[Humanist] 25.511 formal methods and experiment

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Nov 26 06:52:38 CET 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 511.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 25 Nov 2011 14:59:37 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: formal methods and experiment

Robin Milner, in his inaugural lecture of the Laboratory for Foundations 
of Computer Science (Edinburgh, 1986), "Is Computing an Experimental 
Science", praises wide-spread recognition of the need for a larger 
conceptual frame than provided by any one programming language. 
He asserts the value of logic as a basis for the methodology 
by which system specifications are to be worked out. But he then 
notes an attendant danger:

> Much use has been made recently of the term "formal methods" in 
> relation to system design. The choice of this term (wherever it came 
> from), rather than the term "theory", suggests that the methodology is 
> paramount; I fear that it also reflects a mistaken assumption--that 
> is, it suggests that the conceptual frame for design already exists 
> and that we only need to animate it by the right formal methodology.

He then draws an analogy:

> just as a physicist or chemist tests and tests his theories by 
> carefully controlled experiment, so it should be with us.

I've always thought that experiment, as a style of scientific reasoning 
(to use Hacking's term) gets us very close to what it is that we do and 
keeps us from a conceptual stiffening of joints. But consideration of 
our practices in these terms cannot stop here, because "experiment" 
is a term with a history that is interesting to the historian but distracts 
from the simple point made provocatively by Paul Feyerabend when he 
said at the end of Chapter 1 of Against Method, "anything goes"! 
Later he admitted to an ironical intent: "'anything goes'", he said, "is 
not a 'principle' I hold… but the terrified exclamation of a rationalist 
who takes a closer look at history" (1993/1975: vii). He is saying, 
look at what actually happens in practice. 

Sure, when you're making software that is meant to be used as 
is, e.g. to make easier the editing of messages in an online discussion 
group like this one, you want to produce something that simply works. 
But what do we find when we look at software meant for research, not 
to aid research that happens elsewhere by other means but to be an 
intimate research companion, to be to the researcher as water is to 
the swimmer?

"Prosthesis", "the prosthetic imagination" and so forth (terms that 
at this moment seem just right) are likewise have a history that can 
be very distracting and confusing. So allow me to recommend to 
your attention a very fine essay by Vivian Sobchack, "A leg to stand 
on: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality", in The Prosthetic Impulse: 
From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future, ed. Marquard Smith 
and Joanne Morra (MIT Press, 2006). 


Professor Willard McCarty, Department of Digital Humanities, King's 
College London; Professor (fractional), University of Western Sydney; 
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.isr-journal.org); Editor, 
Humanist (www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/

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