What is Engineering?

What is the value framework
of engineering practice?

Terry Bristol
Institute for Science, Engineering and Public Policy
Portland State University

7 pm Thursday
May 28th, 2015

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How do engineers – how do any of us – discover the path to a better future?

Terry Bristol
Institute for Science,
Engineering and Public Policy

Terry Bristol is a Philosopher of Science and Engineering who has held teaching positions at Linfield College, Portland State University, and Portland Community College. He has been President of the Institute for Science, Engineering and Public Policy, affiliated with Portland State University since 1987. He graduated from University of California at Berkeley with a degree in Philosophy with an emphasis in the Philosophy of Science. Paul Feyerabend was his Honors Thesis Advisor at Berkeley. He then entered a PhD program at the University of London, working with Imre Lakatos and the 'Karl Popper Group' at the London School of Economics, completing five years of graduate research.

Terry Bristol served as President of the Columbia Willamette Chapter of Sigma Xi (Research Society of America) for several years. He has a number of both scientific and philosophical publications and has made numerous conference presentations. He is an active member of the Philosophy of Science Association, The History of Science Society, the Society for the History of Technology, the Forum on Philosophy, Engineering and Technology, Sigma Xi,The American Philosophical Association, the American Physical Society, and the AAAS.




There is a rising consciousness in engineering, a growing self-awareness of the broader value context of engineering method and design. Post-WWII engineering was ‘scientized’ by Vannevar Bush’s representation of engineering as applied science. The place of the engineer and engineering in the universe was to be understood within the Scientific Worldview where everything is deterministically governed by One universal logico-mathematical order. The Scientific World, reducible to particles and waves, didn’t contain any ‘objective’ values – ‘out there’.

Even though engineering education in the 20th century was dominated by scientific preconceptions, many engineers resisted ‘scientization’ and the accompanying notion that engineers were ‘merely’ applied science ‘technicians’. Stanford’s Vincenti put it bluntly: “engineers know this is not true.” Bugliarello, Roy and Wenk, prominent in the National Academy of Engineering, argued that engineering is a social enterprise. Romer’s recent paradigm shift (Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations) argues that economics is an engineering enterprise. Johnson (How We Got to Now) documents the technological developments underlying the progressive evolution of modern civilization. Duke’s Petroski (The Essential Engineer) argues: ‘science has no vision of how to change the world.’ And yet the value framework of engineering practice remains seriously ‘ill-defined’.

Lehigh’s Goldman continues to defend the traditional view: ‘the engineer’s values are exogenous, defined by, and at the mercy of, corporate and government employers.’ Spontaneously responding to an audience question about engineering’s global agenda NAE’s Bill Wulf (2005) offered: “whatever they’ll pay us to do.”

Recognizing the ‘real’ value framework of engineering method and design requires a broadening of our understanding of engineering. Engineering’s defining ‘problem of design’ includes: How should we design the irrigation of our fields? How should we design our houses? Our neighborhoods? Our cities? How should we design our economy (patents, tariffs)? How should we design our political system? Accordingly the U.S. Constitution is an experimental design document. Recently, Shermer (The Moral Arc) has argued that technological development is inseparable from moral development, implying that engineering design and method are inseparable from a pragmatic value-actualizing enterprise concerned with how we should live, concerned with how to bring about a better, more desirable moral future.

But how does the engineer know the path to the more desirable future? ‘The path that can be spoken [pre-conceived] is not the eternal path’ (Tao Te Ching). Immanuel Kant (Metaphysics of Morals) offered a categorical imperative that under-determines and yet constrains engineering’s path to a better future.