3.322 science, language, culture (223)

Thu, 3 Aug 89 18:55:32 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 322. Thursday, 3 Aug 1989.

(1) Date: 3 August 1989 (31 lines)
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: science and metaphor

(2) Date: Thu, 3 Aug 89 12:36:00 EDT (108 lines)
From: Itamar Even-Zohar <B10@TAUNIVM.bitnet>
Subject: Misunderstandings about what I wrote about

(3) Date: Thu, 3 Aug 89 14:54 EDT (58 lines)
Subject: culture and science?

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 3 August 1989
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: science and metaphor

The following contributions have the potential for generating a very
interesting or a very vexing discussion. For us the guiding star must be
relevance to humanities computing. In this light I think the central
issue is the one originally touched on by Itamar Even-Zohar and
explained by him again below: the `marketing' of science by misleading
ideas. This is very relevant to us, who are currently engaged in
discovering the nature and purpose of applying mechanical models and
computing methods to humanistic thought. We have discussed before the
idea that applying a computer to the uncertain humanities holds both
promise and danger. If we market our methods to ourselves and to others
with the false vocabulary of "proof" then we are in trouble, the more so
the more we are believed. We are fighting for dollars with other people
who use this vocabulary, so the temptation is great.

Quite apart from the immediate political problems are the intellectual
ones, on which I hope we can concentrate. What is the value of computing
to the humanities if "proof" is not an issue? What do we mean by "proof"
anyhow that we should want to use the word? What's the eros of proof?

In any case, let's keep our eyes fixed on our navigational chart and
avoid the call of those lovely ladies singing so sweetly off the
starboard bow. Otherwise, I'll have to tie you to the mast, plug my ears
with wax, and take control of the ship. I'm no Great Helmsman.

Willard McCarty

(2) --------------------------------------------------------------115---
Date: Thu, 3 Aug 89 12:36:00 EDT
From: Itamar Even-Zohar <B10@TAUNIVM.bitnet>
Subject: Misunderstandings about what I wrote about

Tom Thomson <tom@prg.oxford.ac.uk> is irritated (Humanist
Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 314. Wednesday, 2 Aug 1989) by my
allegedly having written that "Scientists (and Mathematicians)
are naive and blinkered". I would like to protest that never have
I made such a statement. My limited knowledge of the English
language does not even stretch to include, in the sort of Pidgin
I use, such a word as "blinkered". And as for "naive", the only
sentence where I used this word is the following:
That is, while physics and mathematics have gone quite a bit
away from what looks nowadays "naive" models of the world,
the marketed and self-conscious images perpetuated among
mathematicians and physicists (and those inculcated to their
students) still belong to the Romantic era.
What this paragraph says, though I admit that naturally the
phrasing could have been improved, is precisely the opposite!
That is, the "naive" models of the world are no longer accepted
by mathematics and physics, but the images projected in everyday
discourse often still belong to a bygone era. Am I wrong in
saying that such words as "discover", "prove" ("proof"), "we now
know that" and even, indeed, "exact" are still marketed with
great success? (Thomson is disgusted with the term "exact", but
he cannot ignore the fact that many University faculties still
bear that name around the world.) so nothing here implies that
scientists are naive in my eyes.

In short, may I reiterate that I was referring to "self images
and marketed images" rather than to scientific / mathematical
thinking per se? After all, my little note emerged as a comment
to Charles Ess's puzzlement (Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3,
No. 297. Thursday, 27 Jul 1989) about the negative reaction of
some of his colleagues' to chaos theory. I have thus suggested
that the reason might be the disagreeable possible implications
of chaos for the image the scientific community is still in the
habit of projecting. I believe Kline has put it in the sharpest
We know today that mathematics does not possess the qualities
that in the past earned for it universal respect and
admiration. Mathematics was regarded as... The truth about
the design of nature. How man came to the realization that
these values are false and just what our present
understanding is constitute the major themes [of Kline's
Many mathematicians would perhaps prefer to limit the
disclosure of the present status of mathematics to members of
the family. But intellectually oriented people must be fully
aware of the powers of the tools at their disposal.
Recognition of the limitations, as well as the capabilities,
of reason is far more beneficial than blind trust, which can
lead to false ideologies and even to destruction. (Kline,
Morris 1980. *Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty* (Oxford:
Oxford University Press), "Preface".

Further, nowhere in my little note can it even indirectly be
interpreted as if I claimed that, to use Thomson own words, "a
scientist (or a mathematician) has no need for imagination,
creative thought, willingness to stand against eminent authority,
ability to give up long-held views/prejudices, and so on as does
any student of the humanities." I could not agree more with
Thomson on this point. From the whole spirit of my note I believe
Thomson could have understood how indefensible I find the
distinction between "sciences" on the other hand and "the
humanities" on the other hand.

As for probability vs. determinism and the nature of "laws", I am
afraid Thomson is right in criticizing my lack of cautiousness in
dealing with the concept of "determinism." I am aware that
statistical computing need not be interpreted as probabilism and
that at least classical thermodynamics did not revolt against the
prevailing views of determinism in physics. What I tried to say
was that looking back, in view of Maxwell's readiness, for
instance, to accept our inability to predict the behaviour of
*individual* molecules (though I admit by no means did he think
that this was due to some inherent features of our constructed
"laws"), and in view of the more explicit developments in quantum
theory, nobody can claim that the understanding of "determinism",
i.e., the concept of "determinism", has remained unchanged. The
presence of "unknown", or "inaccessible", factors, of the sort we
are often aware of in the sciences of man, is admitted in the
natural sciences. In one way or another, this has made them
closer to the sciences of man. I also think that Thomson
insistence on "the behaviour of masses of deterministic
molecules", contains a crucial key concept in this theme, namely
"masses". In this particular aspect, the natural sciences are no
doubt (as in most other aspects, I readily admit) are far ahead
of the sciences of man.

Several people have asked me about what I meant with Mandelbrot's
position vis-a-vis the scientific community. May I end this
little comment with the following quotation:
Looking back, Mandelbrot saw that scientists in various
disciplines responded to his approach in sadly predictable
stages. The first stage was always the same: Who are you and
why are you interested in our field? Second: How does it
relate to what we have been doing, and why don't you explain
it on the basis of what we know? Third: Are you sure it's
standard mathematics? (Yes, I'm sure.) Then why don't we know
it? (Because it's standard but very obscure.)
(Gleick, James 1987. *Chaos*: *Making a New Science*. (New
York:Viking), 113).

Itamar Even-Zohar
Porter Institute
(3) --------------------------------------------------------------62----
Date: Thu, 3 Aug 89 14:54 EDT
Subject: culture and science?

Re: culture and science?

Tom Thomson writes:
" I used to think Snow was wrong, the division of modern thought
into two cultures was at most a tiny localised phenomenon and more likely
just a figment of his imagination. Reading Humanist is beginning to make me
think he was right - - - there are a lot of rather blinkered people out there
who don't (want to?) understand that a scientist (or a mathematician) has
just as much need for imagination, creative thought, willingness to stand
against eminent authority, ability to give up long-held views/prejudices, and
so on as does any student of the humanities.

Well, is Snow's thesis about the two cultures, right or wrong? The notion that
intellectuals are split in two cultures, the technophobic humanists and the
technophilic scientists belies the common currents of thought underlying the
'two' cultures.

For instance, recently their was some discussion about the nature of e-mail
and the HUMANIST in McLuhanesque terminology--i.e. 'global village', 'oral
nature of electronic media', and so on. One of McLuhan's claims was that
contemporary physics, Einstein, Heisenberg, et. al., is a physics of an oral
culture. Physics is no longer composed of deterministic laws, but of
indeterministic laws relative to framework; and reasoning in physics is no
longer linear, etc. etc. Itamar Even-Zohar's remarks indirectly echoe
McLuhan: electronic media create not only a new physics but also a new form of
cognition for the humanities.
Consequently--on one hand: McLuhan's thesis about our supposedly new form
of cognition undercuts Snow's two cultures--the electronic media creates a
global village of scientists/humanists who think and speak in non-linear forms.
On the other hand: Thomson's own remarks about how humanists, at least on the
HUMANIST, distort science and misappreciate the nature of scientific
imagination, seems to reinforce Snow's two cultures idea.

Both sides to this debate misunderstand the nature of our so-called new
electronic, global village. Contra McLuhan, good thinkers whether using
electronic media or paper media, spoken or written language, think with the
logic of the excluded middle, i.e. binary logic. Indeed, if we want to model
thinking on the computer, we have no choice but to use binary logic. However,
mislogists (i.e. Winograd, Dreyfus, and others) see the computer as a threat to
creative human thinking, which supposedly cannot be modelled via binary logic.
However, if we examine the history of creative thinkers from Thales to
present: they all used binary logic, with devastating results to "eminent
authority". Whereas, those who, beginning with G.F. Hegel, questioned binary
logic, usually did so for the purpose of preserving and protecting the
intellectual status quo--i.e. to defray the criticisims of 'logic choppers'.
Unfortunately, as Snow pointed out, the home of anti-technology and
anti-science seems to be among humanists. McLuhanists in their misology carry
on the tradition of technophobia, and anti-science, in the guise of loving
modern science and electronic media, by distorting the nature of science and
electronic media; by promoting an idol of technology/physics as one which is
supposedly non-linear, and non-logical.
Sheldon Richmond