Tuesday, May 18, 2010

E Pluribus Unum

How is it that the many are made one?

Traditionally, the many are made one through a unified purpose, common beliefs, and/or common characteristics. The Church, for example, has sought to achieve unity in truth, uniting around the common goal of right worship and/or right living as well as the common beliefs of biblical orthodoxy.

In common political discussions, it is evident that people desire unity under some common idea or goal. People tend to believe that what the government spends money on is supposed to represent the common goals of our society. If we spend a lot on the military and not enough on education, this means the society cares too much about war and not enough about teaching our children.

If we go to the human brain, as I blogged a few days ago, we see that the human mind is the result of the complex inner working of a neural network. Suppose we examine a single brain cell. Can it understand English? Can it do mathematics? Can it think about God or philosophy? Assuredly no. A single neuron is not capable of human thought. In fact, human thought is only possible when neurons work together as a complex system.

But what are brain cells actually doing? Are they working together toward a common goal which each of them has in mind? Not remotely. A brain cell does not have a mind; it is rather a very minuscule piece of a vast and complicated network that constitutes a mind. Explaining the behavior of the whole brain to an individual brain cell is obviously sheer madness.

As I understand it, the general goal of each brain cell is actually to do nothing more than maximize the amount of energy it receives. No one brain cell is making decisions on a macro level; yet the collective behavior of all these brain cells constitutes, well, you--your personality, your insights, your creativity, your beliefs, and even your will. That is my understanding.

Now suppose we say that all these neurons should work together, unite around a single common purpose. Since each brain cell understands nothing more than how to maximize the energy it receives, this common purpose would have nothing to do with anything other than maximizing the energy that individual cells receive. If brain cells worked together toward this task, you might have an interesting collection of cells--but you would not have a brain. Human thought actually depends on brain cells behaving entirely locally, each of them having no sense of what human thought even is, much less how to achieve it.

So it is, I believe, with society. We are tempted to think that we ought to unite human beings around common goals--such as, in politics, providing health care and education to all, or in religion, determining what is the most sound doctrine. But these are all human goals. Just as human thought is infinitely far above the activity of a single neuron, so the potential output of a human society is infinitely far above human thought.

What exactly that potential output is, I cannot explain, for I can only explain what human thought can absorb. This makes it difficult for us humans to accept as a legitimate goal. Brain cells have the advantage of having very little choice in the matter. They develop in an environment in which proper relationships between cells is already established, and although each cell is really only aware that it is maximizing its own energy efficiency, yet the collective result is the miracle of intelligence.

Therefore it seems to me that one of the dangers to human society is this desire we have to make human decisions collectively. We are like little neurons who decide to run the brain democratically. The result is one big blob that hardly even begins to realize the true potential of the collective.

If we believe in the many being one, we need to ask, one what? Many humans becoming one human? The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is stated as "one God in three persons," not "one person in three persons" or "one God in three Gods." Similarly, the goal of human society should simply be, "many humans, one society." The society does not have goals and purposes as humans have goals and purposes. Its goals and purposes are as far out of the reach of a human being as those of a human being are out of the reach of a single cell.

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