The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic
February 10, 2015 6:13 PM   Subscribe

Walter Pitts rose from the streets to MIT, but couldn’t escape himself. Pitts was used to being bullied. He’d been born into a tough family in Prohibition-era Detroit, where his father, a boiler-maker, had no trouble raising his fists to get his way. The neighborhood boys weren’t much better. One afternoon in 1935, they chased him through the streets until he ducked into the local library to hide. The library was familiar ground, where he had taught himself Greek, Latin, logic, and mathematics—better than home, where his father insisted he drop out of school and go to work. Outside, the world was messy. Inside, it all made sense.

Not wanting to risk another run-in that night, Pitts stayed hidden until the library closed for the evening. Alone, he wandered through the stacks of books until he came across Principia Mathematica, a three-volume tome written by Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead between 1910 and 1913, which attempted to reduce all of mathematics to pure logic. Pitts sat down and began to read. For three days he remained in the library until he had read each volume cover to cover—nearly 2,000 pages in all—and had identified several mistakes. Deciding that Bertrand Russell himself needed to know about these, the boy drafted a letter to Russell detailing the errors. Not only did Russell write back, he was so impressed that he invited Pitts to study with him as a graduate student at Cambridge University in England. Pitts couldn’t oblige him, though—he was only 12 years old. But three years later, when he heard that Russell would be visiting the University of Chicago, the 15-year-old ran away from home and headed for Illinois. He never saw his family again.
posted by standardasparagus (24 comments total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
 
In other words, Pitts was struggling with the very logic he had sought in life. Pitts wrote that his depression might be “common to all people with an excessively logical education who work in applied mathematics: It is a kind of pessimism resulting from an inability to believe in what people call the Principle of Induction, or the principle of the Uniformity of Nature. Since one cannot prove, or even render probable a priori, that the sun should rise tomorrow, we cannot really believe it shall.”

It's kind of irritating that the article lets this observation stand without examining it. If you actually spend your life around pure and applied mathematicians, you can hardly help noticing that this struggle and this pessimism is not common to all such people. If you don't have depression, the imperfect fit between mathematical logic and the mechanisms of the physical and biological world doesn't make you feel pessimistic; it makes you feel amazed and heartened that there's any fit at all.
posted by escabeche at 6:33 PM on February 10, 2015 [27 favorites]


Together with Pitts, McCulloch and the Chilean biologist and philosopher Humberto Maturana, he subjected the frogs to various visual experiences—brightening and dimming the lights, showing them color photographs of their natural habitat, magnetically dangling artificial flies—and recorded what the eye measured before it sent the information off to the brain. To everyone’s surprise, it didn’t merely record what it saw, but filtered and analyzed information about visual features like contrast, curvature, and movement. “The eye speaks to the brain in a language already highly organized and interpreted,” they reported in the now-seminal paper “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain,” published in 1959.

This is what Schopenhauer had concluded, more than 100 years before, based on Kant and what he knew of 19th century physiology. I think that is remarkable.
posted by thelonius at 6:39 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


McCulloch and Pitts are heroes to me, but I usually think of them as a single unit and I didn't know any of this biography.
posted by grobstein at 6:43 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


The McCulloch-Pitts neuron is the foundational idea behind neural networks, and, by extension, what's called "deep learning" today (which is mostly the same stuff everyone got excited about in the 1980s, but with a few new tricks). The notion of using biologically-inspired (and sometimes even biologically-plausible) ideas to advance machine learning is the foundational concept behind the Neural Information Processing Systems conference, which in these last years has become the premier machine learning conference.

We owe so much to these folks.

(Great article, I loved the story)
posted by sloafmaster at 6:45 PM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's kind of irritating that the article lets this observation stand without examining it. If you actually spend your life around pure and applied mathematicians, you can hardly help noticing that this struggle and this pessimism is not common to all such people. If you don't have depression, the imperfect fit between mathematical logic and the mechanisms of the physical and biological world doesn't make you feel pessimistic; it makes you feel amazed and heartened that there's any fit at all.

Or you say fuck it and become a statistician.
posted by srboisvert at 6:46 PM on February 10, 2015 [9 favorites]


Margaret Wiener was apparently quite the piece of work.
The catastrophe emerged from Wiener's German-born wife, Margaret, and their almost gothically weird relationship. Though Wiener was Jewish, Margaret became an outspoken Nazi supporter during World War II. (She kept a copy of ''Mein Kampf'' on a dresser at home.) She was even more hostile to her daughters, and accused the elder of inspiring ''unnatural'' sexual feelings in her father. As Wiener's reputation grew and he crisscrossed the globe on lecture circuits, Margaret attempted to trigger his depressions with undercutting remarks.
posted by zamboni at 6:58 PM on February 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


For more of this sort of historical perspective on the 20th century logic/mathematics/AI/cybernetics intersection, I'm finding Mechanizing Proof to be an interesting read.
posted by indubitable at 6:58 PM on February 10, 2015


He looks like Dominique Pinon.
posted by snofoam at 7:25 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's kind of irritating that the article lets this observation stand without examining it. If you actually spend your life around pure and applied mathematicians, you can hardly help noticing that this struggle and this pessimism is not common to all such people. If you don't have depression, the imperfect fit between mathematical logic and the mechanisms of the physical and biological world doesn't make you feel pessimistic; it makes you feel amazed and heartened that there's any fit at all.

Perhaps it would be less irritating if one a) reads this paragraph with the preceding paragraph and following two paragraph which do provide context limiting the scope of his personal assertions, and b) carefully notices that the statement itself is already qualified with Pitt having used the word "might", like any good scientist would do. And so on.
posted by polymodus at 7:42 PM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


Or you say fuck it and become a statistician.

Or an actuarial.
posted by Chitownfats at 8:04 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


Pitts wrote that his depression might be “common to all people with an excessively logical education who work in applied mathematics: It is a kind of pessimism resulting from an inability to believe in what people call the Principle of Induction, or the principle of the Uniformity of Nature. Since one cannot prove, or even render probable a priori, that the sun should rise tomorrow, we cannot really believe it shall.”

If this sounds at all interesting, I strongly recommend the short story "Division by Zero" by Ted Chiang.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:14 PM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


You have to wonder about the evolutionary process, the existential physics, of how an intellect blossoms as his did. Truly a rare and brilliant person.
posted by Oyéah at 9:51 PM on February 10, 2015


(This reads like the origin story of a Batman villain)
posted by sexyrobot at 12:14 AM on February 11, 2015 [6 favorites]


Doctor Logic
posted by GallonOfAlan at 12:23 AM on February 11, 2015


zamboni: Margaret Wiener was apparently quite the piece of work.

Holy CRAP. Talk about another aspect of just how destructive abuse can be.
At the peak of Wiener's fame, she told an audacious lie that destroyed his relationship with his closest scientific collaborators. One of Wiener's daughters had interned for a spring with the colleagues; Margaret told Wiener that their daughter had had sex with several of them. Wiener chose to believe the falsehood. He immediately cut off all contact with his collaborators, never explained the accusation and never spoke to them again.

And that, the authors contend, is the real reason cybernetics died. Wiener's colleagues were shattered, and without his participation, their explorations of his ideas quickly atrophied. One of Wiener's former protégés, the young mathematical genius Walter Pitts, was so scarred that ultimately he drank himself to death.
My mother pulled this kind of shit too, and like Wiener, my father ended up the one discredited and isolated in his offices for believing the nonsense. He wasn't a genius of Wiener's calibre, but similarly, it came at a point in his career where he was up for a promotion to management... which fizzled as soon as he repeated the motherly stories about his own daughter being a whore. People, if your spouse is telling you things like this, for pete's sake, talk to your child/children. Momentous accusations from third parties that are ACTIONABLE IMMEDIATELY WITHOUT QUESTION are the ones that most need questioned. You even see it in fairy tales, this stuff is such a dangerous aspect of life: a trusted person in power who no one yet realizes is evil saying about innocent X: "oh gosh, you should totally kill X, they eat babies/dance with the devil/etc."
posted by fraula at 1:28 AM on February 11, 2015 [15 favorites]


Oh and also, an argument for gender equality. If there weren't double standards for sleeping around, a genius' career might have been saved. Equality helps everyone...
posted by fraula at 1:36 AM on February 11, 2015 [6 favorites]


A single great link that tells me things I didn't know and didn't know I needed to know, and that I wouldn't have seen otherwise: this is what I come to MetaFilter for. Thanks, standardasparagus!
posted by languagehat at 8:06 AM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh and also, an argument for gender equality. If there weren't double standards for sleeping around, a genius' career might have been saved. Equality helps everyone...

A laudable sentiment, but I think Margaret Wiener would probably have summoned the strength to destroy her husband's career (and presumably his ego support outside her auspices) by some other means, even were that true.
posted by Poppa Bear at 8:08 AM on February 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


Thanks for that link, standardasparagus. The story was awesome, and Pitts' fate a sad one. Reading the comments was also interesting (aside from the de rigeur antifeminist derail that always seems to be part and parcel of science stories these days). Gefter's an excellent writer. I was unaware of Nautilus before, but I will definitely be reading more of it.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 8:14 AM on February 11, 2015


What an interesting article about an extraordinary man. Also, I had no idea what "cybernetics" actually means ("Cybernetics is the science of feedback -- how information can help self-regulate a system.") I thought it meant vaguely computery stuff cracking along with a sound effect of bytes clicking in the background. And flashes of binary lightning.

While Margaret Wiener may well have been an unpleasant person who was destructive within her relationships, it's a bit over the top to lay the blame for the implosion of the project and of two of the personalities involved at her door. What's more, doing so distracts attention from the underlying mental health issues that probably had a lot more to do with the tragedy. Walter Pitts apparently had a highly abusive upbringing and it's not unheard of for that to render a person vulnerable to addictions and/or other mental problems. Wiener, according to the NYT review, was bi-polar: Wiener knew about those ruts himself, tortured as he was by lifelong manic depression. Though he produced his defining works in hypertalkative bursts of productivity, he would regularly plunge into moods of near-suicidal intensity. The authors suggest Wiener's swings were exacerbated by his oppressive upbringing. It's likely that the rumours about the daughter were just one aspect of a family dynamic that was mutually dysfunctional; and while historically it has been acceptable to find the woman in an unfortunate situation and then blame her, that's just a way to perpetuate the status quo where nobody has to moderate their temper or change their child-rearing methods or give up an iota of their socially sanctioned dominance. If only women did have that much power in the world, to totally alter the course of history with just a few whispered words...well, no need to go around striving for equality then, eh.
posted by glasseyes at 9:00 AM on February 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


Alone, he wandered through the stacks of books until he came across Principia Mathematica, a three-volume tome written by Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead between 1910 and 1913, which attempted to reduce all of mathematics to pure logic. Pitts sat down and began to read. For three days he remained in the library until he had read each volume cover to cover—nearly 2,000 pages in all—and had identified several mistakes.
I know Pitts was a genius, but this rang false to me. That's not 2000 pages of English, it's 2000 pages of dense symbolic logic. This article says that he read it over "a few weeks", which sounds much more reasonable. I'd be interested to know the origin of the story.
posted by dfan at 9:14 AM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


If you don't have depression, the imperfect fit between mathematical logic and the mechanisms of the physical and biological world doesn't make you feel pessimistic; it makes you feel amazed and heartened that there's any fit at all.
"The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning."
posted by roystgnr at 11:59 AM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


I know nothing about this subject and knew nothing of Pitts et al. It took me two days to read this, but I am so glad I did. Fascinating story. Fascinating man, Mr. Pitts. Burned his diss without ever presenting it. His bootstrapping himself up to overcome his family. All stuff of a great movie. Thanks for posting.
posted by 724A at 8:03 PM on February 11, 2015


I was aware that there were debates about something called 'multiple realizability' or something like that, about functionalist philosophies of mind, but I had never really gotten the point until reading von Neumann's sharp observation. If I understand him, the 2nd or 3rd comment in the article is about right; if you try to model the brain as an information processing system that's Turing complete, then your model cannot give informative results about the brain, since any possible neurological configuration that is Turing complete is as good as another.
posted by thelonius at 8:53 PM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


« Older Tinfoil hats at the ready please   |   Un Trabajo Feliz Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments