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A Philosopher’s Field Guide to Talking with Engineers


A happy fact about philosophical life in North America today is that engagement with non-philosophical audiences is more common than it was during the latter half of the twentieth century, or even just a few years ago. Sometimes that audience is the general public; sometimes it is colleagues in other disciplines, including technical, scientific, and engineering fields; and sometimes it is policymakers. Such broad engagement is still not valued widely enough by all of our philosophy colleagues, especially in the context of hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions or in the reputational rankings of individuals and departments. Nonetheless, one sees ever more evidence of a change in attitudes, enough to embolden one to think that the next generation will find such interests and efforts more generously encouraged and supported. Those of us who think this broader engagement is important for the flourishing of philosophy itself, as well as for those non-philosophers whose work and well-being can be enhanced by expanded interactions with philosophers, have a responsibility' to nudge our colleagues toward further reflection on the value of such activities and on the institutional impediments standing in their way.

It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that the only impediments to such outreach and engagement are institutional. Some of the biggest obstacles lie within the normal intellectual formation of individual philosophers, shaped by' their education and the intellectual culture that sustains their work as philosophers. Self-reflection is as important as reflection on the structure and functioning of the institutions of professional philosophy.

This chapter is an exercise in such self-reflection. It starts with a memoir of my' decades-long work with colleagues in technical fields focusing mainly' on questions of ethics and policy in science and engineering. It concludes with a discussion of lessons learned along the way that might prove to be of help to my younger colleagues.

My Work with Engineers

When I was finishing my graduate work in philosophy and preparing for the challenge of a very bad job market for philosophers in the mid-1970s, I had what I quickly learned was the crazy ambition of building my career around two areas of specialization: (1) the philosophical foundations of modem physics and (2) science and technology ethics and policy. That intention was a sincere reflection of what, at the time, most engaged my attention as a philosopher, and the second of those two intended specializations also reflected my having been profoundly shaped by the political struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, prominent among these being the birth of the environmental movement. I vividly remember the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, which I and fellow students at Michigan State University celebrated with a voluntary clean-up of a garbage-strewn empty lot near my apartment. It was a small gesture, but it sprang from a heartfelt commitment to put our bodies and our brains to use to fix a broken world, as epitomized by the remarkable phenomenon of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio catching fire on June 22, 1969.

During my graduate studies, while working hard on such topics as Bell’s theorem and quantum entanglement or my dissertation project on Niels Bohr’s complementarity interpretation of quantum mechanics, I also read widely in the emerging literature on the environmental crisis and the role of technology unfettered by ethical and philosophical reflection in producing that crisis. I recall being especially impressed by the writings of the biologist, Barry Commoner, and the philosopher, Jacques Ellul. To a lesser extent, the work of Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas on technology' and instrumental reason shaped my thinking; however, I thought then (and still do) that the critical theorists picture of twentieth-century logical empiricist philosophy of science was an ill-informed and unsympathetic caricature of an intellectual movement whose critical and politically progressive perspective on science was, in fact, superior to that of the Frankfurt School (see Howard 2003). One measure of the seriousness of my desire to make science and technology' ethics and policy a centerpiece of my new career is the fact that my very first published paper was not in philosophy of physics but in environmental ethics, indeed in the inaugural volume of a new journal, Environmental Ethics (Howard 1979).

That wanting to make myself a specialist in science and technology ethics and policy was, at the time, a crazy ambition was made all too clear when, for the first and only' time, I gave a talk based on work that I had been doing on nuclear energy policy and reactor safety and design. It was not that the philosophers were hostile to the argument or uninterested in the issue. But their reaction to the talk strongly suggested that philosophers at that time did not, and probably could not, appreciate the work that I was doing as genuinely philosophical. In fairness, my work did not fit any of the then established categories in professional philosophy. Philosophy of technology was in its infancy and mainly pursued in philosophy departments with a pronounced Continental character, not “mainstream” analytic departments. Environmental philosophy had no presence in the discipline. Even applied ethics was only just beginning to establish itself. So I learned my lesson, retrenched, and refocused exclusively on my work on the philosophy of physics, a well-established specialization.

My interest in science and technology ethics and policy did not disappear, but after landing my first job at the University of Kentucky in 1978, I pursued that interest exclusively in the classroom, not as part of my research portfolio. Most noteworthy, and personally as well as intellectually gratifying, was a new course that I developed on “Modern Physics and Moral Responsibility.” The aim of the course was to help students, especially science and engineering students, develop the conceptual tools they would need to confront the ethical challenges that would arise in their careers, whatever those might be. Being trained in physics, I chose to do this by using the history of nuclear weapons and the moral struggles of the bomb physics community from the late 1930s through to the late 1970s as affording a theoretical and narrative framework for thinking about other moral struggles. The course was a success, and I offered it as often as my other teaching responsibilities would permit.

Over the next 30 years, my interest in the connection between philosophy, on the one hand, and politics, ethics, and social impacts, on the other, found expression in some of my research on the history of the philosophy of science in the twentieth century. Most relevant was my work on the curious way in which left-leaning, socially-engaged, logical empiricist philosophy of science of the 1920s and 1930s met a differently but comparably left-leaning, socially-engaged American pragmatist theory of science in the late 1930s, and then evolved into the politically disengaged, more purely formalist philosophy of science that defined the field for decades after World War II (Howard 2003). My argument explored how a twenty-first-century philosophy of science had to embrace again that socially and politically engaged part of its past (Howard 2009).

With my move to Notre Dame in 1997, the context for my work changed in a crucial way, because Notre Dame’s History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) Ph.D. program, the directorship of which I assumed and held until 2011, lived administratively as part of the John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values (STV), which was established in 1985. The HPS program was also closely connected to the philosophy and history' departments, but its situation in a center otherwise focused on science, technology, and values afforded opportunities for both faculty and graduate students that were not so easily available to HPS scholars in other universities. For example, these administrative arrangements made it possible for our HPS graduate students to gain teaching experience in the core course on science, technology and values for the Reilly Center’s STV undergraduate minor program. That classroom experience awakened in some of our students research interests in the ethics of science and technology. A telling example is the experience of one of my Ph.D. students, Justin Biddle, who came to Notre Dame to do philosophy of physics but wound up writing a dissertation on the epistemic consequences of the social and institutional embedding of science (Biddle 2006). He is now a tenured associate professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech and his work has explored the philosophical aspects of a wide range of science and technology policy issues (see, for example, Biddle 2017).

My opportunities for engagement not just with issues in the ethics of science and technology', along with science and technology policy, but also for direct collaboration with science and engineering colleagues expanded even further when, from 2011 until 2014, I took a turn at directing the Reilly Center itself. That shift of responsibility coincided with an administrative decision to support a significant enhancement of the Center’s capacity for cross-college, interdisciplinary initiatives. Specific new partnerships grew with engineering colleagues in Notre Dame’s nanotechnology center, the Energy Center, the Wireless Institute, the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and more. Finding myself now in regular interaction with my technical colleagues, I decided to revive that old ambition to do research work in science and technology ethics and policy, and that now represents perhaps 40 percent of my research portfolio.

Today, I am probably unusual among my philosophy colleagues in the frequency and substance of my collaborations with engineers. These are a few examples.

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