Norbert Wiener, coiner of the word “cybernetics”, eccentric and flawed though he was, was a genius at more than the mathematical level (where his ideas, largely unattributed to him these days, pervade much of modern engineering and science). His vanishing from the public consciousness is unjustified.
I’m rereading some of the popular materials written by Norbert Wiener that helped me form my point of view as a young adult. I guess I can be pleased with my young self (I believe I first read Wiener at 19) not only for having plowed through this dense and meandering but often subtle material but also for having retained so much of it.
Some of it is particularly germane to the question of “bad guys” on questions of fact and what to do about them. I think, like it or not, this is the crucial question we face. As scientists, we start off at a disadvantage. Wiener addresses why.
Wiener distinguished two diametrically opposed religious traditions, the Manichean heresy (or I would say, Zoroastrian) wherein the universe is finely balanced between good and evil and the final triumph of good is in no way certain, and on the other hand what he calls the “Augustinean” tradition (referring to St. Augustine), wherein evil is perceived as incompleteness, in other words lack or absence of good, and is therefore effectively countered by ethical efforts into filling the gaps.
The scientist is always working to discover the order and organization of the universe, and is thus playing a game against the arch enemy, disorganization. Is this devil Manichean or Augustinean? … The difference between these two sorts of demons will make itself apparent in the tactics to be used against them. The Manichean devil is an opponent … who is determined on victory and will use any trick of craftiness or dissimulation to obtain this victory. … On the other hand, the Augustinean devil, which is not a power in itself, but the measure of our own weakness, may require our full resources to uncover, but when we uncover it we will in a certain sense have exorcised it, and it will not alter its policy on a matter already decided with the mere intention of confounding us further. …
As to the nature of the devil, we have an aphorism of Einstein’s, “The Lord is subtle, but He isn’t simply mean.” …
This distinction between the passive resistance of nature and he active resistance of an opponent suggests a distinction between the research scientist and the warrior or the game player. …
The scientist is thus disposed to regard his opponent as an honorable enemy. This attitude is necessary for his effectiveness as a scientist, but tends to make him the dupe of unprincipled people in war and politics. It also has the effect of making it hard for the general public to understand him, for the public is much more concerned with personal antagonists than with nature as an antagonist.
From “The Human Use of Human Beings“, (c) Norbert Wiener 1950 and 1954, chapter 2.
Daemon image from zer0.org