Every now and then it's a good idea to look at the foundations of a field, the usually hidden and unspoken assumptions that everybody knows, but few ever talk about. A recent New York Times essay by Dennis Overbye on free will addressed the question of whether our choices are really choices, or whether we are really just "meat computers" executing a program of which we are unaware. What has that got to do with engineering ethics? Only everything.
You can put this issue in the form of a paradox. Modern engineering got where it is today by being based on science. From the many reputable scientists interviewed by Overbye, we learn that from what science can tell so far, everything in the universe is either determined by physical law (in which case we can predict it) or random (which is another way of saying we can't predict it, and may not in principle ever be able to). This includes the behavior of all physical systems, including the human brain. And if choices and decisions can be said to come from any physical object, they come from the human brain.
Now engineering ethics is all about making the right choices. But what if the idea of choice is false? If we only think we choose something when the reality is that we're just following a hugely complex but possibly predictable program, what does it mean to make the right choice, or indeed any choice at all? According to some of the scientists Overbye talked with, not much.
The view that all our supposed choices are really determined by external factors is called determinism. Daniel Dennett, a philosopher of science, thinks free will and determinism are compatible, even mutually dependent. According to Dennett, strict causality ". . . makes us moral agents. You don't need a miracle to have responsibility." On the other hand, medical researcher Mark Hallett limits the idea of free will to the perception, not the absolute fact. "People experience free will," he says. "They have the sense that they are free. The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don't have it."
Dr. Hallett spends his days pondering the inner workings of the brain, and understandably tends to view it as a complex system that may one day yield all of its secrets to science, which is to say, other brains. Overbye is diligent enough to note that while a system may be deterministic, it nonetheless may not be predictable. Citing mathematicians Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing, he points out that any moderately complex mathematical system cannot be shown to be consistent within itself: there will always be statements you can make with it that you cannot prove or disprove within the system. Philosopher and historian of science Stanley Jaki has used this fact to show that the scientist's dream of a mathematically complete "final theory" that would predict everything—all physical constants, all deterministic activity down to the end of time—is only a dream. So it seems that science has also told us that we know there are things that we will never know about the world, in the objective, testable, scientific sense.
So does this mean that a truly consistent scientific engineer will disregard ethics as an illusion and act however he or she pleases? Here is where the engineer's famed pragmatism comes into play. Most engineers I know are eminently practical people, wanting to get the job done and impatient with what they regard as hairsplitting philosophical discussions about the ultimate meaning of this or that. Most engineers would immediately realize that disregarding right and wrong simply because some philosophers and scientists say choice is an illusion would be fatal both to their careers and quite possibly to the people served by their engineering. And death is a bad thing.
These common-sense notions do not come from science. In their more sober moments, most scientists—and many philosophers—will admit that science cannot pass judgment on questions of value. The stated goal of science is knowledge, not guidance or moral instruction. But to allow a scientific conclusion about the source of free will to abolish one's ethics would be to allow science to dictate morality, or rather, the lack thereof.
Prominent by their absence from Overbye's list of interviewees was anyone who spoke for the religious viewpoint which takes free will and the reality of moral agency seriously. While there are philosophical issues that arise from the question of how God can allow free will in a universe of which he has perfect foreknowledge, at least that picture makes sense morally. The issue that Overbye sidles up to, but never quite breaches, is the one that Dostoevsky made plain when he wrote in Notes from the Underground, "For what is man without desires, without free will, and without the power of choice but a stop in an organ pipe?" In other words, a passive piece of machinery whose sound and fury signifies nothing. All the shilly-shallying of the philosophers who say in effect, "Well, we don't really have it, but we think or feel that we do, and so it doesn't make much difference," simply evades the logical conclusions of their positions, which many of them are afraid to espouse openly.
Engineering is not philosophy, and most engineers are not trained philosophers. But every engineer who thinks about the reasons for professional actions must sooner or later ask, "What do I think the right thing is?" and "Can I really choose freely?" Many engineers, including yours truly, have a religious answer to these questions. And we are not bound by the dicta of scientists or philosophers to decide otherwise—especially if we couldn't decide!
Sources: The New York Times article "Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don't" appeared in the Jan. 2, 2007 online edition at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/02/science/02free.html?pagewanted=1&8dpc. The Dostoevsky quotation is from About.com's section on classic literature by Esther Lombardi at http://classiclit.about.com/od/dostoyevskyf/a/aa_fdostquote.htm.