[Humanist] 31.195 'computational' and the all-or-nothing

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Jul 22 09:16:41 CEST 2017

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 31, No. 195.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 21 Jul 2017 06:58:18 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: the language we use

Thanks to Bill Benzon for taking up my provocations concerning use of 
the word 'computational' and the consequences of deeply buried digital 

My objection to 'computational' is not about the truth or falsity of 
propositions, such as 'the brain is a digital computer' or even 'the 
brain is a digital-analogue device'. I object, rather, to the 
inattentiveness which allows statements such as those of Cosmides and 
Tooby to make it ever easier not to see the differences, ever easier to 
accept the particular myth of progress which has us believing that these 
differences will in time not be worth talking about. The myth of some 
world-altering singularity, a.k.a. apocalypse.

In other words, I am arguing that the words we use matter. Indeed I agree 
that Ulrich Neisser's subtler language does indeed have the matter 
"about right" -- though I'd underscore the 'about' and demand that it 
not be taken as synonymous with 'just' -- but still think that Cosmides' and 
Tooby's does not. Except in quite special circumstances we do not speak 
in propositional sentences, and unless we become dogmatic to the core 
we certainly do not think we think in them except provisionally, to see how 
close they come.

I'd rewrite their sentence with 'computational' in it thus:

> These and a host of other factors alerted psychologists to the
> necessity for -- and to the actuality of -- a vast nonconscious realm of
> evolved, specialized processes of thought that construct and
> interpret the world. Currently we think of these as 'computational',
> using the digital machine to model them as best we can.

(Still some of these words are for me uncomfortably laden.) Please note 
I said nothing directly or wished to imply anything about Baron-Cohen's 
text nor wish to denegrate Cosmides' and Tooby's work in the cognitive 
sciences. I'm not qualified to do that. Again, I'd hang a sign over that 
house which reads, 'as if'.

Similarly, about the effects of deeply buried digital logic, Bill's word 
'responsible' (as in causitive?) I think is far too strong. I'm not 
wanting to suggest uni-directional causation. I've not yet figured out 
how to talk about the relationship between co-occurrent historical 
phenomena that somehow have something to do with each other. 
I try to avoid using the term 'Zeitgeist'. And I certainly don't want to 
be understood as arguing that all-or-nothing logic is new. Thninking 
like that is surely as old as life. Rather I am suggesting that the binary 
logic of our machines nudges us in certain directions, reinforces 
something else that's doing it, co-manifesting a tendency of our time. 
You see I really haven't figured out how to say this. Help, anyone?


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney
University and North Carolina State University; Editor,
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20)

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