Could society itself become self-aware? (i.e. develop a consciousness?)
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Posted 2/25/09 , edited 2/26/09
First off a clarification of the question: I'm not asking if we, as individuals, can become aware of ourselves, but rather if society as a whole can become aware of itself. Herein lies actually two questions:

1) Can the society be regarded as a lifeform, and
2) Can it be intelligent/self-aware?

The fundamental question one might ask is then: What really defines life? How does a society made of people differ from a person made of cells? Another question that might arise is whether or not we'd be able to recognize/conceive the existence of such macrobeings? Communicate?

Hopefully at least a few of you will spend time/has spent time wondering about this and will sit down and give your input in this small thought experiment of mine... please share your thoughts on the topic and not your lack thereof .

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24 / M / Mammago Garage, Y...
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Posted 2/25/09
Biologically speaking, it's not alive because it doesn't have all of the characteristics of life (homeostasis, metabolism, etc). The difference between cells that make up animals and humans that make up society is that our cells don't have any conscience on their own, but together they make up a conscious being; humans individual have their own conscience, but society itself doesn't have a conscience. It does have it's own identity though, just like each person and each individual cell in our bodies (they're all either a liver cell, blood cell, etc). The difference there is that society's identity is determined by what the majority of people agree upon, it may not necessarily be a characteristic of every person (like if the majority of people in a certain society like a certain type of music, it's not guaranteed that all people within that society like that type of music). In our bodies, each cell is assigned to a specific task and cannot change to do something else, and that task defines what role they will play in our bodies throughout their entire life. But humans can rise or fall through social ranks and can change how and how much they contribute to the overall function of society.

Society would be more like a colonial organism than a true multi-cellular organism. We all use each other to benefit ourselves, but we don't absolutely need each other in order to survive, we could all live completely independent of each other if necessary.
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Posted 2/25/09
[Hidden the parts I'm quoting with spoilers to shorten the post - a bit...]


Thx for answering, although your answer was somewhat expected; the classical outta the books response ...you're using some mighty fine words there so let's see if a simpleton like me can follow (feel free to correct if/when I'm mistaken)

Homeostasis I believe is the regulation of internal systems to maintain a stable condition i.e. a countermeasure to enviromental changes while metabolism involves the acquirement of energy and the building of new components within the structure considered. Let's take these definitions to a broader context than the mere textbook examples of breakdown and/or buildup of carbohydrates, proteins and fats...

A society develops mechanisms to ensure its own stability in form of inner control (e.g. law and law enforcers) and outer protection (e.g. military). Furthermore a society can build inner structures by utiziling outer ressources (the exact example of this require us to determine whether buildings etc. is part of society, in which case the acquirement of raw materials for housing etc. fulfills this requirement or if we restrict ourselves to consider society as only being comprised of people and their relations - in which case food, in the form of animals and plants rather than steaks and salads, is the fuel for our metabolism.)


Two objections come to mind:
1) Would it really matter if all our cells had conscience? As long as they cooperate as a whole and fulfill the requirements imposed upon them?
2) What does conscience mean? Even with conscience if you're presented with a limited number of options and some of them seem vastly more favorable than others, would it be that wrong to assume (statistical) predictability of your actions? Just as biochemical reactions (typically) follow energetically favorable pathways (which could be considered a sort of conscience) we too follow a way of living superimposed upon us by nature and society (nature sets the laws and society arranges the circumstances under which the laws are followed). It might then be nice to mention the rebel that follows his own way and conscience but how does that differ from the biochemical reaction which, albeit statistically unfavorable, follows a non-energetically favorable pathway?


I'll use the word characteristics instead of identity, since the identity seems to suggest for instance the society of the U.S., rather than its point of views... no matter how much the citizen of the U.S. wants to be the Society of Germany it won't change (like that'd ever happen)

Let's have a look at a random cell, creature, molecule, atom etc. then... it has its characteristics and thus its functionality due to the underlying structure(s). In the case of the molecule it's because its atoms and therein its electrons and nucleons agrees to be positioned as they are... they don't HAVE to do this, it's just preferable as a whole (it doesn't even have to be preferable for a specific electron to "like" a specific configuration, as long as all the others "like" it). This can easily be transferred to your most excellent example of music.


Slight changes: In society, each person is assigned to a specific task and rarily change to do something else, and that task defines what role they will play in society throughout their entire life.

Honestly think this part of your reply was the most unimaginative of it all; you seem to be getting too caught up on a specific example . ...life is restricted to humans (and other "classical" living things) because the functionality of our cells is limited i.e. isn't flexible? ...I'm not proposing the idea of society being a human (or any other classical living being), but rather the idea of society being a sort of lifeform which might attain self-awareness. On the other hand, playing along with your argument lets me write a few comments you probably already knew:

- Cells originate from stem cells which are non-specific in their functionality but when do they become fully specific and totally non-flexible? Like most natural events I suspect this limit to be nothing more than artificial and only attained in infinity when the cell has long since degenerated... provide enough energy and any process might be reversed (although it doesn't become chemically reversible)
- People originate from children which are non-specific in their functionality but do they become fully specific and totally non-flexible? Take a person who has worked as a carpenter for 30 years and try to make an academic out of him... you might want to change your view on how flexible people really are. Furthermore social inheritence (not sure whether this is the correct English term) and inborn talents makes sure that you cannot just "rise or fall" through social ranks or decide how much you'll contribute to society since you're somewhat (pre)programmed for a specific behaviour.


Fine with me if society is a colonial/multi-personal organism, humans are multi-cellular organisms, cells are multi-molecular organisms etc... doesn't really change the question

Again there's two arguments; one from each side... if I placed a person in a hostile environment (let's take a vulcano) would he/she survive? How about an environment where (s)he could barely survive? Surely the life-expectancy would be lowered, although he/she might make it for a while. Surely no trouble in a favorable environment... all of these arguments carry over to the case of cells (I'm too lazy, repeat 'em yourself).
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24 / M / Mammago Garage, Y...
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Posted 2/25/09

Phasespace wrote:

Homeostasis I believe is the regulation of internal systems to maintain a stable condition i.e. a countermeasure to enviromental changes while metabolism involves the acquirement of energy and the building of new components within the structure considered. Let's take these definitions to a broader context than the mere textbook examples of breakdown and/or buildup of carbohydrates, proteins and fats...

A society develops mechanisms to ensure its own stability in form of inner control (e.g. law and law enforcers) and outer protection (e.g. military). Furthermore a society can build inner structures by utiziling outer ressources (the exact example of this require us to determine whether buildings etc. is part of society, in which case the acquirement of raw materials for housing etc. fulfills this requirement or if we restrict ourselves to consider society as only being comprised of people and their relations - in which case food, in the form of animals and plants rather than steaks and salads, is the fuel for our metabolism.)

I can see how homeostasis applies to society, but as far as metabolism goes I don't think it can be considered similar to an organism's metabolism. But in order for me to elaborate on that, we'd have to define exactly what society is, whether it includes physical objects and phenomena like buildings and the flow of currency, or if it is simply a pattern of human interactions. No matter what "society" is, there is one important biological function that it can't do: reproduce. Smaller societies may break off from larger ones, but most likely that smaller society will be drastically different from the larger one (which is most likely the reason why they split) and cannot truly be considered it's "offspring."



Two objections come to mind:
1) Would it really matter if all our cells had conscience? As long as they cooperate as a whole and fulfill the requirements imposed upon them?
2) What does conscience mean? Even with conscience if you're presented with a limited number of options and some of them seem vastly more favorable than others, would it be that wrong to assume (statistical) predictability of your actions? Just as biochemical reactions (typically) follow energetically favorable pathways (which could be considered a sort of conscience) we too follow a way of living superimposed upon us by nature and society (nature sets the laws and society arranges the circumstances under which the laws are followed). It might then be nice to mention the rebel that follows his own way and conscience but how does that differ from the biochemical reaction which, albeit statistically unfavorable, follows a non-energetically favorable pathway?

1.In this scenario, the best definition of conscience would be a person's willpower or ability to make decisions, which also comes with the ability to decide what is right and wrong. If all of our cells had a conscience then there would be the possibility of them deciding to not perform their function because they feel that they deserve to do something better or that their task goes against their beliefs. For example, if the cells in our large intestine decided that they didn't like the "demeaning" task of storing our waste, it could decide to not accept the waste that the small intestine dumps off on it, which would eventually lead to us dying.
2. I can't give a solid answer to this since I slept through most of chemistry, but as far as I know, every time two substances that are able to react come in contact with another, they will always react with one another because they are bound by natural laws. We are bound by laws of society as well, but we have the ability, a.k.a a conscience, to decide not to follow those laws. Also, the laws of society are always changing to fit the circumstances, but, as far as I know, every time you ignite gasoline it will always cause an explosion, there will never be a case where the substances "decide" that that isn't a good time to start an explosion.



Let's have a look at a random cell, creature, molecule, atom etc. then... it has its characteristics and thus its functionality due to the underlying structure(s). In the case of the molecule it's because its atoms and therein its electrons and nucleons agrees to be positioned as they are... they don't HAVE to do this, it's just preferable as a whole (it doesn't even have to be preferable for a specific electron to "like" a specific configuration, as long as all the others "like" it). This can easily be transferred to your most excellent example of music.

I don't think I really get what you're saying, but I think it's "atoms are not forced to be arranged a specific way, so they decide to be that way." If that's what you're saying then I have to disagree, they arrange that way because they happened (by chance) to come in contact with certain other atoms, and there are natural laws that state "if atom x meets atom y then they will arrange in a specific way." It would only be a decision if they had the ability to arrange in a different way, and, like I said earlier, gasoline cannot decide to ignore fire and not cause an explosion.



Slight changes: In society, each person is assigned to a specific task and rarily change to do something else, and that task defines what role they will play in society throughout their entire life.

"Rarely" is more often than "never," which is the case with cells.


...I'm not proposing the idea of society being a human (or any other classical living being)

Well then I have no reason to continue this, since this is what I assumed you were trying to do. But I'll finish my response anyway because I have nothing better to do with my life.


but rather the idea of society being a sort of lifeform which might attain self-awareness.

It's hard for me to imagine anything besides an animal being self-aware, which is why I only looked at it from the perspective of natural sciences.


- Cells originate from stem cells which are non-specific in their functionality but when do they become fully specific and totally non-flexible? Like most natural events I suspect this limit to be nothing more than artificial and only attained in infinity when the cell has long since degenerated... provide enough energy and any process might be reversed (although it doesn't become chemically reversible)

Naturally, all animal cells (or most in some animals) cannot change their function once they differentiate. A skin cell will always be a skin cell, a brain cell will always be a brain cell, etc. But I think there is being research done to find a way to change any cell within a person back into a stem-cell, I can't remember if it's already been done or not, but if it's possible then it is only through human intervention.


- People originate from children which are non-specific in their functionality but do they become fully specific and totally non-flexible? Take a person who has worked as a carpenter for 30 years and try to make an academic out of him... you might want to change your view on how flexible people really are. Furthermore social inheritence (not sure whether this is the correct English term) and inborn talents makes sure that you cannot just "rise or fall" through social ranks or decide how much you'll contribute to society since you're somewhat (pre)programmed for a specific behaviour.

A carpenter may not be able to become an astro-physicist, but he may be able to become a plumber or an electrician or whatever. A cashier or a waitress could get an education and become a teacher or an author, some guy who doesn't work and lives in his mom's basement could discover some hidden talent and become a celebrity. While we are somewhat limited in what we can become, we still have options, something that the cells within us do not have.



Fine with me if society is a colonial/multi-personal organism, humans are multi-cellular organisms, cells are multi-molecular organisms etc... doesn't really change the question

Yes it does, colonial organisms aren't really a true, single organism. It would be like calling a pile of bricks a building.


Again there's two arguments; one from each side... if I placed a person in a hostile environment (let's take a vulcano) would he/she survive? How about an environment where (s)he could barely survive? Surely the life-expectancy would be lowered, although he/she might make it for a while. Surely no trouble in a favorable environment... all of these arguments carry over to the case of cells (I'm too lazy, repeat 'em yourself).


If there is a hostile environment in which one person cannot survive on their own, like a desert, then chances are that a whole group of people cooperating couldn't live in that environment either since the reason why the 1 person couldn't live was a lack of resources instead of a lack of ability to obtain those resources, which is the reason why we cooperate with each other.

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Posted 2/25/09
Well, if you read Auguste Comte's theory (he is the coiner of sociology), he asserts that a society is an organism. Herbert Spencer (the coiner of "survival of the fittest") also supported this theory. Both of them stated that a society is an organism; not necessarily alive but comparable to an organism that comes from a simple community to a complex society. Well, Spencer related it to Darwin's Evolution Theory so that is pretty much the basic idea of it.
Try using searching for Comte and Spencer on the web to see more details about them.
Posted 3/30/09
nope
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Posted 3/30/09 , edited 3/30/09
You've got me thinking now, but from plain ignorance and lack of education I couldn't figure out any answers at all, but from what I read I'd say no, too many factors come into play like how we individually eat, play, die, sleep, have preferences, etc. I'm not a genius or anything close to it okay? This is the best I could do.
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