Serial Experiments Cybernetics Layer 04: McCulloch

From then on Mechanism and Teleology held no contradiction. They have in common the dialectical argument with its logic of becoming which is necessary for cybernetics, and they complement each other from the sides of matter, or body, and form, or mind.” – McCulloch

Beer considered Wiener, Ashby, and Warren McCulloch to be the three founders of cybernetics. We shall continue our discussion with McCulloch to complete our discussion of cybernetics’ foundations before continuing.

He was born in Orange, New Jersey in 1898. At first he wanted to be a minister. He attended the Quaker-founded[1] Haverford College. There he first discovered his love of epistemology, especially qua mathematics. He later recounted:

I remember well that when I told our Quaker philosopher, Rufus Jones, that all I wanted to know was: ‘What is a number that a man may know it; and a man, that he may know a number?’ he prophesied, ‘ Friend, thee will be busy as long as thee lives.’ He was right. Though I did not know it then, I had become a cyberneticist.”

In WWI, McCulloch left Haverford to become a second-class seaman by the time he met Norbert Wiener at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds[2]. McCulloch later contrasted how Wiener’s mathematical connections to the “real world of physics, engineering and biology” developed during the war, whereas McCulloch “plunged into the epistemic problems of mathematics.”

McCulloch went on to the officer’s training school at Yale, where he stayed to study philosophy and psychology. He continued his study of psychology at Columbia, getting an MA, then an MD in 1927. McCulloch went on to work at the famed Bellevue hospital in New York, then worked on neurophysiology at Yale and psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, before moving to MIT to work with Wiener – more on that later.

McCulloch, in time, became a mentor to Beer and other British cyberneticians. Beer was particularly struck by a paper given at a 1942 Macy conference which was about teleological mechanisms, that is to say, purposeful systems.

To McCulloch and to myself, teleology is paramount. For McCulloch, cybernetics was about teleology and about the nervous system, so that’s where his work went. For Beer, it was about effective organization, hence his talks at business schools and work for various British and Canadian government agencies.[3]

Cybernetics is what you make of it – and what did Warren McCulloch make of it? He was the chair of the aforementioned Macy conferences on cybernetics. The Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation was established in 1930 to aid medical research. Starting in 1941, they gathered together scholars of various disciplines in order for them to be able to compare notes and gain new insights, and hopefully make some breakthroughs.

The film “Das Netz” connects these conferences with the creation of an F-scale[4] to identify fascist personality traits, measure them, and remove those traits from society. However, I find no independent verification of this connection, rather the scale appears to have been created separately by Theodor Adorno[5].

Although the conferences began in 1941, the most famous ones were the “Cybernetics Conferences” from 1946 through 1953. I have yet to read the proceedings, but there are many famous names that come up – not only cyberneticians, but Claude Shannon, the progenitor of information theory; Kurt Lewin, the father of “social psychology”; and Yehoshua Bar-Hillel, who worked on machine translation and was involved in early work on artificial intelligence.

Beer told this story: McCulloch, with a protégé named Walter Pitts, wanted to build a machine that would read text and produce sound. This would enable blind people to read text that was not in Braille. McCulloch worked out the math with Norbert Wiener one evening, and they were left with a diagram of where to place the photoelectric cells and oscillators.

McCulloch went to bed, after which a Dutch neuroanatomy expert[6] walked in, and asked who was trying to draw a diagram of the fourth visual layer of the cortex. You see, they had arrived through their application of cybernetics at a structure similar to the existing natural structure within our brains for the same purpose of visual recognition.

Together, McCulloch and Pitts developed the groundwork for the artificial neural network in a paper in 1943 titled “A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity”. This was inspired in part by Pitts’ familiarity with Leibniz, as they explored the connection between the natural nervous system and process of computing. This work on neural networks helped develop McCulloch’s own ideas on “heterarchy”, a system with unranked authority.

Walter Pitts was by all accounts a brilliant man, if a bit eccentric. The cognitive scientist Jerry Lettvin related, “when you asked him a question, you would get back a whole textbook.” In 1942, while they were all in Chicago, McCulloch asked Lettvin and Pitts to live with his family, ending years of homelessness for Pitts. Pitts was already prone to social isolation.

In 1951, Wiener convinced MIT to hire McCulloch, Pitts, and Lettvin. However, after they arrived the following year, Wiener cut ties with McCulloch and all of his associates – likely at the behest of his wife. These circumstances threw Pitts into some emotional distress, but he continued to work with McCulloch, Lettvin, and the Chilean cybernetician, biologist, and philosopher Humberto Maturana.

However, discoveries made during their work on frogs led Pitts to burn his unpublished dissertation, since his theories about nerves and logic were not being proven. He published little afterwards, and he died of cirrhosis in 1969, at the age of 46.

I’m telling you about Pitts to tell you this: pioneering work, like cybernetics at the time and like dissident thought now, can attract people who are unstable, who are vulnerable. The American Sun has some good articles on how to overcome this – Henry Delacroix’s recent article on “xenoestrogen warfare” comes to mind – but building up our fellow kings has to take place on a more mundane and more local community level as well.

I’m sure McCulloch, Lettvin, and others tried to help Pitts. You can’t help everyone, but do what you can. Don’t buy into the left’s recent take on human decency as “emotional labor”. Take it as far as you can go.

Next week, meet me in Café Central.

[1] The Quakers are an interesting bunch when it comes to American agitation: “struggle sessions”, “speaking truth to power” when we don’t know the half of it (thanks, Boyle and Wool), and so on.
[2] Wiener in fact worked on artillery during both World Wars.
[3] As another example: for Zuckerberg, Facebook was originally about pictures of hot college girls. I don’t think he’s actually a robot, I suspect that he’s just got a deep, deep state of wank-zombification going on. For all I know, he has access to the pictures of pretty much every college girl on Earth now – I haven’t read the Terms of Service lately.
I say this as a joke and without any proof whatsoever, but please note that at the core of every conspiracy theory is: “You know what? I would not put it past them.”
[4] You can take it online!
I got a 4.57 – above average in general, but likely below average here.
[5] Friendly reminder that one of the few assertions with merit in “Dialectic of Enlightenment”, a foundational text of cultural Marxism, is that there is a “culture industry”, as noted in the third chapter. You will note that upon identifying an instrument of power, they worked for decades to seize it. The first two chapters are devoted to rambling about Odysseus and about de Sade, as though they could embody the entire development of Western thought in those two figures alone. The fourth chapter is devoted to anti-Semitism.
[6] Geert van B-something, sorry.

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