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Philosophy of Technology

by: Tomasz Neugebauer

January 20, 1998

page: 2 of 6

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Epistemology is the study of the structure, conditions and validity of human knowledge. Skolimowski’s paper, “The Structure of Thinking in Technology”, offers a slightly different picture of the epistemological status of technological knowledge. Most authors agree that scientific knowledge tells us of reality through the formulation of laws of nature. The problematic question is: what is the nature of technological knowledge and activity and what is its relation to scientific knowledge. This is a question that Skolimowski addresses in his article; does technology have its own structure, aims and methods distinct from science? His answer is ‘yes.’

Science and technology differ, for Skolimowski, in that science “investigates the reality that is given”, whereas technology “creates reality according to a design(8). Skolimowski’s definition of science as well as technology is based on their respective aims: which in both cases is progress. However, this progress is fundamentally different in the two cases, “science aims at enlarging our knowledge through devising better and better theories; technology aims at creating new artifacts through devising means of increasing effectiveness.(9). Thus, Skolimowski stresses that both the means and the ends of science and technology differ.

Skolimowski investigates the relationship of technology to science. He argues that technology is not science and that it is distinct from applied science. The difference between science and technology, according to Skolimowski is best grasped by focusing on the idea of technological progress and the ways in which it is different from scientific progress. He is correct in stressing that “without the comprehension of technological progress, there is no comprehension of technology and there is no sound philosophy of technology. (10) Skolimowski stresses that technological progress has its own autonomy from science. Even though it may seem that technological progress was made possible by scientific discoveries and advancement in chemistry or physics - it is a mistake to overlook the fact that the problem was originally technical and not cognitive. He characterizes technological progress as follows,
With an eye to solving a technical problem, we undertake inquiries into what is called pure science. Our procedures are extremely selective. Out of infinitely many possible channels of research only very few are chosen. Problems thus are investigated not with an eye to increasing knowledge but with an eye to a solution of a technical problem. If it were not for the sake of solving some specific technological problems, many properties of physical bodies never would have been examined, and many theories incorporated afterward into the body of pure science never would have been formulated. (11)
He gives examples:
In developing transistors many properties and laws governing the behavior of semiconductors have been formulated which might never have been formulated otherwise. To take another example, the problem of metal fatigue and many other phenomena concerning the behavior of solids in space might never have been investigated, and theories resulting from them might never have been established if it were not for the sake of constructing supersonic planes and intercontinental rockets. To mention finally atomic physics, it was in the Manhattan Project where plutonium, an element not found in nature, had to be developed in the process of producing the atom bomb. (12)

In my opinion, what is correct in Skolimowski’s analysis is his insistence on efficiency as the aim of technology. It is true that technology is different in aims to science, and technological research is all too often a scientific endeavor. His description of modern research seems to suggest that in the process of doing technological research, the researcher does pure science. In fact, Skolimowski’s distinction between science and technology is based on their respective aims. In the aims of technological progress we sometimes undertake pure science as a means, while the difference between science and technology remains their respective aims. 

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