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Cybernetics and Religion  

Noreen Herzfeld

Cybernetics is the study of systems of control and communication. While often used to refer to control systems in or by machines, such as computers, cybernetic theory can be applied to control and communication within a variety of areas, including human interaction and systems of production, distribution, or design, systems that may be comprised of humans, machines, or a combination of humans and machines. A cybernetic view of any system focuses on information and the flow of information, for that is what effects both control and communication. While cybernetics is a concept that can be used to describe any system through which information flows, today most human generated information flows through computers or computer controlled networks; thus in the popular mind, cybernetics is frequently used as a referent to anything pertaining to computer design, use, and human-computer interaction. A cybernetic view of the human person finds each person’s identity in the information comprising our memories, feelings, emotions, and thoughts. Human beings are considered in this view to be biological machines, each of whose unique identity is found in the patterns stored in the neuronal structures of the brain. In such an anthropology, there is no soul. Each of us is merely a vast and ever-changing collection of information. However, there is the possibility of a form of immortality effected by uploading the human brain to a computer. Cybernetics is, historically, closely associated with the field of artificial intelligence. Though experiencing initial successes in fields such as game playing or mathematics, producing a full, human-like intelligence has so far been limited by the difficult problems of giving a robot a body similar to ours, in order to experience the world as we do, and the necessity of emotion for true cognition and autonomous decision making. We have come closer to realizing the dreams of cybernetics by using the computer to mediate human-to-human relationships, especially through social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. This has implications for religion, in that the widespread dissemination of a variety of religious materials and discussions has led to increased contact with other religions, increased conversions, and an increase in fundamentalism. Cybernetic theories can also be used to describe the origin of religion and the development of ethical systems. In general, a cybernetic view of the development of religion focuses on religion as an adaptive mechanism for the survival of groups as they evolve and change in an atmosphere of physical and social competition.

Article

Practice Cybernetics  

J. Christopher Hall

This article presents a history and overview of first- and second-order cybernetics and the ways in which the theories inform models of social work practice. A foundational understanding of cybernetics is crucial for social workers because it forms the groundwork for how models of practice operationalize the ideal counseling relationship and how client problems will be assessed. A first-order approach invites the social worker to begin counseling via an objective assessment derived from a defined theory of normality, whereas a second-order approach suggests that a social worker adopt a curious or not-knowing approach to explore collaboratively with the client to decide how problems will be understood and how solutions to problems may be constructed. These approaches are sometimes differentiated as first-order, or modern, and second-order, or postmodern.

Article

Cognitive Psychology During the Cold War Era, 1955–1975  

Hunter Heyck

The first 30 years after the end of World War II saw marked changes in the discipline of psychology: in ideas and institutions, problems and practices, funders and philosophies. These changes can be grouped together and described as a new, “high modern” style of psychological science, a new style grounded in a new model of “man.” This new model of “man” cast humans as fundamentally forward-looking prediction machines rather than as past-governed stimulus-response machines or creatures of habit, instinct, or drives. According to this view, the past still matters to our decision-making, but in a new way: it informs our expectations—the futures we imagine—rather than determining our behavior or saddling us with half-remembered traumas. From this perspective, we use mental representations of the world to generate predictions about future states of that world, especially states that are contingent upon our actions. Even more, we are finite prediction machines in an infinite world. Our mental representations of the world, therefore, must simplify it, and since we have neither perfect knowledge nor perfect cognitive abilities nor unlimited time, our fundamental state is one of uncertainty. We are problem-solvers that depend upon information to adapt, survive, and thrive, but we live in a world in which that information, and the time necessary to make sense of it, is expensive.

Article

The Macy Conferences on Cybernetics: Reinstantiating the Mind  

Tara H. Abraham

The Macy Conferences on Cybernetics were a series of 10 interdisciplinary scientific meetings that took place in New York between 1946 and 1953. The meetings were sponsored by the Macy Foundation, which aimed to promote interdisciplinary approaches to the social, behavioral, and medical sciences. Co-organized by neuropsychiatrist Warren S. McCulloch and Frank Fremont-Smith, medical director of the Macy Foundation, the meetings brought together a variety of scientists from mathematics, psychology, engineering, anthropology, physics, ecology, psychiatry, neurophysiology, linguistics, and sociology. The conferences strove to apply tools from the physical sciences and mathematics to problems in the biological and human sciences. Such tools stemmed first from Norbert Wiener’s work on the anti-aircraft predictor, in which he employed the concept of negative feedback to explain purposeful behavior, and second from McCulloch’s work with Walter Pitts on the logic of neural activity, which purported to embody logical reasoning in the physiology of the brain. Wiener and McCulloch touted the practice of hypothetical modelling as a bridge over the divide between the natural and the artificial, and a method for explaining purposeful behavior in organisms and machines. Discussions at the Macy Conferences expanded on this work, and participants discussed and debated models of cognitive functions such as sensation, communication, memory, and learning, all cast as functions of the mind and exemplars of purposeful behavior. Thus, the meetings signal a major shift in 20th-century psychology, when discussions of the mind took on a more central place in psychological discourse. Behaviorist psychologists in the early 20th century had largely rejected concepts of mind as unscientific and not objective. The Macy Conferences, in contrast, placed the mind at the nexus of interdisciplinary inquiry across the divide between the physical and human sciences, and helped to bring back the mind as a topic of objective, scientific inquiry in psychology and in the emerging cognitive sciences.

Article

Behavioralism  

Inanna Hamati-Ataya

Behavioralism is a paradigm that became predominant in American social sciences from the 1950s until well into the 1970s. Although its reign did not last beyond the 1980s, it has transformed the fields of (American) political science and international relations (IR) so profoundly that it remains to this day an essential, albeit implicit, component of their identity. The article starts with the context in which behavioralism emerged, then engages the “Behavioral Revolution” in American political science and presents its main epistemic, ontological, and axiological tenets. It then moves more specifically to Behavioralism in IR, and to the terms of its “second debate.” The article concludes with an assessment of Behavioralism’s legacy.