Humanist Discussion Group

Humanist Archives: April 16, 2022, 8:04 a.m. Humanist 35.653 - the slippery cliff

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 653.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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        Date: 2022-04-16 06:57:56+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: the slippery cliff

In 1950, the seventh Macy Conference on Cybernetics: Circular Causal and
Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems (the title of the
Proceedings) met in New York. Among those present were Warren McCulloch,
Heinz von Foerster, Gregory Bateson, Julian Bigelow, Heinrich Klüver,
Margaret Mead, Walter Pitts, John von Neumann, J.C.R. Licklider, Claude
Shannon... you get the idea. The format was one in which presenters
started delivering their papers, then attendees interrupted and
discussion ensued.  Lively, you might say. University of Chicago
physiologist Ralph W. Gerard's introductory remark to his paper* sums up
the experience: "this particular group is the most provocative one with
which I am associated. I owe more new ideas and viewpoints to the
meetings we have had over the past few years than to any other similar
experience". The sort of thing that a scholar lives for.

What Gerard went on to say thus has particular weight, and is the reason
I detain you to consider:

> It seems to me, in looking back over the history of this group, that
> we started our discussions and sessions in the »as if« spirit.
> Everyone was delighted to express any idea that came into his mind,
> whether it seemed silly or certain or merely a stimulating guess that
> would affect someone else. We explored possibilities for all sorts of
> »ifs.« Then, rather sharply it seemed to me, we began to talk in an
> »is« idiom. We were saying much the same things, but now saying them
> as if they were so...

> Since this group has been the focus and
> fountainhead of thinking along these lines, we surely have a very
> real responsibility, both internally and externally. Internally,
> since we bring expertness in such varied fields, no one can be sure
> another’s statements are facts or guesses unless the speaker is
> meticulous in labeling suggestions as such. Externally, our
> responsibility is even greater, since our statements and writings –
> which may extend beyond an immediate area of competence – should not
> give a spurious certainty to a credulous audience...

I call this point of sudden transition between 'as-if' and 'is' the
slippery cliff (too fast to be a slope). Does this not require near
constant vigilance? Those familiar with the literature on modelling will
recognise it immediately. I would hope that observers of AI would as well.



*Ralph W. Gerard, "Some of the problems concerning digital notions in
the central nervous system", in Heinz von Foerster, ed. Cybernetics:
Circular causal and feedback mechanisms in biological and social
systems. Transactions of the Seventh [Macy] Conference, March 23-24,
1950, New York, N.Y. New York: Joseph Macy, Jr. Foundation, 1951.
Reproduced in Claus Pias, ed. Cybernetics: The Macy Conferences
1946-1953. Zürich/Berlin: diaphanes, 2003/2016.

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

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