Winter 2001–2002

Walter Pitts

Cybernetics’s missing man

Keller Easterling

There are no biographies of Walter Pitts, and any honest discussion of him resists conventional biography. Pitts was among the original participants in the mid-century cybernetics conferences, though he began his association with that group of scientists when he was only a teenager. His intellectual strengths contributed to some central cybernetic theories reliant on logical structures and universal elements. Yet the sketchy details of his life provide the kind of evidence that resists the structure of those theories.

The mid-century cybernetics conferences, or Macy Conferences (1946-53), theorized about automatic or self-balancing systems in biological and technological ecologies. Warren McCullough, Norbert Weiner, John von Neumann, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson were among those invited, and their discussions mixed methodologies and evidence from a broad range of disciplines including anthropology, neurophysiology, mathematics, logic, and computational networks. Their research into, for instance, circuits, language, and behavior naturally often returned to questions about the mind’s structure and to the tantalizing possibility of some similarity between neurophysiology and electronic circuitry. There were many discussions, however, that also situated automatic systems not only within a single organism but within a population of people or things. As a group, the scientists discussing these population phenomena became a subject of their own contemplations.[1] The collisions between their various disciplinary habits produced a group complexity that fueled debates over the validity of logical versus empirical tools.

Late 20th-century revivals of cybernetic theory have focused on a rather narrow range of fascinations related to recursive or self-organizing systems, artificial intelligence, and predictability or optimization within complexity. Notably, the prefix “cyber” is now vaguely associated with computers rather than the larger investigation of automatic systems. The enthusiastic predictions of scientist-fundraisers like MIT Media Lab’s Nicholas Negroponte and popular culture publications by, for instance, Stewart Brand or Kevin Kelly about new infrastructures and computational equipment reference only selected moments in cybernetic thinking in support of their late 20th-century/early 21st-century technocratic futurologies. This agenda perhaps even obscures the project that cybernetics initiated, that is the continued articulation of a diversity of terms to characterize interplay in many environments.

Pitts entered into the company of this group as mysteriously as he left it. None of his colleagues knew very much about him. He came from a reportedly troubled working class family in Detroit and entered McCullough’s home as a live-in collaborator when he was only seventeen. Even at this early age, he had already worked with prominent scientists in logic and mathematical biology. Three years later in 1943, he co-authored, with Warren McCullough, a theory of neurophysiological organization that would provoke sustained debate throughout the years of the cybernetics conferences. The paper proposed a logical structure for neural nets as coded circuitry, thus supporting machinic theories of mind as well as ambitions involving artificial intelligence. Pitts was only in his 20s during the cybernetics conferences of the 1940s and though he was an autodidact, he had already mastered or could almost instantly absorb the subject matter from the several fields of study engaged by the conferences. Not only did he circulate among prominent scientists, but those scientists either rivaled for his collaboration or deeply valued his critique and commentary. Pitts could, without fail, identify errors in logical thinking and he simply did not pursue information or discourse outside of the realm of logic. He considered the search for universal elements of mental structure to be not just a species of speculation, but a hard science of the brain and the mind.[2]

In one possible portrayal, Pitts was a modest Beat Generation anti-hero. While he had a few friends with whom he took camping trips, he was primarily attached to McCullough and his friends. He was fiercely modest, refusing to accept an honorary degree or any other accolades for his work. The cybernetics historian, Steve Joshua Heims, wrote that “...the seemingly unusual attitudes represented by McCulloch and Pitts” were “echoed in the current generation of inventive artificial intelligence buffs and computer hackers at MIT. Consequently, McCullough and Pitts may be regarded as members, nay founders, of a whole clan, rather than only as highly idiosyncratic individuals.”[3] During the later years of the conferences, as Pitts continued to defend his view of the logical structure of the mind, he could be sharp and inflexible in his critiques. He was always devoted to a pure and total life of the mind, believing it to be superior to a life of more complicated relationships with people. He became increasingly withdrawn, however, and more exclusively attached to McCullough, perhaps because he sensed that, in some collaborations, he was being used. Several of the scientists and psychiatrists of the group thought Pitts was schizophrenic and potentially very ill. The prominent psychiatrists who moved in his circles were more and more baffled by his reclusive shyness and his apparent personal discomfort. Later Pitts began to live on his own in Cambridge where he may have experimented with homemade drugs. No one seems to know much about his later life. He died in 1969 and some have speculated that he committed suicide.

Bateson: For example, all people, as far as I know, have the notion of a person... that is probably used for a very great deal of differentiation of objects, the notion of actions, and so forth. You start from that level rather than from what is logically necessary in an abstract way.
Pitts: It is not a question of what you start from but what is absolutely necessary. We are not concerned with what you start from in one sense of building out but with what we must have when we finish our construction.
Bateson: Those are two different questions...
Pitts: I am sure we should keep them separate.

Though they were often on opposite sides of the debate about mental structure, a discussion of Pitts is perhaps best led via his colleague Gregory Bateson. Throughout all of Bateson’s work in anthropology and cybernetics, and whatever the theories he drew, his work is perhaps distinctive among that of the cyberneticians because it articulated expressions of process, the architecture of active regulating relationships, and other organizational phenomenon within a heterogeneous population of subjects rather than a population of neurons or circuits in a single mind. Like his colleagues, Bateson too was looking for evidence of cybernetic mechanisms within mental activity. Many of his conclusions aligned with those of his colleagues in the sense that much of the research was scripted by a fascination with unity and circular causal systems. Bateson, like Pitts, rejected what he considered to be the psychological myths of the unconscious and enthusiastically entertained the analogy between brain and computing machinery. He theorized, however, about a “mind” outside the body, a mind immanent within a larger ecology of information units that was shared between body and systems outside the body. Bateson’s work was rare in part because of its broad application of cybernetics’ most abstract principles to such things as an analysis of tribal behavior in New Guinea, a digital language for dolphins, or processes of addiction and fellowship in Alcoholics Anonymous. His work stood as one of the few examples of true interdisciplinary cross-reference, which was after all the original intent of the cybernetic conferences and the reason for inviting representatives from many disparate studies.

More interesting still was Bateson’s attempt to identify exceptional phenomena within the behaviors of an organization. He searched for the exceptional ingredient in the organization that permitted it to grow. Where Pitts searched for universals in a single logical structure, Bateson looked for the collisions and paradoxes between logical types. Pitts protected a Kantian system of logical distinction in order to search for universal principles, but for someone like Bateson, Pitts’s life provides evidence of a different sort. For Bateson, the involutions, reversals, and catastrophes in that life are the pivotal moments that send the story outside of itself, beyond its supposed logic, and these moments are the keys to the organization’s sustained intelligence. He wrote:

The truth of the matter is that every circuit of causation in the whole of biology, in our physiology, in our thinking, our neural processes, in our homeostasis, and in the ecological and cultural systems of which we are parts—every such circuit conceals or proposes those paradoxes and confusions that accompany errors and distortions in logical typing.[4]

In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, Bateson wrote a series of dialogues that were “conversations about some problematic subject.” He called them metalogues because they incorporated an abstract architecture into the overall shape and interplay of the dialogue that revealed something about the content of the discussion itself. Bateson and his daughter Catherine were the speakers in these dialogues. Often they began with a query from Catherine, like “Why do things get into a muddle?” or “What is Instinct?” and they bore titles such as “Why Do Things Have Outlines?” or “Why Do Frenchmen?” The dialogues rehearsed a discussion about the coexistence of irreconcilable orders or categories of information. Each portion of the conversation would either stumble into its own exception or wrap itself around some non-sequitur or category mistake, sending it into yet another contradictory strain of reasoning. The conversations were constantly threatening to overturn their premise, undoing themselves with information outside the proposed system of language or behavior. Strong feelings between father and daughter concerning the power each possessed to shift the rules of the game could also send the conversation into a small catastrophe. In some ways they resembled familiar forms of philosophical debate or the gamesmanship that naturally accompanies playing with multiple epistemological constructs, but they rendered this game as a kind of child’s play. The object of the game was not the desire for resolution but the potential accumulation of exceptions and anomalies that would successively annul or counteract the content of the dialogue. These pivotal sites distributed throughout the conversation were critical to its construction and constitution.

D [daughter]: But you said that if we always talked logically and did not get into muddles, we could never say anything new. We could only say ready-made things. What did you call those things?

F [father]: Clichés. Yes. Glue is what clichés are stuck together with.

D: But you said “logic,” Daddy.

F: Yes, I know. We’re in a muddle again. Only I don’t see a way out of this particular muddle.[5]

As an anthropologist, Bateson’s research sites were usually defined as populations. The population of cybernetic scientists themselves were arguably among Bateson’s most intriguing study groups. For Bateson, it was not what they hoped they would be, but what they were—not their holistic theories, but their own cross-fertilizations and exceptions—which best demonstrated cybernetic theories. Though Bateson never made an anthropological study of his own population of scientists, there may be, throughout his work, a kind of continuous commentary on the group.

In Bateson’s application of information processing to mental activity, he often transposed words like switch from the context of circuitry to that of mental activity. He could identify the mechanism of a special switch within the mind, and then use it as a probe, learning device, or means of adjustment. Bateson’s information processing models of the mind seemed to join the cyberneticians in the search for some universal unit of mental circuitry that would process multiple differences. He was never entirely clear about his characterization of difference. Often he used the word difference, as would a geneticist (his father was William Bateson, the noted geneticist), to describe differentiation within gene pools, therefore implying not evolution toward optimization within a closed system, but differentiation as a result of the introduction of new information. Still, while he wrote about the instrumentality of this confrontation, his own view of the potential universality of mind often rendered that difference ambiguous, as either truly a difference in kind or simply a difference in degree within a more totalizing organization.

Most interesting was Bateson’s theory of the “double bind,” which was reliant on a special kind of contradiction in language, behavior, or mental activity. Ironically, he used the logical model of a paradox from Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica to develop this theory. At a cybernetic meeting devoted to the topic of humor, Bateson presented to his colleagues, including Pitts, various theories in which he likened the paradox between logical types to behaviors associated with, for instance, laughter or schizophrenia. Pitts, whose own psychotic behavior was perhaps indirectly addressed by these theories, was reported to have provided some of the most lucid questions and critiques.

Like others who have speculated about the operatives of humor, Bateson expressed it as a kind of inversion or reversal of cultural logic. Laughter was a “convulsive” moment or a cultural paradox caused by mixing information from one type of logic and reality with another. Bateson even speculated that one could produce electronic circuitry that responded to these kinds of contradictions—a cybernetic machine propelled by its own humor.[6] Humor was a source of learning that repeatedly enriched and shifted the rules of the game or introduced learning into the system. He said, in his presentation, “The alternative to the freedoms introduced by paradox is the rigidity of logic.”[7]

Bateson also used communication theory to explain the schizophrenic’s difficulty in navigating various levels of meaning and reality. He described it as a kind of mental conundrum related to difficulties in classifying information or juggling multiple levels of abstraction. The uncomfortable co-existence between these levels of meaning sent the schizophrenic into a “double bind” or a site of contradiction that he visited repeatedly and for which he developed various coping mechanisms that confused commonly accepted reality. Bateson proposed that the theory would be useful because it described the problem in terms of basic elements “found in ‘normal’ communication situations.”[8] This site of the “double bind” would be a useful therapeutic tool if carefully constructed and then disassembled in controlled sessions. He described the theory of the “double bind” as a “language,” that is, a practice or an epistemology that cannot be proved true or false.[9]

Bateson’s study of Alcoholics Anonymous identified another set of special sites that, like the double bind, demonstrated a “cybernetic epistemology.” Like the cybernetics group, AA’s changing populations met in small groups and garnered intelligence through increased cross-reference. Bateson identified recurring patterns within the architecture of addiction. He theorized that while the alcoholic attempted to control the addiction with willpower or sobriety, that stand-off only escalated the power of the addiction almost like a kind of fight or rivalry. For Bateson, this “symmetrical” competitive escalation could only be undone by a kind of “complementary” relationship where the will to fight the drug is broken. That complementary relationship ironically would be achieved by drinking, by leaving the single-minded fight for sobriety and entering into the complex exchange of intoxication. For Bateson, the intelligence of AA was that it also assumed this “complementary” architecture. Joining the group was a surrender or a statement of powerlessness and the group itself provided the comfort of complex relationships. This “converse matching” between sobriety and intoxication provided a kind of inverted corrective.

While Bateson’s presentations ostensibly addressed mental organization, he perhaps also intended the whole subject of paradox as a kind of comment on his colleagues’ rigid use of logical systems.[10] He enjoyed their own contradictory, good-humored attempts to converse across different methodologies and habits of mind, realizing that their collaboration was reliant on the ability to juggle epistemological confrontations. He used the theory of logical types not to demonstrate the importance of further strengthening the boundaries of logical categories, but rather to demonstrate the importance of their transgression in communication.

D: Daddy, why do things have outlines?

F: Do they? I don’t know. What sort of things do you mean?

D: I mean when I draw things, why do they have outlines?

F: Well, what about other sorts of things—a flock of sheep? Or a conversation? Do they have outlines?[11]

Our culture is not fluent in descriptions of process. We are better at nouns than verbs, better at referencing a visual artifact than an organization with active parts, temporal components, or differential change. In communication and computational networks, timing and storage space are one and the same thing and so cannot be expressed in terms of absolute spaces or objects. Rather, technologists who work with these environments use the term network architecture, to refer to the powerful protocols organizing interplay, adjustment, and timing amongst ecologies of circuitry. In genetics or network theory, exceptions and mistakes in organizations increase pathways and possibilities for trial and error, as new material that potentially skews and grows the network. In a very robust network, mutation and error are the base or growth medium of the organization. While the persistent desire for unifying theories parses the world in unities and universals, an alternative practice identifies its differentials and switches. It proceeds, not by recursive stories, but by jokes, involutions, and reversals—the special points of translation or exit between stories and logics.

In some sense, Bateson’s own search for circular causality and self-regulation provided the very tools that might be used in exiting that desired unity. His use of many different expressions from different disciplines, his ability to see network circuitry and active organization in any environment is instructive. His governors, switches, and plateaus as well as his theories of double bind, or symmetrical/complementary escalation, were pivotal sites within an architecture of active organization.[12]

He seemed to learn so much about complexity in organization by observing and experiencing the resistances between people and groups of people, the inability to discover a universal unit of translation between disparate discourses. While he also looked for unities, his unities were fueled by information that was always truly extrinsic, as if the extrinsic strengthened any network, be it an electronic network or his own web of friends. Finally, it was the comedy of collisions between their various logics that led them on.

Bateson and all of his colleagues who worked so hard to discover a structure of mind could not provide any relief for Walter Pitts. Pitts tried so desperately to protect himself from eccentricity, error, or involvement with unpredictable organizations, and in such a principled manner. In some sense, he sacrificed his mind and its powers to a larger purpose and to a small set of colleagues who could not succeed at interacting with him in any other way but to take advantage of his mind as a tool. In his fierce self- projection he, paradoxically, made himself most vulnerable. He was only truly attached to one person and completely reliant on the powers of logic, almost as a kind of faith. In the elastic continuum between universal expressions and heterogeneous complexities, Pitts’s own story became so extreme that it exited its own logic and syntax. The more fiercely he protected and treasured that logic, the more cruel the exit, with no mediating realities upon which to rely. If his story resists traditional biographical forms, perhaps it would be better expressed by a metalogue.

D: What are we talking about?

F: I don’t quite know—not yet. But you started a new line by asking if the game of croquet could be made into a real muddle only by having all the things in it alive. And I went chasing after that question, and I don’t think I’ve caught up with it yet. There is something funny about that point.

D: What?

F: I don’t quite know—not yet. Something about living things and the difference between them and the things that are not alive—machines, stones, so on. Horses don’t fit in the world of automobiles. And that’s part of the same point. They’re unpredictable, like flamingos in the game of croquet.[13]

  1. This discussion references throughout Steve Joshua Heims’s historical work on the Cybernetic conferences and is, in some ways, a conversation with his fascinating book, The Cybernetics Group (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).
  2. Heims, pp. 42-43.
  3. Ibid., p. 46.
  4. Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (New York: Dutton, 1979).
  5. Gregory Bateson, “Metalogue: About Games and Being Serious,” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Ballantine Books, 1972), pp. 14-20.
  6. Heims, p. 109.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Bateson, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia,” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, op. cit., p. 222.
  9. Heims, p. 157.
  10. Ibid., pp. 109-110. Heims quotes Bateson, “The alternative to the freedoms introduced by paradox is the rigidity of logic.”
  11. Bateson, “Why Do Things Have Outlines?” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, op. cit., p. 27.
  12. Bateson used the term plateau to describe a state of excited equilibrium in Balinese mother-and-son sexual games. In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari used the term to designate a kind of virtual, physical, and architectural site or organizational phenomenon that also expresses this intense stabilization. The plateau is a place where multiple levels of order are held in suspension.
  13. Bateson, “Metalogue: Why Do Things Have Outlines?” op. cit., p. 31.

Keller Easterling is a writer and architect living in New York City. Her books include Organization Space: Landscapes Highways and Houses In America.

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