20.211 great promise, not great threat?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sun, 24 Sep 2006 08:50:12 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 211.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sun, 24 Sep 2006 08:35:30 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: great promise, not great threat?

Recently I found myself in conversation, in the kitchen of an
academic residence in Leiden, with three other academics, one of them
a distinguished older historian, one a younger sociologist, the third
a much younger historian. In the course of talking about this and
that, the older fellow asked me what I did. Weighing heavily on my
mind was a public lecture I was writing on just that topic, so I
summarized the contents of the lecture. In it, as is my habit these
days, I argue that computing gives us powerful help in addressing the
question of how we know what we know -- by allowing us to set aside
what can be described computationally, leaving the uncomputable
residue. This leads to some research that draws on ideas in the
philosophy of experimental science, and to speculation (to me
compelling) of how computing defines an intellectual space within
which one can operate *as if* the objects of study were natural
objects obeying algorithmic laws -- the point, again, being in the
comparison with what we in the end plainly know. My appeal is, and
was then, in the kitchen in Leiden, to curiosity. Who, I wonder,
would not want to pry into how they know what they know -- with any
tool that comes to hand?

Silly me. Curiosity kills cats. But I exaggerate. I wasn't killed.
My senior colleague was soft-spoken and very polite. In his own way,
however, he illuminated the problem -- he said he was "disappointed".
What he wanted from me, he said, was a strong argument from the
humanities rather than one from the sciences. I thought I was giving
him exactly that -- no scientist qua scientist would argue as I do.
Later on, the young historian told me, "we don't like being told that
the sciences have all the answers!" Again, my point was precisely
that the answers coming from the sciences are interesting to me
precisely because they fall short -- though I admit to, and am
curious about, intriguingly closer answers coming from the
neurosciences, as they up the ante a fair bit.

I would be very interested to know where you think the problem is,
especially if some part of it, as I suspect, is due to
muddleheadedness on my part. Richard Rorty said some time ago (in an
London Review of Books piece) that he thought we are seeing an end to
the epistemic wars between the sciences and the humanities. Ian
Hacking has done much to change hostilities into negotiations. I
think we have a big role to play here -- and, if I am right, that it
just could be the most important result of all.



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7
Arundel Street | London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax:
-2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Sun Sep 24 2006 - 04:11:16 EDT

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