless, it was Crispin who got there first (in ‘Imploding the Demon’, Mind, 1991), though an embryonic version of this claim is in the earlier The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism, by Stroud, which of course heavily informs the thinking of Williams’ Unnatural Doubts, which is published about the same time as Imploding the Demon (these are both truly wonderful books by the way). That said, I don’t think Wright fully follows-through the implications of this point in his dealings with scepticism (i.e., he trades on the idea of the sceptic qua adversary when it suits him). For example, if scepticism is a paradox, then what comfort is there in discovering that we are compelled to regard some warrants as unearned, as Wright claims? (Note that there would be some comfort if it were thought significant that the sceptic, qua adversary, were also so compelled).


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