Against Engineerism

April 7, 2015

For six year I lived in The Netherlands, which is home to some of the world’s best engineers. For a culture that survives as it does only by virtue of massive engineering of its landscape, by the draining, essentially, of a vast swamp so that millions can live on dry land below sea level — this is hardly surprising. I taught at one of the world’s premier technical universities: the Technical University of Delft, and many of my former students are now creating new, life-enhancing technologies and works. Unlike science, whose limits to exploration are not defined by practicality, engineering is typically centered around human needs and desires, focused on improving lives through the application of scientific knowledge to new technologies and techniques. Science and technology are largely responsible for our current comfortable lifestyles. But we ought to keep in mind that they are both just a part of a full, broad spectrum of experience, human and otherwise.

The error of scientism is well-known, though for many of us skeptics and humanists, it is easy to fall into. Science has been so successful in providing us with a clearer view about the nature of our universe, and has developed theories that form the basis of our further explorations as well as successful technologies that improve our lives, that we are often tempted to think it forms the ultimate and final basis for all important knowledge. This point of view has two related branches, both errors: one results in holding the view that human experiences like ethics, art, and even let’s say, love, can be understood and described meaningfully through the lens of science — both its methods and language. The other related error is to simply dismiss as meaningless propostitions about the world that cannot be explored through the methods of the sciences. Many of us believe both routes are erroneous given that there is a vast domain of human experience which is the focus of so much of our lives, our art, and philosophical inquiry, none of which can be fully described or understood through the methods of the sciences, even while their existence is entirely naturalistically-based and highly valued.

I want to argue that there is a similar error which says that human problems can be fixed, regardless of their nature, through the proper application of reason — that they can always be engineered and managed. Engineerism, like scientism, misunderstands the often ephemeral nature of human needs and desires, and fails to take into account the historical role of accident, creativity, and genius in helping to create our world. Engineerism is exemplified in its best instances by the fabulous lab of Thomas Edison, where innovation was turned into an assembly-line, and new and marvelous devices were created, many of which still benefit us. But the lab was also awash in failure, and most of Edison’s creations would be relegated to the dustbin. This sort of centralized yet scattershot approach is always doomed to such a legacy, and without arguing the merits of Edison’s approach, there was certainly as much or more energy lost in creating devices that no one wanted or needed as there was in the blockbusters that sold well and turned Edison into the Wizard of Menlo Park. The engineering mentality views this use of energy as ultimately worthwhile, a top-down approach to the markeplace that satisfies (and sometimes creates) desires and needs, albeit not efficiently, but satisfactorally. Perhaps this is so. But the realm of human needs and desires is far larger than the realm of things that can be satisfied with devices or techniques.

Personal and social existence is complicated, and no one person’s sum of needs can ever be fully described or fully understood even by that person. Society is even more opaque. Our society views, however, the political and economic realms as largely overlapping and capable of solving many human problems. Jobs, family arrangements, distribution of resources, health, defense… all of these are deemed part of our social realm and capable of ordering through political and economic means – and moreover, as central issues in the search for individual happiness. I suggest that this demeans their value in many ways, and that the faith we place in the ability to engineer our society to alleviate human unhappiness, or to better our lives, is often as misguided as the faith we place in science to address every aspect of nature. Engineerism is the fallacy that suggests otherwise, and that has as little basis in reality as scientism. Sometimes the best solutions come not at the societal scale, nor are they devised by democratic or corporate means, but rather emerge through individual sparks of luck or genius, often both, that can at their best be modestly reproduced, or more likely, suffice for only a small number of people, or maybe just one, in limited times and places.  

We should thus be as wary of engineerism as we are of scientism, and avoid the temptation to think that all of human experience can be usefully arranged, rearranged, altered, or devised by mechanisms in accordance with reason. Politics, for instance, cannot always fix important human problems, especially those that lie outside the realm of mechanistic control. Not everything is prone to engineering, some things are indeed quite irrational, beautiful, random, and still good.