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Monday, February 26, 2018

God and the Collective

I've often stated the following analogy:
A neuron is to a brain (network of neurons) as a person is to the collective (network of people).
Here I'm defining "collective" as a "network of people," nothing more (yet), nothing less.

A neuron is a pretty complex and amazing cell, but it's nothing compared to the network of tens of billions of them with many hundreds of trillions of connections between them. A single neuron has some very low level intelligence all on its own (depending on how you define "intelligence") but has absolutely no capacity to understand the large network that it's part of or the capabilities of that network. In fact, it's only in modern times that we can even believe that our intelligence and consciousness are based in that network of neurons. Before that, it was assumed that something external, the "soul" or something similar, was the center of all that.

A human is a pretty complex and amazing animal, but it's nothing compared to the network of almost ten billion humans with tens of trillions of connections between them (yes, I've written this before, but it's worth repeating in my opinion). A single human animal does have intelligence on its own.

But can a single human animal understand the intelligence or agency of the collective?

To me, the answer is no, absolutely not.

Just like the neuron, individuals cannot even begin to comprehend the entity that is the collective. Many don't believe that there is an entity that is the collective that is anything more than simply an aggregation of individuals. Indeed, this is a central tenet of quite a few influential economists such as Mises and Rothbard. For example, here is a quote from Rothbard explaining his view:
Only individuals have ends and can act to attain them. There are no such things as ends of or actions by 'groups,' 'collectives,' or 'States,' which do not take place as actions by various specific individuals.
To me, this is analogous to saying "there are no thoughts within a brain that are not the result of various activity by specific neurons." To me, both this and Rothbard's statement are both true and not at the same time. Yes, a thought can't happen without specific neurons doing specific things, yet it is to ignore the elephant in the room to not recognize that a thought is so much more than just a bunch of neurons firing.

Yet if collective agency and action are so far beyond what we can comprehend, what's the use of even identifying the possibility of it? There may not be any, but I personally wonder if the focus on the individual, especially in libertarian and some conservative circles and even some liberal groups, has been taken too far to the detriment of both the collective and therefore everybody in it. After all, we can't survive individually without the collective.

One of the things I've noticed is that when I try to think about this collective entity is that it has a lot in coming with how people describe God (I'm not personally religious, but neither am I anti-religious). The collective entity may not be all knowing, but relative to an individual, it might as well be. The collective entity may not be all powerful, but again, relative to you or me, it's unfathomably powerful. And just like "God's Will," the collective's will is also unknowable and yet is extremely important because it's critically important to our individual destinies as well as the destiny of the future of human kind and perhaps even all of life. And while on the surface it would seem to make no sense whatsoever to pray to the collective, what if individual prayers led to prayers by larger groups which aligned needs and desires by significant fractions of the collective which did then influence the very powerful collective?

And what if, as social animals and then primates evolved, the ancestors of our species and then our own ancestors had this sense of something beyond merely the aggregation of individuals? Could that be the basis of the evolution of most people over the ages believing in God? Could it be that we both understood there was something more than the individual yet that entity was beyond understanding? Wouldn't many of the common conceptions of God fit pretty well with that?


Peter said...

Oh my. Where to begin?

Whenever scientists or those of a scientific bent try to use modern cognitive theories or discoveries to explain religion, they often start by throwing out analogies and metaphors that we are supposed to accept as given, but which are somewhere on a line between flawed and bizarre. There are several here, but I'll just address two:

A neuron has no capacity to understand the network it is part of because a neuron has no capacity to understand anything--it's a neuron and has neither intelligence nor self-awareness. Why not analogize humans to pollen seeds or red corpuscles? They'e part of networks they can't comprehend either. I'm confused about what exactly you mean by the collective will, but whatever it is, humans can certainly acquire knowledge and understanding of it through study, contemplation and observation, even if a total understanding eludes us. So what, a total understanding of ourselves, our families, our universe, etc. eludes us too. How can you say humans are not capable of "collective action and agency"? Ever hear of World War II?

As far as we know, only humans have religion. I wasn't around when it was first invented, but then neither were cognitive scientists. I suggest it is far more plausible that it reflects or is an incident of human self-awareness, a.k.a. consciousness, a.k.a the subjective sense of "I" and a quest to find meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. The sense that I am part of a collective will or some other aggregate doesn't do that because there is no reason to believe the collective has any better answer to such existential pondering than I do. Where in any religion will you find anything that suggests reverence for some global or universal human collective (in the sense of worshiping it as opposed to having some responsibility for it)? And frankly, old chum, the notion that religion originated when monkeys first developed a sense of collective monkiness makes me want to rush you to your local synagogue for some emergency spiritual edification. :-)

If I had to pinpoint where exactly I think you have gone astray, it's attributing some mystical essence to the rather mundane fact that we're not alone and have to co-operate with one another to survive. Caribou and gazelles know that, so why the breathless suggestion it marked a big step forward in human evolution?

I suspect it is your dabbling in what I can only call "materialist mysticism" that Rothbard was objecting to, although he expressed it very clumsily.

Clovis e Adri said...


That even materialists feel the need, at some point, of dabbling with mysticism is the greater insight presented here.

Peter said...

I can't decide whether mysticism is the right word, Clovis, or whether we're just talking about overreach. A lot of physicists and cosmologists and cognitive scientists (especially the ones who write popular books) seem to be on a quest for some holy grail to "unlock the mysteries of (choose one) the universe, life, consciousness...etc.", which leads them to slip the surly bonds of evidence and embrace fantasy. Plus scientists today are so heavily invested in raw Darwinism that they will jump into musings about the survival benefits of any damn thing at all, notably religion, without worrying about plausibility or evidence, etc. I don't whether there actually are are survival benefits to religion or poetry or genocide or addictions or how science is advanced by claiming there are, but I'm pretty sure if I asked the average modern scientist, he or she would answer "because everything can be explained by survival benefits."

Any way, I'm very grateful for the advice my mother gave me when I was just a wee lad: "Peter", she said, "if you are looking for a scientist who understands the limits of his or her discipline, find a Brazilian physicist."

Bret said...


The last two paragraphs of the post do have an implicit "for this thought experiment, assume natural evolution of some sort." If you can't make that assumption even for a moment, then I agree it's not a thought experiment you'll find interesting or can even take part in.

Peter asks: "Why not analogize humans to pollen seeds or red corpuscles?"

Ok, sure.

A rock is to a human as a human is to God.

Or how about A dog is to a human as a human is to the collective?

Or whatever.

I personally like my cutesy neuron analogy, but perhaps it does distract from the point. The point is that collective agency is so complex that a human simply cannot understand it. Of that I am sure. Well, at least this particular human has observed enough to grasp that. Perhaps all other humans are orders of magnitude smarter than me and have a complete and excellent understanding of all the collectives that exist. They often act as if they do and if they're wrong that's a huge problem.

Peter said...

Perhaps all other humans are orders of magnitude smarter than me

Thank you, Bret. That, of course, is precisely the problem. I was just too polite to say so. :-)

OK, I know what you are saying and you know what I am saying and we both know the other knows. Plus I completely agree with your political subtext about libertarians denying the necessity and importance of social cooperation. But what other way does one have to challenge this kind of ethereal conjecturing, which is all too common in scientific circles these days? Maybe you are right. Also, maybe we're in just one of an infinite number of inaccessible universes where everything that could possibly happen does. Maybe we're just all part of a sophisticated computer program written by brilliant extraterrestrials. Do you know what is the most perfidious result of the modern fixation with evidence and insistence on "evidence-based" argument? It makes it harder to respond to scientific musings on the big questions with: "Interesting. Crazy, but interesting".