A Note on Cybernetics and Religion (Norbert Wiener)

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Just finished Norbert Wiener’s1954, second edition of The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. The world view is based on probability being introduced into the study of physics, with a focus on incompleteness and contingency as a way to assess the various positions and velocities out of which biological and communication systems emerge.  “Cybernetics” is an old-fashioned moniker for the study of messages as the means to control machines, “man,” and society, in particular the development of computing technologies and self-adjusting automata (p.15).

Wiener was one of the first to posit the identity between organism and information (p.95). For Wiener, entropy was the arch enemy –of science, of communication, and the human condition. Seeking to step up the communication between people and people, people and machines, and machines and machines, the point is to create pockets or local enclaves of biological and machinic organization vis-à-vis an external world given to disorganization. Biological and technic feedback-loops adjust conduct on the basis of past performance by drawing on perception, memory, learning, and law in order to create new equilibria with the world and to anticipate future contingencies (pp.29, 48).

It’s tempting for a scholar of religion to look at religion as a kind of cybernetic. This would involve a systems based approach to religion and religious phenomena. This would be especially the case with a rule or game based system like Judaism. It’s not entirely clear how or if consciousness plays a role here, but clearly religion and religions would add another level of organization to the human organism, even as it posits another, metaphysical, level of organization to the physical world. In the end, consciousness and religion are introduced into cybernetics insofar as cybernetics is based, in the final analysis, on faith. Wiener writes about this in the concluding paragraphs of the Human Use of Human Beings.  There is some incipient possible-worlds theory in Wiener’s project (pp.12, 21). For all we know, the world at the very next moment on might resemble the croquet game in Alice in Wonderland , a world under the control of an arbitrary sovereign, some communist or fascist Queen (p.193). It’s certainly not religious or any other form of dogmatic faith that interests Wiener, but rather an overriding faith in a lawful universe, the belief that nature is subject to law, a construct or message which Wiener claims to know that no amount of demonstration can ever prove.

Alas, though, cybernetics is pretty colorless stuff. It would seem that that medium was never part of the message. In that, I think, it’s always going to fall short of religion, or just fall short. About Wiener’s God and Golem, I’ve posted here. Its formulations are more human than the ones here in The Human Use of Human Beings.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman teaches modern Jewish thought and philosophy in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. He works in religion, continental philosophy, theoretical aesthetics, and visual culture.
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