Societies <i>Can</i> Act

Kian Wilcox is a computer science student with interests in economics, cellular biology, math, neurobiology, and artificial intelligence. He follows up to his earlier post on viewing various phenomenon as markets with a post on the need to accurately define acting entities.

Alright, I’ll admit it, the title is a sort of inside joke (inside my head, that is). I don’t believe it to literally be the case. But I do think that the arguments generally used by those who would vehemently deny the above statement are thin ice to stand on. John T Kennedy states,

Groups don’t choose, they aren’t equipped to choose; individuals choose. Only individuals can be persuaded.

In the context of his statement, this seems to make sense. After all, human groups are aggregations of human individuals, and without convincing the individuals that make up the group to take action, nothing happens. The group cannot act. But I think he is not consistent enough in his own reasoning; JTK believes in the mysticism of collective action. He says the forests do not exist because they are composed of trees. I say the trees do not exist, either. The unitary nature of the human individual is an illusion.

What we think of as the preferences and freely chosen actions of man are a spontaneous order that emerges from the interactions of a hundred trillion individuals – the cells. And just as the spontaneous order of the human economy or the intricate ecological webs of nature appear to have an intentional designer (though occasionally it may seem that the intentions are full of malice, or that the designer is lacking in skill and foresight), so too do the actions of the individual appear to be designed-- in this case, by the individual himself. But this is not the case. Man is a cellular society. Man cannot act.

But as a rough approximation, men do act. And rougher still, so do societies. It is inconvenient to, in every communication, qualify statements such as ‘The US army invaded Iraq" with, "and by US Army, I mean all of the individuals composing the US Army, and by individuals, I mean cellular conglomerations composing those individuals". Instead of debating whether it is men or societies that act - it is neither - we should instead be exploring under what conditions, for what phenomena, the insert level of organization here as actor misleads us and why. In other words, we can draw the borders around what we will call the ‘individual’ wherever we’d like. We’re so far up on the hierarchy of organization that it’s already fairly arbitrary to draw it around each of us. Where the boundaries are is not the real question. The question is where the boundaries should be in order to understand some concept to a particular level of precision and accuracy.

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I thought the Fallacy of

I thought the Fallacy of Composition was fairly well known. Maybe not.

That aside, it should be obvious to you through introspection that your own ability, at least, to make decisions, is not an illusion. It is hardly coherent to decide that it is.

The beehive was merely

The beehive was merely intended as a concept-clarifying contrast. If bees are in fact individually selfish it does not affect the argument at all.

"It’s not incoherent to

"It’s not incoherent to hold that I could be mistaken about my ability to make decisions. Certainly I seem to decide things, but that is no guarantee that I actually did any deciding. You might, after all, be manipulating my brain such that I have the sensation of having deliberated and reached a conclusion or even just the memory of having deliberated and reached a conclusion even though in fact I never did deliberate and reach a conclusion. Nor is it incoherent to imagine that all of my ‘deliberations’ are of this sort."

One might even find that the conscious perception of willing of a decision occurs temporally after unconscious brain activity that signals that decision has been made, and thus that a paradigm example of a conscious decision is, in fact, made unconsciously. (Cf. Benjamin Libet.)

You’re right that it’s

You’re right that it’s incoherent to decide that I’m not thinking, but it’s perfectly coherent to think that maybe I haven’t really ever decided anything after all.

It's not incoherent to decide that you might be wrong about thinking that you're making decisions?

What we think of as the

What we think of as the preferences and freely chosen actions of man are a spontaneous order that emerges from the interactions of a hundred trillion individuals – the cells.

Unless you postulate that cells have volition, I think the thin ice is under your feet, Mr. Wilcox. Your analogy cannot hold because the units in question are fundamentally different: in society, they are humans; in a human they are cells. The latter lacks some crucial characteristics of the former, primarily a faculty that grasps, interprets, and acts upon reality. The fact that during your analysis you can resolve your attention down to a smaller measurable unit than a human body doesn't mean those units are equivalent to an individual person.

Isn't saying that you cannot

Isn't saying that you cannot act self-contradictory?

The defining paradigm

The defining paradigm (example) of intentionality (specifically here, ability to intend and therefore to act) is the individual, so intantionality just *is* what the individual has. Now there have been *false theories* of intentionality which amount to a kind of mind-body dualism, but let us not confuse false theories of the phenomenon, with the phenomenon itself.

It does not matter that the individual is made up of cells which are made up of atoms. That only challenges a false theory of intentionality, perhaps it challenges the idea of the individual as "monad".

When people say that societies act, they do so on an analogy to individuals. The analogy is not a good one.

What are some differences between societies and individuals? One key difference is that natural selection works almost entirely on the level of the individual and at most on the level of very small group, especially family. By this I mean that the identifiable attributes that we see have a biological function that centers on the individual or family. For example, the beaks of various finches are adapted to the kinds of food they eat. The function of the shape of the beak is to facilitate eating a particular food, whose function is to nourish the individual, whose function is to prolong the life of the individual. The function of the beak is not to help bird society but to help the individual bird.

Similarly for the function of the brain. Similarly for the function of the individual brain.

There is a fellow called Howard Bloom (careful not to confuse him with the other Blooms) who thinks that there is such a thing as group selection and while his books are interesting I don't think they have really compelled a reassessment of the idea that natural selection works on the level of the individual (actually, the gene, but the functioning of the attributes tend to center on the individual and family).

A "society" that is genetically much like a human individual is a beehive. Here we see individual bees, but since the hive reproduces as a unit rather than the individual bees reproducing, it can in many respects be treated as an individual entity.

By cooperating each other, humans have formed societies which are superficially like ant colonies, but the phenomena of the market truly lead back to the self-interested actions of the individuals; the same cannot be said of many of the phenomena of the beehive - the individual bees are in a true sense acting for the good of the hive and not for the good of the self. Humans form aggregate phenomena such as prices and supply chains. The producion of a single pencil is famously said to be the outcome of massive cooperation between thousands of individuals who do not know about each other and do not particularly care about each other. Superficially, the production of a pencil distributed between thousands of people is like an ant-hill's collective formation of a trail between the nest and an open garbage can. The difference is that the evolution of the ant chemical signalling truly gives it a nest-centered function; there is no individual-ant-centered funcionality that fully explains the aggregate phenomenon. This is because ant nests, like bee hive, reproduce in something like the way individual humans reproduce and not in something like the way whole human societies reproduce.

Humans can of course deliberately organize themselves into hierarchical groups of people who do exhibit intentionality, but this is a special case, and artificial creation of a unit that can act as one. It does not apply to society, which is not created intentionally but arises as a side-effect of sorts of the intentions of the individuals forming it.

The reason that people think of societies and of groups generally as individuals, I argue, is not that that is a very useful picture, but that we thinkers are well-adapted to think about other individual humans, and we unsurprisingly try to apply our people skills to whole societies, with limited success. This has been done before with natural phenomena. For example, some of us tried to apply our people skills to thunder by inventing a god called Thor.

There is no Thor. Lightning does not behave as if it were an individual. Much the same can be said about societies. Even intentionally formed hierarchical groups act like individuals to a very limited degree.

A few comments in support of

A few comments in support of Kian's points -

Some have said that only individuals have volition. What about animals? If I tell a dog to go fetch, does it not "decide" to go after the stick as we decide to drive to work everyday? What about mice? The ideal mousetrap still hasn't been invented. What about bacteria? Phototropic bacteria react to sunlight and "act" to move toward it. What about plants? Sunflowers face the sun as it moves across the sky. What about cells? Neutrophils responds to all sorts of chemotactic agents.

Re: ants. As Kian said, selfish-gene theory explains the behavior of ants as being selfish at the gene level even if it's apparently selfless at the individual level. In fact, this is one of big holes in Rand's derivation of morality.

If an alien watched the earth from space, would it not believe that "humanity" was doing x or y? Would the growth of the internet to the most remote places on the earth not be seen as a nervous system, collecting, sorting, and filtering data, allowing learning to take place and alter future actions? Are Wikipedia, open-source, the "architecture of participation", and even the blogosphere not emergent entities in civilization? I know Kian's already read it, but I highly recommend Nonzero by Robert Wright as a book that deals with the macro-level view of societies as distinct entities in the same way that humans are distinct entities composed of individual cells.

Many libertarians are

Many libertarians are greatly fond of their "radical individualism" and our new friend Kian asks some very good questions about how this impacts our understanding of the world we live in.

Mr. Hueter responds, "...I think the thin ice is under your feet" because, as he claims, cells lack the ability to grasp, interpret, and act. Well, a lot of cells seem to have the "grasp" and "act" parts down pretty well (see Dawkins below) and the "interpret" part is pretty questionable. So maybe we might want to consider adding a new viewpoint to our arsenal? No one here is suggesting that human volition is not still substantially different from the "volition" of a cell or gene..... But only that the similarities are quite remarkable too.

I heard the man recently voted Britain's "leading intellectual," Richard Dawkins, two nights ago describe what he calls the "selfish gene" (he's on a book tour, don't miss him if he's coming to your town). While he is speaking metaphorically with the word "selfish"... he is very, very serious about the notion that genes act as if they were selfish, or as if their obsessive "goal" was the continuation of their line. Those who want to effectively communicate Hayek's notion of spontaneous order in the marketplace should not miss Dawkin's presentation of "spontaneous order" on a broader scale at your local book store. Doesn't your Hayekian sensibility like the title of Dawkins book The Blind Watchmaker?

So how does this effect our movement? Mr. Wilcox quotes Mr. Kennedy: "Only individuals can be persuaded." Which is true in a reductionist sense but quite untrue as generally applied. Let me give an example--we have all had the experience of leading someone thru a logical progression leading to a free market conclusion...only to have the listener agree to each step but dissent from the conclusion. :wall:

I had an English instructor at UCLA often exclaim that: "I don't know where you are wrong, I just know that you are!" This instructor was not oblivious to the social repercussions, should she adopt some "crazy libertarian point of view" and thus the change I was asking her to contemplate felt way too demanding for her social and her professional persona. Far better had I engaged her in the presence of her fellows so they could hear each other test my premises and they could exchange looks of approval or disapproval ... so they needn't feel so insecure as they test these new waters together.

Contrary to Mr. Kennedy, quite often individuals cannot be persuaded EXCEPT as they have the protection of their group. We've all had experiences at the mall that would confirm this popular notion.

So if a million libertarians are proponents of 'radical individualism' we might ask how this impacts the way they present themselves and how they are perceived. Of course you could go to any libertarian event and see how people dress and comport themselves. If most journalists dismiss us, could it be largely because they never get past our 'attitude' and 'persona' of even hear the quality of the analysis we present?

How long are we willing to keep blaming the stupidity or bull-headedness of the journalism community for our failure to effectively communicate our wonderful ideas? :deal:

Andy, I thought that anyone


I thought that anyone who knows about the fallacy of composition would also know about Descartes. Maybe not.

It's not incoherent to hold that I could be mistaken about my ability to make decisions. Certainly I _seem_ to decide things, but that is no guarantee that I actually did any deciding. You might, after all, be manipulating my brain such that I have the sensation of having deliberated and reached a conclusion or even just the memory of having deliberated and reached a conclusion even though in fact I never did deliberate and reach a conclusion. Nor is it incoherent to imagine that all of my 'deliberations' are of this sort.

You're right that it's incoherent to decide that I'm not thinking, but it's perfectly coherent to think that maybe I haven't really ever decided anything after all. Of course, I couldn't then know whether I'd actually decided that, either. That gets me to radical skepticism, but it's not really incoherent.

Kian, I don't know how


I don't know how helpful you'll find this, but a number of philosophers try to solve the problem you discuss (i.e., how do we get human agency out of a bunch of cells that themselves have no agency?) by introducing the concept of supervenience.

Essentially this is the same problem of how one gets life out of a collection of nonliving molecules. The biological, in other words, supervenes on the chemical. Moral theorists also talk sometimes about moral properties supervening on factual properties. What you are asking is how we get consciousness out of a collection of brain cells. The answer: minds supervene on brains.

Now I'm not entirely sure that I buy into the concept. I tend somewhat toward reductionism. Still, lots of people seem to accept the idea of supervenience. It's a pretty mysterious concept, though, and it raises more problems than it solves, I think. After all, if you can't tell me how it is that minds supervene on brains (and thus how agency can come about from a collection of cells), then you also can't guarantee me that some sort of group consciousness doesn't supervene on collections of individuals. You, of course, wouldn't be aware of such a thing any more than the cells in your brain are aware of your mind.

Anyway, it's at least something to think about as you ponder the issue.

Joe Miller: "It’s not

Joe Miller: "It’s not incoherent to hold that I could be mistaken about my ability to make decisions.

I don't see how an entity incapable of making decisions can hold views on things, or be mistaken about things.

When I have a bit more time

When I have a bit more time I'll respond in greater depth to all of your comments, but I wanted to pick one in particular right now from Constant that I thought of note. He claims that

“the phenomena of the market truly lead back to the self-interested actions of the individuals; the same cannot be said of many of the phenomena of the beehive - the individual bees are in a true sense acting for the good of the hive and not for the good of the self.”

I’m really glad you brought the bees into this. In Biology it is a classic example of ‘selflessness’ unveiled, one of the triumphs of the selfish gene theory. It was originally assumed that worker bees were acting to benefit the hive as a whole because they usually do not reproduce, instead raising and feeding the offspring of the queen. Because of the peculiarities of bee genetics, workers will be most related to their own sons (conceived asexually), then to those of their mother (the queen), and finally to those of their worker half-sisters (most bees are half sisters because the queen mixes the sperm of many male drones). If they wish to selfishly maximize the reproductive benefit of their ‘selfless’ activities, they would choose to first help their own sons, then those of their mother, and finally those of their worker half-sisters.

Bees are in fact all the time trying to do just this – they sneakily lay eggs when others aren’t looking. However, given the scarce resources available in the hive, all cannot be fed. This has led to the evolution of a decentralized method for policing the reproductive activities of other workers – they consume any eggs that aren’t scented with the queen’s pheromones. Given that all an individual worker's eggs have been consumed by other workers (for purely selfish reasons), the next most selfish choice of beneficiary is made – the children of the queen.

If for some reason this isn't working (maybe the queen is particularly poor genetic material, or something) cases of queen overthrow and partial hive secession have been witnessed. In the first, several worker bees may band together to assassinate the queen. When this occurs, they fight with each other to determine who the new queen will be. I’m not entirely sure how the proper pheromone gets produced after that. In the second, a subgroup of genetically related worker-bees walled off a section of the hive, laying eggs only in this area, and began raising a colony within the colony.


A drive by here to once

A drive by here to once again register my disdain for the horrible metaphor of the "selfish gene", one of the most destructive memes unleashed on the biological/genetics community in generations. So many bad hypotheses spawned from infelicitous anthropomorphization. Sigh.