The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic


Amanda Gefter in Nautilus (Illustration by Julia Breckenried):

In 1923, the year that Walter Pitts was born, a 25-year-old Warren McCulloch was also digesting the Principia. But that is where the similarities ended—McCulloch could not have come from a more different world. Born into a well-to-do East Coast family of lawyers, doctors, theologians, and engineers, McCulloch attended a private boys academy in New Jersey, then studied mathematics at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, then philosophy and psychology at Yale. In 1923 he was at Columbia, where he was studying “experimental aesthetics” and was about to earn his medical degree in neurophysiology. But McCulloch was a philosopher at heart. He wanted to know what it means to know. Freud had just published The Ego and the Id, and psychoanalysis was all the rage. McCulloch didn’t buy it—he felt certain that somehow the mysterious workings and failings of the mind were rooted in the purely mechanical firings of neurons in the brain.

Though they started at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, McCulloch and Pitts were destined to live, work, and die together. Along the way, they would create the first mechanistic theory of the mind, the first computational approach to neuroscience, the logical design of modern computers, and the pillars of artificial intelligence. But this is more than a story about a fruitful research collaboration. It is also about the bonds of friendship, the fragility of the mind, and the limits of logic’s ability to redeem a messy and imperfect world.

tanding face to face, they were an unlikely pair. McCulloch, 42 years old when he met Pitts, was a confident, gray-eyed, wild-bearded, chain-smoking philosopher-poet who lived on whiskey and ice cream and never went to bed before 4 a.m. Pitts, 18, was small and shy, with a long forehead that prematurely aged him, and a squat, duck-like, bespectacled face. McCulloch was a respected scientist. Pitts was a homeless runaway. He’d been hanging around the University of Chicago, working a menial job and sneaking into Russell’s lectures, where he met a young medical student named Jerome Lettvin. It was Lettvin who introduced the two men. The moment they spoke, they realized they shared a hero in common: Gottfried Leibniz.

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