[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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