Brains, selves and spirituality in the history of cybernetics – Andy Pickering, 2008 (revised from 2007)

“This what I like about cybernetics: it was and is nowhere in the Cartesian space of human exceptionalism. It reminds us that we are performative stuff in a performative world—and then elaborates fascinatingly on that.”






andy pickering

sociology & philosophy
university of exeter

templeton workshop, ‘transhumanism and the meanings of progress,’ arizona state university, 24-25 april 2008

this essay is a revised version of a paper presented at the max planck institute for history of science, berlin, 3 november 2007—my presentation at ASU will frame it more precisely in relation to the theme of the templeton workshop

My research in the history of cybernetics in Britain has taken me to strange and unexpected
places. Grey Walter’s 1953 popular book, The Living Brain, is, on the one hand, a down-to-earth,
materialist and evolutionary story of how the brain functions. I know how to deal with that. But it
is also full of references to dreams, visions, ESP, nirvana and the magical powers of Eastern yogi,
such as suspending the breath and the heartbeat—siddhis as they are called. I never knew what to
make of this, except to note how strange it is and that respectable scientists don’t write about such
things now. But then I realised that I should pay attention to it. Walter was by no means alone on
the wild side. All of the other cyberneticians were there with him. In his private notebooks Ross
Ashby, the other great first-generation cybernetician in Britain, announced that intellectual
honesty required him to be a spiritualist, that he despised the Christian image of God and that
instead he had become a ‘time worshipper.’ Gordon Pask wrote supernatural detective stories.
Stafford Beer was deeply absorbed by mystical number-systems and geometries, happily sketched
out his version of the great chain of being, taught Tantric yoga and attributed magical powers like
p. 2
levitation to his fictional alter ego, the Wizard Prang. Echoing Aldous Huxley on mescaline,
Gregory Bateson and R D Laing triangulated between Zen enlightenment, madness and ecstacy.
Strange and wonderful, surprising stuff. What is going on here? I want to try to sort this out, and
tie it back to a distinctive conception of the human brain.1
Meditating on the history of cybernetics has helped me see just how deeply modern thought is
enmeshed in an endlessly repetitive discourse on how special we are, how different human beings
are from animals and brute matter. It is, of course, traditional to blame Descartes for this human
exceptionalism, as we might call it.2 But while we may no longer believe we have immortal and
immaterial souls, the human sciences seem always to have been predicated on some immaterial
equivalent that sets us apart: language, reason, emotions, culture, the social, the dreaded
knowledge or information society in which are now said to live. This sort of master-narrative is
so pervasive and taken for granted that it is hard to see, let alone to shake off and imagine our
way out of. This is why we might learn from cybernetics. It stages a non-dualist vision of brains,
selves and the world that might help us put the dualist human and physical sciences in their place
and, more importantly, to see ourselves differently and to act differently. Let me talk about how
this goes.
We should start with the brain. The modern brain, as staged since the 1950s by AI for example, is
cognitive, representational, deliberative—the locus of a certain version of human specialness.
And the key point to grasp is that the cybernetic brain was not like that. It was just another organ
of the body, an organ that happens to be especially engaged with bodily performance in the
world. In this sense, the human brain is no different from the animal brain except in mundane
specifics: Ashby, for example, noted that we have more neurons and more neuronal
interconnections than other species, making possible more nuanced forms of adaptation to the
environment. And, of course, the defining activity of first-generation cybernetics was building
little electromechanical models of the performative brain—Walter’s tortoises and Ashby’s
homeostats—thus completing the effacement of difference between humans on the one side and
1 A much fuller treatment of the topics to follow (and much else) complete with citations to sources is to be
found in my forthcoming book: Sketches of Another Future: The Cybernetic Brain, 1940-2000 (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).
2 The canonical transhumanist dream of downloading consciousness to a computer is, of course, a species
of human exceptionalism writ very large. My idea here is to explore a different mode of being in the world
and where it might lead us, especially across spiritual terrain.
animals, machines and brute matter on the other. This what I like about cybernetics: it was and is
nowhere in the Cartesian space of human exceptionalism. It reminds us that we are performative
stuff in a performative world—and then elaborates fascinatingly on that. Now I want to try to
make sense of some of these elaborations as they bear on non-Cartesian understandings of minds,
selves and spirit.


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