I’m nearing completion of a final proofread of a wonderful new book by Brad Kallenberg, Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Dayton. The book is titled By Design: Ethics, Theology, and the Practice of Engineering and was written specifically to teach engineering students how to think about and see their field as a moral practice. Yet it’s my hope that the book will be much more widely read. Brad has both familial and educational backgrounds in the sciences and engineering, though his doctoral work was in philosophical theology, theological ethics, and the philosophy of science at Fuller (under Nancey Murphy and the late Jim McClendon). His interdisciplinary skills, not to mention his self-deprecating humor and love of good stories, are on full display in By Design. The book definitely fits its purpose—teaching engineering students the importants of ethics for their guild. However, the book goes far beyond that to show how focusing on a serious and traditioned practice like engineering can throw light on questions that all of us face simply as human beings. And it also displays how Christian theological concerns intersect with, illumine, and are in turn illumined by, the practicalities of the demanding work of engineering.
One of the wonderful features of the book is the regular inclusion of interesting stories that illustrate a fundamental part of the argument. For example, in chapter 7, Brad aims to expand his discussion of character and the importance of good character for the practice of engineering by looking at the relation between neuroscience and virtuous habits. I’ll conclude this post be excerpting Brad’s retelling of the fascinating story of Phineas Gage (the internal quotations are from 19th century documents about the strage case of Gage, reproductions of which can be found in Malcolm Macmillan, An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage [Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000]). Don’t forget to order Brad’s book!
Much can be learned about “virtue” by observing those who have been rendered physically incapable of expressing good character. The most famous example is Phineas Gage, the twenty-five-year-old railroad worker who in 1848 survived an explosion that obliterated much of his ability to make and keep friends.
The 1800s were heady times for the railroad industry as track spread all across the nation. The East-West connection was completed with the pounding in of the Golden Spike in 1869. Before that could happen a lot of rock had to be blasted out of the way. That was Gage’s job. He oversaw a crew that used a chisel to pound out sequences of holes in which explosive charges would be fitted. Gage oversaw the adding of blasting powder, a fuse, and sand. Then, using his custom-made iron rod, Gage carefully (so as to not cause a spark) tamped the mixture. Gage was so experienced that he could do this job blindfolded—almost.
Gage worked for the Rutland & Burlington line outside Cavendish, Vermont. On this particular day—Wednesday, September 13, 1848— around 4:30 in the afternoon, the powder Gage had been tamping exploded prematurely, sending his 3.5-foot, 13.5-pound rod into his cheek and out through the top of his head. It landed some eighty feet away, covered with blood and bits of brain.
Gage did not die! In fact, after being momentarily stunned, he quickly recovered his wits, speaking within a few minutes and walking with little assistance to the cart that carried him—sitting upright—three-quarters of a mile to his lodgings. The first physician on the scene was Dr. Edward H. Williams:
“I first noticed the wound upon the head before I alighted from my carriage, the pulsations of the brain being very distinct. Mr. Gage, during the time I was examining this wound, was relating the manner in which he was injured to the bystanders. I did not believe Mr. Gage’s statement at that time, but thought he was deceived. Mr. Gage persisted in saying that the bar went through his head . . . Mr. G. got up and vomited . . . the effort of vomiting pressed out about half a teacupful of the brain, which fell upon the floor . . . “
Dr. John Martyn Harlow took over the case about 6:00 p.m. As a military surgeon, Harlow was accustomed to horrific battle injuries. But Gage’s behavior was even more impressive than his injuries: “the patient bore his sufferings with the most heroic firmness. He recognized me at once, and said he hoped he was not much hurt. He seemed to be perfectly conscious, but was getting exhausted from the hemorrhage, which was very profuse both externally and internally, the blood finding its way to the stomach, which regularly rejected it as often as every fifteen or twenty minutes. Pulse 60, and regular. His person and the bed on which he was laid were literally one gore of blood.”
Clearly Gage was not “all right.” Although the rod apparently had been sterilized by the heat of the blast, the injuries required surgical attention and infection eventually set in. The infection resulted in a dangerous swelling in Gage’s brain. The procedure to relieve brain swelling left him in a semicomatose state for about ten days (from September 23 to October 3). Hour by hour he was expected to die. On October 7, four days after regaining consciousness, he took his first step. By November he was walking up and down stairs—and all around the town square. By Thanksgiving he was strong enough to travel to his parents’ home in New Hampshire. By spring he was ready to start looking for work. Gage was to live another eleven years.
Although his survival was astonishing enough, it was his Dr. Jekyll- Mr. Hyde transformation of character that made him famous. Prior to his accident, Gage was said to be “a responsible, intelligent, and socially well-adapted individual, a favorite with his peers and elders. He had made progress and showed promise.”6 After the accident he was still able-bodied (save the loss of vision in his left eye): “he had no impairment of movement or speech; new learning was intact, and neither memory nor intelligence in the conventional sense had been affected.” Gage’s character, however, had taken a decided turn for the worst. In other words, the damage to Gage’s brain meant that overnight he “unlearned” all of his relational sills and was rendered almost entirely unable to relearn them. After recounting Gage’s relatively good physical health four years after the accident, Dr. Harlow reports the long-term degradation that had overcome Gage, which prevented his employers from giving him his old job back:
“The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and his animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, though untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage.'”
What is important for our interests, is the way that Gage’s character and his practical reasoning were shown to be inseparable. This seems to imply for us that both character and practical reasoning seem to be tied our physical bodies.