When engineers take philosophy

My undergraduate institution (Notre Dame) has a lot of liberal arts requirements for all its students. As a school that is largely non-STEM, they firmly believe (and I agree) that the students should leave not just trained for the job they want, but as truly educated, well-rounded people.  And that is how I ended up taking “The Philosophy of Science Fiction.”  Almost ten years after college, I reference that course more than any other I took in college (including, sadly, my engineering courses).

We watched movies, including The Matrix, Dark City, and Twelve Monkeys (and an episode of Futurama). We read short stories by authors like Heinlein and Asimov and academic papers by Turing, among others.  We discussed the nature of consciousness and the soul, the possibility of free will, the concept of time.  These were the same fundamental questions that were discussed in my (much-hated) philosophy seminar, but now in the context of science fiction.  Instead of saying, “What is a soul?,” we said, “What if you swap two people’s brains?  Do their souls go with them?” or “Could robots have souls?”  Instead of saying, “What is time?,” we said, “What are the differences between the Back to the Future version of time travel and the Futurama version?  What about Twelve Monkeys?  Terminator?”

The class was fascinating, and it taught me some valuable lessons that have carried over to many different parts of my life, including engineering. For one, question everything.  Nothing is certain.  Time may not move in a straight line.  Robots may have souls someday.  The process your client just described to you that he wants you to simulate may not actually work like that.  Nothing is certain.  Also, it’s ok to not think in a straight line (that’s from my roommate, who edited my papers and got tired of reading “essays in a lab report format.”)  Sometimes things go in circles and you have to keep revisiting the work you thought was done.  Sometimes you get stuck in a time loop.  It happens, and that’s ok.  Finally, I learned that it’s much more fun to watch The Matrix than to read Plato.