Applied Philosophy

While participating in a discussion at the Physics Forums, I was struck by the value of an education in Thomism. The subject at hand was the value of applied science versus pure science. Since this is a subject of interest to me, I weighed in on the discussion. As I watched it unfold, I began to notice that there was a great deal of difficulty with people using the same words to mean different things.

For example, the term applied science as used today can mean everything from engineering work to the study of the properties of condensed matter (things like superconductivity and whatnot). Thus you cannot tell just from the word whether someone means designing hair dryers or investigating some rather technical and abstract bit of nature that may just have an application, someday.

This makes for a difficulty, because we do not have a good definition. We have not successfully completed the first act of the mind, and this makes subsequent acts much much harder. What we want is to define applied science by its end, such that we can distinguish between different kinds of activity. The traditional Aristotelian definition is lurking in the background here, unacknowledged and misunderstood. Thus the investigation of superconductivity is called an applied science because it involves doing experiments. This seems to fulfill the definition of an applied or practical science because we are doing something rather than just thinking about it. However, it is really the final cause that distinguishes applied from pure sciences. Are we interested in knowing more about superconductivity, or are we trying to use a superconductor to transmit power from generation to use? Typically, the former is true.

A complication here is that our distinction between applied and pure science is a distinction in thought, a being of reason. What we do is not so clear. For example, it might be hard to tell by watching a scientist work whether their intent was knowledge or action, because in each case you have to do the same activities. In practice, the two things often come together. Just because we intend only to make a product for sale does not mean we cannot learn something new in the process.

But, when it comes down to it, if you really want to know the difference between science, philosophy, and engineering, this comic explains it all:

Cross-posted to Dead Philosophers Society