“The report of my death was an exaggeration.”  Those famous words of Mark Twain might also apply to the subject of philosophy. You may have heard about Stephen Hawking’s low opinion of philosophy , or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s ramblings against the subject . What many scientists today conveniently forget is that philosophy is inescapable; the only question is whether your philosophy is valid or not. Because it forms the framework that supports your worldview, philosophy is often hidden in plain sight, so to speak.
Some areas of knowledge typically grouped under the umbrella of philosophy that are absolutely critical to successful science are logic (how we think rationally about anything), epistemology (the study of how we can know that we rightly know something, or how we justify our beliefs), and ethics (you know – that we shouldn’t fake the data, fudge our numbers, plagiarize, etc). Can you see why scientists who think the tree of philosophy is nothing more than so much firewood are really attacking what supports their own little treehouse? Science can provide us an amazing view of the world, but only when it’s supported by good sturdy philosophy. Data is little use without interpretation, and good philosophy provides that wisdom needed to interpret the data truly, consistently, fairly, without bias, and without going beyond what the data can support.
Because philosophy is so foundational to much of life, it remains behind the scenes for most of us. But sometimes you get reminded of its presence and effect in even the mundane tasks. I’m one that likes to read the commentaries in the backs of the various design standards and learn why various requirements or recommendations are instituted. And in the commentary for Chapter J of AISC’s Manual of Steel Construction , I came across an explanation for why a particular definition of cross sectional area in combination with a particular safety factor are used for one formula. In the body of the specification, you’re just given the formula and the safety factor for block shear strength, with no explanation. But the commentary points out that block shear is a rupture (or tearing) phenomenon rather than yielding, and therefore , the requirements shown are consistent with the design philosophy of another chapter that deals with tensile rupture. You see, our design philosophy may be behind the scenes, but it drives how we implement our specific designs. As engineers, our first duty is actually not to our employer or our customers, but always to protect the public safety. That’s actually part of our code of ethics.
One way that works itself out in practice is by trying to control how our designs fail in a worst-case scenario. Failures due to tensile rupture, shear rupture, or compressive buckling can be sudden and catastrophic. A sudden failure of the main roof framing of a large venue might kill hundreds or even thousands of people. A slow ductile yielding on the other hand, can result in massive amounts of noticeable sagging before the final collapse, allowing ample time for evacuating people and repairing the problem before it collapses. And so our design philosophy is twofold: to design a structure that safely supports its intended loads with some margin, and to steer any potential failure toward failure modes that are more predictable and controllable. This is especially done when designing for earthquakes where we fully expect massive damage in the design-level earthquake, but we try to control where the damage occurs and how it fails so as to protect life at all costs. For example, we’ll design braced frames where the braces act as “fuses” (like a circuit breaker in your house) that will eventually fail only after many cycles of ground shaking, leaving the rest of the building (relatively) intact. A former boss of mine applied the idea of a tensile “fuse” – with that nice, slow, predictable failure mode – to open-web steel joists like what you see in many retail stores . So you see, one aspect of our philosophy can can have far-reaching effects. Our philosophy also provides direction in new or uncertain conditions. Going back to the steel manual, there are some spots where the authors explain what the intent of certain provisions are, which is a significant help in applying those provisions to scenarios the authors possibly didn’t anticipate. We can see that something may not violate the letter of the law, but it does the spirit, or intent, of the law (or vice versa). These are all cases where our philosophy helps guide us, and without some overarching framework, our endeavors are fractured and adrift.
Of course, I’ve mentioned “valid” and “good” philosophy throughout this post. Not all philosophy is created equal. The system Hawking and Tyson advocate is, or very nearly is, scientism, a self-refuting idea that trusts the methods of science to be applicable to all pursuits of true knowledge. but just as philosophy (in general) is a tree that supports science, it needs its roots in good soil to actually be able to support anything. That soil is the truth of God’s Word. In the end, it seems that the real beef against philosophy is that philosophy done right basically points out to us that ideas have consequences, and that it’s wise to foresee the good and bad consequences of our ideas and avoid the bad ones. This self-critique – this admonition to “know thyself” – can get us out of our typical comfort zone in our narrow specialties and force us to ask the bigger questions of life. For some worldviews like atheism, there simply are no answers to those questions, and it can make people like Hawking and Tyson uncomfortable with the whole endeavor. But our comfort should never hinder our search for truth or our desire for wisdom, and philosophy simply means “love of wisdom.” So be wise and don’t fall in the trap of scientism; examine your own philosophical grounding and make sure it’s rooted in the only source of truth – God.
This is apparently the actual quote, contrary to what most of us heard growing up: http://www.twainquotes.com/Death.html
Here is one philosopher’s thoughtful response to Stephen Hawking’s cutting off of the branch he sits on: https://philosophynow.org/issues/82/Hawking_contra_Philosophy.
 Here are 2 interesting responses to Tyson’s comments, the first providing a good recap of the comments: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/massimo-pigliucci/neil-degrasse-tyson-and-the-value-of-philosophy_b_5330216.html, and http://www.realclearscience.com/articles/2014/05/22/why_does_neil_degrasse_tyson_hate_philosophy.html
 AISC 360-16, Commentary J4.3, Block Shear Strength”, p16.1-446. published by the American Institute of Steel Construction, 2016-07-07.
 For the geeks: https://www.aisc.org/Experimental-Investigation-of-Steel-Joist-Design-for-Ductile-Strength-Limit-State#.WXa4A1G1vcs. For everyone else: http://www.newmill.com/pdfs/flex-joist.pdf