The System has Agency
or What Is it like to be a Beehive?
I want you to take a walk with me. Which is to say, this is gonna get weird before it gets insightful. You’ve read my title, you know where this is going, all I ask is that you wait until we’re on the road before you demand that I turn this car around.
There are two big philosophical ideas I want to bring in to make my case: First, I want to introduce the ideas presented by Kathleen Akins in “What Is it like to Be Boring and Myopic” which presents a very epistemologically conservative case for determining what kind of an internal experience a bat might have based on it’s observable structure and behaviour. Second, I want to introduce David Chalmers’ notion of panpsychism. Not to convince you of the truth of panpsychism, it’s still ridiculous, but to present a case for liberalism when it comes to definitions of mind.
Part I (The Part About Bats)
In 1974, philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel published the landmark paper “What Is it like to Be a Bat?” In which he made the case that the qualia of sensation were not and could not be accessible to empiric theories of consciousness. Which is to say that we, as humans, cannot describe what the sensations and experiences of being a bat are. Not just because they are alien to us, but because they are, quite simply, beyond the realm of empiric theory.
In 1993 Kathleen Akins published “What Is it like to Be Boring and Myopic” In which she pushes empirical theory as far as it could go to meet Nagel’s challenge and describe as nearly as possible, what the qualitative experience of being a bat is like. (Spoiler alert: it’s the experience of being boring, and myopic.) To what degree you believe Nagel is determined in large part, by the degree to which you think Akins met his challenge. I’m completely convinced, but then again, I’m predisposed to be. I’m a dyed in the wool believer in the scientific method to produce actionable knowledge. Regardless, I encourage you to read both papers (which are easy to find online) both are highly accessible and about as relevant as one can expect for hard core philosophy of mind.
If you’ve read the Akins paper, skip this paragraph. otherwise, read on for my slapdash summary. There are a few things you need to know about bats. First, they have brains the size of aspirin tablets, so whatever’s going on up there, it isn’t much. Second, bats make use of the auditory channel, which is very unusual in the animal kingdom, and very impoverished compared to light; there is no sonic equivalent of the sun to give an objective view of the textures and sizes of things; there is no way to form an image from sound, if you want to tell direction, you’ll have to be tricksy. Finally, bats don’t need to do all that much to survive, which means that they may not have a need or mechanism for producing an integrated whole out of their various inputs. All of this suggests that being a bat means existing in a very informationally sparse way. It isn’t that being a bat is different and strange compared to being a human, it’s that there isn’t much to being a bat.
Part II (The David Chalmers Part)
Imagine you fall into a coma and wake up with no short term memory. You still have all your memories before your coma, and you seem to be laying down new long term memories since, but for whatever reason nothing of the last day is ever accessible to you. Therefore, you resolve to always write down anything of short term significance in a journal that never leaves your side. Anytime that you need to make a decision based on short term memory, you consult your notebook. Then one day you leave your notebook too close to the stove and it catches fire and burns to ashes. The question is, have You (once again) been injured? David Chalmers argues that the answer must be a definitive “yes,” that the notebook is clearly just as much a part of you as whatever part of your brain had handled short term memory before had been. Since he made that argument, cell phones have happened, which very much strengthens the case that who we are just ain’t confined to our heads. He used this to argue that since everything has the capacity for mindedness, therefore everything is, in some sense, mindstuff, but I don’t go that far. Regardless, the point of all of this is: keep an open mind about what it is that is your mind.
With those two pieces in mind, I want to seriously consider the question “What Is it like to Be a Beehive.” Not the queen bee, the hive. Here’s my best guess: Being a beehive is slow like honey. Remember that beehives are essentially immortal. They do not age; only an external event would kill them. Also, compared to the firing of neurons, bees communicate very rarely. So the experience of being a beehive might be somewhat similar to the experience of being a plant: the relevant timescale might very well be the century, but this would only change what was experienced, not the fact of the experience itself. Being a beehive should also be super abstract. Individual bees already have eyes, ears, noses, tongues, touch, balance, and many other things besides, so the beehive needn’t know about images, sounds, scents, tastes, textures, or gravity. The hive might need to know where or how recently flowers were pumped, or the locations from which attackers last arrived, but what they looked like would be totally irrelevant. The qualitative nature of space might be 2 dimensional. The experience of a beehive might be close to being just the executive function of a human, with spatial awareness that extends only down to the meter and temporal awareness that extends only to the fineness of a day. But I argue that it is something. That there is continuity to being a beehive that extends beyond the lifetime of any individual bee, just as there is continuity to you that extends beyond the life of any individual cell or neuron. And that that continuity finds expression as a conscious experience, albeit one that might be very strange and alien to us.
Part III (Wherein I go out on a limb.)
You can see where I’m going with this, right?
If it’s like something to be a bat, and it’s like something to be a human with a notebook, surely it’s like something to be a beehive, and if it’s like something to be a beehive, surely it’s like something to be a country, or all of humanity. And this is my thesis: the system has agency. You, all that you are, all that you think, all that you want, all you create, and all you destroy, are some subprocess in the giant brain that is all of us. The question is what? What is it that we are? Do we like what we are? Do we have a choice? I think that the answer to the first question is obvious; It now seems arrogant to assume that mindedness exists only at my privileged position in the ecosystem, and at no others. The other questions do not yield such obvious answers, but they do seem important. The world is getting flatter, faster, more populous. Which is another way of saying that the hive mind of humans (if it exists) is getting more powerful at the expense of each of us individuals. The time for deciding that the human overmind is malign and rebelling against it (or not) now, if not sooner.
There is another option besides rebellion. You are at option do do your job for the over mind, whatever it is, incredibly well. That is, the overmind might be counting on you to steer all of us in the right direction, to feed it a good idea, and all you have to do is to do that well. If you are part of the overmind, it will probably listen to you. Anyway, I think the trick is to convince the best elements of the overmind to commit and the the worst elements to rebel. I think that that’s what Trump is all about. But in seriousness, if there were ever anything to choose to change through evolution rather than revolution, it’s— um, all the humans currently alive.
Part IV (Wherein I I say ‘kidding!’)
The point of all of this was not to convince you that my position is true, for it is very clearly insane— or at least unfalsifiable as most decent conspiracy theories are. The point of this incredulous journey was to make the case that the Occidental focus on the individual should not be without controversy. The study of the individual over the social group or the the individual areas within the brain, is not a privileged default position. To me, the interesting question isn’t what exactly is this thing we call humanity, it’s what would an anthropologist that was a beehive or an ant hill (an ANThropologist, if you will) make of us? And what can we learn from their perspective? History is often written by the victors and sometimes written by the losers, but always written by humans. For lack of a history written by a hive mind, we are boring, and myopic.