Intellectual DIY

Hi everyone,

Some more fragments today, loosely centred around some thoughts that I haven't quite been able to weave together into a full essay. Maybe you can fill in the blanks.

A Conversation with my Father

Last year I had a conversation with my father in which he said how impressed he was with my memory and general breadth of knowledge and intellectual achievement, and that he could certainly never do anything like that.

I expressed polite scepticism at this claim and pointed out that his sheer breadth of practical knowledge far outstripped mine. He seems to know everything about DIY, and is generally prepared to wade in and do a good job on just about anything you might expect to do around the home, from heat pump engineering to building furniture. He's been building some stairs recently, as one does. He is finally starting to come around to the idea that maybe he doesn't have to do everything himself, but generally it's not a question of whether he can do it himself, but whether he can do this thing and all of the thousand other tasks he's taken on. This is of course all before we even start on his actual professional skill set (he was a banker before he retired).

He objected that this was not at all the same thing - he just figured things out as he went and refined his skills over time in the course of doing them. He didn't necessarily remember all these things, he just started with the problems he was trying to solve, had the confidence to try things out and see if they worked, and practiced them until he got the knack of it, and then builds on that prior experience for future problems.

“Well yes”, I said. “How do you think I do it?”

Science and Engineering

I find it's very useful to have what I call idiosyncratic distinctions. Ways of distinguishing between two things that don't necessarily perfectly map onto common usage but more or less convey the right idea and are helpful for you.

For example I've written about an idiosyncratic distinction between anxiety and worry before, which is that it's worry if the negative emotion attaches to a particular outcome (“I am worried about this concrete bad possibility”) and it's anxiety if it attaches to the uncertainty over which outcome might occur (“I am anxious about this job interview even if I know I'll be fine if I don't get the job”).

Another idiosyncratic distinction I use is between science and engineering. It's science if you're trying to learn something true, it's engineering if you're trying to achieve something.

Of course, there are plenty of ways of trying to learn something that aren't science, and plenty of ways of trying to achieve something that aren't engineering. Also you learn things while doing engineering and achieve things while doing science. But it's still a useful distinction for cases where you find yourself wondering whether something is engineering or science.

One way this definition makes itself apparent is in the success criteria. “It works but I don't know why” can be a success if you're doing engineering, or a failure if you're doing science.

One thing this helps make sense of is why engineering often seems to precede science rather than the other way around as is commonly supposed. One of my favourite examples of this is the argument that Charles Darwin figured out his theory of natural selection because the British agricultural revolution had already figured out how to do selective breeding and worked backwards from there (cf. British agricultural revolution gave us evolution by natural selection).

Why would we expect this to happen given this distinction? Well because it's much easier to accidentally stumble upon something that works and then figure out how it works later than vice versa. You can see this, for example, in the gradual refinement of our material science. We were using steel for thousands of years before we ever knew what was going on (cf. The Entire History of Steel).

Of course, modern steel is much better than historical steel, and a lot of that is that we did science to the problem. We now know much more about chemistry in general and carbon and iron in particular, and this informed the invention of the Bessemer process, which is absurdly simple once you know how to do it. Not necessarily easy, but if you'd given that knowledge to someone two thousand years ago I bet they'd have eventually figured out a way to make it work.

Most progress we make is this sort of back and forth between something that is roughly science and something that is roughly engineering - alternating layers of doing things and figuring them out. In the course of doing one, we necessarily defer to the other - we can only perform experiments by way of engineering, and when engineering things we need to know things - but we are nevertheless shifting back and forth between the two modes.

Evolution and Design

Evolutionary biologists tend to get very affronted when people talk about evolution as design. Evolution does not sit down and decide what end goal it wants to achieve and work on a plan towards that. It starts from what it has, and tries variations on it, and discards what doesn't work and keeps what does, for a complex definition of “work” that is highly dependent on the context - what resources are available, what risks are present, the competition with other actors in the space, etc.

Which is to say, evolution is exactly like design.

In “Where Good Ideas Come From”, by Steven Johnson, he explores this analogy in great depth, drawing on Stewart Kauffman's idea of “The Adjacent Possible” of an evolutionary system - the set of things that can be generated from what is currently available. In biology, this is the range of possible next generations. In science, it is the set of things that can be discovered based on what we already know. In engineering, the set of things you can build.

Evolution proceeds by drawing from the adjacent possible, retaining what works, and discarding what does not. This is true for biological evolution, and it's just as true for ideas - science and engineering included.

Because science and engineering are so tightly intermingled we can look at them as two co-evolving systems, each informing the adjacent possible of the other. What we know defines what it is possible to build, what we build defines what it is possible to know.

The process is more directed than biological evolution of course. We don't just explore the adjacent possible at random, we purposefully explore it to find the things we are looking for, but it still retains much of the messy and iterative nature of biological evolution.

Engineering as Bricolage

From Claude Levi Strauss’ Concept of Bricolage:

In The Savage Mind (1962), the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss used the word bricolage to describe the characteristic patterns of mythological thought. Bricolage is the skill of using whatever is at hand and recombining them to create something new. Levi-Strauss compares the working of the bricoleur and the engineer. The bricoleur, who is the “savage mind”, works with his hands in devious ways, puts pre-existing things together in new ways, and makes do with whatever is at hand. (...)

As opposed to the bricoleur, the engineer, who is the “scientific mind”, is a true craftsman in that he deals with projects in entirety, taking into account the availability of materials, and creating new tools. Drawing a parallel, Levi-Strauss argues that mythology functions more like the bricoleur, whereas modern western science works more like an engineer. He suggests that the engineer creates a holistic totalising system, in which there are elements of permanence.

A bricoleur doesn’t care about the purity or stability or ‘truth’ of a system he or she uses, but rather uses what’s there to get a particular job done.

Somewhat unsurprisingly a significant amount of the ethnography of work has taken Levi-Strauss's notion of bricolage (which is basically just a fancy french word for DIY) and gone “Oh yeah that's a great description of how actual engineering works, thanks” and run with it. The distinction between bricolage and engineering is based not on actual engineering but on the collective fictions we tell about how engineering works (cf. A Fractal of Lies).

If bricolage is the assemblage of what is to hand to solve the problem in front of us then all problem solving is bricolage. The bricoleur (one who engages in bricolage) simply builds on their existing body of capabilities and explores the adjacent possible of solutions to it until they find what they need.

For example, from “Working Knowledge: Skill and Community in a Small Shop” by Douglas Harper (page 74):

Willie [the subject of the book], improvising with the odds and ends that drift down to him or come through barter, is the very embodiment of Levi-Strauss's bricoleur:

Consider him at work and excited by his project. His first practical step is retrospective. He has to turn back to an already existent set made up of tools and materials, to consider or reconsider what it contains, and above all, to engage in a sort of dialogue with it, and before choosing between them, to index the possible answers which the whole set can offer to his problem. ...

...the rules of his game are always to make do with “whatever is at hand,” that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current projects or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. ...

He does not confine himself to accomplishments and execution; he “speaks” not only with things... but through the medium of things; giving an account of his personality and life by the choices he makes between limited possibilities. The bricoleur may not ever complete his purpose but he always puts something of himself into it. (1966, 21)

There are several important ideas in these passages. The bricoleur is presented first as a thinker: considering, reconsidering, always with a view to what is available, what is at hand. The emphasis is correctly on the mental side of the dialectical process, which Levi-Strauss calls a dialogue.

The observation that the set of tools and materials is the sum of all previous projects, and that it will be summoned to the task at hand and enlarged once again with the materials left over from the current project, captures the sense of a shop operation and of forming one's own material world through the creative use of what simply builds up during the process of work. This of course is in contrast to the idea of assembling one's tool and materials and then adding to them to fit a preconceived and definitive plan or blueprint.

Finally, Levi-Strauss indicates that in his work the bricoleur defines and extends himself. It is not only that the work solves material problems, but also that one's life choices take on the same characteristics as the decisions made in the course of work. It is in the replication of the means that the material work influences the mental.

Willie, who runs a small shop repairing all sorts of machines (mostly vehicles and agricultural equipment) is engaged in a constant process in which he both solves the problems in front of him and expanding his capabilities for solving problems in the course of doing so. He is an engineer, in the sense that he is trying to achieve a specific result, but the process by which he does so is one of pure bricolage, the skill of using whatever is to hand.

We are all engineers

In “Invitation to Personal Construct Psychology”, Trevor Butt and Vivien Burr talk about George Kelly's theory of personal construct psychology and his view that people are (page 3):

like scientists in that their actions are guided by the theories they hold about themselves and those around them; the questions they are currently asking. These questions or theories are the person's bridge between their past and their future. They are shaped by experience, provide the framework for future action and are responsible for the particular anticipatory stance we take. They alert us to some events and blind us to others, “Who is going to be the boss in this marriage?” is a question that one partner may be silently posing without realising that this is simply not an issue for the other. However, this wont' stop the first partner from interpreting or construing the actions of the other in terms of their guiding question.

This brings us to the notion of good and bad questions. Just as some theories are more useful than others in helping us to explain ane vent in physics or chemistry, so the theories with which we approach our personal world cannot be said to be true or untrue; some are more useful than others. Good questions give us answers we can use, some idea of what to do, how to deal with something, how to react to someone. Bad questions lead to unhelpful answers, they are simply not suited to the issues we face. “Are you for me or against me?” might be useful in war or competitions, but in the context of most other interpersonal relationships it will lead to frustrating and restricted answers. Bad questions lead to people being stuck in unhelpful and demoralising cycles of experience.

In the idiosyncratic distinction we are drawing between science and engineering, what George Kelly (by way of Butt and Burr) is describing is not people being scientists but engineers. We are not trying to know things because we want to know things, but because we are trying to achieve something: Living our lives. The questions we ask are not designed to determine some sort of universal truth, but only to aid us in our practical and emotional goals (cf. Life-Complete Problems)

Conceptual Bricolage

There is a good paper by David Chalmers called “What is Conceptual Engineering and What Should It Be?”. There is also a good (and somewhat brutal) discussion of this paper by Suspended Reason called Conceptual engineering: the revolution in philosophy you've never heard of.

David Chalmers argues that conceptual engineering, which he provides a working definition as “the process of designing, implementing, and evaluating concepts” (a definition he derives by looking up the definition of engineering and “applying compositionality”), is a key part of philosophy, and a key role for philosophy in general. I'm a fan of his examples from social philosophy (partly because I'm a fan of the things cited, partly because I think it's useful to think of them as conceptual engineering):

In social philosophy you find this kind of thing all the time. People use engineered concepts to point to phenomena that may have been overlooked, or to draw distinctive concepts out of strands of discussion. Miranda Fricker’s work on epistemic injustice and its varieties like testimonial and hermeneutic injustice, would be a paradigmatic example here of drawing out a fruitful concept. Sally Haslanger’s work on gender and race is another. A paradigm example would be her work towards the analysis of the concept of woman in terms of oppression. What Haslanger calls ameliorative analysis is conceptual engineering in the revisionary mode to serve various ends, including the ends of social justice. This ameliorative strand of conceptual engineering has been picked up by many other people in recent social philosophy. Kate Manne’s revisionary analysis of misogyny is an example.

In turn, Suspended Reason argues that David Chalmers doesn't understand engineering and his failure to understand engineering is emblematic of the weaknesses of philosophy in general:

This doesn't seem like a bad definition, you protest, and it isn't. But we were never looking for a definition. That's the realm of conceptual analysis. We quit that shit alongside nicotine, back in the 80s. Alright, so what are we trying to do? We're trying to solve a problem, multiple problems actually. The original problem was that we had concepts like "meaning" and "belief" that, in folk usage, were vague, or didn't formalize cleanly, and philosophers quite reasonably intuited that, in order to communicate and make true statements about these concepts, we first had to know what they "were." (The "is" verb implies a usage mission: description over prescription.) The problem we are trying to solve is, itself, in part, conceptual analysis—plus the problems conceptual analysis tried originally to solve but instead largely exacerbated.

This, not incidentally, is how an engineer approaches the world, how an engineer would approach writing Chalmers's lecture. Engineers see a problem and then they design a solution that fits the current state of things (context, constraints, affordances) to bring about the desired state of affairs.

Chalmers is just an analyst, and he can only regurgitate definitions like his analyst forbearers.

Suspended Reason's critique of the paper in general is harsher than I would be, but not I think unfair, I just tend towards charitable reading of things (Eric Schwitzgebel thinks I shouldn't do this, but he and I are engaged in different projects. Charitable reading is bad if you want to know what the author thinks, and of mixed benefit if you want to challenge your own thinking on the subject, but often good if you want to generate your own useful thoughts).

This idea of conceptual engineering is still useful though (and I don't think Suspended Reason disagrees at all, he just thinks Chalmers has got entirely the wrong idea about it), and Kelly's notion of personal construct psychology I think points at why: To the degree that we are investigating and trying to solve our own problems in life, we have to ask good questions, and the questions we can ask are very dependent on the concepts that are available to us. Conceptual engineering is the art of ensuring that our conceptual toolkits are sufficiently rich to ask good questions.

Intellectual DIY

You might have noticed that to the degree that there is a single thing that I am talking about in this newsletter issue, it is the thing that I am doing right here on the page: Drawing together material from a variety of found sources in order to help understand our lives.

This isn't so much deliberately self-referential as the inevitable result of my trying to explain my primary mode of thinking and working - I don't think what I do is actually as hard as it seems, and I'd like to show how it works.

I'm not sure this post was it, but hopefully some of the found pieces lying around my intellectual workshop were interesting.