[Humanist] 30.152 theory; humans as material objects

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Jul 10 09:40:08 CEST 2016

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 152.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (28)
        Subject: human beings as material objects

  [2]   From:    Henry Schaffer <hes at ncsu.edu>                             (42)
        Subject: Re:  what is theory?

        Date: Wed, 6 Jul 2016 08:28:14 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: human beings as material objects

Allow me to work on a point made in Humanist 30.149, by David Hoover. He 
writes that,

> human beings do seem to me to fit precisely in the category with
> which [Jim Rovira] tries to contrast them: human beings are "material
> objects that exist independently of human agency". There's no reason,
> in principal, that the products of human agency or that agency itself
>  shouldn't be amenable to strictly empirical study, and there has
> been a great deal of such research already.

Strictly speaking, i.e. non-exclusively, 'human beings are "material 
objects" that exist independently of human agency', and much can be 
learned by studying them in that light. But, of course, when such a 
wide-mesh net is used much is not caught. I am reminded of a 
thought-experiment suggested by the English astrophysicist Sir Arthur 
Eddington, paraphrased thus by Richard W. Hamming:

> Some men went fishing in the sea with a net, and upon
> examining what they caught they concluded that there was a minimum
> size to the fish in the sea.

In other words, we can model just about anything computationally, 
including human emotions, but by definition no model is entirely true to 
the thing modelled. The problem is, I suppose, balancing between the 
truth it tells and the untruth it uses to do that.



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney

        Date: Thu, 7 Jul 2016 10:22:32 -0400
        From: Henry Schaffer <hes at ncsu.edu>
        Subject: Re:  what is theory?

A researcher (or team) has an idea about how something is or how it works
and after considering what is known in that area, comes up with a
hypothesis which seems interesting, explains something beyond what is
known, and hopefully makes some predictions.

When there are predictions, further thinking may result in a plan of
observation and/or experiment which could produce results (data) which
might either show that the hypothesis wasn't on the right track or which
might be consistent with the predictions. After a sequence of these
efforts, a theory is formulated which covers this hypothesis and perhaps
some related ones, and there is now a larger body of thinking, of models
and predictions that can be shared with others and applied to future work.
Perhaps even applied to some useful end. Or perhaps more work (thinking)
goes on before it is possible to collect data - a la String Theory. But
even there, it is clear that the hope is that some day there will be
observations and/or experiments which produce data and which will be used
in further testing of the theory.

I come at this as a scientist, and so I didn't cite any philosophers or use
any fanciful terminology - perhaps philosophers and humanists might not
agree. Also I may not have used such terms as "hypothesis" and "theory"
quite correctly - but I really don't care. What's important to me (and I
think to essentially all of science) are the results, the progress in
understanding the fields of study and furthering the ability to use the

My frustration at this thread on "what is theory?" may be evident. I have
one toe dipped into the ocean of Digital Humanities. My computer geeky and
stat/math activities led me into this area, and I really want to see
progress in the DH. My idea of "progress" is achieving results which impact
both the digital and humanities worlds and which couldn't have happened
without collaboration of both.

My own poking around in DH has been in the area of computer analysis of
textual material. I know that textual material has arisen via human agency,
as have computers and programs. But rather than go into the ideology of
what we, as humans can or can't study - I'd rather jump right into the
hypotheses regarding texts (e.g. style, patterns, inferences about the
human creator(s), ...) and not worry at all about the philosophy of
empirical data, since I'm too busy looking at results on the screen. (In a
previous day I would have said, "looking at the printout." :-) I remember
some research on who the authors of the pseudonymous Federalist Papers
might be. That yielded some interesting results. But I don't remember that
people were worried about whether they were exploring "hypotheses" or

--henry schaffer

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