atheism Education environment Personal Politics: collective intelligence denialism eschatology religion
This post dates from 2011, but I think it deserves to be front-paged again.
For many years I have been thinking a lot about group minds and collective intelligence, with influences ranging from Thomas Malone (of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence) to E.O. Wilson’s detailed examination of insect colonies and the nature of the “superorganism.” As I tried to extend the “group mind” concept across larger timespans, I found myself both depressed and elated. Elated because I was understanding more about why the “powers that be” didn’t seem to give a shit — and depressed for the same reason.
Thinking About Collective Intelligence
Accepting the reality of collective intelligence is not as big a leap as James Lovelock requests of us when he posits the Gaia Hypothesis, but it’s still a leap.
But…if ant colonies can behave in ways that seem intelligent, if schools of fish and flocks of birds have their own survival strategies within their ecological niches, then it’s not too far-fetched to recognize that humans have their own ways of functioning in groups, and that these groups can have emergent properties that are often unpredictable.
Groups of a few people frequently feel like they “have a mind of their own.” Some groups seem very “smart.” Others? Not so much.
That some aggregates of people are “smarter” than others could simply suggest the superior intelligence of one group’s members. Counterintuitively, some of Thomas Malone’s research suggests that it has surprisingly little effect; there is a different kind of “intelligence” active in a group, and it doesn’t operate on the same “axis” as individual intellect.
It seems inevitable that the more people involved in such an interaction, the more ontologically distant such an intelligence is from ours. It is an absurdity to imagine that a “multi-being collective intelligence” is just a big anthropomorph sitting around waiting for us to ask “it” a question — but it’s perfectly sensible to recognize that multi-person phenomena often display some of the attributes of intelligence (finding answers, imagining alternatives, self-correction, capacity to self-examine at multiple levels of scale).
A collective intelligence (CI) emergent from the interaction of thousands of minds is not thousands of times smarter than their members; it’s differently smart, to wildly divergent degrees. CIs can be incredibly stupid, incredibly wise, and everywhere in between.
The advent of the internet has been a huge boost to larger CIs more widely dispersed in space, but relatively localized in time (you can contribute to a comment thread from anywhere on Earth, but you’ll need to post quickly, lest the others on the thread move on). Some CIs have superior powers of attention; the wiki model is an “entity” with an excellent attention span.
An important feature of human-based CIs is that human beings can belong to multiple CIs at the same time. Any group with human members functions as a CI; we clever apes can be in more than one place at once, unlike our distant cousins the ants and honeybees.
We as individuals owe varying levels of allegiance to various CIs. The longer we’ve been part of a particular CI, the more a part of it we feel. The CIs which have influenced us the most have been part of our lives since birth; they have been part of the lives of our parents, our communities, and our cultural history.
Long-Term Crowd-Sourcing Is Traditional
There’s a different sort of crowd-sourced intelligence, spread out in time but localized in space; it’s generally known as “culture.” People who are “from” a traditional culture contribute to that culture over the span of thousands of years — from a single point in space, or from a set of points diasporically related to one another.
A CI that has evolved over a long span of time is a formidable entity indeed, hugely remote from our own sort of intelligence. When we view a cultural system as a temporally dispersed CI, we encounter an entity that operates on a much broader time-scale than we puny and short-lived apes.
A particular “Cultural CI” interacts with individuals, with smaller sub-cultures, with governments and institutions, with infrastructure, with other “Cultural CIs” elsewhere on the planet, and with the environment(s) where its component entities live. These interactions take place on time scales that render them inaccessible to most of our everyday thinking.
One of the characteristics of cultural systems is that adherence to various shibboleths is required. Some were once practical wisdom, like Abrahamists’ health-related proscription of trichina-bearing meats; others may have less obvious utility, as when a particular culture requires bodily mutilation, special garments, or adornments. Some shibboleths are cosmological — defining a particular group’s relationship to its known universe.
The longest-lived and most influential Cultural CIs are those which propagate and nurture existentially important shibboleths. In other words, religions.
Now, most shibboleths are just little cognitive membership badges. Wanna belong to our group? Then ya gotta believe Proposition X, or at least act like you do. CIs based on belief systems are extremely powerful, because ontological belief systems get to define their own reality, thereby marginalizing contradictory information or ideas. Self-reinforcement among a sufficiently large group creates a version of reality in which these beliefs, no matter how outmoded, absurd, self-contradictory or illogical, gain strength over generations.
Consider our culture’s eschatological thinking. How do we, collectively, imagine The End?
What happens when a belief about the nature of The End gains strength among the members of a tribe?
Well, if they’re in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, not a whole lot. If a tiny tribe of a couple of hundred people decides that the universe will eventually be swallowed by a giant turtle, they’re not likely to have a big influence on the way the world functions.
But what they’re one of the largest, most culturally dominant groups on Earth?
Let billions of people over thousands of years be influenced by the notion that all things have an End of a particular type, and you’ll find them throughout history’s arc, acting in ways that tend to reinforce that notion. A CI imbued with a particular eschatology will tend to act in ways that reinforce that eschatology. And, if it’s a very influential CI, those acts have consequences.
I am not saying that all Christians are closet rapturists, or that there is a secret cabal of doomsday fanatics determined to make the world blow up.
I’m saying that a particular model of How Things Will Inevitably End is a form of long-term collective intelligence, one that’s been self-reinforcing for thousands of years, adopting various religious trappings in order to perpetuate itself.
Our culture has been imbued for a looooooong time with a particular notion of How Everything Ends, which means that everything our culture does, everything it touches, has been influenced by this meme. And you know the meme: Ragnarok, Armageddon, Apocalypse, Day of Judgement, the Rapture. Lots of violence and excitement followed by a privileged state for a privileged few.
Remember, it’s not only not necessary that individual members of the larger culture know they’re part of a collective intelligence, it’s actually counterproductive. Belief systems work well when they’re not questioned; they work best when they’re not even recognized. Do ants have a concept of “the colony,” or are they just doing their antly duty?
Collective Intelligence and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies.
A kid messes up in a 3rd-grade classroom and the teacher, for whatever reason, decides he’s a troublemaker. A 4th-grade teacher learns that little Lugnut is a delinquent-to-be, and the die is cast; the meme is perpetuated. Lugnut gets treated differently from then on; everything he does is viewed in the light of his potential delinquency…and by high school he’s right on track, with his entire school and community culture reinforcing those behaviors, until he comes to an ignominious end.
What happened? The 3rd-grade teacher had no intention of blighting the kid’s life; it’s just professional courtesy to let a colleague know about a problem kid, right? And nobody else in the chain of memetic transmission wanted your kid to be a delinquent, right?
And yet, the system as a whole functioned to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. With a tiny push, we could imagine the system as collective intelligence, chuckling to itself at having been proved right, yet again. And because the whole thing played out over years, it was too slow to attract our notice in the way that egregious acts of prejudice and bigotry do.
Little Lugnut’s fall from grace is hardly a blip in the grand scheme of things, but when an eschatological model becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, that’s something worth losing some sleep over (I’m wide awake right now!).
We’re Steeped In Apocalyptic Eschatology, Whether We Know It Or Not.
Various Armageddons emerged from tribal cultures thousands of years ago. Some versions have died out, and others have prospered; nobody is predicting Ragnarok much nowadays. Throughout history all of these cultures have promoted a notion of Ending in which a big, noisy, destructive climax leads to a privileged state for members of a particular in-group. There is a very large, very slow-moving CI which encompasses all the cultures which subscribe to some version of this notion of Ending. Call it the AECI, for Apocalyptic Eschatological Collective Intelligence. You should fear it. I do.
The AECI forms a “ground” for the thinking of billions of people on the planet. America’s immigrant populations have historically tended to share this eschatological arc; our national culture embodies all its corollary paradigms.
Our traditional children’s stories end with various types of violence and excitement, followed “…and they all lived happily ever after.”
Our summer blockbuster movies end with lots of explosions, followed by a lovers’ reunion.
Our culturally privileged music ends with big crash-bang finales, followed by applause.
Our localized religious manifestations…well, you get the picture.
By contrast, look at some of the ways the Hindu CI imagines its endings. Many Indian traditional tales turn out to loop a temporal loop somewhere, winding up at the beginning again, in what the Indologist Wendy Doniger calls a “Moebius Universe.” Indian musical performances end with a few slow melodic gestures exactly like the ones used to open the piece as much as two hours previously. Hindu conceptions of time are cyclical on multiple levels, encompassing unimaginably huge timespans.
And the post-mortem privileged state for privileged members doesn’t exist; rather, the reward is Moksha, the liberation of getting off an otherwise endless cycle of reincarnations.
Where will the AECI work to make its version of The End a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Not just stories and plays and movies and music and prayer.
If you were a planetary CI deeply imbued with the notion of a Final End, including destruction, noise, craziness, judgment and final happiness for a lucky few, what kind of economic system would you evolve to help make this prophecy a self-fulfilling one?
I don’t know if I could design a better one than predatory market capitalism. Could you?
Look at the current capitalist “story” — it’s replete with corporate saviors, crash-bang destructive climaxes, post-climactic rewards for the people on the right side of the table, and non-privileged people consigned to suffering. Doesn’t a multi-million dollar severance package for a CEO (who essentially destroyed a firm’s value along with thousands of jobs) seem awfully similar to a Heaven-spent eternity for a true believer (who may have wrecked a few lives along the way by dint of simple assholiness)?
Again, I’m not arguing that one of these things caused the other. Which was invented first, predatory capitalism (which in its retail form is theft) or Apocalyptic eschatology? False models of causation are a common misunderstanding; the relationship is ecological, not causal. What advantages does the eschatological model offer the economic model, and vice versa? If we can understand how these concepts reinforce one another in the “thinking” of the AECI, we may be able to find a way to break the spell.
Our Economic Thinkers Cannot Advocate for Sustainability.
Until science came along and rubbed infinity and deep time in everybody’s face, the Apocalyptic Ending was perfectly satisfactory. Everybody died, many after lots of tribulation and hardship; it seemed reasonable enough that the same model would hold true for the world as a whole.
Scientific thinking has made significant progress in undermining the default setting the AECI has maintained for centuries; more and more people recognized that if we weren’t inevitably headed for a Blood-and-Thunder finale, there was no reason that things couldn’t just go on and on and on…essentially forever, at which point the “Sustainability CI” began assembling itself.
Those notions of Foreverness formed a threat to the AECI’s cultural narrative of Beginning and Ending, which is temporally finite and bounded, albeit with a fluffily infinite coda (that never seems to get the appealing description you’d think it deserves).
Naturally, this has translated into anti-science advocacy in all sectors of our public and private lives. Darwinian evolution, for example, is still going on and will go on infinitely as long as there is life — but it’s a violation of the AECI’s “story grammar” for this to happen, which is why hardline Day-of-Judgement types are so vehemently anti-evolution.
“Sustainability,” from the standpoint of the AECI, is not just hard to imagine; it’s philosophically repellent, a rejection of every shared notion of how Endings are supposed to work.
Tom Junod, in Esquire, writes:
The water is rising, and yet because a significant portion of the American public believes that the tide carries the threat of secularism, environmentalism, liberalism, socialism, or what have you — anything but the simple threat of drowning — they will keep praying to the Lord rather than doing anything about it. Indeed, they are committed to inaction by the very terms of their prayers.
…for most self-identified “conservatives,” it will never matter how high the water rises or how convincingly the evidence mounts, because from the start the debate about global warming has never been a debate in which rules of evidence apply. Rather, it has been a tectonic collision of belief systems, the vision of America as a uniquely secular nation and the vision of America as a uniquely Christian one smash together and create earthquakes before they create mountain ranges, and in which secular Americans expressing concern for their children’s future and Christian Americans expressing concern for their children’s future turn out to be talking about two different things entirely.
You really should go and read the whole piece.
Divergent Eschatologies In Competition
We now face the very real likelihood of a climatic armageddon that will uncannily and anti-fortuitously parallel the predictions of the rapturists. James Lovelock is very pessimistic.
Most conscious adherents to Rapturist eschatology are overwhelmingly likely to be climate-change denialists, and it’s also likely that most if not all denialists are at the very least unconscious believers in the paradigmatic End.
Climate science, to the AECI and the people and institutions through which it manifests, is far more dangerous than greenhouse gases. A competitive eschatology poses an existential threat of far greater significance than the “end of the world.” And while the billions of people who lend their mass to the AECI include many who are actively advocating for sustainability, their effectiveness is hampered by their indoctrination in the same eschatological paradigm they’re trying to weaken. It’s hard to be a member of the Sustainability CI and the AECI at the same time.
And now that an actual End of sorts seems to be at least possible, the AECI wants to be sure its avatar gets the credit. We in the Sustainability CI consider extreme weather events as probably epiphenomenal to anthropogenic climate change. They, on the other hand, need those events to be tied to their version of The End.
For your mingled amusement and alarm, I offer you the thoughts of “Denny,” who asserts that God is currently carrying out His stipulated plans for The End through the medium of catastrophic climate change:
Theogenic instead of anthropogenic global warming will occur, but man will not cause it, and all the carbon credits in the world won’t help in the least. It will be caused by increased solar energy emanating from the sun and subsequent increased water vapor in the atmosphere, and there is no way of preventing it, unless Al Gore can control the sun.
The global warming phenomenon will be a two-stage process. The initial stage will be a catastrophic atmospheric apocalypse but the final stage will be wonderful.
As the initial process continues, the suffering will progressively get worse and the liberal politicians will deceitfully harangue, “We told you so. Quickly, give us your money so we can stop it.” People will be ordered to park all privately owned vehicles that get less than 35 miles per gallon. Airline flights will be prioritized and only people with a compelling reason will be allowed to fly. Gasoline cost will triple when the carbon credits are factored in. But global warming won’t be the result of anything man does and there is nothing man can do to stop it.
Global warming is coming and the transformation period will be quite traumatic, but after it stabilizes the overall result will be very good. Welcome to the Kingdom of Heaven!
For Someone Who Doesn’t Exist, God’s Doing A Great Job On The Finale,
Actually, Denny Has A Point.
Mind you, their team deserves the credit. A predatory capitalist economic system has in fact accomplished the lion’s share of atmospheric CO2 emissions; an End-obsessed CI determined to bring about a Rapture aligned with its long-held eschatological shibboleths has absolutely no reason to limit the consumption of carbon dioxide.
Why else would our corporate overlords reject the opportunity to viciously exploit humans for hundreds of generations to come — an opportunity which could be theirs if they simply threw in their lot with the advocates of sustainability? There is surely enough opportunity for graft, corruption, venality and exploitation in renewable energy to satisfy the most avaricious sociopath — so why aren’t they even interested?
Because the AECI doesn’t want sustainability; it wants an End. And it wants that End to be like the End it’s been advertising, and working toward, for centuries. And the AECI doesn’t want the credit for correctly predicting The End to go to a bunch of scientific johnny-come-latelies who were right for all the wrong reasons — and, worse, were actively trying to stop it from happening.
This is the real nature of our dilemma. The enemy cannot be persuaded; denialists’ masks of ignorance are real in the individual…. but spurious in the aggregate, for the AECI is well aware of the consequences of putting five million years’ worth of carbon into the air every year — and is heavily invested in those consequences.
What Can We Do About This?
I don’t know. But we can fight as vigorously as we can to create alternatives to the delusional CIs that have gotten us into this fix in the first place — and we can work unceasingly to convince as many individuals as we can that Forever is not just possible, but a Better Alternative.
Anne Laurie at Balloon Juice says,
It’s taken us some twelve thousand years to reach our current state of affairs, when a tiny minority of the population of one nation-state has the ability to use that “religious impulse” as a weapon that could potentially destroy the entire human biosphere, and not just that part of it within their own limited fiefdom. Ah, progress…
That “tiny minority” is just (to choose an ironic metaphor) the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface is the vast bulk of a collective intelligence that was formed at a time when humans were ignorant of the universe around them, and which still expresses much of that same ignorance. Inhofe and the Koch Brothers, the whole fossil fuel sector, our rapacious banker caste — they’re all bit players, answering to the commands of the AECI, an entity as old as our civilization.
The more people can realize the absurdity of this state of affairs, the better. I would like to see presidential candidates grilled about whether they believed in an immanent Armageddon. What would Michelle Bachmann say if that question came up, hm?
I asked Thomas Malone about collective intelligences and the problem of climate change. He agreed that the situation was extremely dire…but commented that the capacity of humans to self-organize rapidly into very large collective intelligences is only beginning to be manifest — and that this capacity provided him with a small measure of hope. His work includes the Climate CoLab:
Fortunately, at the same time that we have this potentially huge global problem, we also have the possibility of using a new kind of global problem solving approach. As examples like Wikipedia and Linux show, it’s now possible to harness the collective intelligence of thousands of people around the world to work closely together at a scale that was never possible before in human history.
In the Climate CoLab project, we’re applying this approach to climate change. An online community of people from all over the world is already creating, analyzing, and discussing detailed proposals for how to address global climate change. For instance, last fall we had a global competition for proposals addressing the question: What international climate agreements should the world community make?
I believe that our collective intelligence must be deployed not only to fight the greenhouse effect and its epiphenomena, but the outmoded and counterproductive vision of Inevitable Ending which the AECI has promulgated for thousands of years.
Thank you for giving me your time and attention. Let’s get to work. I want the humans of the year 3050 to remember us for what we did — not for what we failed to do.