[Humanist] 29.182 machines: reading, thinking, creating

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Jul 21 22:25:26 CEST 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 182.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 21 Jul 2015 09:32:25 -0400
        From: Don Braxton <don.braxton at gmail.com>
        Subject: machines: reading, thinking, creating

Hi Pat and others:

Thanks for your thoughtful response.  If I read your entry correctly, to
wit, that disenchantment can come from many vectors and it is too arrogant
to make humans the only agents of such processes, I am in complete
agreement with you.  My contention was only meant to be seen in the context
of humanists talking to humanists, not a global claim, and certainly not
exhaustive of the possibilities.  There are many sources of enchantment and
disenchantment, And one person's enchantment is another's banality.

But within the humanities, one is bombarded constantly by judgment
terminology of real, authentic, genuine, and the like.  Perhaps I am
especially sensitive to the misleading nature of this attribution process
because my domain is in the psychological, social, and political dynamics
of religion.  Within the domain of religion, authenticity and its ilk are
 hedge words of political guardianship.  They often seek to frustrate
curiosity and its attendant intellectual investigation.  Many humanities
fields have similar sacred cows, do they not?

I am curious why our disabuse of ourselves as unique products of the
universe, assuming that such cases represent only one class among many
other vectors that can exercise said effects, means we haven't budged a
bit?  It certainly looks like budging to me.

I am also not one to traffic in inevitabilities, let alone apocalyptic or
utopian  prognostications.  I thought I was making an inference from past
and current trajectories.  Consider the following budging and inferential
thought experiment.

I build computational simulations using many independent agents in a
landscape that is modified by the behavior of those agents.  The modified
landscape feeds back upon the behavioral possibilities of the agents as do
the changing mind states of the agents themselves.  Even simple systems
have the ability to produce emergent properties, properties not present in
the simulation's construction.  In the process of exploring model traits
and limits, I run a design sweep of the model's behavioral space.  This is
an automated exercise that runs all possible permutations of the model
given its many, many variables.  I set up the sweep to identify and tag
products of the sweep that generate unusual phenomena.

Now, imagine digital humanists in a similar light.  Each of us is in a
simulation modifying and being modified by the landscape of digital
humanities embedded in the larger domain of the humanities.  You can also
extend this ecology to embrace even larger domains of human knowledge if
you wish.  If we run a design sweep to detect the emergent properties of
the network and discover, as a recent thread suggests, that artists and
musicians appear to be severely underrepresented, we can then reset initial
conditions to include their precusors or simply to seed more artists and
musicians themselves and see if that population dies off or flourishes in
said ecology.  We will find that some populations tend to die off, others
to thrive, and still others to evolve into something we didn't know was
possible.  I would be modeling cultural evolution at that point.

Digital humanities is building just such a landscape and as we agents run
our own behavioral algorithms, and request or discover meta-analysis of the
network in turn, something no one before us could do in so powerful an
expression, and thus we become relatively potent agencies of cultural
change.  Surely we do this at least in part because we are curious
individually and collectively about and want to contribute to "the human

So when does this process take on a life of its own?  When do we cease to
be the synthesizing brain and instead become the neuron of a network that
does the "thinking"?  I don't know the answer to that question, but I do
moot it to be a really good question.

Everything else we look at - phase transitions of physics to chemistry,
chemistry to biology, biology to psychology - display participation in a
nested hierarchy of orders of complexity.  Isn't it a leap to think that
"the human project" is immune to being a nested order capable of hosting
the emergence of higher orders of complexity?  Isn't it the most humanistic
question we have  - , as Willard suggested, namely,
to ask precisely this question?  If digital humanists are the the kids with
the newest toys in the sand box, shouldn't we ask what the sandbox is?  And
what is the nature of this thing we are playing at?

I am all for looking at deep-field images of the universe as well as being
shocked by what percentage of my body consists of symbionts to get my
thrilling new de-centering experiences.  But I like "humanist" game as

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

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