[Humanist] 29.174 machines: reading, thinking, creating

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Jul 19 22:24:13 CEST 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 174.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Don Braxton <don.braxton at gmail.com>                       (67)
        Subject: Re: computational creativity

  [2]   From:    "Patricia O'Neill" <poneill at hamilton.edu>                 (10)
        Subject: Machines: reading, thinking, creating

        Date: Fri, 17 Jul 2015 08:49:59 -0400
        From: Don Braxton <don.braxton at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: computational creativity

Working in the field of religious studies as I do, I have had to contend
with a dualism surrounding religious behavior as a *sui generis* category.
Religious cognition and behavior is often demarcated with an enchantment
that places it outside the domain of scientific explanation.  And yet at
every turn, evolutionary studies of origins, phylogeny, transmission
mechanisms, and the economics of the survival benefits of adoption of
religious memes have accrued.  These days we have wonderful new
technologies for brain imaging, incredible insights into the neurochemistry
of altruism, recurrent emotional states, and cognitive processing.
Every day I read a new piece of investigation on the mechanics of memory,
mnemonic salience, memory pruning, and even useful organismic
forgefulness.  From all of these fronts, I conclude that the enchantment
factor surrounding the "essence of religion" is fighting at best a rearguard
action.  We face a time when we come to see that there is nothing special
about religion and its attendant behaviors.  It is a family of cognitive
processes and behavior outputs that deploy quite mundane mental systems in
ways that many find emotionally satisfying and many find socially

It seems to me digital humanities as a category faces something similar.
It is, in fact, a more general framing of the demystification of religion.
In recent days, there was a series of posts about the machine metaphor.  I
can't say I completely grasped how biological machines and human
constructed machines made of silicon and steel really differed *in kind*
other than one was the product of blind selection pressures generated by
environmental conditions and the other is constrained by human
intentionality as a selection pressure.  Bioengineering sits at the
crossroad of these supposedly two discrete domains.  My geneticist friends
have all kinds of biomolecular machines as they work with transcription
enzymes, their targeted cutting tools, and their viral delivery systems.
If we ever get to the point where we tinker with germ cell lines, and these
can be released into the wild, will they stop being machines?

Unless you wish to posit some *deus ex machina* to rescue human creativity
from the encroachment of the algorithm I don't see how the blurring of
human and machinic products can be avoided.  To be sure, machines cannot
yet ascend to the level of emergent complexity that we rather vaguely call
creativity, but that does not mean they cannot *in principle*.  By the same
token, I have yet to hear a compelling reason to say humans are not
themselves creative *by virtue of* their own set of algorithms that one day
will be mathematically explainable.

Indeed, are not our text-embedding initiatives, our cross-referenced data
bases, our multi-agent simulations of key historical events, our digital
collections of music, graphic and visual art, add whatever field of
humanities you like, are we now paving the way for the disenchantment of
the human?  Surely we are up to more than a new way of curating knowledge!

In German, the word for disillusionment is Enttaeuschung - literally the
removal of an illusion, presumably a good thing.  Its other meaning is
disappointment.  At the root of every battle I fight with my traditional
humanist friends to look into the possibilities of investigating the
humanities with the aid of digital technology, I face this twofold
response: It removes the thrill and grandeur of the distinctly human and
sublime activity of interpretation (Kant: the free play of the
imagination).  But what I really hear in the background is the drum beat of
the beginning of the loss of an illusion.  If not in this generation, then
the next.

I wouldn't put my hard earned money on strong arguments against
computational creativity.  But I would put some money on a different bet:
the defenders of the mystery of human creativity are in for some shocking

Don Braxton

Don Braxton
J Omar Good Professor of Religious Studies
Juniata College
Huntingdon, PA

        Date: Sat, 18 Jul 2015 13:53:02 -0400
        From: "Patricia O'Neill" <poneill at hamilton.edu>
        Subject: Machines: reading, thinking, creating

Dear Willard and James

Why is The Turing Test a "particularly fascist" way of defining life or

I've been thinking about a new movie "Ex-Machina" which could be about a
totalitarian scientist who lures a young computer geek to test the
"humanity" of his latest robot. But maybe the movie is also a critique of
the Turing Test and its particularly "sexist" approach to defining life or

How useful is the Turing Test these days in AI studies?


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