“The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic”
by Amanda Gefter
Nautilus, February 5, 2015
There’s a story I’ve been itching to write and I think it would work perfectly in your Information issue if there’s still room! Walter Pitts was the first thinker to show how the brain is capable of processing information. His now iconic 1943 paper, co-authored with Warren McCulloch, “A Logical Calculus of Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity,” changed not only the direction of neuroscience but of psychology, philosophy and technology — and he was a teenager when he wrote it! Pitts saw more clearly than anyone before him the bridge between logic, mind, brain and machine: information. And he was the least likely character to do so. A child prodigy, a dropout, a homeless runaway, a poet and, eventually, a depressed alcoholic, Pitts was the invisible man behind the rise of artificial intelligence, theoretical neuroscience, and digital computing.
Pitts grew up in a tough, working class family in Detroit, where education was not a priority. He would sneak off to the library, where he taught himself Greek, Latin, German and a host of other languages. He read Leibniz, who had invented binary arithmetic and believed that human thought could be reduced to binary logic, which in turn could be manipulated by calculating machines. One evening when Pitts was 12 or 13 years old some neighborhood boys were chasing him and he ducked into the library, hid in the back stacks and didn’t move until after the library had closed. Over the next three days he read Bertrand Russell’s opus thePrincipia Mathematica, then sent Russell a letter pointing out mistakes in his work. Russell was so impressed he invited Pitts to come study with him in England, but Pitts had no way of doing so. A year later, though, when he heard that Russell would be teaching at the University of Chicago, Pitts ran away from home to go meet the great mathematician. It was the last time he would ever see his family.
In Chicago, Pitts was homeless and hung around the University despite not being a student there. He impressed Russell and the philosopher Rudolf Carnap and eventually he was introduced to McCulloch. Enamored with Pitts’s mind, McCulloch invited the
homeless teen to live with him and his family. McCulloch had been working unsuccessfully to build a theoretical model of brain function, and it was Pitts who saw the way. He saw that the all-or-nothing firing of neurons in the brain meant that they could represent binary 1s and 0s and that by linking neurons up into networks, the brain could perform logical operations. Thoughts, Pitts realized, are made of information.
Pitts soon moved to Boston, recruited by Norbert Weiner, the father of cybernetics, to work with him at MIT. No one seemed to mind that Pitts didn’t have a high school diploma, let alone a PhD. He shared an apartment with the neuroscientist Jerry Lettvin. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Pitts became the central hub of a circle of great minds, including Weiner, McCulloch, and John von Neumann, the Princeton polymath who designed some of the first electronic digital computers, and still, Pitts was considered the true genius of the group. Yet somehow he remains little known outside of academic circles.
Eventually, Weiner and McCulloch had a falling out, which led Weiner to disown Pitts, who had come to see Weiner as a kind of father figure. It was an abandonment from which he would never recover; he burned his papers, stopped producing work, retreated into social isolation and slowly drank himself to death.
I’d love to write a narrative, character-driven piece about Pitts, interweaving his fascinating and ultimately tragic story with his work on information theory and neuroscience. I’ve managed to find a lot of reference material, and dug through the McCulloch papers at the American Philosophical Society, which has many personal letters, documents and even poems from Pitts.
What do you think? Hope all is well!
All the best,