[Humanist] 23.251 saying everything

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Aug 26 07:14:05 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 251.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 25 Aug 2009 12:13:39 -0400
        From: Wendell Piez <wapiez at mulberrytech.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.249 saying everything that needs to be said?
        In-Reply-To: <20090825072228.4C411370DF at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear Willard,

Your latest post asking about cognition, computation and markup 
certainly requires a response.

First, von Neumann's statement of his premises:

At 03:22 AM 8/25/2009, you wrote:
> > The first task that arises in dealing with any problem -- more
> > specifically, with any function of the central nervous system -- is
> > to formulate it unambiguously, to put it into words, in a rigorous
> > sense.

... but I simply don't think that's true. It is true in very narrow 
circumstances, maybe. It's true to a large extent in my own work, 
where in order to perform a set of logical operations on sets of 
abstract symbols, those operations and their organization must be 
formulated unambiguously.

But if it were generally true, I don't see how any of us could get 
out of bed in the morning. The problem of applying muscle power to 
neck, back and legs would be intractable. Nor is it necessary to 
suppose that the brain must have a functionally complete and 
unambiguous model of the body, when it has the body itself (as well, 
perhaps, as an incomplete and ambiguous model of it).

I am afraid that von Neumann's generalization is based on a false 
assumption that problem-solving in the world must be like the 
application of logical algorithms to abstract information processing.

As a counter, I would offer the work of Andy Clark, whose amazing 
book Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again 
(1997), effectively refutes this entire premise and suggests many 
other ways that minds (both "natural" and "artificial") might proceed 
to work with the world, which do not entail such impossible notions 
as complete and unambiguous problem specification. I can't paraphrase 
the work adequately here. But the Wikipedia page on Clark does offer 
a suggestive account.

> > The problem, then, is not this: How does the central nervous system
> > effect any one, particular thing? It is rather: How does it do all
> > the things that it can do, in their full complexity? What are the
> > principles of its organization? How does it avoid really serious,
> > that is, lethal, malfunctions over periods that seem to average many
> > decades?
>When you drive the problem of markup to its breaking point, isn't a
>similar realisation to be had -- that the real question is being missed.
>What do you suppose is that question?

I think the question is not how do we fully specify a problem and 
avoid ambiguity, but rather, how do we take advantage of the 
ambiguity that is inevitable and cultivate the ambiguity that is 
useful? The answer lies somewhere in the neighborhood of "feedback" 
and in the recognition that while markup has logical dimensions 
especially in its application, the correct locus for a comprehensive 
account of markup is not in logic but in rhetoric.


Wendell Piez                            mailto:wapiez at mulberrytech.com
Mulberry Technologies, Inc.                http://www.mulberrytech.com
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