Engineering is Not Applied Science

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

There are 10 kinds of people in the world:  those that understand binary and those that do not.  We can also divide the world into lumpers and splitters:  those that try to find similarities between concepts and clump them into a larger category and those that try to identify distinct characteristics in order to divide a category into sub-categories.  We see this in academics, politics, art, and more.  Today I’m going to be a splitter.

Though perhaps the most important of the tools an engineer uses, science is not the sole basis of technology development.  Science is simply one of several tools that an engineer uses in creatively developing new products and processes to solve real-world problems.  Engineers are not (solely) applied scientists because they use science.  Else we would also claim that scientists are applied mathematicians because they use math, that teachers are applied chalk artists because they use chalk, that biologists are applied chemists (who themselves are applied physicists).

Engineering has is own body of knowledge that is distinct from the natural sciences.  The know-how of creative problem-solving under constraint, the insights of dealing with trade-offs, the wisdom to develop intuitive user interfaces, the ability to identify failure scenarios – these are all concepts that are peculiar to the work of an engineer, combining math, natural sciences, social sciences, artistry, and ingenuity.

One of the greatest writers of classic Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov, was also a reasonably good scientist who wrote a fair amount of science non-fiction, that is, popular accounts of scientific principles that lay persons could understand.  Asimov noted that “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny…’”  He understood that science often did not set out to develop a certain principle, but more typically science proceeded by serendipitous and surprising quandaries that led to new understandings.  This points to a key difference between science and engineering.  “Scientists study the world as it is, engineers create the world that never has been.” (Theodore von Karman, Hungarian/American Aeronautical Engineer, 1881 – 1963).  Science is about discovery, about exploring the world around us and explaining it. While science is focused discovering the world that is, engineering is focused on creating the world that could be.  Engineering is about invention and creativity, about developing products that have never existed before. “A scientist can discover a new star but he cannot make one. He would have to ask an engineer to do it for him.” (Gordon L. Glegg) 

Although they are distinct, modern science and modern engineering depend intimately on one another.  The German philosopher Martin Heidegger that science is applied technology as easily as engineering is applied science: “Instead of describing technology as applied science, Heidegger suggests science is more accurately called theoretical technology.” (Carl Mitcham, Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 52)  Most modern science proceeds only with the aid of sophisticated technology.  Consider the incredibly complex machines and sophisticated devices necessary to produce new results in the areas of particle physics or genetics.  This dependence on technology is not even terribly modern:  consider the advances made in astronomy as early technology was developed such as the sundial, sextant, and optical telescope.

Why does it matter?  Why should we, particularly people of faith, care whether engineering is a different than science?  Let me mention three pairs of reasons.  First, this division gives us two ways to worship God.  Science, as discovery, helps us to praise the Creator and hold him in awe for the incredible, astonishing, mind-boggling beauty and intricacy of the creation.  Engineering, as invention, helps us to unfold the creation further by developing products for service – using the materials of creation to construct and cultivate. Second, this division gives us two ways to understand stewardship.  Science helps us focus on care and preservation of the natural world, supporting the role of steward as caretaker.  Engineering helps us develop the creation so that humans, animals, and all of creation can flourish, supporting the role of steward as cultivator.  Third, this division helps us void two extremes.  Society too quickly falls into the trap of putting science or technology on a pedestal, subjugating all other values.  Consider the claim “It’s for science!” that justifies any action or sacrifice as if doing something for science needed no further explanation.  When science or technology needs no further explanation than itself, it has become an idol.  The other extreme is to put objectivity on a pedestal.  This objectivity is an important aspect of science, but “Unlike the scientific method, design methodology intentionally incorporates the values of the constituencies.” (Jack C. Swearengen, Beyond Paradise:  Technology and the Kingdom of God, Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2007, p.194)  That is, objectivity is a useful tool in producing good science, but it is only that – an instrument, a means to an end.  Engineering helps us to evaluate science according to broader values so that objectivity is our means, not our master.


Bearing the Sword:  The Killing of Bin Laden

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

“For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4)

Is it morally permissible for Christians to develop military technology?  Can a Christian design a tank or missile in good conscience?  Can a Christian scientist develop new materials that slow bleeding from gun shot wounds on the battlefield?  Where is the line of acceptable technology development for persons of faith?  I interpret the sword in the quoted passage from Romans as a symbol of all military technology – tools and instruments that project force and perhaps violence.  The modern solider holds an M-16 assault rifle instead of a sword. I believe society must sometimes resist evil with force.  Such resistance ought not be an act of individual vigilantism, because we are all affected by the fall, naturally sinful from birth.  Thus we entrust our government to extend the long arm of justice, which at times requires that it deliver forceful punishment.  We expect our government to offer protection to its citizens, defending the innocent from harm.  Paul’s letter to the Romans advocating the role of government in the administration of justice is particularly interesting because the Roman government was certainly not democratically elected, nor particularly gentle with its subjects.  Nevertheless, Paul sees a divine purpose in the justice meted out by this authority.  While individually we are called to turn the other cheek, scripture calls us to protect the downtrodden and come to the defense of the weak.  Furthermore, God’s Word (in both Testaments) recognizes the special role of government to protect the weak, the innocent, and the defenseless.

Earlier this week, US special operations forces carried out an attack on a compound in Pakistan, killing the most notorious criminal of our times, Osama Bin Laden.  Two days earlier, US president Barak Obama had issued the order to capture or kill the infamous leader of al-Qaeda, culminating months of intelligence work that had finally located the terrorist who hid for nearly 10 years following the devastating 9/11 attacks.  Although discussions about the details of the operation continue this week, this seems to be a clear instance of a justifiable act of violence, a morally acceptable activity, perhaps even a moral obligation.  In this case, the “sword” likely included an array of technologies such as M4 assault rifles, Blackhawk helicopters, satellite and UAV surveillance, stun grenades, and more.  Teams of engineers and scientists, many of them Christians, developed each of these instruments of war.  The world could not stand by while a man like Bin Laden continued to direct terrorist attacks against innocents.  In this case, the only means to stop him required the use of violence.

The development of such potentially destructive technology is a daunting responsibility.  Even democratically elected governments can make mistakes.  Even our most hallowed institutions are affected by sin; they too are composed of finite and fallen human beings.  In the face of powerful evil, we arm our government with powerful weapons.  Replacing the ancient army’s tools of horse and chariot, shields, and pikes, the modern army has incredible power at its disposal, such as Predator drones, aircraft carriers, and intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads.  This awesome power should be carefully monitored, with checks and balances to ensure transparency of decisions and accountability from those we entrust with command.  Furthermore, we must be vigilant for corruption:  “There is no one more dangerous than a man with power who does not realize he is capable of real evil.”  (Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Shadow Matrix, p. 326). 


Page 1 of 1 pages
(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest