We’re Nothing but the Material We’re Made Of

You would be hard-pressed to find a time or place for philosophical speculation into your discipline or work at any point in your engineering career; philosophy and engineering are rarely closely associated. Yet within the engineering department at UofT there are people willing to bridge the gap and apply their advanced technical knowledge to the theoretical.

Prof. Glenn Hibbard, Associate Undergraduate Chair of the Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) department, frequently opens discussion into the general conception of substance. In a recent lecture, Prof. Hibbard examined the brain through a firm materialist lens, as may be expectedly implicit in the materials discipline. He described the brain as only the (more or less) physical interaction between neurons which go on to affect our ideas, reasoning, and action as human beings. This monist concept proposes that everything that goes on in our minds is a process completely contained within the brain.

While the notion may be ripe for intellectual discussion of ontology and metaphysics in and of itself, alas, the purpose of this article is not to argue nor analyse the exact statement, but rather expand the comparison into other parts of human existence. I put forward an attempt to broaden the notion and ask: what other comparisons can be drawn between life and material processes?

Depending on your viewpoint, an optimistic or pessimistic view can be derived regarding purpose in life. The mere thought that everyone has a purpose, eventual or reoccurring, may be enough to sate most. Perhaps the layman can be the essential bolt holding the structure, rarely noticed yet integral, carefully placed yet simple in design and execution. But the idea that there is a purpose implies it can be outlived, insignificant or, worse yet, missed. A function can just as easily not be met or never used entirely in any physical system; a beam for extra support to a bridge which is never used, or for a load which is never met may have been useful at some point, or stress may have broken the bridge anyhow. This is not the only comparison skewed by outlook.

As you grow, the natural strain you experience hardens you. The stresses you put up with as you mature make you stronger and you can handle more without buckling, but eventually you become brittle. Disappointments crush your dreams and hope fades from your material mind, for some more than others. You do not bend as easy to small problems in life and you no longer cry over spilt milk, but a load large enough will cause a critical crack to propagate catastrophically and you break under the tension.

And the most apt comparison follows: failure meets us at the end; we all die.  Creep a material experiences slowly through its effective lifespan, while not necessarily the failure mode by itself, will eventually take its toll and make it easier for other failure modes to occur, just as natural death is not death in itself, but rather a failure of the human system made easier through years of stress. Perhaps fatigue through an extreme load applied several times wears you down over the years. This should be no stranger to an engineering student at UofT, as the stress you feel will no doubt shorten your life overall. For some, corrosion and fouling combine as drug use degrades your strength and appearance. An impact from an object can fracture the material and cause it to fail.

All life seems to be is a collection of stresses which leave their imprints onto the mind and body. It is enough to inspire conniptions in any reasonable being, but as a collection of living materials it is important to maintain some composure and modesty and to remember that all of us fail in the end.