[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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