[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>
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
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
17 West Jefferson Street Direct Phone: 301/315-9635
Suite 207 Phone: 301/315-9631
Rockville, MD 20850 Fax: 301/315-8285
Mulberry Technologies: A Consultancy Specializing in SGML and XML
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