21.433 cognitive science like alchemy

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Fri, 21 Dec 2007 10:18:16 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 433.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Fri, 21 Dec 2007 10:13:41 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: cognitive science like alchemy

In Humanist 21.429, Andrew Brook wrote,

>Willard, I entirely agree with you that how the history of an
>activity looked to the participants is often, maybe always, very
>different from how it looks to later folk who know how things turned
>out. What I was unclear about it what you wanted to build on that
>fact. Certainly if what we want is accurate, informative history,
>reconstructing how things had to have looked to participants is
>important, even essential. But what if our interest is in knowing
>what our current activities are like, activity where we don't know
>the outcome. There are definitely two (or more) schools of thought on
>this and I have never known how to resolve the disagreement

Let me take a run at a reply. I'd think that having an accurate,
informative history would only be of interest if it helped us, as he
says, to know what our current activities are like. An historian
might answer differently to other historians, but I'd think that if
he or she were talking to non-historians, then doing history would be
justified in terms similar to Andrew's. So the question is, why
should we go to so much trouble?

One answer would be to understand as much of what is at work in the
present as possible. If in any given historical moment there are many
latent possibilities, outcomes of what has happened and interactions
among those outcomes, then a history that shows the origins and
nature of these possibilities would help us to read them. Another
answer would be to show continuities obscured by misconceptions, e.g.
the ongoing philosophical problem that runs through the work of
Hilbert, Goedel and Turing to the present day, which overlooked
contributes to the false belief that computing is a purely technical
phenomenon of significance to us only instrumentally. I suppose one
could understand the situation by imagining a traveller who quite
suddenly suffers a case of total amnesia, and so has no idea why he
is carrying what he is carrying, what the items in his luggage are
for, where he was going, why &c. Borges has shown us that the
traveller with perfect recall and total knowledge may be in an even
worse fix, but since partial amnesia seems a condition of existence,
and forgetting more the real danger, we don't have to worry much
about overdoing it.

This is such a fascinating problem I'd think one could find many
schools of thought about it. But can we say, irrespective of school,
that in order to know the present (so that one can make well informed
decisions &c) one must know the past?

Andrew continues:

>Then there is my original question: How does the issue of doing
>history well connect to the chemistry replacing alchemy issue? Part
>of my reason for asking is that in the humanities computing game,
>there has never been a similar 'paradigm shift', to use Kuhn's
>maligned word, just incremental developments -- lots and lot of
>incremental developments but no epochs in which one kind of theory
>gets trashed in favour of another.

What *exactly* happened when chemistry replaced alchemy? Is
"replaced" the right word? I'd think that an historical response
would construe this lengthy and complex event as a type of what we
now call scientific progress, i.e. it would help us to understand the
idea of scientific progress. With that improved idea, we'd then
proceed to examine other instances, opening them up to see what was
gained (from our current perspective), what was lost. Kuhn's primary
source was the history of physics. What happens to his argument if we
look instead at the history of chemistry, or the history of biology
-- or the history of computing? Am I right in thinking that we have
been so profoundly influenced by the history of physics -- by the
notion that all sciences are reducible to physics, including (when we
can get around to it) the human sciences -- that basing our idea of
the fundamental science elsewhere constitutes a major meta-paradigm
shift? An even more radical meta-paradigm shift would perhaps result
if we ditched the notion of a fundamental science altogether for a
thorough-going relativism and, as I think Rorty has suggested, start
working seriously on our abilities to talk across disciplinary
discourses, collegially, as humanities computing is trying to do.



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 21 2007 - 05:38:52 EST

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