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Humanist Archives: March 23, 2021, 7:13 a.m. Humanist 34.294 - cross-talk?

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 294.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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        Date: 2021-03-22 15:05:18+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: the role of the philosopher

I quote from Kenneth M. Sayre and Frederick J. Crosson's Preface to
Modelling of Mind: Computers and Intelligence (1963), following their
discussion of the onset of digital computing in the 1950s:

> With the establishment of a distinct class of computer simulation
> experts, confidence in the machine’s ability to take over many or most
> of man’s mental functions hardened from merely a working hypothesis to
> an explicit article of faith... Reflecting this confidence on the
> layman’s level, a rash of articles began to appear in the popular press
> which intimated that the day is not far off when almost anything we can
> do can be done better and faster by machines. It is not unusual today
> to encounter the presentment that humanity may soon have to face the
> choice between becoming mere servants within a society of mechanical
> brains, or of becoming extinct save perhaps for a few specimens of homo
> sapiens preserved in a museum to be studied by scholarly robots
> interested in natural history...

This may sound a bit over-the-top, but read on...

> Our conception of the role to be played by philosophic analysis in this
> matter is that the criticism it offers ought to be primarily con-
> structive. It does not help to inform a technologist that, according to
> one’s own philosophic orientation, what he is trying to do with ma-
> chines cannot be done... It would be helpful, on the other hand, if the
> philosopher were able to help the technologist conceptualize more
> clearly the structure of the behavior he is trying to simulate, to
> understand better the nature of the difficulties encountered in the
> process of doing this, and to formulate new approaches for overcoming
> such of those difficulties as arise from an inadequate conception of the
> function to be simulated.
> But there has been very little interchange between technologists and
> philosophers actively concerned with the analysis of mental capacities.
> Perhaps the main reason for this is the relative inaccessibility of many
> of the better technical discussions of simulation problems, and the
> formidable task of distinguishing between what is worth reading in this
> area and what is not. Philosophers generally have no guide lines for
> seeking out, and often have inadequate preparation for understanding,
> technological literature relevant to their interests...

The obvious thing to remark on is how contemporary with ourselves the
above (nearly 60 years' old) sounds, except of course for the personal
pronouns. Perhaps less obvious is how close the role of digital
humanities is -- or should be -- to the one Sayre and Crosson assign to
their "philosophers". What didn't exist then in quite the abundance it 
does now is the work in the cognitive sciences. We do have people to 
talk to that Sayre and Crosson's philosophers didn't, but are we talking 
to them?

Forgive, if you would, my imperative mood. Perhaps impatience can be



Willard McCarty,
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

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