Philosophy at KTH
The division of philosophy has existed at KTH since 1999, and currently employs about 25 people. Although the division has been around for many years, few students are familiar with what they actually do. Therefore, Esset set out to investigate this matter.
At first glance, the purpose of a philosophy division at a technical university may not be obvious. To most people, philosophy is sort of an abstract science that deals mainly with “life’s big questions”, such as good and evil, the existence of God and the meaning of life. This is quite different from the majority of research conducted at KTH, which – while it may be complex – has a direct link to our physical world. One could say that the difference is that philosophers acquire knowledge through arguing and reasoning, while researchers associated with natural science do it through experimenting.
But one must not forget that philosophy is a vast field. After all, it is defined on Wikipedia as “the study of underlying things”. With such a broad definition, philosophy could be said to be the foundation for everything about life. Speaking of Wikipedia, it can also be used to demonstrate this statement. Go to the English Wikipedia and open any article. Then click the first link that is not in italics or inside a parenthesis. If you continue doing this a few more times, chances are very high that you’ll eventually end up on the article about philosophy.
Because of the nature of the field, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the things that philosophers can study is the underlying factors behind technology and technological research. This is exactly what the staff at the division of philosophy do. The branches of philosophy that they specialize in are called things such as:
philosophy of technology
ethics of technology
philosophy of risk
The branch philosophy of technology deals with trying to understand the nature of technology, its social impact, as well as analysing the practices of engineering. A fundamental question that researchers try to answer is “what is technology?” As in, what is it that distinguishes it from other human cultural phenomena, such as art and politics? When it comes to the effects of technology on society, philosophers try to understand how it influences our lives. What consequences does a certain technology have on society? Are we able to control technology, or does it control us? Can we steer the development of technology, or does it have a life of its own? For the subfield practices of engineering, philosophers analyse the engineer as a concept. What kinds of specific knowledge do they have? What is the nature of the engineering design process?
The term ethics of technology refers to the application of ethical thinking to the practical concerns of technology. As technology improves, the possibilities of what we can achieve with it expand. But not everything that is theoretically possible is something that we wish to do. There is a need for a definition of what is right and wrong, based on ethics. One example is last year’s Nobel prize winner in chemistry, CRISPR. This innovation will in a not too distant future make it possible to genetically modify people, potentially eradicating several diseases. However it can not only be used for medical treatment, but also for human enhancement. If you as a parent could alter the genes of your unborn child so that they were guaranteed to have a high IQ or good looks, would you do it? While a parent wants what is best for their child, such practices would effectively eradicate certain human traits if applied at a large scale. Is it ethical to do that for no other reason but vanity?
Decision theory is a discipline concerned with analysing the choices a person makes. The topic can be studied in either a normative or descriptive way. In the former, the outcome of a decision is evaluated in order to determine if it was good or not. Philosophers are primarily concerned with the latter, where they try to explain why a person made a certain choice. Some factors that affect this are a person’s beliefs, values and desires, and of course the options that are available. Understanding what goes into making a decision can hopefully help us become more rational and to make better choices.
The philosophy of risk is (unsurprisingly) related to analysing the concept of risk and how we cope with it. In the field of structural engineering for instance, risk is something that designers face all the time. A structure must be designed so that the risk of collapse is sufficiently small. What are the factors that could cause a collapse? How can the structure be designed to avoid this? And how do we define “sufficiently small”? These questions have no easy answers, but must be dealt with. One way to do so is through a construction code – such as the Eurocode – but the fundamentals of such a tool must be based on some set of principles. These principles are one example of what a philosopher in this branch could study.
Okay, so far we have established that there is a division of philosophy, and gotten a brief introduction to their research fields. But what does this mean for us as students? Besides their research, the division of philosophy also teaches some courses. If you study a Master’s programme at KTH, one of the few mandatory courses that you need to take is about the theory and methodology of science. While the exact content of the course is different for each programme, some common topics exist – such as the theory behind science, the scientific method and research ethics. Perhaps it sounds familiar? This course gives an introduction to the philosophical concepts that we have previously discussed. Other programmes have additional courses – those who study biotechnical engineering have a course only focusing on ethics for example. There are also independent courses that anyone can apply to.
Hopefully this article has given you a better understanding of the link between technology and philosophy. The questions asked by philosophers may sometimes seem abstract and involved, but in the end they help us understand more about our world. Even for someone who studies an entirely different field, it can be valuable to pause and reflect on what we learn and why we do things in certain ways.