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.

25 thoughts on “When engineers take philosophy”

  1. Thank you for sharing the experience. Very interesting course. Research shows that liberal arts courses increase creativity and innovativeness more than other courses. The main reason is perhaps the way they teach the courses. We as engineering can learn a lot from liberal art courses and apply their method in teaching engineering courses.

    1. I totally agree with you Milad. In my undergraduate studies, there were a lot of dry engineering courses that were really stressful and boring. For this reason, in our department they introduced some courses from other disciplines such as law, organizational behavior, business administration, and English language just to make some balance.

      1. I took a business law class in undergrad, which ended up being surprisingly interesting and pretty useful. I still don’t understand intellectual property law, but I’m beginning to think that no one does.

  2. I agree with Milad, but I also believe that liberal arts can learn a lot from engineering. Actually, I don’t necessarily believe that the two are all that different from one another. I believe disciplines are intrinsically related and that one cannot exist without the others. Engineering cannot exist without design. Design cannot exist without aesthetic. Aesthetic cannot exist without philosophical meaning. Thus, engineering cannot exist without philosophy.

    1. I would argue that design can exist very well without aesthetic (but I design supply chains, and aesthetics aren’t a big consideration). Instead, I would say that design can’t exist without attention to the lives and world-views of others, which ties in very closely with philosophy.

      I definitely agree that all disciplines are very interconnected. A few schools have interesting design programs (Northwestern and Stanford are the two I know of) that are open to all majors, so they have philosophers and engineers and artists and political scientists all trying to solve design problems together. I think that would be a very interesting experience.

      1. Thank you for the post – the class sounds wonderful.

        It reminded me of discussions that I used to have with my friends. One such discussion was “Can an amoeba be considered immortal?” (on the lines of Theseus’ paradox). I come from a strict “engineering college” so didn’t quite get such diverse courses but I find myself going back to these discussions very frequently and they have been quite helpful in work (suprisingly!).

        On a different note, there is a fascinating course over the summers in Blacksburg called Philosophy and Physical Computing (http://thinkandcode.vtlibraries.org/). If you are interested, you could look at this.

        1. I’m really fascinated by the Philosophy and Physical Computing curse you mentioned. Did you take it? I’d love to know how it is structured. I don’t have a formal background in either philosophy or computer science, but I feel like this mixing of concepts in applicable in other fields as well.

  3. Thank you for your post! It reminds me of a famous dialogue (and it may very well be famous only in my head) from Dead Poet’s Society, “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way”. It seems like this course really made an impact on you due to that very fact?! Personally, I’ve had similar experiences with certain courses during and surprisingly none of them were “compulsory”. 😀

    1. It definitely forced me to consider things I never had before. My philosophy seminar never did, because I found it too dry to get interested. But when the topics were connected to something I already liked, it was much easier to pay attention and really think about the questions.

  4. Interesting…asking major philosophical questions through science fiction movies. And it seemed to get the same message across! I may have to try that in my history class. You certainly got me thinking here. Thanks.

    1. I think a big part of it was that the questions were explored through stories. If you just say, “What is consciousness?” that’s too big to wrap your head around. But you could say, “A man has Alien Hand Syndrome and claims that his hand acts on its own, doing things he would never do. Who or what is controlling that hand? A part of the man’s consciousness he’s not aware of? A different consciousness? If it’s different, is this hand the only way it can communicate? Is there a fully formed conscious person trapped in there?” That breaks the giant question into manageable chunks and makes it more understandable by wrapping it in a story.

  5. These are the experiences that I hoped to learn more about in this class–so thanks! Obviously such a creative way of tying philosophy with science has its advantages. What I am curious to hear from you is how to practically apply such an approach into already existing programs. For example, how could we adopt a liberal arts-meets-science approach to our current biology program here at VT? As it is, students’ course requirements are becoming more and more demanding, so do we add more requirements? Do you propose that this dynamic shift occur in already existent classrooms?

    I am always thinking in terms of application, and will continue to muddle through this.

    1. I really don’t know. Student requirements are getting more demanding, but I don’t think we should lose general education either. Maybe the answer is to eliminate some requirements (I can think of a couple in my program that seem to exist because “it’s always been that way”). Or maybe the answer is that some programs really should be five years long. That is definitely a good question, though!

  6. I really like the idea that some of the biggest questions are more memorable not asked directly, but asked in ways that are tied to specific examples.

    As much as I like philosophy, my favorite is an approach in which a story highlights a philosophical argument. Like a lot of the distopian stories, and a lot of the stories by authors who write both philosophical works and stories (I just read Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis, and is has a really cool mix).

    I’m trying to think about the question Cody posed as well. One question that came up with my lab mate recently as she was describing a hybrid line we are working with, is “what is a species?” I can picture rather than give students a list of definitions (and there are many), giving an example of a case in which there is gray area and starting with that.

    1. I prefer my big questions to come with stories, too. Like I said in a previous comment, some questions are just too large to think about. It needs some kind of scenario to make it more approachable. Also, The Matrix really is more fun than Plato.

  7. That class sounds awesome! I must admit…I have long been a person who looks down on humanities. But, after this week’s readings, I’ve realized that that’s partly because I took a lot of bad humanities classes that made me read boring texts and answer boring questions (or take exams which seemed to rely mainly on having practically memorized an entire book). Your post has driven this point home for me- if humanities classes are going to actually do what they claim to do (foster independent thinking, etc.), they have to capture people’s interests. This class seems like an excellent example of that! (at least for some people…others may hate science fiction in which case, there should be other courses to match their interests!)

    1. “if humanities classes are going to actually do what they claim to do (foster independent thinking, etc.), they have to capture people’s interests”

      Agreed! Most of my English classes in high school didn’t teach me to think independently. They taught me to figure out what kind of interpretations my teacher liked (death? oppressed women? insanity?) and fit that into every paper. I didn’t enjoy most of the books (and I read for fun a lot) and didn’t feel like I got much out of it beyond the proper format of a five-paragraph essay. If you want to claim that humanities classes make people think, then you need to make them interesting enough that people will WANT to think about the material.

  8. Such a great post! I also had an unfortunate experience of a “much hated” philosophy course. If only I had the opportunity of experiencing it through the science-fiction lens! Asking if robots have souls sure beats out my test question, “True or false: A basketball has a soul.” I agree wholeheartedly about the need and the value for humanities in higher education, especially for non-humanists, and I enjoyed most of my “general education” humanities classes. My question is, how large of a component of an engineering degree do you think humanities courses should be?

  9. One place where engineering and philosophy are currently intersecting in a very important way is in “friendly AI”–thinking about how to develop artificial intelligence that wouldn’t end up working against the interest of human kind or even wiping us out completely. Creating a superintelligence that would care about our well being. Another place engineering and philosophy are intersecting is in driverless cars. Driverless cars will have to make moral decisions and we program in the morality. We’ll have driverless car trolley problems. What should the car do if it is headed towards two kids and cant stop in time, but can swerve and hit another kid?

    1. I find the driverless car question very interesting, because I’ve wondered about that with the cars now that can brake themselves to avoid a collision. What kind of ethics are built into that?

  10. What a great experience! This just goes to show that for us “science folks,” taking liberal arts-type classes doesn’t just inform us on that particular subject matter, but also challenges us to think differently. This, in turn, can give us different perspectives within our own fields. To fulfill my “creativity and aesthetic experience” requirement as an undergrad, I took floral design. Sure, I learned how to make flower arrangements which has benefited my wife over the years. However, I also learned basic principles and elements of design that were never covered in any of my “sciency” horticulture courses. These artistic skills have been really helpful when I have to design a landscape.

    1. I had no idea that floral design was a class! I learned something today!

      Personally, I’ve always enjoyed music (mostly singing in choirs, though I used to play the flute and piano). I’ve often felt that that experience ties into my engineering somehow, though I’m not sure how. It definitely helps me teach – large lung capacity and practice using it! I can speak louder than any of my students!

  11. A freshman-level Sci-Fi and Fantasy course was one of my favorite classes I ever took here. It was structured similarly to yours, where we read a few novels and a bunch of short stories and watched a number of movies (including Dark City!). The class discussions were less explicitly philosophical, but they still ended up talking about many of those topics. One of the recurring themes we saw was “Is there a T.H.E? A Timeless Human Essence? Is there some critical aspect of humanity that sets us apart from any other being?”
    The discussions we had in that class and the media we consumed there still stick with me to this day and have forever given me a new lens through which to look at Sci-Fi and Fantasy works.
    Thank you for reminding me!

    1. I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, and I definitely view a lot of it differently than I used to. Especially things with robots. Watching Star Trek, I always just took it as a given that Data was a person, but was he? Can something we create, that is acting according to programming, be a real person with a real personality? I think that goes with your question about the Timeless Human Experience. Things like that never occurred to me before I took this class.

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