The role of engineering, its benefits to humanity, and the responsibility of engineers to consider the effect of their work, are explored in a new report launched today from the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Philosophy of Engineering (760.06 KB) is the second report in this series, based on a number of seminars held at the Academy.

Dr Keith Guy FREng, Chair of the Academy’s philosophy of engineering steering group, said:

“Engineering is a complex and rich field and has links with the social sciences and humanities as well as the natural sciences. One of the main aims of this seminar series was to develop an appreciation of the nature and role of engineering knowledge. The Royal Academy of Engineering hopes that this will be the beginning of a fruitful collaboration and that this volume of articles will provide food for thought for philosophers and engineers alike.”

The report is made up of seven short papers from leading thinkers on a range of topics in two areas:

Engineering, Metaphysics and Mind

Nigel Shadbolt: Philosophical engineering
Our modern world is distinguished by a coming together of science and engineering. Questions that we once attempted to understand using pure reason and philosophy are now addressed by empirical, scientific methods.

Hasok Chang: When water does not boil at the boiling point
The surprising finding that the boiling temperature of pure water under fixed pressure is not constant, but is dependent on the nature of the vessel in which the boiling takes place, and even more on the amount of water.

Peter Simons: Ontology in engineering
How engineering and philosophy share breadth, abstractness and a reflexive attitude. While the uses of philosophy for engineering are most obvious in ethical issues, ontological analysis is also a potential source of mutual help and insight.

Luciano Floridi: Constructionism, the maker’s knowledge tradition and knowledge engineering
Arguments in favour of a constructionist approach to knowledge. Put simply, this is the view that an epistemic agent knows something only if that agent is able to build that something.

Engineering, Ethics and the Environment

Andy Stirling: Engineering sustainability – synergies between science, precaution and participation
How risk management in engineering is conventionally based on quantitative expert techniques, often referred to as ‘science-based‘ risk assessment. These methods are typically presented in stark contrast to what are often held to be relatively ambiguous, unscientific (and even ‘politically correct‘) ‘precautionary‘ or ‘participatory‘ approaches.

John O'Neill: Engineering and environmental values
The use of the concept of engineering in the biological sphere often elicits strong negative ethical responses. Practices such as ‘bioengineering‘ and ‘genetic engineering‘ are criticised on the grounds that they are ‘unnatural‘ or involve humans ‘playing god‘.

Roland Clift: Children of Martha – on being an engineer in the environment
Engineers have a different relationship to environmental issues from scientists: engineering implies a commitment to action rather than analysis. The responsibility is of the individual engineer rather than the profession as a whole. The resulting concept is that the engineer should be a technical expert who acts as a social agent, not merely a technician.

Notes for editors

The Royal Academy of Engineering
Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

Philosophy of Engineering: volume 1 (1.24 MB) , published in June 2010, explored ‘where engineering and philosophy meet’ in addition to engineering design and knowledge.

For more information please contact

Lesley Paterson at the Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0684
Email: Lesley Paterson