16.062 on certainty

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty (w.mccarty@btinternet.com)
Date: Mon Jun 10 2002 - 02:48:59 EDT

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                    Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 62.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Mon, 10 Jun 2002 07:46:22 +0100
             From: lachance@chass.utoronto.ca (Francois Lachance)
             Subject: the dead heats of haste


    In a recent missive to Humanist you inquired about the status of "dead
    certainty". It is very much alive for the pragmatist, especially the
    pragmatist enlivened by the many variations of the trope of Cretan
    paradox including this one:
    it is certainty that there is no certainty.

    Some variations are more enabling than others. I am particular struck by
    the one the involves the two sides of a sheet of paper. The one side
    reads: "the statement on the other side of the sheet is false" which by a
    trick of diectics remains true because the "other side" is always "other"
    even when one side reads "This statement is false." I raise this example
    because it seems to me that the ontological and epistemological issues you
    raise deserve some triangulation.

    Some of the paradoxes disappear when one considers the relations between
    mapping and memory. The "other side" is like a variable held in memory
    whose value can be flushed. The use of computing machines acquaints us
    with the distinction between a variable and its value. The "other side"
    need not be the recto of a verso nor a position in a numbered sequence.
    The computing model here helps us understand, I hope, that codex reading
    induces a form of memory and recall that is prone not necessarily to
    paradox generation but to loops. The wish to have "The Book" and the "Book
    of the World" in alignment is perhaps a desire to avoid delicate etiquette
    questions. For "The Book" read cultural artefact. For "World" read the
    wonderful playground where the actual and the possible intertwine and the
    place where cultural artefacts are both repositories of the traces of
    actual processes and recipes for possible experience. Or to borrow
    Turing's famous words about computing machines: both states and

    I wonder if the preoccupation with "dead certainity" could not be slightly
    shifted to a bemusement with "dead centredness". Could we not dawdle over
    a "hasty pudding"? I offer the following conceit:


    The hasty-pudding being spread out equally on a plate, while hot, an
    _excavation_ is made in the middle of it with a _spoon_, into which
    _excavation_ a piece of butter as large as a nutmeg is put, and upon it a
    spoonful of brown sugar, etc. The butter, being soon heated by the heat of
    the pudding, mixes with the sugar and forms a sauce, which, _being
    confined in the excavation_, occupies the _middle of the plate!_

    Thus for the array -- now for the battle! Dip each _spoonful_ in the
    _sauce, before it is carried to the mouth_, care being had in taking it up
    to begin on the outside and near the brim of the plate, and to approach
    the centre by gradual advances, in order not to demolish too soon the
    _excavation_ which forms the reservoir of _sauce_.

    Source: Marie Kimball _The Martha Washington Cook Book_ New York:
    Coward-McCann, 1940.

    I leave it to braver and more patient souls to digest the possible
    analogies between the methods and practices of humanities computing and
    the preparation and delectation of hasty puddings. I have misplaced my
    spoon and an Ethiopian stew awaits to be sopped up with a spongy piece of

    For those interested in adopting a different culinary conciet:

    Injera is described as a soft, porous,
         thin pancake, which has a sour taste. Teff is low in gluten and
         therefore, the bread remains quite flat. When eaten in Ethiopia, teff
         flour is often mixed with other cereal flours, but the flavor and
         quality of injera made from mixtures is considered less tasty. Injera
         made entirely from barley, wheat, maize or millet flours is said to
         have a bitter taste. The degree of sour taste is imparted by the
         length of the fermentation process. If the dough is fermented for only
         a short period of time, injera has a tasty sweet flavor. Research
         studies on the techniques used to make injera have indicated that a
         yeast, Candida guilliermondii [...]


    Before I branch out further into botany, let me conclude with an appeal to
    temporality in order to avoid the category mistake of attributing
    "deadness" to certainty. In my limited experience "deadness" is a
    possible attribute of beings (as in lively dead poets). The category of
    "certainty" is not a being --- at least not for the algorithms of this
    computing machine.

    Francois Lachance, Scholar-at-large
    per Interactivity ad Virtuality via Textuality

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