Logic Gates

Walter Pitts yearned to explain the human mind in the vocabulary of logic and mathematics—the ideas of Gottfried Liebniz applied to order the electrochemical tumult of the human brain. As a teenager already on the run from a rough father, Pitts hid from bullies in the library, and when accidentally locked into the stacks one night stayed three days and read the entirety of Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica. The wildman neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch was so taken with Pitts, who by the time of their meeting had run away from Detroit and his battering father and fetched up in Chicago (where he would sneak into lectures at the University of Chicago), that he took him into his household. The pair began work on a mechanistic theory of mind. Neurons were logic gates that could be plotted in a way that explained all intellectual processes. Or so they yearned.

Pitts ended up at MIT as part of a brilliant cybernetician mindmeld with McCulloch, Jerome Lettvin, John von Neumann, and Norbert Wiener. They were ready to break trail for artificial intelligence and computer science and neurophysiology when—according to an account by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman—Wiener's wife,  who fretted about the bohemian McCulloch's imagined bad influence on her husband, lied to Norbert, spinning a fiction about their daughter being sexually abused at McCulloch's farmhouse. This was nonsense, a black invention on Mrs. Wiener's part, but her husband apparently failed to suss out its untruth and withdrew from all work underway with the others, shunning them from that day onward. Pitts never learned the back story and took the estrangement hard, one more example of how there was no lasting place in the world for him. The lie and its repercussions pushed Pitts off a ledge. He probably suffered from depression anyway, and Wiener's inexplicable actions and some other subsequent setbacks were too much for him. He shrank into depressive isolation and drank and drank and drank and rotted his liver. He died in his 40s.

No schematic of neural logic gates accounts for any of this.


  • First source was here, in Nautilus, which you ought to be reading.
  • Principia Mathematica, published between 1910 and 1913, was a massive work by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell. The authors attempted to demonstrate that all of mathematics could be captured in a set of logical propositions. They were not short on ambition.
  • Warren McCulloch, in addition to being a cybernetician, a neurophysiologist, and a sonneteer, "also posited the concept of 'poker chip' reticular formations as to how the brain deals with contradictory information in a democratic, somatotopical neural network," according to Wikipedia. I do not know what that means.
  • John von Neumann was said to have been able to divide eight-digit numbers in his head by age 6. I've no way of knowing if this is true. What is demonstrably true are his contributions to the Manhattan Project, quantum physics, and computer science. Listen to this if you've some idle time.
  • Norbert Wiener has been awarded paternity as the father of cybernetics. He developed something called the Wiener Measure. It is not what you think. Guttermind.
  • Source for Margaret Wiener's alleged perfidy is Siegelman and Conway's Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, The Father of Cybernetics. I don't know if they're right, but it's damned good story, isn't it? The estrangement is fact, and something had to cause it.