Saturday, March 5, 2022

The Human Use of Human Beings, Chapter 2


Summary of Chapter 2: Progress and Entropy


As it moves onto chapter 2 it becomes clear this book is not so much a primer in cybernetics as a general discussion of philosophical topics related to cybernetics. Wiener starts with the observation that "we as humans are not isolated systems" and we not only need to eat, we also need information. For Wiener, information is more important than energy [perhaps because it has to do with how the energy is organized and thus resistant to entropy]. He embarks on a lengthy discussion of the hypothetical, non-existent "Maxwell demon," to what end, it is not clear; part of what he draws out of this is that 19th century Newtonian physics (out of which the concept of the Maxwell Demon arose) makes the error of thinking of information as free when in fact it involves energy. One of the great advances which render 20th century science better is that we understand this. He moves onto his criticism of words like "life" and "soul" as being poorly defined; he is leading to a discussion of the similarities of living beings and certain machines.

The first of his several apparently unintentional references to labor appears in his invocation of Humpty Dumpty making words work for him (“I pay them extra, and make them do what I want”). [So machines are alive in the same sense as words are for Humpty Dumpty? and how important is their "life" to his sense of being their "master"?]. Anyway both "life-imitating automata" and living animals are "pockets of decreasing entropy in a frame­work in which the large entropy tends to increase" (32). General features of these life-imitating automata: 1) effectors (to make something happen); 2) sensors (to take in information); 3) feedback (to learn from past actions, and this generates or transforms new actions). (33)

Wiener returns to the theme of the previous chapter of the scientist as one who fights against disorder, and thus against evil. The question of the Manichaean or Augustinian character of evil is revisited. The Manichaean devil would be a wily, manipulative opponent; there is an interesting link here to metis (and the opposition to metis or distinction therefrom, advocated by the philosophers for their "reason"). Anyway scientists fight the passive Augustinian devil, not the Manichaean one which is involved in games, etc. [And here Wiener’s argument links with the founding distinction between (truth-loving) philosophers and (wily) sophists.].

Wiener then  moves to a discussion of passive faith in progress, which he ties to the Enlightenment. It is passive faith he is talking about, so phenomena such as the French Revolution, and communism, etc., are exceptions and do not count (he calls the French Revolution “the crack in the fabric of the Enlightenment”). He points out that this way of thinking is new in world history, and goes into the various faiths and why they exemplify belief in a world without the possibility for progress. As a contrast to faith in progress he gives Darwin's theory of natural selection, which is not directed; this he links to a later breakthrough in learning machines with Ashby. The concept of "purposefulness" is apparently critiqued but then adopted into the discussion, this is mushy imho.  He finally turns to a pessimistic view in which "we are shipwrecked passengers on a doomed planet" (40). His message is stoical, though; we must do the best we can with dignity. He discusses how modernity (rapid technological change and faith in progress) is very new in the history of the world, and quite different from what went before; it is also very destructive and unsustainable, leading to future collapse and the extinction of the species. 


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