About the Conference
In 2000, some of the world's most eminent scientists and philosophers (including Walter Bradley, Simon Conway Morris, Alvin Plantinga, Michael Behe, and others) gathered together on the campus of Baylor University to discuss nature's ultimate reality - in other words, its metaphysics. The resulting Nature of Nature conference sparked great discussions within many areas of science and philosophy. The goal of the Engineering and Metaphysics conference is to take the question one step further and ask, how does the ultimate reality of nature influence engineering practice, and what does the field of engineering have to say about the nature of reality?
Engineering deals not only with the equations that govern the basic building materials (whether they be structural, mechanical, electronic, or computational), but also with the larger scope of reality - namely the people who interact with them. This conference explores ways in which non-reductionistic views of humanity influence and impact engineering and design disciplines. It also considers how topics from the field of engineering might shed light on metaphysical questions. It covers aspects of humanity including creativity, intention, ritual, morality, and spirituality, and how they impact engineering design decisions.
About Engineering and Metaphysics
When most people hear about "Engineering and Metaphysics" they ask, what is that? In short, metaphysics is about the ultimate nature of reality. It includes many aspects of reality that are generally skipped over in standard physics, such as choice, creativity, morality, aesthetics, etc. While many engineers implicitly use their understanding of metaphysics when developing solutions, our goal is to move that thinking into explicit terms, so that those parts of our understanding can be better explored and systematized. Science is often bound by a methodological disregard for anything other than efficient causes. However, as engineers, our job is to include the whole of reality, and provide solutions that incorporate our entire knowledge of reality. Therefore, this conference aims at starting the discussion of how the fields of metaphysics and engineering influence each other.
The following is a partial list of areas of research relevant to engineering and metaphysics. It is not intended to be complete, but rather to inspire your thinking in this area:
- Human cognition - humans seem to have cognitive capacity beyond material computing power. How do we harness this? How do we measure it? How do we model it? Can we use this idea for structuring engineering projects? Contracts? Complexity metrics?
- Programming language design - Larry Wall has suggested that programming languages have tried to be too perfect (orthogonal, for the jargon term), and has instead created the programming language Perl to match the way programmers think about problems. How can a deeper understanding of humans help us design programming languages that are better suited for human innovativeness?
- Liturgical design - Catholic architecture revolves around immersing the whole person into the experience of liturgical worship. How can ideas within liturgical architecture also be used for the design of non-religious products?
- Medical products - Many books and papers have documented the amazing healing properties of the mind using placebos. How can drug design, or medical equipment design, be improved to help a person's mind contribute to their own healing?
- Reverse Engineering Nature - the strong relationship between reverse engineering and science has been pointed out by Halsmer et al. What does the ability to reverse engineer nature tell us about the underlying structure of nature?
- Contracting and human nature - Fred Brooks has proposed that the concept of sin is one of the major reasons that contracts are needed in engineering. Can this insight be expanded into a more rigorous and enlightening view of the contracting process? How can this view help us write better contracts and structure engagements between engineer and client better?
- Philosophical questions - In wholly artificial systems (such as programming languages), there seems to often be an "intrinsically correct" way of using the system. Are we merely discovering Platonic ideals? Is there an "essence" to artificial things?
While there are no works which cover the specific subject of Engineering and Metaphysics, the following are several works which researchers in this field have found helpful or insightful:
- Brooks, Fred. The Design of Design. Addison-Wesley, 2010.
- Norman, Donald. The Design of Everyday Things. Basic Books, 2002.
- Kelley, Kevin. What Technology Wants. Penguin, 2011.
- Lucas, J. R. "Minds, Machines, and Gödel," Philosophy 36, 1961.
- Robertson, Douglas. "Algorithmic information theory, free will, and the Turing test," Complexity 4(3):25-34, 1999.
- Halsmer et al. "The Coherence of an Engineered World," WIT Transactions on Ecology and the Environment 114:311-325.
- Dry et al. "Human Performance on Visually Presented Traveling Salesperson Problems with Varying Numbers of Nodes," Journal of Problem Solving 1(1), 2006.
- Hawthorne and Nolan. "What Would Teleological Causation Be?" InMetaphysical Essays, Oxford University Press, 2006.
- Gordon et al. The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science. Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2011.
Walter Bradley earned his Bachelor of Science in Engineering Science and his Ph.D. in Materials Science from the University of Texas in Austin. A native of Dallas, he taught for eight years at the Colorado School of Mines and then served for 24 years as a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University.
He has been at Baylor for 10 years where his research efforts focus on helping the poorest people in underdeveloped parts of the world to help themselves by providing them with appropriate technologies. For example, he is developing various means to convert the constituent parts of coconuts into value-added products such as diesel fuel, particle board, and non-woven fabric composites for automotive parts. His keen interest in faith and science informs his view of God’s majesty and glory in a much more profound way and propels his goal to help others see that the more we learn about God’s creation through the eyes of science, the more faith it takes to be an atheist.
While at TAMU, Bradley served as Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Director of its Polymer Technology Center, winning five research awards and receiving more than $5 million in research grants. Since being at Baylor, he has received more than $1.1 million in research grants, primarily from NSF-SBIR program. He has published more than 150 refereed journal articles and conference proceeding and more than 10 book chapters. Bradley is a Fellow of the American Society for Materials and of the American Scientific Affiliation. He was selected National Educator of the Year 2011 by the Society of Plastics Engineers. He received the Crawford Award Outstanding Professor in the College of Engineering in 1996 at Texas A&M University. He was also a Senior Research Fellow at Texas A&M University (TEES Fellow (1984-2000). As a consultant, he has worked for many Fortune 500 companies including Exxon, 3M, Dupont, Dow Chemical, Shell, Chevron-Phillips and Boeing.
Welcome to the Engineering and Metaphysics 2012 Conference. Metaphysics and engineering are not terms that often find themselves in relationship with each other. Engineering is often thought to be a highly practical endeavor, and the general public tends to think that there is nothing practical whatsoever in metaphysics.
Metaphysics deals with the fundamentals by which people understand the world - ontology, causation, meaning, and coherence. Metaphysics has been in decline as a fixture in the attention of both public and academic dialogue, and has been in decline for some time. At the beginning of the 20th century G.K. Chesterton attempted to resuscitate an interest in the philosophical. Chesterton wrote:
But there are some people, nevertheless--and I am one of them-- who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy's numbers, but still more important to know the enemy's philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether in the long run, anything else affects them. (Chesterton, “Introductory Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy”, Heretics)
In other words, there is nothing so practical as the metaphysical.
As such, this conference aims to explore the question of the relationship between the practical, as expressed in engineering, and the ultimate, as expressed in metaphysics. The conference aims to explore what insights the two disciplines can bring to each other - the practical effect of the ultimate, and the nature of the ultimate as hinted at by the practical.
Just as the conference covers both the practical and the ultimate, it is fitting that the idea for the conference was motivated by both practical and ultimate concerns. The practical motivation is to improve both engineering and metaphysics in light of each other. The ultimate motivation is to renew interest, imagination, and scholarship in the relationship between the ultimate and the practical. Too often, as Chesterton laments, the ultimate things are ignored for the sake of the practical ones, which leads to shallow purposes, actions, and meanings, which are in the long run ineffectual.
When I share the title of this conference with others, the common response is “what do metaphysics and engineering have to do with each other?” Hopefully, this conference will be a launching point for a new area of scholarship which continually brings forth new answers to this question until the linkage between the two fields becomes axiomatic.
Thank you all for joining with us in this adventure of inquiry. I hope that it spawns new ideas, new questions, and entirely new avenues for learning in each of us!