Grey Room

Bad Brains: Cybernetics, Paranoia, and the Cognitive Science of Religion

John Lardas Modern

Mathematical theory of communication, as conceived by Claude E. Shannon in 1948. An approximation by Libby Modern. Every communication system comprises six elements: (1) an information source, (2) a transmitter that transforms the source pattern into a signal, (3) a channel, (4) a receiver that decodes the signal back into pattern, (5) a destination, and (6) noise, or the inevitable degradation of signal.


In God and Golem, Inc: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion (1964), Norbert Wiener argues that the new science of cybernetics should serve to rationalize religion. Against “gadget worshippers”—scientists and technocrats who hoped artificial intelligence might free human beings from the limitations of moral conscience and responsibility—Weiner argues that “the coordination of machines and men” opens a new space of ethical contemplation. In fact, Wiener describes cybernetics itself as a revelation of sorts: of a universal truth mathematically defined. The human use of human beings, which had once been only “a pious hope,” had become a “working technique.” Wiener was not alone in both denying and reforming religion via his work on the brain. The pioneering neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch, for example, shared Wiener’s sense that his expertise in neuroscience had moved him beyond science and religion into a late stage of metaphysics in which his “spine” would allow him to resist the temptations of godly speculation and the transcendental ego. For McCulloch, Wiener and John von Neumann had “altered our metaphysics by altering our physics.” Mysticism, in McCulloch’s depiction, had become an algorithmic process, and mathematics, in turn, could have “cosmic significance.” For Wiener and McCulloch, the brain served what God once did, as a spur and resource for speaking of things true and everlasting.