Laurie Thomas – A Cybernetics Connection

Sheila Harrie-Augstein asked me to write a tribute to Laurie for the CSHL website. I wasn’t quite sure just what a tribute was, so I looked it up: “Tribute: an act, statement, or gift that is intended to show gratitude, respect, or admiration.” This made things easier because I do feel gratitude, respect, and admiration for the Laurie I knew over many years, as both a colleague and a friend. But then comes the problem of how to communicate what leads me to feel these things. Some of my reasons are straightforward. For instance, the contribution he has made to psychology and science; his enthusiasm for new ways of thinking and doing; the creativity of his research; the breadth and success of application of his work; his support for his students and colleagues; and his kindness. However I have a further reason – one to do with how Laurie influenced my own thinking and research in an important way, and it is this I will mention here.

First off, both Laurie and I came from hard-science backgrounds – Laurie from engineering, me from physics – and both of us recognised that understanding the nature of human persons requires a different approach than that provided by the hard sciences. Laurie – with his work on human learning – has created an approach that has the rigour of the hard sciences but which also accommodates the uniqueness of each individual person. In contrast to Laurie’s grounded and practical approach – which I highly value and support – I became increasingly focused on finding ways to help resolve old philosophical questions regarding the nature of human persons, in particular, the problem of free will.

I first met Laurie shortly after I joined the Department of Cybernetics at Brunel University in the summer of 1972. However, his reputation went ahead of him because I had worked at System Research, an independent cybernetics research organisation run by Gordon Pask, and Gordon knew Laurie. Some years after joining Brunel – I think about 1978/79, but I am not sure – I acted as convenor for a series of evening seminars in which both Laurie and Gordon discussed their views of learning, and related matters. I was struck by an underlying difference of approach.  Gordon was keen to find a wide-ranging and deeply abstract theory, while Laurie was more concerned with the person as a unique individual at the centre of their own learning. Both Gordon and Laurie grew up with the emergence and growth of cybernetics, and its twin, systems theory. Cybernetics is sometimes dismissed as simply being the idea of “feedback”, but right from the beginning it was seen as a good deal more than this. Indeed, Norbert Weiner, the godfather of this field of enquiry, gave his 1948 book aimed at introducing this new science to a wider audience, the title Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. This definition was soon widened to include control and communication wherever they may exist, including within human groups and organisations of all sorts.

The word “control” has unfortunate connotations of restriction, containment, and external direction but the founders meant something different. For them “control” referred to those regulatory and directive processes that enable “goals” to be achieved and/or sustained, where a goal is a state of affairs that without the presence of such directing and regulating processes would not normally arise or persist. Some goals may indeed be achieved by simple fixed feedback systems – for example, central heating systems that maintain a desired temperature in a home work this way. However, for agents such as ourselves that can create their own goals and means for achieving them much more complexity is involved.

Coming from a physics background, I didn’t at first balk at the notion of an agent – e.g. a person, a robot, or an AI system – creating goals and means for pursuing them. I simply took “creation” to mean production of novel entities by causal physical processes, albeit highly complex ones involving such things as information processing and decision making. Indeed, part of my PhD research involved building a fully deterministic computer simulation of the decision rules that seemed to be used by an ordinary police detective in allocating their time to different tasks and activities. At that point in my life my assumption was that we humans, just like any physical system, worked deterministically, with possibly some randomness resulting from quantum indeterminacy at the microphysical level. However, as I wrote up my thesis I asked myself the question: How does a person decide what to do with their life? My initial answer was that it was an extremely complex causal process greatly influenced by a person’s “nature and nurture” and by the particular “encounters” of their life. On this view, there is no real creation involved because everything that happens to a person, and their responses and actions, all follow from extant causes. That is, no person can be the “first cause” of anything they do or produce, and so cannot be genuine creators. But my contact with Laurie and his work, and my developing interest in humanistic psychology, led me to believe that human persons are able to operate as a “first cause” and genuinely create, at least to some extent, the course of their lives.

I devoted many years to trying to resolve the problem of genuine creation and free will, and the result was a new naturalistic metaphysics that I call “Independence Indeterminism” that I believe provides a solid, and entirely reasonably and believable basis for our creative capacities and our free will. (An account of this work is given in my book Explaining Free Will.) However, what I want to emphasise here is the influence that Laurie’s thinking and outlook had on my questioning the deterministic assumptions I had been making about the nature of human persons. Laurie didn’t explain metaphysically how it was possible for a person to genuinely take charge of their own learning, but with his work and the tools and methods he developed, he provided strong evidence that this actually occurs. And this encouraged me to find just such a metaphysical basis.

Laurie’s influence on me, together with the influence of others and my own creative response to these influences, set me on a path of thinking that I might otherwise not have taken. I can’t be sure of this because in the absence of this influence I might nevertheless have persisted with trying to resolve the problem of “first cause” creation and free will. But I think this is unlikely – I think I might well have continued with my essentially deterministic view of how each individual human life pans out and concluded, in common with may other people, that our sense of having free will and being able to genuinely create some aspects of our life, is a mere illusion.

Michael Elstob
Former Lecturer in Cybernetics at Brunel University