[Humanist] 23.129 from 'as if' to 'is'?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Jul 4 11:37:45 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 129.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 04 Jul 2009 10:34:29 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: from 'as if' to 'is'

At the beginning of his remarks leading off the 8th Macy Conference on 
Cybernetics, 23 March 1950, Ralph Gerard observed as follows:

> It seems to me, in looking back over the history of this group, that
> we started our discussions and sessions in the "as if" spirit.
> Everyone was delighted to express any idea that came into 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. I remembered a definition of pregnancy: "the
> result of taking seriously something poked at one in fun," and
> wondered if we had become pregnant and were in some danger of
> premature delivery. ("Some of the Problems Concerning Digital Notions
 > in the Central Nervous System", in Heinz von Foerster, Margaret Mead
 > and Hans Lukas Teuber, eds., Cybernetics: Circular Causal and
 > Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems (New York:
 > Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, 1951, p. 11)

This slippage from 'as if' to 'is' must be among the most common 
conceptual errors we make. I wonder, given the essential instability of 
all computational models, are we any better off than we once were?

I suppose not, actually, since the basic problem is not with the things 
we make but in how we look on them. Or does that computational 
instability feed back into our reasoning processes and so helps to keep 
them in motion?



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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