In the previous part of this series we examined the evidence and arguments that L Ron Hubbard presented to support the claims he made for Dianetics in the May 1950 issue of “Astounding Science Fiction” (download the whole issue here as a /pdf file).
We have not yet discussed the last part of the article, in which Hubbard describes how Dianetics will supposedly change the world. I’m saving that for the next part of this series. In this part, I would like to examine an interesting aspect of Dianetics – Hubbard’s comparison of the operation of healthy human mind with a perfect computer – the ‘analytical mind’.
In the Dianetics article, Hubbard compares the typical human mind to a mechanical calculator with a stuck key – a “held down 7”. It is capable of accurate computation but is failing because of a simple fault. Hubbard presents Dianetics as a means to restore the functioning of a person’s faulty ‘analytical mind’ and realise their potential for superhuman power .
This imagery owes a lot to contemporary stories about ‘mechanical brains’ (and, incidentally, represents a classic pulp fiction power fantasy). Robbie the Robot (from the film “Forbidden Planet) is a perfect example. When Robbie ‘thought’ the moving parts inside his transparent head clattered like a mechanical adding machine.
All unknown to Hubbard, in the period before, during and after the publication of Dianetics the theoretical foundations of computer science were being laid. The development of electronic computers led greater intellects than his to wonder about the relationship between computing and the human mind. Their speculations and conclusions led to modern computers and,years later, contributed an important thread to the new discipline of cognitive psychology. This perspective enables us to understand why Hubbard’s ideas about the ‘analytical mind’ are so hopelessly shallow and naive.
Science, Fiction and Fantasy
Today, it is obvious to us that artificial intelligence would require a lot more than the few square feet of cogs and levers that can be seen inside Robbie the Robot’s head. However, even now, the image is powerful. Hubbard’s ideas are obviously inspired by the persuasive imagery of pulp science fiction, not by computer science.
This is understandable when you write fiction for a popular magazine. Modern SF writers still love robots, androids and artificial intelligence because they enable them to examine what it is to human.
However SF writers in the 1950s (and those working today) understand that real artificial intelligence is a very long way off – their stories are an imaginative exercise in ‘what if’.
In contrast throughout Dianetics (and especially in Scientology) Hubbard adopted fictional themes and persuasive images and presented them as proven scientific fact. He did not trouble himself to provide either valid reasoning or evidence in support. He depended on people wanting to believe that his claims were true.
In this spirit, some readers of “Dianetics” accepted the ‘held down 7’ as the reason why their abilities were not recognised by others and their projects did not go as planned. Hubbard told a simple and superficially persuasive story which he presented as scientific fact: you are being held back by a simple flaw in the design of your mind. Once this is corrected by the ‘scientific’ miracle of Dianetic Processing, you will become the clever and capable person that you always known that you were. It worked because people wanted to believe.
Far fetched? Perhaps. However, science had performed apparent miracles during the war – witness the destruction of the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima with atomic weapons. People who did not understand how these things came about could be forgiven for falling for Hubbard’s claims to be able to transform an individual’s mind.
L Ron Hubbard and The Rise of the Machines
Before presenting himself as the ground-breaking thinker who founded the new ‘science’ of Dianetics, Hubbard made a number of other questionable claims. For example, that he possessed a distinguished war record, high security clearance, knowledge of nuclear physics and a close association with the ‘nuclear scientists’ who developed the bomb.
If these were true, he would have been uniquely placed to observe the development of computers and computer science which subjects were surely of vital interest to the man who had ‘discovered’ the ‘analytical mind’.
George Dyson’s excellent book “Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe” traces the development of the principles of computer science and the modern computer back to two massive research efforts.
First came the desperate effort to decode Nazi communications during the Second World War. These were scrambled by the very effective Enigma machine and motivated the development of Colossus, one the world’s first true computers and the discovery of basic principles of computer science.
The secret efforts of the staff at Bletchley Park in the UK (and elsewhere) resulted in Allied forces often being able to read Hitler’s orders before his generals did.
These theoretical and practical foundations were built upon during the early Cold War. Academics such as Alan Turing returned from military service to civilian life, and started to build upon what they has learned working under conditions of the strictest security.
At the same time, scientists working for the US government needed machines which could automate the complex calculations required to design the next generation of nuclear weapon – the hydrogen bomb. Sadly, the emergence of modern computer science, hardware and programming all had their origin in wartime research.
If Hubbard’s claims about his war record and his knowledge of physics were true, you would expect him to have been well aware of these developments.
In reality, Hubbard’s extensive writings and lectures reveal next to no knowledge of computer science. He certainly did not anticipate the social transformations which have been brought about first by the personal computer, then by computer networking – Scientology orgs still use Hubbard-mandated ‘admin tech’ which relies on shuffling papers between trays on desks and filing massive numbers of folders. This kind of failure of imagination contributes to the growing irrelevance of Scientology doctrine to everyday life in the 21st century.
Why Did L Ron Hubbard Miss the IT Boat?
There is a simple explanation for Hubbard’s ignorance of the developments in computer science that he should have been aware of, with his background; almost all of his claims about his military service and knowledge of physics were false.
Documentary evidence supports this proposition. Hubbard’s service in the US Navy was farcical After making a number of blunders during his brief command of a small vessel he was judged to be “unsuitable for independent command”.
Hubbard’s claim to a qualification in nuclear physics was based on a small first-year module of a course in civil engineering at George Washington University (see image, right).
This can be seen in the document to the left – the subject, “Modern Physical Phenomena: Molecular and Atomic Physics”. This course required only two seminar hours and Hubbard does not even seem to have bothered to attend. He failed both the module and the course.
The sleeve notes on the 1957 edition of Hubbard’s book “All About Radiation” describe him as “L Ron Hubbard, one of America’s first nuclear physicists” and a lecturer who had the ear of “Parliamentary figures” (click on the image to read the text in a new tab). It is packed with basic misconceptions.
Hubbard was not a scientist of any kind, as his academic record shows. He adopted the images and authority associated with science and wove them into a wish-fulfilment fantasy that owed almost everything to the pulp science fiction he used to read and to write.
The Analytical Mind Versus Cognitive Psychology
However, let’s give L Ron Hubbard and Dianetics one last chance. There has been considerable progress in the fields of computer science and psychology since the publication of “Dianetics” in May 1950. If we leave Hubbard’s personal failings aside, how do his ideas about the ‘analytical mind’ stand up today?
Computer science and psychology meet in the academic field of cognitive psychology. One element of this perspective using our knowledge of computer science to provide insights into human mental processes.
For example, humans sometimes employ faulty reasoning because we live embedded in a variety of complex social environments, and simply posses insufficient ‘processing power’ to consider all of the variables and make decisions in the time available. We unconsciously fall back on rules of thumb that we have learned during previous experience.
Sometimes these quick and dirty rules (which psychologists call cognitive biases) produce good outcomes. At other times… not so good. However, it is often better to do anything quickly and decisively than it is to hesitate, so this tendency has stayed with us for all of human history.
Cognitive psychology demonstrates that, to the extent that the human mind resembles a computer it is an imperfect one. It does not gather and process information without error, as Hubbard claimed that his ‘analytical mind’ would. It operates according to a set of rules of thumb, that allow us to make decisions in the absence of complete information and sufficient time to think about it.
Having a perfect computer like the ‘analytical mind’ would make it impossible (or at least prohibitively time-consuming) to come to any decision – we would starve to death while we gathered the information and wrote the program to decide whether we should have a cup of tea or coffee. The slapdash mental process of the ordinary human, cognitive biases and all, is more likely to keep us alive in survival situations, not to mention fulfilled. Mr Spock from “Star Trek” would have infinitely more intuition and emotional sensitivity than anyone operating according to the dictates of Hubbards ‘analytical mind.’
Hubbard would gloss over all the criticisms above (as he often glossed over inconsistencies in the “Astounding”article) with the claim that the flaws you find in his arguments are irrelevant. It’s a work in progress he has incontrovertible experimental and practical evidence that Dianetics is miraculously effective. If he did, he never presented it and I beg leave to doubt that any of his ‘research’ ever existed.
The only independent academic investigations into Dianetics were undertaken during its heyday, and concluded that:
- People who underwent Dianetic processing did not experience improvements in IQ, or any other psychological benefit.
- Engrams are not recorded during periods of unconsciousness – thereby falsifying of the crucial claims of Dianetics, upon which the entire thesis depends.
More than 60 years later, the developments in computer science which Hubbard completely overlooked during his lifetime have provided a psychological perspective (cognitive psychology) that show that Hubbard’s ideas about the ‘analytical mind’ are also shallow, misconceived and wrong.
Happily for science fiction fans, robots are still a possibility. However, Dianetics was not credible in the 1950s – and from the point of view of modern science, it now looks far more dated than Robbie the Robot.
Dianetics is clearly not a science but a combination of self-deception and wish-fulfilment fantasy.