Letter from Gregory Bateson to Warren McCulloch

Text emphases added.

December 20, 1967

(To Warren McCulloch)

I begin to wonder whether I am mad or have hit on an idea which is much bigger than I am. Of course these are not mutually exclusive alternatives but I would like your confidential judgement as to whether one of these alternatives is true to the exclusion of the other or in what proportions they coexist.

You have had a memorandum which I prepared as a springboard for our summer conference in Austria. And what I am now thinking is a development from that memorandum. I suggested in that memorandum that the lineal arguments of human purpose necessarily conflict with the cybernetic arguments of physiology, sociology, and ecology, and that therefore, following his purposes, man almost inevitably messes up his own physiology, social system, and ecosystem.

I had joked, though not in my memorandum, about the idea that Original Sin was the discovery of planned purpose; and that, following this discovery, Adam and Eve expelled God from the Garden. This led to the loss of topsoil, etc. the general notion was that God symbolized the systemic and cybernetic nature of the environment which inevitably took vengeance on man’s short-sightedness.

It occurs to me now that this little parable can be considered to be a serious truth - especially if we turn it upside down.

I suggest that one of the things that man has done through the ages to correct for his short-sighted purposiveness is to imagine personified entities with various sorts of super natural power, i.e., gods. These entities, being fictitious persons, are more or less endowed with cybernetic and circuit characteristics.

In a word, I suggest that the supernatural entities of religion are, in some sort, cybernetic models built into the larger cybernetic system in order to correct for noncybernetic computation in a part of that system.

I do not believe anybody has said this but I do not think that this view of religion contradicts what has been said by others - the religious, the mystical, and the scientific. There is therefore no conflicting hypothesis against which mine can be tested.

I have been reading over The Cloud of Unknowing [The Cloud of Unknowing, author unknown (probably a late fourteenth century parson); translated by William Johnston; 1973; $ 3.95 post-paid from Doubleday and Company, 501 Franklin Avenue, Garden City, NY 1153] and most of the traps against which the author warns the would-be contemplative are precisely the patterns of purposive thought.

If I am right, my hypothesis will provide an almost totally new way of analyzing religious ideas and religious behavior. We shall have to ask, for example, what sort of corrective is introduced into an otherwise purposive system by the Mass. In this connection, it looks to me as though the whole Catholic insistence on the ‘reality’ of the metaphoric statement ‘This is my body’ is a command to approach the ritual in terms of primary process.

Totemism in its preheraldic forms also seems to be a constructing of cybernetic models using identification or empathy with animals.

There are also a lot of questions regarding psychotherapy. When the therapist catalyses group processes, is he in fact demonstrating a cybernetic model to his patients?

Are there any cybernetic systems made of hardware in which cybernetic models have to be embedded in order to correct for lineal computation?

I wonder a good deal how much of this should be considered at Burg Wartenstein.

Or am I crazy?

Our conference comes along pretty well. We now have fairly sure affirmatives from Peter Klopfer, Gertrude Hendrix, Will Jones, Taylor Pryor, Erik Erikson, Barry Commoner, Ted Schwartz, and Geoffrey Vickers, and doubtful affirmatives from Anatol Holt and Konrad Lorenz. These, at any rate, are sufficiently affirmative for their names to be given out. Donald MacKay unfortunately could not come, nor Evelyn Hutchinson.I am looking for a good theologian, preferably one who will combine both comparative religion and pastoral experience. Aoki would have been wonderful and wanted to come but could not.

Well, please tell me what you think. I think that the idea which I have sketched above is the biggest thing I have bumped into yet. May the seasons make sense to you and yours.

Yours sincerely,