[Humanist] 23.53 world-making and markup
Humanist Discussion Group
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri May 29 10:40:43 CEST 2009
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 53.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
Date: Fri, 29 May 2009 09:39:23 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: world-making and markup
Let's consider markup, for example, as a kind of world-making. Consider,
then, Nelson Goodman's observation in Ways of Worldmaking (1978):
> Truth, far from being a solemn and severe master, is a docile and
> obedient servant. The scientist who supposes that he is
> single-mindedly dedicated to the search for truth deceives himself.
> He is unconcerned with the trivial truths he could grind out
> endlessly; and he looks to the multifaceted and irregular results of
> observations for little more than suggestions of overall structures
> and significant generalizations. He seeks system, simplicity, scope;
> and when satisfied on these scores he tailors truth to fit. He as
> much decrees as discovers the laws he sets forth, as much designs as
> discerns the patterns he delineates. (p. 18)
One commonplace way around our undeniable ignoring of some aspects of
the infinitely complex world is to claim that we are striking for the
essence of whatever it is. We idealise the neuron as a binary device,
for example, in order to get at the law-like essence of neural activity,
its calculus. This works much less well for human artefacts, such as
literary texts or paintings, of course, so what we digital humanists do
these days (correct me if I am wrong) is to go for structural
abstractions that are relatively safe from interpretative disagreement
-- though textual editors such as Randy McLeod (alias Random Cloud et
al) demonstrate otherwise, annoyingly but cogently. Is not the cost of
sticking to what is safe confinement to the trivial aspects of a text,
say, forcing one to derive the value of what one does from its utility
to other people, who presumably will validate the work, or not.
There's an ongoing debate centred on the ethics of engineering, and with
it an argument that (to simplify) engineers do what they're told,
getting their satisfactions from technical achievements. The use of the
words "engineer" and "engineering" suggest that society as a whole
doesn't think much of real engineers taking their back seat to the
architects and designers.
How many of us keep our world-making in mind, I wonder? How many of us
who mark-up texts as scholars, rather than as people who work for
scholars, do not think on some level that we're identifying *the*
structure of it, *the* essence of what it has to say? How slippery is
the slope from the fashionably plural but reified "ontologies" to the
singular name of the *study* of what is (NOT the list)?
In The Mechanization of the Mind: On the Origins of Cognitive Science
(2000), Jean-Pierre Dupuy notes the parallel slide down another slippery
slope. He notes that "As time went by, zealots and ideologues began to
assert ever stronger and more imprecise versions of the Turing thesis"
-- the assertion of the mathematical computability, by a Turing Machine,
of every intuitively computable function. "It came to be presented as
something *proven*" (p. 39), as a result of which rash predictions were
made, by such luminaries as Herbert Simon (e.g., in 1965, "Machines will
be capable, within twenty years, of any work that a man can do.") -- who
went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics. Dupuy comments: "It is easy
to mock vain and presumptuous predictions of this sort, which were to be
scathingly refuted during the intervening years. But we should not be
too harsh", he says forgivingly. "The Turing thesis, in spite (or rather
because) of the ideological distortions to which it so readily lent
itself, was what it took to rally the resources of energy and
intelligence needed to bring about the birth of a mechanistic and
materialistic science of mind" (39-40).
Presuming that is a Good Thing, we have another out: essentially an
ends-justify-means argument. But how unsatisfactory this is.
Can we do better?
Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.
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