[Humanist] 29.45 scholars and zealots

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu May 21 07:44:28 CEST 2015

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 45.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 20 May 2015 07:10:01 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: scholars and zealots

I take John Bonnett's point about some fine and interesting work in
agent-based modelling for the historical disciplines -- and his well-chosen
biblical analogy. Generative social science (Joshua Epstein's term) and
simulation done in the agent-based style show great promise for many areas
of research that concern us. Considering a regular pattern of behaviour, the
generativist's question (in Epstein's words, "How could the decentralized
local interactions of heterogeneous autonomous agents generate the given
regularity?") is a powerful one. This has been clear for the social sciences
from the time of Thomas Schelling's "Models of Segregation" in 1969, and
indeed for literary studies from the initial efforts to simulate the writing
of poetry, which began very early -- and spooked F. R. Leavis among others,
thus showing that an important nerve had been touched. The work that 
Epstein, Robert Axtell and others have done on the Anasazi (published 
e.g. in PNAS 99.3) shows how successfully the Sadducees have been
outwitted, agent-based work by Bogdanovych and others at Western Sydney
likewise, indeed Bonnett's own work at Brock. In fact I am arguing now, in a
forthcoming book chapter, that agent-based modelling is where our attention
should be directed. 

But in my effort to be brief and provocative I'm afraid I turned a blind eye
to all that, meaning to pick out the techno-triumphalist chorus that does
not adequately appreciate the difference between promise and fulfilment --
and does not seem to know about the marvellously subversive counterfactual
power of simulation. I'm concerned for the slippage between "as if" and
"is". Treatment of literature or history *as if* it were a complex system
(in the specific and technical sense) can very easily become the assumption
that it *is* one. This slippage is, of course, nothing new. One of my
favourite remarks on this slippage was tossed out casually in passing by the
American neurophysiologist Ralph W. Gerard in 1951, at the Seventh Macy
Conference on cybernetics:

>  It seems to me, in looking back over the history of the group, that
> we started our discussion in the "œas if" spirit. Everyone was
> delighted to express any idea that came in his mind, whether it
> seemed silly or certain or merely a stimulating guess that would
> affect someone else. We explored possibilities for all sorts of
> "˜ifs."™ Then, rather sharply, it seemed to me, we began to talk in an
> "is"™ idiom. We were saying much the same things, but now saying them
> as if they were so....

For an assessment of what's been done in history, I'd point to Marten Düring, 
"The Potential of Agent-Based Modelling for Historical Research", in Paul 
A. Youngman and Mirsad Hadzikadic, eds., Complexity and
 the Human 
Experience: Modeling Complexity in the Humanities and Social Sciences 
(2014). He quotes archaeologist Jim Doran's telling comment:

> As regards the future, there is a deep further difficulty that is all
> too often overlooked. Distinctive human social structures and social
> processes emerge from distinctive human cognition. But we do not yet
> know how to model human cognition on a computer in other than
> relatively superficial and oversimplified ways. Thus we cannot yet
> experiment with the models that really matter: those that capture
> more than simple routine cognitive behavior. Archaeology faces this
> challenge as do all the social sciences. For help we need to look to
> developments in artificial intelligence engineering and in cognitive
> science modeling.

I'd have us press on with as-if explorations but not lose the plot -- and
so become zealots!


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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