Sunday, November 7, 2010


Fairly often I come across the notion that in some ways collectives are superior to the individual; the idea seems to appeal to one kind of modern thought. Most recently I saw this view applied to insects and to bird swarms. It lies at the root of sociobiology, the creation of Edward O. Wilson: “The organism is only DNA’s way of making more DNA,” as he said. From him, by one remove, we get “the selfish gene”; that’s Richard Dawkins. I first became aware of this tendency in the context of artificial intelligence, specifically reading Douglas Hofstadter’s best-known book many years ago, Gödel, Escher, Bach. Mind you, the book was a pleasurable experience! The ultimate roots of this mode, of this belief, I think, lie in Neo-Darwinism, the notion of “emergence,” the idea that complexity itself creates the reality—or at least the illusion—of consciousness. Materialism needs this idea as an explanatory principle. The alternative to it, that genuine agents might actually exist—and owe their existence to something other than matter or energy or both—is far simpler but, if held, produces a dualism which the advanced modern mind finds unacceptable.

Dualism has certain aspects that make the world much more intelligible—first because it makes room for meaning, not least the meaning of suffering. We can see suffering arising from the tension between an agency and aspects of this material dimension that cloud its vision and delimit its scope of action. It makes room for letting us explore reasons for our being here, for undergoing all manner of hardships—and how that could have come about. Materialist monism, forced to cough up some kind of explanation, can’t do much more than say that Shit happens—but whether we think it shit or not is an altogether subjective reaction arising from our history, internal arrangements, and the roll of the dice of probability.

This introduction is a bit too long for what I want to address—namely just an aspect of this subject. It is the notion that collectives have a kind of reality at least analogous to that of an individual human being and that, therefore, they can be held responsible. We are so used to this tenuous theory that we don’t even notice the problem when we ourselves speak of the Right or the Left, the Financial Sector, the U.S.A., Al Qaida, fundamentalists, or the media. Occasionally, rarely, we hear this notion assaulted. The most recent example of that is the notion that corporations are persons and therefore entitled to exercise political speech. Now there, finally, quite a few people want to draw the line—and I find myself sighing in relief. For a while I was half-convinced that Edward Wilson had turned out to be right. In his 1975 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, he predicted that in one hundred years humanity will have evolved to a form no longer recognizably human—and I was convinced that I must one of those people who have been Left Behind.

The problem, of course, is that it’s very handy to use generic references and to commit anthropomorphism especially when referring to human institutions. Made up of humans—must be a human being. Writ large. Now my premise, already stated in a post a day or so ago, is that collectives are not. Not human. If you accept the modernist view, they could arguably be considered human. We are—yet we’re not really, not if our organism is just a convenient vehicle for DNA and our thoughts are ultimately reducible to coalitions of neurons engaged in Darwinian competition. Arguably, using the modern conception, we can’t effectively see the U.S. of A. because we’re too small. But we see as through a glass darkly. But the U.S. of A. can clearly see China—and hear its roaring threats much better than we can. I can hear you, but any one of your neurons is, as it were, just a bit challenged, shall we say?

If we accept the old-fashioned, traditional, dualist view, what we really see is that aggregates of people are just that—aggregates of people. They have no mind; they just display behavior. To understand that behavior we’d have to understand, over extensive periods, the behavior and motivations of each and every individual that makes them up. And that’s not handy at all. Indeed these collective entities, lacking a core self, as we do not, are distinctly inferior to any individual human, even the most humble among us. No one person actually controls any collective, even the very small ones. It is handy, of course, to pinpoint some leader by name—especially if that leader has a detectable influence on the total behavior of the collective.

The dualist view, I think, is correct—but if consciously realized, it keeps you sober and humble. The big dudes out there, however human-like they seem to be, are just vast lumbering and ultimately stupid beasts projected by our minds. We might as well get mad at the forest or hope for rescue from the ocean.

For more on Sociobiology, see this earlier post.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. I'll have to brood over this for a while.


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