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Should Engineers Think Like Computers?

To limit ourselves to the symbolic logic that computers can do is to leave our humanity behind

This reflection, authored by Karl D. Stephan, a professor of engineering at Texas State University, San Marcos, is reprinted from his Engineering Ethics Blog. Dr. Stephan is the author of Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering in the Headlines, a collection of his writings on ethics and technology:


Peter Kreeft is a philosopher at Boston College and author of a textbook on Socratic logic.  So far, so dull, you may think.  I have heard Prof. Kreeft speak on numerous occasions, and “dull” does not apply either to his speaking or his writing.  In the introductory section of his text, he says something that I think engineers need to hear.  It’s about ways of thinking and knowing, and the two different competing kinds of logic that are taught today.

If you take a course on logic in college these days, it is most likely going to be what is called “symbolic logic” or “formal logic.”  In fact, most electrical engineering undergrads get a sample of this kind of logic when they take digital electronics.  It turns out that digital computers use things called logic gates. One of the simplest logic gates, called an AND gate, can have two inputs and one output.  As you may know, the numbers in digital computers are in binary form, meaning they have the value of either 1 or 0.  Typically, 1 is represented by a high voltage and 0 by a low voltage.  An AND gate looks at its two inputs, and the only time its output is a high voltage is when both one input AND the other input are high.  Otherwise, its output is low.

If you understood that, you have a firm grasp of an element of what is called Boolean algebra, named after the nineteenth-century logician George Boole, who formalized this type of thinking in an attempt to bring the discipline and clarity of mathematics to logical thinking.  Boole’s project was taken up by others, and now most philosophers think, do, and teach highly mathematical symbolic logic when they do any kind of logic at all.

But there’s a problem with symbolic logic, a problem it shares with computers, whose structure is nothing more than a physical embodiment of symbolic logic.  The old expression “garbage in, garbage out” applies to symbolic logic as well as it does to computers.  Symbolic logic can do marvelously complicated things with its inputs, but it doesn’t “know” what the inputs are any more than a copy machine knows Shakespeare after you’ve copied a page of King Lear with it.  Symbolic logic says nothing about the truth or reality of what you give it.  To understand what things really are, you have to get outside the pristine mathematical structure of symbolic logic and embrace what Prof. Kreeft calls Socratic logic.

It could just as well be called Aristotelian logic or classical logic.  You can get a sense of what gets lost if you think symbolic logic is the only way to think, by reading what Prof. Kreeft says about reason and logic: 

“The very nature of reason itself is understood differently by the new symbolic logic than it was by the traditional Aristotelian logic.  ‘Reason’ used to mean essentially    ‘all that distinguishes man from the beasts,’ including intuition, understanding, wisdom,    moral conscience, and aesthetic appreciation, as well as calculation.  ‘Reason’ now usually means only the last of these powers.”

Socratic Logic, edition 3.1, p. 22

He goes on to say that as first philosophers and then people in general have accepted these definitions of logic and reason, it’s become harder to understand some concepts that earlier ages knew almost without thinking.  Take one of the most basic questions that even five-year-olds can ask:  “What is it?”  That goes to the heart of the being of a thing:  what is a horse or a man essentially?  Not just what is it made of, but what is its true nature?  Symbolic logic doesn’t ask such questions.  It is a logic of manipulation and process.  As Kreeft says, instead of trying to understand the fundamental essentials of things, we “think about how we feel about things, about how we can use them, how we see them behave, how they work, how we can change them, or how we can predict and control their behavior by technology.”  That last phrase—predicting and controlling behavior by technology—is largely what engineers do. 

And it’s a good thing to do, rightly applied, and symbolic logic is essential to the task, especially these days now that everything engineers do involves information technology.  But it is a great mistake to think that symbolic logic is all we need to make our way in the world, and we can safely ignore the questions of what a thing really is on our way to bending it to our technological will.

As Kreeft points out, animals have feelings, use their environment, and even make use of rudimentary tools in some cases.  But we do not share with animals the higher operations of the human mind, including the ability to see connections between apparently different things, and to achieve true understanding about universal concepts such as freedom or love.  No animal and no computer (sorry, all you artificial-intelligence folks) will be able to do that. 

Kreeft is concerned that we will give in to the ancient temptation to idolize the work of our hands:  symbolic logic and the computers it gave rise to.  But if we do so, we will lower ourselves to the level of the beasts, and neglect those powers of the mind recognized by classical logic as what makes the difference between humans on the one hand, and animals and computers on the other hand. 

The takeaway from all this is simply to remind us that scientific thinking in the sense of symbolic logic is not the only kind of thinking or knowing that there is.  Engineers of all people should recognize that they do their work in the context of human society, which is forever beyond the grasp of symbolic logic to analyze or comprehend.  Something more is required.  We can call that something classical logic, or wisdom, or even faith.  But to limit ourselves to the kind of logic that computers can do is to leave our humanity behind. 

Sources:  Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic: Edition 3.1 was published by St. Augustine’s Press in 2010. 


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Should Engineers Think Like Computers?