Some steam of consciousness notes about stuff I know basically nothing about…
(which is all I ever post, except maybe when I’m writing about Marx or music)

I heard a radio program not long ago, an older episode of this great show called Radio Lab, it’s a sort of literary journalism about science. There was an episode that discussed ants and consciousness. I may be blending more than one together in my head. Anyway, from the show – individual ants are probably not complex enough neurologically to have much if any of an internal life or mind. There is little if anything going in the brains of ants. But… when humans have thoughts, brain activity occurs at the same time. The link between mental activity and brain activity is complex, controversial, and unresolved. There is one set of activity which is both brain activity and mental activity but we do not yet know how to describe that set of activity in a way which includes both what we know about mental activity and what we know about brain activity; at present our descriptive powers always leave something out (which is to say, we don’t yet know how not to be reductive) when it comes to minds and brains. Anyway, we know there’s a link between minds and brains. When we have a thought, where in the brain is the thought? It’s not in any one neuron and is probably not in any single set of neurons composing one discrete part of the brain. The thought is in the brain as a whole or in one large region of the brain. What if we think of ants the same way?

We can consider individual ants as analogous to individual neurons. The probably obvious follow on from this point is that we could perhaps consider ants as having minds, the individual ant is just the wrong unit of analysis for this. The colonies could have minds. (Implied here is a concept of mind which I’m not going to unpack – and couldn’t if I tried – suffice it to say that the implication would be that there are minds very different from ours, perhaps so much so that we wouldn’t be able to really identify them let alone communicate with them in a mutually intelligible manner, which might suggest not using the term.)

I think it’s fair to say that perhaps in saying “ant colonies could have minds” that this is just metaphorical, that’s plausible. But, two things. One, I think I want to say that whenever we talk about things we don’t really understand we are (in a sense! ha!) talking metaphorically, and we deal with things all the time that we don’t understand. I don’t know how this keyboard or computer work, or the processes by which this ends up “on” the blog. Two, metaphors aren’t necessarily just literary – which is to say, just for the sake of being evocative or literary. Metaphors can be and I think often are practical, in the sense of organizing data, helping make semi-workable explanations, and making decisions for going about the world with some measure of success at intended purposes. In some cases, we use metaphors of minds — “if you do that then the computer/the car/your body will think XYZ so don’t do that.” These metaphors basically work most of the time, I think, which is why people still use them.

Moving right along – I’ve recently been reading a bit (on wikipedia) about social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, phenomena like internet relay chat, etc. All of this makes me feel very old, something intensified by an unfortunate personality trait of getting intimidated and shying away from things that I don’t understand, and by my financial situation and my cheapness which leads to my having outmoded technology (and giving the rapidity of technological change this is increasingly quickly). Anyhow I think it’s probably obvious that these forms of communication and organization of information and human interaction are different from some others and include very different ways of making decisions, if making decisions is even the right way to talk about it. More like flocking maybe.

In any case, I was thinking of all this and about the idea or term ‘higher consciousness’. I’ve mostly rolled my eyes at this kind of talk, but there is something to it. There’s occasionally talk about this happening via online communication etc. As I’ve always heard the phrase I’ve always thought of this in terms of individual minds reaching some superior individual condition – an elevated individual consciousness. That’s great, I’m for that. The term could go another way though – the individual person connected via social networking (and other things, including speech, newspapers, etc etc) together form a higher consciousness within which the individuals are like individual ants or neurons within a larger colony or brain which could be said to have a mind. This higher consciousness in this sense may be superior but/and it could also be higher in the sense of its location – existing in the ensemble and interactions rather than in any individual components or particular discrete part of the ensemble. This may not be apparent to individual components, just as individual neurons and ants may not be aware of or able to understand the thoughts and minds which they form part of.

There’s some point to be made here about subjective and objective, determined and determining, but I can’t make it currently.

One other thought: as humans interact we form networks larger than individuals (duh), which act on the individual components and which can have a sort of inertia beyond (or at least which form a force that must be be dealt with by) the steering ability of any individuals or steering structures created.

And. Some connection here to the stuff in this post and the stuff linked off it, the Wu Ming stuff in particular and perhaps the stuff about metaphorically-organized structures of feeling contributing to the inertial power of groups/networks.

One other thought, on mass orientation and individualism –
Individualists are right that there are forms of constraint involved at least most of the time in organizations. This is true whether formal or informal. There are I think two forms of freedom relevant here. One is a sort of positive powers of the individual, the other is the amplified power that collectivities have. Individuals often experience limits of their individual powers in collectivity, even as basic as “don’t talk now, it’s not your turn.” It’s a reasonable principle to keep limits of individual power to a minimum – which is to say, to maximize individual freedom – within organizations, but this is likely to still entail limits, even in informal groupings. On amplified power via collectivities – simply, people can do more together. There’s a second lack of freedom for individuals here in that no individual (except leaders of cults of personality) can steer collectivities, usually.