McCulloch and Pitts’ Logical Calculus

cybernetics, HCI, Human-Computer Interaction, Informatics, logic, philosophy, UX

Prompt: Several days ago, a Professor assigned us a reading. “A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity.” This is not the kind of reading I’m used to doing. It’s science. It’s (shudder) math. Nonetheless, I dove in with an agenda. We were asked (as a preface to reading) to “discuss the implications of the paper and its role in the life of a budding PhD.”

What follows may very well befuddle you. You may be nonplussed. Not because it’s esoteric, but because it’s kind of muddled.

Nonetheless, I think I’ve got a few core ideas worth ruminating on. Strap yourself in….

…How is this paper beneficial to a budding Informatics PhD? In one sense, it is beneficial in that it provides a key historical moment in the development of the discipline. Why is it beneficial to understand the history of a discipline? For the same reasons that conferees at the Macy conference called attention to the cultural situated-ness of their theories. These reasons are both practical and philosophical.

Practically speaking, a paper like McCulloch and Pitts logical calculus opens up avenues for neuroscientists, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc. to leverage the MCP model in modifying their treatment practice (e.g., no longer is the patient history required in treating an illness). In addition, it opens up new avenues of research for disciplines like mathematics…opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. How many mathematicians were doing neuroscience through a computational lens prior to McCulloch and Pitts? The seeming simplicity of the MCP neuron makes it easy to process, too: inhibitory synapses and excitatory synapses trigger action (or stasis?) in the neuron (or system of neurons) they stimulate. Is there a way to figure out how to trigger particular impulses or suppress particular impulses? Can we develop a treatment to modify behavior without the patient having to “self-modify”?

Getting back to the pith of the Macy conferees, they pointed out the importance of understanding cultures on their own terms. To some extent, if it is possible to understand a culture on its own terms, then one has to know the history of that culture. Where did its predispositions, assumptions, and practices come from? What does this past imply about the present? What does the past suggest for future directions? What can we infer about a culture based on its past? We might modify these same questions to address an academic domain, such as informatics. Where did its predispositions, assumptions, and practices come from? What does this past imply about the present? What does the past suggest for future directions?The past — as filtered through the McCulloch + Pitts paper — implies that there has been a notable value shift, at least in terms of HCI.

My guess is that this paper would be met in that community with the same warmth as much first-wave HCI research is…The “brain-as-computer” metaphor dominates first-wave HCI. It could be argued, strongly I think, that first-wave HCI was perhaps the most explicit “human engineering” in the field to-date. But the metaphor was soon met with disdain. If the brain is the same thing as a computer, then what does it mean to be human? If scientists adopt this perspective, then how might that color their research? Is it better or worse? Or just different? Is it important to differentiate the brain from a computer? What are the limitations of the analogy? Are all things brain-related simply information processing to be understood — at its most basic — as the meeting or exceeding of thresholds of activity in a net? How do we explain differences in perception? Certainly there are commonalities between us. But so too are their differences. How does the MCP theory account for these differences?

Their theory–which I think they would admit is reductionist–overlooks so much of what might be called humanness. All this is to say, there is a practical aspect of the philosophical side of the role this paper plays: it forces us to turn the lens on the discipline and ask questions of it…and act if the answers we come up with are answers we don’t like. The neat thing about having read the Heims paper in concert with the MCP paper is that the Heims book, The Cybernetics Group, is a beacon of hope for enacting change within a discipline outside the auspices of official publications.

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