21.416 cognitive science like alchemy

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Fri, 14 Dec 2007 07:55:27 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 416.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

   [1] From: ian.lancashire_at_utoronto.ca (59)
         Subject: Re: 21.413 cognitive science, alchemy, and healthy

   [2] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk> (62)
         Subject: alchemy and history

         Date: Fri, 14 Dec 2007 07:39:45 +0000
         From: ian.lancashire_at_utoronto.ca
         Subject: Re: 21.413 cognitive science, alchemy, and healthy aging

Chemists followed alchemists,
but cognitive scientists today work cordially,
side-by-side, with neuroscientists.
Both study mental behaviour
but use different tools to do so.
In my opinion, the alchemy metaphor falls apart,
whoever said it,
but digital humanists should make up their own minds.

I recommend two get-acquainted books:

Friedemann Pulvermüller's"The Neuroscience of Language:
On Brain Circuits of Words and Serial Order"
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
A monograph.

Gregory and Bridget Robinson-Riegler's
"Cognitive Psychology: Applying the Science of the Mind"
(Boston: Pearson, 2004).
A textbook.

After these,
start reading journals
where the newest findings and theories compete,
and where neuroscience and cognitive sciences
advance together symbiotically.

For example, three theories now vie to explain
the cognitive deterioration in language
amply shown in the healthy aging population
(not those suffering from a dementia).

These theories are the inhibitory-deficit model
(an inability to filter out irrelevant information),
the processing-speed model
(mental functions slow down),
and the context-processing-deficit model.

The third model, proposed in 2001,
now appears to be the strongest candidate.
As I understand it,
the context-processing-deficit model proposes
that the elderly (those past 65) have trouble
(compared to young people)
in representing, maintaining, and updating
-- within working memory --
information ("cues")
about the context of a concept ("probes").
This accounts for much mischief,
including difficulty in using new knowledge,
and associative failure.

See Beth K. Rush, Deanna M. Barch, and Todd S. Braver,
"Accounting for Cognitive Aging:
Context Processing, Inhibition or Processing Speed,"
in the journal "Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition,"
13 (2006): 588-610.

This new theory builds on results
that independent teams of researchers
have obtained from the simple AX-CPT experiment
with human subjects.

It also supports a theory in neuroscience
that locates cognitive aging
in the executive function of the prefrontal cortex.

Elegant, lucid, and helpful.
Beautifully symbiotic.

Ian Lancashire
English / Toronto

         Date: Fri, 14 Dec 2007 07:49:26 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: alchemy and history

Andrew Brooks has asked what connection I am seeing "between
computing humanists respecting our history and the history of
precursor activities and the comparison
between cognitive science and alchemy?" He points out that,

>It is not disrespecting history, I think, to say that the theory
>underlying alchemy turned out to be false and was supplanted by
>chemistry, which, after some false starts (remember phlogiston? ether?)
>turned out to be, so far as we know 'til now, mostly true.

True, from the perspective of modern chemistry. But what I was trying
to argue, apparently not very well, was this: that to the historian
rather than to the chemist the event in question looks different, and
if we're to have a proper history of our subject, we have to
understand the nature of that difference.

Let us say that we could find an historical moment, series of moments
and/or one or more particular individuals involved in the
alchemical-chemical scene. Doing the best we can to reconstruct how
things looked then to the people alive then, who didn't know how the
matter was going to be resolved -- for the most sophisticated of
whom, one might say, "how the matter was going to be resolved" would
not even be a coherent statement -- what would we see? My guess is
that we'd come up with something very much like the historical scenes
Siegfried Zielinski reconstructs in Deep Time of the Media (MIT
Press, 2006; review by me in the next LLC). As it happens I have no
particular interest in alchemy (though perhaps I should), but I am
very interested in how a proper history would work out a view of it.

In one of his papers on the historiography of science, Michael
Mahoney (www.princeton.edu/~mike/) points out that once a scientific
problem is solved, it becomes exceedingly difficult for the
knowledgeable person to imagine what the world looked like before the
solution was arrived at. What we tend to see is a more or less
straight line of development from the beginnings of something or
other, through the solutions of various problems and inventions of
new devices, to what we know now and have now. If we're sure of our
facts, that's fine, because indeed X did lead to Y, and Y to Z etc.
But, as I understand it, that's not an historian's view.

About our thing. What would we see if we had a proper history of it?
My guess is we'd arrive at something very much like Mahoney's attempt
at a history of computer science's beginnings, in "Software as
Science - Science as Software"
(www.princeton.edu/~mike/softsci.htm). We'd see a complex
strand of developments, agendas coming together, separating,
recombining. We'd see a number of possible historical paths to where
we are now, one seeming preferable to another depending on what we
think we're doing now. The fact is all we have now for humanities
computing are essentially chronologies. Northrop Frye pointed out at
the beginning of Anatomy of Criticism, for criticism, that one does
not have a real subject until one is able to turn the chronological
facts into problems to be explained, then starts to explain them. A
history supplies that explanation, but because it is not a matter of
facts alone as of their careful selection and interpretation, it is
something that has to be rewritten from time to time. As a real
historian said to me once, we get the histories we need.

I suspect that once we have a history for humanities computing, there
will no longer be any doubt on anyone's part that "humanities
computing" is not a contradiction in terms, that instead it's more
like male-female or day-night -- or yang-yin.



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 Fri Dec 14 2007 - 03:08:51 EST

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