The collective conscious

The materialistic view is that consciousness is an emergent property of a large number of interacting cells in the brain. The question we would all like to have answered is what is it exactly about these cells and interactions that give rise to consciousness. Does the number of cells matter?  Neuroscientists have shown that primates, dolphins and elephants possess self awareness and most would believe that they also have some form of consciousness.  I haven’t done a survey but perhaps a smaller set of scientists believe that this extends to all mammals and some birds. However, if you believe that not all animals have consciousness then what sets the cutoff scale? What is the difference between the animal with the smallest brain that has consciousness and the one with the largest brain that does not.

I think it is safe to say that most people don’t think that insects have consciousness. While an ant is, in the words of Utah mathematical biologist Fred Adler, “stupid but persistent”, an ant colony can seem quite “intelligent”. They are adaptive to changing conditions and some species of ants domesticate other species. Would an ant colony have a form of consciousness? How about a colony of bacteria? The Australian radio show “All in the mind”, had a fascinating episode on bacteria recently (see here).  Philosopher Pamela Lyon talked about the predatory soil bacterium myxococcus xanthus, which hunts in packs, lures and traps E. coli,  and exhibits division of labour.  Colonies have a self identity and individual mobs will war with other mobs.  Hence a colony of myxococcus could be said to have some form of self awareness, but does it also have a form of consciousness?

There are 100 billion or so neurons in the brain and perhaps 10 to 50 times as many glial cells.  I would venture that there are at least that many numbers of individual multicellular organisms on the planet earth, and many more if we include single cellular organisms. These organisms all interact in a complicated and nonlinear way.  So, could there be a form of collective consciousness of the life on earth?  James Lovelock proposed that life on earth was a super-organism he called Gaia but he was mostly talking about the biomass on earth self-regulating like a single organism. Well why stop there?  Maybe Gaia has a self-awareness and consciousness. Maybe there are multiple super organisms that can interact?  Maybe there are hierarchies of super-organisms?

How would we know if any of this is possible?  Is there a way for the collective consciousness to communicate with its components and vice versa?   Would Gaia know that her “cells” or at least some of them are conscious themselves?   There is no reason to believe that the two would be commensurate in any way.  Obviously time and spatial scales would be very different but there could be other reasons that would make communication difficult.

If we think of ourselves as the components of a collective consciousness then it really brings the question of free will to the fore.  What would it mean for Gaia to have free will?  If we have free will does that mean that Gaia could not have it and vice versa?


5 thoughts on “The collective conscious

  1. Hi,

    I first stopped after the 6th word. How is it possible to try to understand in a materialistic way something as ill-defined as consciousness? I would say that this is the very nature of consciousness that we should try to understand (deny?).
    As Marx and Engels put forward 150 years ago, we are full with myths about what we really are. To me, this “holy” consciousness is one of the things that were somehow invented through thousands of years.
    What I did not like in your presentation is that you start with a pre-defined notion of consciousness (that you did not explain much) and try to explain it instead of criticizing this notion and building a more appropriate one through your materialistic approach.

    But thanks a lot for the effort, I enjoy reading your blog.


  2. Hi Romain,

    Thanks for the criticism. I actually was expecting even harsher ones. You are absolutely correct that I do not have nor give a definition of consciousness. I would say my post was more of a thought experiment in that if you believe that a) consciousness exists and b) it arises from the collective interaction of many elements, then could you identify it from the point of view of one of the elements. Maybe this is one avenue towards a materialistic understanding.



  3. Hi!

    I think the key here (as you noted) is to clearly define “consciousness.” It’s a big question, but let me give it a shot.

    What’s the difference between “Pain” and the nerve impulses that run through our body when we experience it? Or “Love” and the endorphines that are pumped into our bloodstream when we see our beloved?

    The former is a subjective experience — the latter is an objective fact about reality.

    I think that’s the key to understanding this issue. An animal does not have a “thought” in a materialistic sense — it EXPERIENCES a thought in a subjective sense.

    The same with consciousness. We can’t touch, taste, or smell consciousness or free will. But we experience them every day.

    So is there a universal consciousness? Well, I’d argue, only if there’s someone there to experience it. I’ve never met this Gaia, but if I do, I’m open to the possibility that she experiences our universal consciousness:).


  4. “The Collective Conciousness” Dosent it have to excist,then how does one explain.Thousand consentrating on liting a lite bulb site unplug on a desk?or 2500 people in a room lowering the death rate in areas of Houston.I want to beliave we must all figure it out an tell the masses,these times are upon us,please it dose not matter what belief you adhere to.Human being have powers which are not defined.I hope you know of a movement ,other than Religious(not to say I dont believe),But Religion for years have become sepratists.Always being better than each other,different doctrines.If all of us can believe in being an living in our higher self,much will change,an we deffinatly need change.


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