[Humanist] 25.824 what is self-evident?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Mar 17 10:08:59 CET 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 824.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 17 Mar 2012 09:05:32 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: what is self-evident?

I want to ask what it is that we take for granted, in the strong sense 
of an unconscious belief of the sort that a person who has never 
experienced an earthquake makes about the earth we stand on. Since we 
use a techno-scientific instrument for our research, I want to ask about 
the scientific cultural ground we as digital humanists imagine solid.

In her brilliant essay, "Language and ideology in evolutionary theory" 
(in Boundaries of Humanity, ed Sheehan and Sosna), Evelyn Fox Keller 
argues that now fashionable arguments for an alien world, in which 
humans are less than insignificant, are as guilty of anthropomorphism as 
any. She quotes, for example, physicist Steven Weinberg's declaration 
that the world as we imagine it is more or less a farce, that in reality 
it is the result of pure accident within the first three minutes after 
the Big Bang ("Reflections of a working scientist", Daedalus 103.3), and 
biologist Jacques Monod, on the reality of the human, "like a gypsy… on 
the boundary of an alien world; a world that is deaf to his music, and 
as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering or his crimes" 
(Chance and Necessity, p. 160). Her argument is essentially that the 
language of such statements shows anthropomorphisms read into natural 
law, then read back to us as if they were pure deduction from physical fact.

The rhetorical force at work here is well illumined by Monod, for 
example, who is essence argues that we had better grow up, wake up, 
clean up our room, stop our fantasies and come to terms with reality. (I 
am making light of a serious argument, but the parental tone is 
audible.) In other words, it is a instance of moral righteousness backed 
by the cultural authority of science. What, then, about science as a 
moral force, as the basis for doing the right thing as scholars? I 
wonder whether our situation is any different from that of Galileo and 
Bacon, for both of whom, as Alastair Crombie says of the former, science 
was “the moral enterprise of freedom for the enquiring mind … a 
therapeutic experience offering perhaps the greatest moral contribution 
of science to mankind” (Styles of Scientific Thinking, p. 8). Even a bit 
of time reading Bacon, for example, makes one wonder about his obsession 
with the afflictions of our minds that, he argues, cause us to see the 
world other than it is -- "the idols of the tribe", he called them. His 
vision of human nature, Peter Harrison has shown in The Fall of Man and 
the Foundations of Science (esp pp 171ff) was profoundly informed by the 
theology of the time, by the deep and pervasive conviction of being in a 
state of sin as a result of the Fall, and so cognitively damaged. Jean 
Delumeau's Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture 
13th-18th Centuries (Le Péché et La Peur) provides a supportive 
historical context.

So, I wonder, are we any the less conditioned by our de facto theology? 
What specifically in our work in the digital humanities do we take as 
self-evidently true? Apart from keeping people like me out of mischief, 
or out of other kinds of mischief, what comes from poking at our 
self-evident truths? Is there a possibility that we could unstick 
ourselves from unproductive obsessions by questioning the fundamentals 
as we take them to be?


Professor Willard McCarty, Department of Digital Humanities, King's
College London; Professor (fractional), University of Western Sydney;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.isr-journal.org); Editor,
Humanist (www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/

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