[Humanist] 22.714 being obedient to what?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Apr 23 10:34:02 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 714.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 23 Apr 2009 09:28:20 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: being obedient to what?

In his article, "What is information measurement?", American
Psychologist 8 (1953): 3-11, George A. Miller (of WordNet fame) wrote as
follows about the then new information theory:

> In the first blush of enthusiasm for this new toy it is easy to
> overstate the case. When Newton's mechanics was flowering, the claim
> was made that animals are nothing but machines, similar to but more
> complicated than a good clock. Later, during the development of
> thermodynamics, it was claimed that animals are nothing but
> complicated heat engines. With the development of information theory
> we can expect to hear that animals are nothing but communication
> systems. If we profit from history, we can mistrust the "nothing but"
> in this claim. But we will also remember that anatomists learned from
> mechanics and physiologists profited by thermodynamics. Insofar as
> living organisms perform the functions of a communication system,
> they must obey the laws that govern all such systems. How much
> psychology will profit from this obedience remains for the future to
> show.

Consider this as a way of putting our situation with respect to
algorithmic computing. How, then, would the restatement go?

Miller uses the word "obedience" -- a word that denotes first an act of 
the will, that is, a submission; then, a yielding to some force or 
agency; then, simply, a manifestation of that force or agency. Thus, in 
the last of these senses, a living organism performing the functions of 
a communication system "obeys" its laws; thus the tightrope walker isn’t 
defying gravity but skilfully manifesting it. How about the child, for 
whom the parent's wishes are like a force of nature? Consider what 
happens as that child gets older and begins to have and to assert a mind 
of his or her own.

What about the writer or other user of a language? To what is she or he 
being "obedient", in what sense and to what degree?

In Miller's formulation psychology stands apart from the obedience to 
the natural law that information theory is supposed perfectly or nearly 
perfectly to describe. I suppose that an obedient psychology (in the 
first sense, at least at first) would be trying out this theory, as one 
tries out an article of clothing, as if it were a perfect fit. 
Psychology tried out behaviourism and found itself in a straitjacket.

Or one can start from the other end of things, as Warren McCulloch did, 
trying for an "experimental epistemology", looking for what his 
predecessor Rudolf Magnus called the "physiological a priori" of 
thought, to which it must be "obedient" (in the third sense).

For the interpretative disciplines, such as literary criticism, we 
construct algorithmic models, which is, it seems, as close as these 
disciplines can come to something to which obedience is possible -- as 
if these models were natural law?

Recently, as John Burrows says, it has become clear that authorship and 
features of style as we perceive them constitute statistically 
significant entities, within the limits of which, one might say, the 
creative artist has perfect freedom. For the creative practices do we, 
then, build our own "fence of the law" (as Jacob Bronowski called it) 
and then live obediently within it? It seems that we scholars can 
establish its presence.



Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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