Philosophy as engineering

From William Wimsatt’s Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings: Piecewise Approximations to Reality:

I seek methodological tools appropriate to well-adapted but limited and error-prone beings. We need a philosophy of science that can be pursued by real people in real situations in real time with the kinds of tools that we actually have-now or in a realistically possible future. This must be a central requirement for any naturalistic account. Thus I oppose not only various eliminativisms, but also overly idealized intentional or rationalistic accounts. In these chapters I advocate an approach that can provide both better descriptions of our activities and normative guidance based on realistic measures of our strengths and limitations. No current philosophy of science does this fully, though increasing numbers are moving in that direction. A philosophy of science for real people means real scientists, real engineers, historians or sociologists of real science and engineering, and real philosophers interested in how any of the preceding people work, think about their practice, think about the natural worlds we all inhabit, and think about what follows reflectively and reflexively from these facts.

This view involves a species of realism, though not of the usual sort. It fits current scientific practice and illuminates historical cases better than other approaches, and it has implications for how to do philosophy. It neither has nor seeks the stark simplicities of current foundationalist theories. This philosophy must be based from top to bottom on heuristic principles of reasoning and practice, but it also seeks a full accounting of other things in our richly populated universe — including the formal approaches we have sought in the past.

This project is a philosophy for messy systems, for the real world, for the “in-between”, and for the variegated ecologies of reality supporting and increasingly bent to our science and technology. Pace Quine, this is ontology for the tropical rainforest. The “piecewise approximations” of the book title is unavoidable: we are, must be, and can be realists in our science and much of our practice. But our realism, like our practice, and even our inferential consistency, must be piecemeal and usually satisfied with a local rather than a global order. We aren’t God and we don’t have a God’s-eye view of the world. (In this piecemeal world, we don’t even have a gods’ eyes view.)

But then the first part of the title is only half-truth: to re-engineer the whole of philosophy in a human image is still ambitiously global. I don’t do all this. I sketch how to do it for significant parts of philosophy of science and closely connected areas of science. This captures new phenomena and reconceptualizes old in ways that fit more naturally with how we proceed. I hope that others find these results sufficiently suggestive to use, extend, and add to the tools I describe here to employ them elsewhere.

“Re-Engineering” appears in the title as a verb: this view of science and nature is constructed largely (as with all creative acts) by taking, modifying, and reassessing what is at hand, and employing it in new contexts, thus re-engineering. Re-engineering is cumulative and is what makes our cumulative cultures possible. And any engineering project must be responsive to real world constraints, thus realism. Our social, cognitive, and cultural ways of being are no less real than the rest of the natural world, and all together leave their marks. But putting our feet firmly in the natural world is not enough. Natural scientists have long privileged the “more fundamental” ends of their scientific hierarchy, and pure science over applied — supposing that (in principle) all knowledge flowed from their end of the investigative enterprise.

Not so: Re-engineering also works as an adjective, and has a deeper methodological role. Theorists and methodologists of the pure sciences have much to learn about their own disciplines from engineering and the study of practice, and from evolutionary biology, the most fundamental of all (re-)engineering disciplines. Our cognitive capabilities and institutions are no less engineered and re-engineered than our biology and technology, both collections of layered kluges and exaptations. We must know what can be learned from this fact about ourselves to better pursue science of any sort.

This is very, very close to my own thinking, that philosophy ought to be understood as a species of design — the design of how we conceive — and judged by how well it does its job of enabling us to communicate and share a common sense of reality, how well it guides effective action and how well it reveals the value of our lives and our world.

These are design goals, not engineering goals, so I must say that on some level I probably disagree with Wimsatt, but I’m a quarrelsome person, and for me disagreement is a feature, not a bug. I suspect I will find much of use here. I’m already finding myself noticing heuristic thought more than before, and it is enabling me to make some weird wormholes between distant realms of thought normally considered absolutely untraversable.


One newer development in my thinking on design: Increasingly, over the last five years I have spent practicing service design (my first exposure to a truly polycentric design discipline) I have realized the enormous importance of philosophical interoperability — of designing philosophies that enable connections between people, instead of distancing and alienating them. This is always a change, but is exponentially challenging in times like these when all popular philosophies are philosophies of alienation and despair.

Parents now feel virtuous teaching their children ways of understanding the world that reveal it only as a vale of tears, dominated by sin, oppression, greed and hatred — and doomed to perish of these vices — and then blame the world for their children’s despair.

A well-designed philosophy must speak to people with these mentalities, whether these apocalyptic visions are secular or antisecular, but must divert them away from nihilism, without also diverting them from the reality of reality.

Anyway… I’m excited about this book.

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