13.0448 two perspectives

From: Humanist Discussion Group (willard@lists.village.virginia.edu)
Date: Sun Feb 27 2000 - 09:35:17 CUT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 13, No. 448.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

       [1] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk> (50)
             Subject: the real and the usefully false

       [2] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk> (25)
             Subject: CS as experimental science

             Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 09:29:59 +0000
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: the real and the usefully false

    Yesterday I encountered this astonishing passage in Steven Pinker's new
    book, Words and rules: The ingredients of language (London: Weidenfield and
    Nicolson, 1999):

    >Sentences are put together on an assembly line composed of mental modules,
    >shown on the following page. [He refers to a diagram of boxes
    >interconnected by arrows.] One is a storehouse of memorised words, the
    >mental lexicon. Another is a team of rules that combine words and parts of
    >words into bigger words, a component called morphology. A third is a team
    >of rules that combine words and phrases into sentences, a component called
    >syntax. .

    He goes on to say that, "Many people are suspicious of box-and-arrow
    diagrams of the mind" but immediately justifies the use of one: "In the
    case of language, however, these components pop out as we tease apart the
    phenomena...." (p. 22).

    Excuse me, I think, they don't, and sentences are NOT put together as
    described; there is no such storehouse, nor do we find teams of rules. You
    may object to my objection by pointing out that this is a book for a
    non-specialist audience, so we should excuse the throng of metaphors
    milling about in a curiously industrial setting -- the General Motors model
    of mind? "Sure, sure", I imagine him saying, "I know that this is only a
    way of talking about what happens." Even so, I am distinctly bothered that
    anyone, esp someone wearing the robes of expertise as he does, should
    appear to forget that he is proposing a MODEL of what happens. As Nancy
    Cartwright has in particular argued (in How the Laws of Physics Lie),
    models however good are never true, and often in physics at least they are
    very crude indeed -- thus the charming expression, which I am old enough
    and American enough to appreciate, "tinkertoy modelling".

    The basic problem, it seems to me, is not that he might deceive someone
    into thinking that we actually had discovered what happens when we make
    sentences (as opposed to coming up with a useful, even powerful way of
    thinking about how we make sentences). That is a problem, and surely some
    will be thus deceived, and it would have been a simple matter to prevent by
    putting in a qualifying phrase here and there. But the bigger problem is
    his success-orientated way of thinking, the drive toward solutions at the
    expense of better questions -- a drive that is perhaps responsible for the
    omission I object to? Perhaps, as a result of his work and that of others
    we'll have a really fine linguistic processor that benefits us in all sorts
    of ways, but scholarship, understanding won't be as well served.

    You may recall Jerry Fodor's review of Pinker's previous book, How the Mind
    Works (1988). Whatever you may think of Fodor's style of philosophy, he is
    good at pointing out what we don't know, and I find that so much more
    exhilirating than the unquestioned mental flowcharts.


    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
    voice: +44 (0)171 848 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 848 5081
    <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/>
    maui gratia

             Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 09:30:23 +0000
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: CS as experimental science

    "Computer science is an empirical discipline. We would have called it an
    experimental science, but like astronomy, economics, and geology, some of
    its unique forms of observation and experience do not fit a narrow
    stereotype of the experimental method. Nonetheless, they are experiments.
    Each new machine that is built is an experiment. Actually constructing the
    machine poses a question to nature; and we listen for an answer by
    observing the machine in operation and analysing it by all analytical and
    measurement means available. Each new program that is built is an
    experiment. It poses a question to nature, and its behaviour offers clues
    to an answer. Neither machines nor programs are black boxes; they are
    artefacts that have been designed , both hardware and software, and we can
    open them up and look inside. We can relate their structure to their
    behaviour and draw many lessons from a single experiment....

    "We build computers and programs for many reasons.... But as basic
    scientists we build machines and programs as a way of discovering new
    phenomena and analysing phenomena we already know about.... [Society] needs
    to understand that the phenomena surrounding computers are deep and
    obscure, requiring much experimentation to assess their nature...."

    Allen Newell and Herbert A. Simon, "Computer science as empirical enquiry:
    Symbols and search", in Margaret A Boden, ed., The Philosophy of Artificial
    Intelligence, Oxford Readings in Philosophy (Oxford, 1990): pp. 105f.

    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
    voice: +44 (0)171 848 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 848 5081
    <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/>
    maui gratia

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