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FleshFactor: am niche, chain me, nice ham: machine

A E C  F O R U M - "F L E S H F A C T O R"

"A poem is a machine for inducing the poetic state of mind." (Valery)


First, I'd like to commend Tom and thank him for his efforts in bringing
together this stimulating soiree. And second, to express my regret at
being unable to respond as I'd wish, to all the thoughts, vectors, and
vistas that the contributors have opened up -- there's been so much good
stuff going on that to properly address any particular topic precludes
pursuing half a dozen others, each equally enthralling. (Not to mention
the claims and clangour of life beyond the screen.) Which is just to say
I've been enjoying the proceedings, very much. 


Brian Molyneaux's recent offering, lovely. I'd make just one small
correction --- that, so far as I know, the term "machine" in its present
sense (or something very close to it) must have been in use well before
the 1699 date of the quote attributed to Hume (who was born in 1711, BTW),
since young turks like Leonardo (1452-1519), John Dee (1527-1608), Simon
Stevin (1548-1620), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), and Rene Descartes
(1596-1650), were self-styled "mechanics" -- meaning that they took Nature
as their textbook, and not the ersatz Aristotle of the schools. "Mechanic"
(or its Greek equivalent) had been considered a rude, ignoble, base
occupation, as far back as Plato. The Greek philosophers knew what
machines were, and had the same mental image, roughly, as we do (wheels,
gears, cranks, cables) -- think of Hero's engines, Archimedes' levers and
screws -- but they didn't much like these crude, clanking, mechanical
things. (A prejudice that did much to retard Greek science and
mathematics.) Also, I seem to recall that Bottom & Co. in "A Midsummer
Night's Dream" were referred to as "mechanicals", were they not? Meaning
(I'm not sure about this) the guys who shoved the scenery and special
effects around in the theatre? (And doesn't "guy" still carry a stale
sweaty odor, redolent of this ancient association of mechanical work --
pushing and pulling large heavy objects using guys and gears and winches
-- with things low, mean, common, crude, earthy, and lumpen?)

But it's interesting that (along with engines of war and public works) the
stage, and anything to do with the creation of illusions and spectacles,
was where, in olden times, you'd find the machines. There's a wonderful
book from a couple of years ago, "Instruments and the Imagination" I think
it was called, documenting how much of science, especially instrumentation
and graphical aids like oscilloscopy, the sphygmometer, cinematography,
and so forth -- which could be considered the sensory and cognitive
prostheses of science -- came from magic and puppet shows, entertainments,
masques, pleasure gardens: Athanasius Kircher's sunflower clock, a
keyboard made of yowling cats, the original synaesthetic colour-organ, von
Kempelin's speaking machine and notorious 'chess-player' automaton ... 

In any case, it's all a pretty old and floppy, moth-eaten philosophical
hat.  Leonardo's genius, at least in part, was to see birds (and human
beings) as, literally, machines. Descartes made it explicit, told us what
it means to provide an adequate explanation, theory, or well-founded
belief -- "If you want to understand how a world works, or a man, then
build one." The doctrine of simulation: the proof's in the
putting-together. Demo or die, as the engineering jocks would say. 


Which is what Dinka meant, yes? " ... what does such a belief imply if not
this: Everything we comprehend, we can construct. Everything we construct
is a machine. If we can comprehend ourselves, i.e. construct ourselves, we
are machines too." Algebra, for example, is a 'machine', and is often
enough casually referred to this way. Machines are *metaphysical* entities
in the first place, and only secondarily, material objects. Explanatory
fictions, really.

As in Italo Calvino's brilliant little allegory of science, "The Count of
Monte Cristo" -- where he tells the tale of the prisoner of the Chateau
d'If (the fictional 'chateau of If') who, to effect his escape, simply had
to create in his mind a second, imaginary Chateau -- that would be exactly
the same in its every detail as the impenetrable fortress within whose
walls he had been for decades and decades held captive -- save for one
tiny difference. And there, in that minute and apparently insignificant
'misalignment', he would make his escape. 

Or as Donald MacKay (one of the original British cybernetics guys from the
'Ratio Club', c. 1950-60) put it: "If you can tell me, clearly and
explicitly, in what way 'Artificial Intelligence' differs from our own,
real, biological intelligence, you'll have told me how to make a genuine
AI, indistinguishable from the real thing." (Curiously, MacKay was at the
same time a devout Christian of mystical leanings ... go figure.) 

Or again, as Leucippus, and Democritus, and Leibniz, and Maxwell, and
Freud, and Einstein (among many others) have all, at one time or another,
said -- "There are no accidents. Nothing happens without a reason." 


Derek Robinson (drdee@interlog.com)

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