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Abstraction as a Vector: Distinguishing Philosophy of Science from Philosophy of Engineering.

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Defining and Refining Technological and Engineering Literacy

Tagged Division

Technological and Engineering Literacy/Philosophy of Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.131.1 - 23.131.7



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Paper Authors


John Krupczak Hope College

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Professor of Engineering, Hope College, Holland, Michigan. Former Chair of the ASEE Technological Literacy Division, Former Chair of the ASEE Liberal Education Division, CASEE Senior Fellow 2008-2010.

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Gregory Bassett

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Abstraction as a Vector: Distinguishing Philosophy of Science from Philosophy ofEngineering.A goal in the development of a philosophy of engineering and engineering education is to moreclearly distinguish engineering from science and engineering education from science education.This paper advances the suggestion that one aspect that helps to distinguish between thephilosophy of science and the philosophy of engineering is the role that abstraction or abstractthinking plays in the fundamental processes that underlie activity that defines scientific orengineering activity. Engineering and science both engage in abstract thinking but the directionor the arrow of change caused by the abstraction process points in opposite directions. This viewmay help to clarify the difference between engineering and science in a way that is less prone tovalue judgments based on supposed differences between pure and applied activity.Frequently engineering and science are distinguished by reference to differences in the outputproducts of engineering and scientific work. A common explanation is that science studies thenatural world as it exists and engineering creates what does not yet exist to provide for humanneeds and wants. While helpful, this distinction leaves the underlying processes of scientific andengineering thinking as black boxes characterized only by what emerges from the box. This alsoleaves engineering often tainted as the less demanding process because of the applied nature ofengineering products.Consideration of the role of abstraction or abstract thinking in the underlying philosophies ofscience and engineering leads to a more symmetric valuation of the thought processes requiredby these two different disciplines. Abstract thinking is critical to both science and engineeringbut the direction of thought powered by the engine of abstract thinking travels in differentdirections. If abstraction is considered as a vector quantity, scientific and engineering abstractionare of the same magnitude but differ in direction. Science looks at the physical world andthrough abstraction creates principles, theories, and laws. Engineering starts from abstractconcepts of function and creates the specific, the physical objects that are the products ofengineering. Engineering design begins with the idea of a function that must be accomplishedand maps that abstract idea onto a physical object in which form achieves the function.This different sign on the abstraction vector helps to illustrate that the philosophy of scienceassumes that universal principles exist and these can be discerned if only in approximate fashionand subject to refinement. Science starts from the particular and extracts the universal.Engineering discerns the universal and envisions embedding this into the particular. Thephilosophy of engineering assumes that abstract concepts of function are universal and can beprojected back into the particular. Examples would be functions such as: support load,conducting current, or amplifying a signal.Such a clarification of the role of abstraction in engineering can help inform the philosophy ofengineering education by demonstrating the goal or objective of the engineering design processin language that spans the activity of all engineering abstraction a unuiversal process? Does it differ as subjects differ? Is learning style a factor inwhether or not one can abstract? And all sorts of questions about the relationship to abstract andability in maths?Conceptual basis

Krupczak, J., & Bassett, G. (2013, June), Abstraction as a Vector: Distinguishing Philosophy of Science from Philosophy of Engineering. Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--19145

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