On Engineering Deficits and Papal Pronouncements

This story seems particularly ironic in light of the Pope’s speech in Germany yesterday. While the numbers are tendentious, popular perception in America is that we are recruiting students to the engineering profession no better than Germany. Trends indicate that we will follow Germany’s engineering decline.

The irony, though, lies in the fact that where “science” dominates the intellectual landscape, fewer people actually enter the hard sciences. Why is this? As Pope Benedict points out, science depends upon a philosophical framework for its own existence:

Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought – to philosophy and theology. For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.

When the philosophical framework is excluded from the outset, it is as though science is cut off from it’s oxygen. It can’t continue to exist when the fundamental principle of the world is chaos rather than logos. My hunch is that the fact/value dichotomy that the Pope identifies is at the heart of the (alleged) decline in the hard sciences, both in Germany and America. I’m not sure what the casual relationship is, but the correlation of the phenomena in both countries suggests that more is going on than an unhappy accident.

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  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Andrew McKnight Selby

    I think there might be something to your idea – along with the pope – that our modern scientific “worldview” ironically erodes the ability to do science well.

    However, I, too, am “not sure what the causal relationship is.” Though I suspect it has less to do with the discipline of science and more with the willingness of folk to engage in difficult studies. Though there may be some difference from school to school and program to program, getting an MBA is much easier on the whole than getting an MS in Chemistry, for example. A higher level of purpose in life and discipline of spirit (which correlate, no doubt) is wanted for further studies in the “hard” sciences. The growing segment of the population that believes in the purposelessness in the world, and therefore for their lives, translates into more folk lacking the necessary desire to pursue a sometimes unpleasurable task, such as becoming a scientist.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this, Matt.

  • http://www.xanga.com/on_gods_arm JenniferGaertner

    I am a amused by this post. Rebecca and I talked about the Sciences vs. Philosophy disciplines before we left for school, because she really does want to be a nurse, and I want to study philosophy. It’s actually encouraging to me to know that the sciences can’t survive without a philisophical framework… I only worry about us having the correct one.

    “It can’t continue to exist when the fundamental principle of the world is chaos rather than logos.”

    How do we fix this? Encourage Christians to enter the sciences?

  • Tex

    Andrew said,

    “The growing segment of the population that believes in the purposelessness in the world, and therefore for their lives, translates into more folk lacking the necessary desire to pursue…” any task that requires them to understand it’s end and goal.

    I think that this gets more at the problem then your statement regarding the willingness to engage in difficult studies (as though the majority of people are lazy slobs). Surely we all struggle with laziness to varying degrees, but there are plenty of people willing to work hard at accomplishing their goals and I don’t think we should look in that sector for the answer.

    Further, “a higher level of purpose in life and discipline of spirit” is wanted not just for further studies in hard sciences, but for further study in general. All difficult subjects require discipline of spirit, and all theoretical studies require a purpose in life that goes beyond putting food on the table and scratching one’s backside. These are requirements for many areas of study (and life) and are not reserved for the hard sciences. Thus, their lack does not explain why there is a decline in the hard sciences, but not in every other area of study as well.

    I think that hard sciences don’t make any sense in a culture that is rapidly giving up on the authority of reason and the ability of reasoning faculties to gain knowledge. If people believe in the purposelessness of the world they may create their own purposes, but also eventually recognize that reason and thought and even communication are meaningless. This will be the end not only of hard sciences, but even of action and speech.

  • http://decorabilia.blogspot.com Jim Anderson

    Market forces are the probable cause at play here. No coincidence that the two fastest-growing economies in the developed world are also cranking out the most engineers (even if the numbers are inflated).

    As far as Benedict’s speech goes, well, the Dalai Lama’s been there, done that. Of course, his willingness to adopt the findings of science, even if they undercut tradition, could be equally tendentiously blamed for the supremacy of Eastern engineering.

  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Andrew McKnight Selby

    Tex writes: “Further, “a higher level of purpose in life and discipline of spirit” is wanted not just for further studies in hard sciences, but for further study in general. All difficult subjects require discipline of spirit, and all theoretical studies require a purpose in life that goes beyond putting food on the table and scratching one’s backside. These are requirements for many areas of study (and life) and are not reserved for the hard sciences. Thus, their lack does not explain why there is a decline in the hard sciences, but not in every other area of study as well.”

    Yep, I didn’t account for that. You would expect all levels of higher study to drop off if overall purposelessness was prohibiting the necessary amount of discipline it takes to succeed in the higher levels of academia.

    This leads me to accept your next paragraph. But when you write, “This will be the end not only of hard sciences, but even of action and speech,” I wonder why the hard sciences have gone first? Especially when there’s such good money in them.

  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Andrew McKnight Selby

    Market forces are the probable cause at play here. No coincidence that the two fastest-growing economies in the developed world are also cranking out the most engineers (even if the numbers are inflated).

    I would assume market forces would drive people to the hard sciences. For most science grads, well-paying jobs are relatively easy to come by – at least in my experience in the Midwest and in Southern California. Do you think Americans don’t care about getting paid big bucks anymore and those from Eastern countries care more? I’d be interested to hear.

    Thanks.

  • http://decorabilia.blogspot.com Jim Anderson

    Andrew,

    My analysis is probably oversimplified, but it only shows that there’s no simple explanation for the current (purported) wane of science education.

    Market forces, for example, aren’t just confined to one country. America’s fastest growing market segments are all service-based, so manufacturing goes overseas, and the big demand for (cheap) engineers goes with it.

    Culturally, the U.S. also has a long tradition of anti-intellectualism, often aligned with fundamentalism, to counteract its love affair with pop-science. We envy and despise nerds.