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?