16.058 seeing the sharp edges

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty (w.mccarty@btinternet.com)
Date: Fri Jun 07 2002 - 03:36:25 EDT

  • Next message: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty : "16.057 Summer courses at University College London"

                    Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 58.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Fri, 07 Jun 2002 08:32:20 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <w.mccarty@btinternet.com>
             Subject: seeing the sharp edges

    In the first of his Sillman Foundation Lectures, The Origins of Knowledge
    and Imagination, Jacob Bronowski declares that, "... in many ways you can
    say about all human problems, whether in science or in literature, whether
    physical or psychological, that they always center around the same problem:
    How do you refine the detail with an apparatus which remains at bottom
    grainy and coarse?" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978, p. 14)
    Brownowski is generalizing from a discussion of how we manage to see sharp
    boundaries (e.g. the edges of the pages of a book we are reading) when what
    we begin with is the coarse, grainy image produced by rods and cones in the
    eye, "which is rather like that of old-fashioned newspaper photographs." We
    see sharp edges rather than "an extremely wavy edge of shadow", he
    concludes, "because the eye is so wired up among the rods and cones that it
    actually looks for straight edges" (15f).

    Indeed, it would seem that we are always doing this sort of thing --
    *making* sharp, categorical divisions among things that on other inspection
    aren't like that at all. In other words, we simplify in order to reach a
    provisional understanding. Later on, in the third lecture, Brownowski notes
    (echoing the Talmud) that in experimental science one must "put a fence
    around the law", i.e., decide what is relevant to one's experiment and what
    is not -- despite the interconnectedness of all things. This falsifies the
    experiment, makes it partial in order that some results may be obtained.
    The revolutions in science happen, he notes, when the fence gets pushed
    back further, by some audacious act of imagination, such as Max Planck's or
    Albert Einstein's (58-60). We do the same, e.g. in literary studies,
    selecting what to pay attention to, excluding other things, though we tend
    not to speak in ways which suggest expanding the fenced-in domain, rather
    only shifting it to another patch of ground.

    When (as always?) one's instrument is crude, for example the computer,
    selection is imposed by the logic of the instrument. So my question: are
    not the sharp boundaries we see through computation valuable to us in
    proportion to our awareness that we are making them up? This is, of course,
    a very slippery slope, with the slough of desponding relativism at the
    bottom. Bronowski (perhaps with the terms of the Sillman Lecture series in
    mind, "to illustrate the presence and providence of God as manifested in
    the natural and moral world") speaks repeatedly of his *belief* in the
    reality of physical nature. A philosopher might alternatively declare him-
    or herself a realist and then work out the consequences in philosophical
    terms. Particularly attractive to me is, to quote the title of a chapter in
    Clifford Geertz's Available Light (Princeton, 2001), "anti-
    anti-relativism". But what seems to be excluded, whichever path one takes,
    is dead certainty.



    Dr Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer,
    Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London,
    Strand, London WC2R 2LS, U.K.,
    +44 (0)20 7848-2784, ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/,
    willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk, w.mccarty@btinternet.com

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Fri Jun 07 2002 - 03:44:09 EDT