[Humanist] 28.374 a vanishing world?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Oct 6 07:14:03 CEST 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 374.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 04 Oct 2014 10:09:15 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: a vanishing world?

In an old essay, "The function of dogma in scientific research", in 
Scientific Change, ed. A. C. Crombie (1963), Thomas Kuhn remarks that,

> Though the scientific enterprise may be open-minded, whatever this
> application of that phrase may mean, the individual scientist is very
> often not. Whether his work is predominately theoretical or
> experimental, he usually seems to know, before his research project
> is even well underway, all but the most intimate details of the
> result which that project will achieve. If the result is quickly
> forthcoming, well and good. If not, he will struggle with his
> apparatus and with his equations until, if at all possible, they
> yield results which conform to the sort of pattern he has foreseen
> from the start. (p. 348)

Now Kuhn does not leave matters there, so please, if you're unfamiliar 
with this paper, don't leap to conclusions. He was a subtle thinker. But 
I will leave him there, to go on to quote what seems to be Christopher 
Langton's first statement in public of the point of Artificial Life 
("Studying artificial life with cellular automata", Physica D: Nonlinear 
Phenomena 22.1-3 (1986): 120-149):

> The ultimate goal of the study of artificial life would be to create
> 'life' in some other medium, ideally a virtual medium where the
> essence of life has been abstracted from the details of its
> implementation in any particular hardware. We would like to build
> models that are so life-like that they cease to be models of life and
> become examples of life themselves.

I would like to think (and so am asking for critical opposition here) 
that Langton's words are an instance of what Kuhn was talking about, but 
on a cognitive level. I would like to think that by speaking of an 
abstractable "essence of life" and "the details of its *implementation* 
in any particular *hardware*" (emphasis mine), he has so set the terms 
of reasoning and working as to reconceptualize, even change perception 
of the "life" to be simulated, before the simulating (or the simulating of 
the simulating, as it were) has begun.

And so here is an instance of Keller's spiral? (See Humanist 28.369, on 
her essay, "Booting up Baby".) I would question how progressive this 
spiral is; I'd think it better to conceive of it as spiralling into a different, 
not necessarily better, future. It's almost as if we are given a brief glimpse 
in a rear-view mirror of a vanishing world as we speed away from it.



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, University of Western Sydney

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