Rethinking the Obvious

C. Pieters, I. van der Poel (Editor), D. Goldberg (Editor)

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingArticleAcademic


    “Philosophy is the art of reflecting on that what we think we already know” This quote from my supervisor Harry Kunneman, starkly addresses the problem of any interdisciplinary enterprise, such as is the case when philosophy meets engineering and vice versa. It is hard to reconsider the obvious, or at least those issues that our training and experience have made us believe that are obvious [1], such as reliance on formal, preferably mathematical, truths in the case of engineering versus the continuum of critical stances based on established scholastic traditions in philosophy; or the focus on tackling actual problems in a clearly defined context, versus reflection on potential risks that may or may not become a real (future) threat. There are also many rules of practice that are taken for granted; the truth of progress at lightning speed that many fields of engineering face, and of course also by the philosophers who reflect on the consequences of such progress. One group is desperately trying to keep up to date with the steady stream of publications on specific issues on their field of interest, while others just as desperately try to understand the long term social or ethical consequences of the rapidly expanding products of these areas –complex systems theory, neural science, genetic engineering and many, many more. These matters are the current focus of an interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University for Humanistics (UH) in Utrecht, the Netherlands. In this team, sponsored by the NWO, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research through their program “The Societal Component of Genomics Research” [2], the problem of communications between various stakeholders in the genomics debate is being tackled by a motley crew of scientists, with contributions from philosophy to engineering (one researcher, with a background in computer science and electronics, engaged in a research for a PhD in Humanistics). This project, “Towards a Lingua Democratica for the Public Debate on Genomics” [3] both addresses, as experiences the problems of interdisciplinary research –miscommunication, established, often ‘coagulated’ mindsets and expectations on what ‘the other’ should know or should consider scientifically viable. The notion behind the central theme in this project, the Lingua Democratica, is that the problem between any inter- or cross disciplinary communication is not specifically a problem of distinct scientific languages –such that a lingua franca could capture-, but is already manifest at more fundamental levels. These levels range from various dialects that can be more or less closed to others, occur at intermediate levels where presuppositions, expectations, beliefs and intentions are formulated, and eventually end at the level of abstract relationships and interactions. These contributions may help to enhance awareness of the strengths and limitations of the individual stakeholders and hopefully provide means of a more inclusive –democratic- approach to face the challenges of genomics. The individual contributions of this project focus, amongst others, on issues as the use of metaphors in science [4] and various modes of scientific practices [5]. The specific project that spawns this paper –the contribution from engineering- is looking into various patterns that can be identified in the interactions between stakeholders with different backgrounds and stakes in an interdisciplinary micro-society. This paper aims to introduce the current state of the engineering contribution –evidently work in progress- that aims to ‘reverseengineer’ problems at the boundaries of two distinctly different societies, for instance between engineering and philosophy, with the tools that are available within engineering itself. It aims explore the issues that one faces and argues that these problems are similar to those which the maturing field of complex systems theory faces.
    Original languageAmerican English
    Title of host publicationEngineering meets Philosophy WPE
    PublisherDelft University
    Number of pages2
    Publication statusPublished - 29 Oct 2007

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