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.


#1 Kitty Mervine (Guest) on Tuesday April 07, 2015 at 1:13pm

Thank you, this expresses to well what I’ve been trying to even clearly define for myself.  I’m glad to share this.

#2 David Koepsell (Guest) on Tuesday April 07, 2015 at 3:08pm

Thank you, Kitty. I’m glad it struck a chord.

#3 Tim P. Farley on Wednesday April 08, 2015 at 10:02am

If you haven’t encountered it already, you might be interested in Evgeny Morozov’s book “To Save Everything, Click Here” which is about “solutionism” - the tech industry (e.g. Silicon Valley) variation of this syndrome. I have it my to-read stack and will be reading it soon.

#4 David Koepsell (Guest) on Wednesday April 08, 2015 at 12:08pm

Thanks for the cite, I’ll check it out!

#5 Daniel (Guest) on Thursday April 09, 2015 at 1:13am

The argument made here seems a bit muddled. It seems predicated on the vague notion that, since the language of science cannot be used to convey the subjective emotion of love, analogously engineering cannot be relied upon to improve human lives. What this means, in essence, is that the skilful application of the best available evidence and reasoning is not a reliable way of achieving societal or personal goals. A bizarre caveat is added: often the best ideas are the result of a combination of luck and a spark of genius, but only when the results are locally applicable. Why regular engineering is not fueled by sparks of luck and genius is not explained, nor is the phenomenon by which a solution’s uselessness increases with its applicability. Not only is this nonsense prima facie, it is evidently untrue as testified by just about any index of human well-being that you can think of that has been touched by engineering.

Yet there is a kernel of truth. It is true that a naive approach to applying policy to society yields bad results, as was the case with many great social engineering projects in the 20th century. The writer, however, seems to assume that an engineerist view cannot recognize this fact. Anyone following the best available reason and evidence in coming up with a solution, as an engineer would, recognizes that humans are impulsive and irrational, society is extremely complex and chaotic, and that seemingly straightforward solutions can backfire. An engineer working on, say, reducing the social harms of alcoholism would recognize the fact, and not attempt the naive approach of outright banning alcohol and jailing drinkers.

The writer’s error seems to be rooted in confusing intentions with the tools used to carry out the intentions. To say that because engineering is a poor guide to what we ought to value as a society, it is the wrong tool to use is no more to the point than to say that since a screw driver cannot explain art, it is the wrong tool for hanging a painting on the wall.

#6 David Koepsell (Guest) on Thursday April 09, 2015 at 4:45am

Daniel, your error is the strawman since you have suggested that I argued that engineering can solve no problems, which I clearly did not. There are human phenomena that are not prone to mechanistic understanding even if we assume their causes are natural (which I do) as I point out (and numerous philosophers and economists have as well) and thus my claim in modest: not every human problem is prone to solution by societal engineering, devices, or techniques. Not sure how you extrapolated the grand claims you attribute, perhaps you read too quickly. I made no universal claims about the value of engineering to solving many problems, but merely caution that it is not the only solution, nor necessarily the best for certain human needs due to facts pointed out long ago about the singular nature of human needs and desires (see, e.g., Member).

#7 Daniel (Guest) on Thursday April 09, 2015 at 6:43am

I will back away from my previous post then, and apologize for the strawman and what might have been a zealous tone, for I may have got carried away, which was not my intention. Though I am duly much less confident than before, and feeling how outclassed I am in these matters, I am still find myself unconvinced. I am utterly fascinated though, because I have for a long time had a strong confidence that the application of evidence and rationality are the most reliable ways of achieving one’s goals, and I am delighted to have this view challenged, so thank you for replying.

As I understand it, you have identified subset of human problems which can’t be solved by societal engineering, devices or techniques, but which are nonetheless solvable. It must be a reflection of my lack of imagination that I can’t think of such problems, much less imagine their solutions. What is the nature of a problem which isn’t in principle amenable to improvement by the rational, evidence-based application of those methods? What methodology to employ instead? An irrationalism of some kind? If there is just such an approach outside the scope of engineering, is not choosing it to solve a problem an example of engineering, of rationally choosing the most effective tool for the given task? Would not such a method become just another tool in the engineer’s toolbox? The position seems self-refuting. It reminds me of hypothetically trying to find a distinction between the categories of natural physical phenomena and well-understood supernatural phenomena.

#8 David Koepsell (Guest) on Thursday April 09, 2015 at 7:36am

Perhaps things like “happiness” “love” “beauty” are the best examples, and while some view them as amenable to social ordering of some kind through institutional arrangements (indeed, whole professions are sometimes built on these), I would suggest that a) they are not problems in the same sense that, say, infrastructures for moving goods are, and b) fulfilling these very real human needs cannot be founded upon reason alone, but rather must be done ad hoc, by individuals mostly, and without recourse to standard social or artifactual engineering methods. Their irreproducibility among various agents speaks also to the non-engineering or non-mechanistic natures. This does not mean they are unnatural phenomena, but they are beyond “solutions” and beyond engineering.

#9 Daniel (Guest) on Thursday April 09, 2015 at 1:21pm

I may have misunderstood all along. I now take it that you mean that an engineered societal solution, though very effective, is in practice too blunt an instrument to reliably maximize happiness, love and beauty in the life of each member of the society. To make up for this, lower-level, interpersonal, ad-hoc processes must take over to some extent. This seems eminently reasonable. I am still confused as to why reason must be abandoned in order to pursue goals at this level. It is not clear to me why it should be that such pursuits are isolated to such an extent as to deny any recourse to standard social or artifactual engineering methods.

#10 David Koepsell (Guest) on Thursday April 09, 2015 at 1:24pm

I do not think reason must be abandoned, but it is not akin to engineering to employ it at this level, nor is it necessarily the best tool to address things like desires, aesthetics, emotions, etc.

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