Wiener, Norbert

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) worked in pure mathematics, but also used mathematics to pioneer statistical communication theory, and in collaboration with engineers and neurobiologists originated and elaborated the field of "cybernetics" (the study of "control and communication in the animal and the machine"). Wiener's work in the 1940s, related to cybernetics, constitutes one of the roots of modern "cognitive science." After World War II, anticipating the social and philosophical significance of cybernetic technologies, Wiener developed an important prescient philosophy of technology incorporating humane values. Nearly all his work shows the mark of a highly original mind.

Son of a Russian Jewish immigrant professor of Slavic languages and literature at Harvard, Norbert Wiener was a child prodigy who received his doctorate in philosophy from Harvard at the age of eighteen. His postdoctoral mentors included Bertrand Russell and G. H. Hardy in Cambridge. From 1919 until his death he was a member of the faculty of mathematics (during the last five years a free-wheeling "institute professor") at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Within pure mathematics Wiener worked on potential theory, generalizations of harmonic analysis, proving Tauberian theorems, proving theorems concerning Fourier transforms in the complex plane, studies of chaos, ergodic theory, and other topics. One of Wiener's major mathematical innovations, developed when he was still in his twenties, was the invention of what has come to be known as the "Wiener process" or the "Wiener measure," extending the Lebesgue theory of measure, and combining it with probability theory to describe Brownian motion. This mathematical development, which offered a new way of thinking about many problems, has found subsequent application also in quantum field theory and other branches of science.

It was his collaboration in the early 1940s with the Mexican physiologist Arturo Rosenblueth, on the one hand, and with engineer Julian Bigelow, on the other, which led to the fundamental ideas of cybernetics. These fruitful collaborations were evidence of Wiener's capacity for bringing his own discipline to bear on other fields and transforming them. Application of sophisticated mathematics to wartime engineering problems led Wiener to create general statistical theories of communication, prediction, and filtering. "Information," rigorously defined, became a concept as precise as the concepts describing matter within the field of physics. Also, the concept of a "goal," and that of "feedback" of information indicating how far one is from reaching the goal, and the engineering task of building an automatic mechanism for computing a correction, and acting on the information so as to come closer to the goal, were part and parcel of the Wiener-Bigelow design work. Wiener's collaboration with Rosenblueth was based on the shared philosophical premise that the formal structures of mechanical or electrical systems are often isomorphic to the formal structures involving organisms, and can be described by mathematics. It led to joint work in analyzing human or animal heart flutter, heart fibrillations, muscle clonus, and detailed local electrical fluctuations in the central nervous system.

Wiener, Rosenblueth, and Bigelow presented a paradigm for a new, as yet unnamed area of interdisciplinary research in their 1943 article, "Behavior, Purpose, and Teleology." It dealt with the analysis of purposive action, whether in an animal or in a machine, although the notion of "purpose" had been largely excluded by the then-dominant behaviorist psychology. The ubiquitous process of achieving a "purpose" or goal, they suggested, entailed continuous or repeated negative feedback to guide action, and a circuit encompassing physical action as well as information. That feedback loop to implement purpose meant a circular causality, A effects B which in turn effects A, and so on, in contrast to traditional one-way cause-and-effect relations. When the war was over, Wiener made common cause with Warren McCulloch, Walter Pitts, and John VON NEUMANN, whose work on formal-logical modeling of the central nervous system and general-purpose computers suggested strong structural similarities between brains and computers. In a series of small conferences that became known as the Macy conferences on cybernetics, they discussed their ideas and presented them to an interdisciplinary group which included psychologists of diverse persuasions, psychiatrists, biologists, and anthropologists. A controversy at the meetings concerned the discrepant premises of the older GESTALT PSYCHOLOGY, on the one hand, and those of the emerging cognitive science (using electronic computer and information-processing models of the mind) on the other. Some of the group came to shift their research programs when they incorporated the new ideas into their own discipline. In 1948 Wiener presented his own synthesis of the new field, which had come to include what he learned from other Macy conferees, in a book titled Cybernetics. It brought the ideas to the attention of a large scientific audience worldwide.

After the war Wiener eschewed work likely to be useful to weapons development, and, using insights from cybernetics, turned his attention to topics such as analysis of electroencephalograms, and the principles of prosthetic devices for people who are blind, deaf, or have lost a limb. His criteria for sophisticated prosthetic devices have proved to be valid guiding principles for their design.

Wiener came to view the ideas of cybernetics as a theory of messages. He saw himself as an adherent of what he called the "Gibbsian point of view," the primacy of the contingent, not only within science but in life generally. Furthermore he took it upon himself to place engineering and technical innovation within a framework of ethics, using the legend of the golem as a metaphor. He described his outlook in various books for the general reader.

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Additional links

-- Steve J. Heims

References and Further Readings

Gardner, H. (1985). The Mind's New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution. New York: Basic Books.

Heims, S. J. (1980). John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Heims, S. J. (1991). The Cybernetics Group. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Levinson, N., Ed. (1966). Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society 72, no. 1, part 2 (entirely devoted to Wiener's mathematics).

Masani, P. R. (1990). Norbert Wiener 1894-1964. Basel: Birk-häuser.

Rosenblueth, A., N. Wiener, and J. Bigelow. (1943). Behavior, purpose, and teleology. Philosophy of Science 10:18-24.

Wiener, N. (1948). Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wiener, N. (1949). Extrapolation, Interpolation, and Smoothing of Stationary Time Series with Engineering Applications. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wiener, N. (1950). The Human Use of Human Beings; Cybernetics and Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Wiener, N. (1953). Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Wiener, N. (1956). I Am a Mathematician: The Later Life of a Prodigy. New York: Doubleday.

Wiener, N. (1964). God and Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wiener, N. (1976, 1979, 1981, 1985). Norbert Wiener: Collected Works, vols. 1-4. P. Masani, Ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.