21.409 cognitive science like alchemy

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Wed, 12 Dec 2007 08:20:55 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 409.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

   [1] From: Cesare Pastorino <cpastori_at_indiana.edu> (9)
         Subject: Fwd: 21.405 cognitive science like alchemy

   [2] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk> (65)
         Subject: the analogy of alchemy

         Date: Wed, 12 Dec 2007 08:04:39 +0000
         From: Cesare Pastorino <cpastori_at_indiana.edu>
         Subject: Fwd: 21.405 cognitive science like alchemy

Dear Prof. McCarty,

this article (available on Jstor) seems to be a (the?) source for the
analogy between psychology and alchemy:

P. M. Churchland, "Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional
Attitudes", Journal of Philosophy 1981 pp. 67-90. Especially pp. 80-82.


Best regards,

Cesare Pastorino

         Date: Wed, 12 Dec 2007 08:04:06 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: the analogy of alchemy

The quotation I am still looking for is cleverer than the candidates
so far offered -- until Churchland's, kindly located by Cesare
Pastorino (see the other note in this number of Humanist). But I am
still looking, because Churchland's is not exactly the wording I
recall, to the effect that one day 'neurobiology will do to cognitive
science what chemistry did to alchemy'. One essential element of the
statement I am looking for is there, which is to say, the use of
alchemy in an analogy involving neuroscience, but cognitive science
isn't mentioned. However, Churchland's treatment is worth a bit of
commentary here, I think.

Churchland is arguing that our commonsense beliefs, a.k.a. "folk
psychology" (FP), may be considered a theory of mind, and when one
thinks of them in this way, as a theory, then we can see that they
get us nowhere. On the contrary, he writes (p. 75),

>If we approach homo sapiens from the perspective of natural history and
>the physical sciences, we can tell a coherent story of his constitution,
>development, and behavioral capacities which encompasses particle
>physics, atomic and molecular theory, organic chemistry, evolutionary
>theory, biology, physiology, and materialistic neuroscience.

In contrast,

>FP's explanatory impotence and long stagnation inspire little faith that
>its categories will find themselves neatly reflected in the framework of
>neuroscience. On the contrary, one is reminded of how alchemy must have
>looked as elemental chemistry was taking form, how Aristotelean
>cosmology must have looked as classical mechanics was being articulated,
>or how the vitalist conception of life must have looked as organic
>chemistry marched forward.

There are several things to question here. I wonder in particular
about the soundness of translating our native, non-theorized ways of
navigating the world into a propositional theory, then comparing this
theory to the consensus Churchland sees gathering in the
materialistic sciences. To put the matter in other words, I wonder
specifically about the meaning(s) of "theory" in these two rather
different contexts. I also wonder about the historicity of "how
alchemy *must have looked* as elemental chemistry was taking form".
I'd very much appreciate comments on what historians know of that
moment other than from the perspective of modern elemental chemistry.
How did things look *then*, to those for whom the future was all
unknown, all its possibilities unrealised?

As we strengthen our own argument for humanities computing as an
intellectual practice of its own (distinct from but related to the
argument for each of the digital humanities), understanding how real
history is done seems to me part of the job. And that means doing
much, much better than laughing at a defeated, superceded past. To
get to the core of our matter, it seems to me that we need to know
and be able to talk about computing not as a fruit of triumphalist
techno-science and so a great gift to the Johnny-come-lately,
slow-witted, catch-up humanities but as a humanistic and humane
subject from its several beginnings. As true as that may be, however,
my nomination for our most important contribution to the humanities
is the development of computing as a means of dissolving away the
barrier of misunderstanding between the sciences and the humanities,
which among other things means understanding the sciences
historically. The standard argument as I understand it is that we
have a real subject to talk about when we are able to see its
chronological record not as a string of fundamental facts, as in the
onward-and-upward story of progress -- but as questions to answered.
I keep wondering (and here am eager for comment) how it is that as
humanists we can feel so comfortable ignoring so much of what human
beings have thought and done under the rubric of science?


Willard McCarty | Professor of Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
http://staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/. Et sic in infinitum (Fludd
1617, p. 26).
Received on Wed Dec 12 2007 - 03:46:38 EST

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