[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
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/
More information about the Humanist