Still in the Saddle

“As long as one is a Naturalist, ‘Nature’ is only a word for ‘everything’. And Everything is not a subject about which anything very interesting can be said . . . .” C.S. Lewis, Miracles

In his latest response to my thoughts about modern engineering, Greg Forster’s main allegation is that I’ve fallen into a Platonic disdain for the material world. He also suspects me of thinking that the liberal arts are inherently more humane than the hard sciences.

“I’d ask Yarbrough to consider whether he hasn’t overreacted against what he sees as inordinate veneration of the material by falling into an inordinate denigration of the material, as evidenced by his first post arguing that students’ “humanity” will tend to lead them away from the material professions, and also in the romanticized depiction of the humanities and social sciences in his second post.”

Perhaps there is nothing I can say to prevent some people from describing my first post as an attack on nature, science, and technology. But it nonetheless is certainly not that. In fact, it was my attempt to apply the very “matter-ful” ideas of Work, Part II to my occupation. And it should be noted that while writing Work, Part II I had to check myself a number of times to ensure that matter and nature did not steal center stage.

My recent posts are not an argument against an “inordinate veneration of the material,” far from it. I’m actually trying to point out that modern approaches to engineering are themselves a denigration of the material in that they treat it as simply material. I think that treatment contrasts with human intuition and is therefore unattractive.

Which brings us to one of Mr. Forster’s requests of me.

“I’d be grateful if Yarbrough could explain how he reconciles his claim that engineering is at a comparative disadvantage in recruiting students due to its moral disorder with his claim that engineering is not “more” morally disordered than other disciplines.”

To clarify, I never stated that engineering is not more morally disordered than other professions, but that it “is not, by degrees, more morally confused than other professions.” My claim is that the moral disorder within modern engineering curriculum is different in kind from, and thereby more inhumane than, the curriculum of other disciplines. One reason only 2 in 5 students who begin a STEM degree actually complete it is because modern engineering is, unlike other areas of study, about satisfying appetites via techniques. As I see it, the other disciplines are at least still arguing about what’s good (an essential concern for humans). But that concept does not even creep in through the back door of the engineer-in-training’s mind. (Whether or not certain appetites are worthy of satisfaction and whether certain techniques should even be applied are usually bizarre questions for those with a B.S. in engineering.)

In my previous post I suggested that the good was inherently linked with the supernatural. If I’m right, classes like “Competing Visions of the Good Life” are still available in political science departments because that discipline can’t avoid at least allowing for the unseen. This brings us to another of Mr. Forster’s criticisms aimed at my suggestion that Aquinas’ texts are still being studied by government majors.

“As it happens, outside the Christian academic ghetto, almost no one in the discipline of political science has actually read any amount of Thomas Aquinas. The combined impact of all the classical Christian political thinkers on the mainstream of the discipline of political science today is indistinguishable from zero.”

Given his pedigree, Mr. Forster’s knowledge of the current state of academia is undoubtedly superior to my own. I can only say that apparently my having been required to read Aquinas by a non-Christian professor at a public university is the exception. However, my point was not that Christian thinkers of any discipline continue to impact mainstream thought, but that most disciplines outside of engineering can’t rid themselves of seminal works that take the unseen seriously. I listed Aquinas’ Summa as one such work. Substitute John Locke’s Two Treatises and my argument is still valid and Mr. Forster’s objections are addressed.

I saved my favorite protest from Mr. Forster for last. Here it is.

“I feel very highly confident that if you put all the engineers who have read The Abolition of Man in one side of the scale, and all the political scientists who have read any Aquinas on the other side of the scale, the engineers would outweigh the political scientists so drastically that the downward acceleration of that side of the scale would exceed the gravitational constant.”

Setting aside the impossibility of an object’s acceleration in free fall exceeding the gravitational constant, this is an admittedly awesome STEM joke, and (nerd that I am) I was delighted by it. But given my own experience, the only way it could hold true is if engineers are, per capita, denser than political scientists, which is not beyond the realm of possibility.

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