[Humanist] 27.174 what matters?
Humanist Discussion Group
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Jul 1 22:29:19 CEST 2013
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 174.
Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
Date: Sun, 30 Jun 2013 13:20:55 +1000
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: a thought-experiment
This is inspired by the philosopher Norman Malcolm's, "The
Conceivability of Mechanism", Philosophical Review 77.1 (1968): 45-72.
I'm asking the question which follows by way of a
thought-experiment both to stimulate discussion and to test whether I
have understood what is at issue.
Suppose that we observe a boy chasing after a ball. Ordinarily we would
say that he is chasing the ball because he wants to retrieve it. Malcolm
calls this a "purposive explanation". But suppose we are in possession
of a comprehensive neurophysiological theory that has been shown in an
overwhelming number of cases to work, and suppose that thanks to this
theory and related technologies a technician is in fact controlling the
boy's every movement, down to the last detail. Given this control,
Malcolm has shown (or let us say for purposes of argument that he has
shown it convincingly), we can no longer hold that the boy intended to
run after the ball. Whatever it is that he intended, if anything at all,
is irrelevant. Indeed, because of this irrelevance applied
comprehensively, we can longer speak of human intentions.
We clearly do not have such a theory or such technologies in place. But
I think we can say correctly that many well funded researchers are
working hard to bring both about, or more accurately, that the efforts
of many such researchers sum to a trajectory aimed at achieving such a
result. At the same time other researchers, working not from
neurophysiology but from robotics, are equally hard at work trying to
make a robot that we will mistake as that boy, which of course a
technician will be able to control as in the thought-experiment.
Determinism hovers over this situation. Here is Malcolm again
> Determinism is a painful problem because it creates a severe tension
> between two viewpoints, each of which is strongly attractive: one is
> that the concepts of purpose, intention, and desire, of our ordinary
> language, cannot be rendered void by scientific advance; the other is
> that those concepts cannot prescribe limits to what it is possible
> for empirical science to achieve. (p. 69)
Is this not our dilemma, though we do not tend to encounter it in such a
dramatic form? We want very badly to think that our cultural productions
will always escape the net of technology; at the same time we have no
evidence that AI, robotics et al will not finally nail everything down.
We also have no evidence that it will.
So what matters in this situation?
Willard McCarty, FRAI / Professor of Humanities Computing & Director of
the Doctoral Programme, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Professor, Research Group in Digital Humanities, University of
Western Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
(www.isr-journal.org); Editor, Humanist (dhhumanist.org);
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