The Independence and Proper Roles of Engineering and Metaphysics

The Independence and Proper Roles of Engineering and Metaphysics in Support of an Integrated Understanding of God’s Creation

Alexander R. Sich (Franciscan University of Steubenville)

The speculative (theoretical) sciences—including mathematics, natural sciences, and metaphysics—study the world independent of human volition, calling us to recognize the truths obtained as valuable in their own right. Indeed, these disciplines are ordered to “understanding-thinking” as an end in itself. The engineering disciplines, in contrast, are productive sciences ordered to “understanding-making”—not as ends in themselves but to achieve practical ends per our wills.

One distinguishes each particular natural science and engineering discipline by the subject matter each studies. Physics studies natural non-living matter in physical motion by modeling “objects” according to mathematical formalisms while employing univocal terms such as force, energy, mass, charge, etc. Biology studies all natural living things. Engineering disciplines apply knowledge gained from the natural sciences to achieve practical ends—to the making of artificial things (artifacts). (Principles of motion of natural things are within themselves, whereas artifacts’ principles of motion are imposed externally.)

The knowledge obtained by the natural sciences and engineering disciplines is limited because they all presuppose certain extra-scientific concepts and principles. These concepts and principles cannot be derived from any of the natural sciences themselves, for that would be circular. Moreover, the scientific method cannot validate its ability to guide us to truths about creation: it cannot be the epistemic arbiter of all knowledge—otherwise known as the non-scientific pseudo-philosophy of scientism.

It falls to metaphysics to study the most general principles common to all contingent beings—whether natures or artifacts. For example, it is not the reduced understanding of motion studied by physics (e.g., dx/dt) through physical efficient causality that metaphysics studies, but all manifestations of change qua change. Metaphysics does not ask, “how do objects change?” but rather “what is change?” Metaphysics studies reality in ontological terms (hence also employing analogous terms), for it must understand what being, change, substance, accident, cause, potency, act, essence, etc. are in their widest throw. Moreover, metaphysics cannot be reduced to a crude synonym for “world-view”: it is a rigorous speculative science that inter alia animates the coordinating role a realist philosophy of nature plays for the particular natural sciences and engineering.

It falls to a realist philosophy of nature to study the most common principles of the natural sciences: to provide the foundational principles which all particular sciences and engineering disciples presuppose, there must be a way of knowing nature whose subject matter concerns the principles and causes of natural things insofar as they are natural—that is, subject to change per principles immanent to themselves. A realist philosophy of nature therefore has the same general subject matter as the natural sciences, but it applies general philosophical (rather than specific scientific) methods to study nature, and it does not suffer the operational restrictions of methodological naturalism.

A realist philosophy of nature must be distinguished from a philosophy of science which studies systems of reasoning about natural things. It should also not be confused with philosophical naturalism, nor should it be conflated with the term “natural philosophy” as used during the Enlightenment, whose antecedents reflect a slow, incremental drift away from a unified understanding of nature into the fragmentary and highly-specified particular sciences we observe today.