The Human and the Digital   /   Spring 2018   /    Thematic: The Human and the Digital

Digital Metaphysics

The Cybernetic Idealism of Warren McCulloch

Leif Weatherby

Rebel Genius by Eoin Ryan; courtesy of the artist.

Neither matter nor mind survives autonomously in cybernetics.

In the autumn of 1948, Warren McCulloch, neurophysiologist, bohemian cold warrior, and a founder of machine learning, stood before a gathering of brain scientists at the California Institute of Technology. The occasion was the inaugural Hixon Symposium, and the topic, cognitive behavior—more specifically, “Cerebral Mechanisms in Behavior.” John von Neumann, for whom modern computer architecture is named, was in the audience. Questions about the new digital machines hung in the air, even as the brain remained the dominant topic. McCulloch decided to talk metaphysics.

He divided the world into “mind” and “body,” noting that the physicist claims to study only the latter, unless we compel him to include himself, as physicist, in his account of matter. Then he is faced with a choice: refuse, and remain a physicist, or assent, and become a metaphysician.11xWarren Sturgis McCulloch, Embodiments of Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1965), 73. McCulloch thought he could do this dilemma one better, by developing what he called an “experimental epistemology.” Every path forward, as he would later claim, lay “through the den of the metaphysician.”22xIbid., 156. The physicist, in reality, has no choice but to assent, because the “synthetic a priori is the theme of all our physiological psychology,” McCulloch concluded.33xIbid., 74.

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