Humans belong to groups (more the way dogs do, than cats); the paradox of distributed consciousness and mandatory competition

Okay, one of the moral imperatives I get bombarded with is to join a cause larger than myself.

And, I can’t claim to be part of Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation (but neither can many young adults in the not so wild West today).

In fact, as an “unbalanced personality” in the world of the Paul Rosenfels Community (or the Ninth Street Center of the 1970s through 1991) it’s very important to me to follow goals that I choose and develop myself.

That’s one reason why I don’t sign up to brand myself with “other people’s causes” or to enter contests, say selling pies for Food and Friends (instead I buy more than one and use the extras for potlucks).

And I could say I wish I had accomplished more in my life in individual sport – chess, which deteriorated for me somewhat once I became a self-published author and blogger.  (I do admire Magnus Carlsen, but so does Donald Trump, from what I hear.)   In chess, only your own mistakes can beat you.  Giving away the opposition in an endgame isn’t the same thing as hanging a slider as a MLB pitcher.

But, we always belong to something (as Martin Fowler maintained in his 2014 book (“You Always Belonged and You Always Will: A Philosophy of Belonging”).  Some of these we don’t have a lot of choice about.  For example the family you are born into, or religion, or nationality, or tribe.

As we become adults we hopefully make progress in choosing our own connections, but we often find that once we do, we need to respect to “social hierarchy” of our new allegiances, however benevolent their intentions at the outset. That’s often hard for me to accept.

But “groups” serve a purpose.  They give individuals support and backup, so they don’t remain accidents waiting to happen. (Marriage does that, of course, which is one reason, as Jonathan Rauch argued in the 1990s, gay marriage became important to LGBTQ people.)  And they give us purposes larger than ourselves.  But, these purposes come at the partial cost of loss of some independence in fine tuning our own beliefs or over-analyzing the logical inconsistences in positions taken by groups to benefit their members.  An expectation that singleton individuals with some privilege (like me) will report to some sort of structured community engagement might be viewed as a major “eusocial” tool against inequality.

In practice, individuals share some of the moral responsibility and consequences, sometimes very personally, of the actions of the groups to which they belong, whether by complete free will or not.

Yet, individuals seem to find some relief in the prospect of a little “distributed consciousness”.  We know this happens in other animals (even dolphins), although the modern idea of IIT or “integrated information theory” may make this hard to see.

Before (like on June 6), I’ve noted that, in the larger space-time sense of modern physics and string theory, after passing of an individual’s life, the information set produced by that life still exists indefinitely.  Is that the basis for a “soul”?  But if there is some sort of distributed consciousness at the group level (even family lineage), does it have access to this information set?

Music may provide a clue to “cosmic consciousness”, more so than visual art (even images of danganonpa dolls) because it requires the brain to span time.  Music seems to provide an alternative outlet for the “emotional body” when it engages the brain in its own logical progressions, from Back to Beethoven to the romantics and moderns.  The controversy over how to end Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony (which of two competing concepts did Bruckner intend for his coda for all his composition?) seems to engage the heart as well as mind.  What, then, to make of the group experience in music like, say, hip-hop on the disco floor, or songs of praise in church, particularly singing the same verse in unison over and over again to get some sort of religious experience.  There are other ways to caste the experience of sound and music, like hemi-sync at the Monroe Institute, which I have not really experienced yet.

There’s one other ancillary point here:  the Paradox of Involuntary Competition. That is, once you join a group, you compete with others in the group for status, even if your purpose was “functionably” communal (Nov. 6)    That could lead the powers-that-be in a group to want to keep it small and exclusive (like those “closed talk groups” at the Ninth Street Center in the 1970s, an interview for which led to a major personal confrontation in October 1974, so shortly soon after I had moved into the Village).  But it’s just as often that the leadership wants the group to be so valuable that everyone else must try to get in and play – the whole “no spectators” problem like in the movie “Rebirth”).  That ultimately can compare to the model particularly for left-wing authoritarianism. There’s a curious analogy to the problems I had in the dorms at William and Mary that fall of 1961. I would have thought at other boys – most of all my roommate – would be relieved that I wouldn’t provide any romantic competition for girl friends .  That general expectation may have been diluted by the fact that at the time the male student body was about twice the female. But the real point was that the less secure boys (about their own “maleness” which does not always equate to masculinity, even in the eyes of Milo Yiannopoulos) wanted me to provide the reassurance that there really is someone (female, of the opposite sex) for everyone, that everyone can have a family linage and live forever however vicariously.

(Posted: Wednesday, November 8, 2017 at 9:30 PM EDT)

Rooting for a pro-sports team is a primitive example of “belonging”, even tribalism

Here’s a good example of “belonging” from an individualist.

I’ve often followed baseball teams closely, and sometimes pro-football, even though I don’t play sports well.

I guess I was introduced to baseball around 1953, seeing the Senators lose an extra inning game on television at the old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland.  A win for your team was a temporary fix, a chanc to “feel good”.

But the Washington Senators were bad, really bad, in the 1950s, from 1954 on.  In 1958, they had an interesting start (sweeping a Memorial Day doubleheader in Yankee Stadium), but ended the season with 13 straight losses, where they scored few runs.  (in one stretch they lost five games by the score of 2-0).  In 1959, they again started fair, but lost 18 in  run in July  and August, including all 14 games on a “western trip”.  I remember a Post headline at the barber shop, “A’s hop on Pascual too, 6-1”.

The Griffith family owned the team, and didn’t care.  The racism in Washington at the time affected the attitude toward the team and led to low attendance. The Senators sometimes had fair home run power, but little depth.  They were very vulnerable to injuries, as they could not put replacements on the field capable of hitting at a major league level.

The injury issue in professional sports gives us a lesson in existentialism. Even if a key home run slugger was beaned deliberately and is out for the season, his team gets no part credit for the fact that the loss was caused by someone else’s misconduct or malice.  Welcome to real life.

As I spent summers in Kipton, Ohio (the family drove out at the end of June every year, as my father then left me and mother there with grandmother and other relatives as he then worked traveling as a manufacturer’s representative – salesmanship again). So mother took us to baseball games in the Mistake by the Lake when the Senators came to Cleveland – one year the Senators actually won, behind Pascual, 4-0.  Another year Herb Score shut them out, 11-0.  I remember that dippy symmetrical wire fence in the Cleveland outfield.   We invented all kinds of ways to play whiffeball and variations of baseball with improvised fields on the Ohio farm, even with cardboard stadiums that we made ourselves to play like pinballs.

The Senators finished a good year finally as I entered my last year of high school, and then suddenly moved to Minnesota.  Washington got an expansion team, “The New Senators”.  There were predictions “they won’t be good enough”.  Well, the Senators swept the Twins at home the weekend I was on the Mount Washington NH field trip, and were 30-30 the day I graduated valedictorian from high school.  My math teacher (trig) rooted for them passionately.  But then the Senators went to Boston and got swept.  In a Sunday afternoon double header first game, which I watched at a mini church retreat in rural Maryland, the new Senators led 12-5 in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and managed to lose 13-12.  The new Senators never recovered from that game, and lost 70 of their last 101 games, finishing 61-100.

When I was back in DC in 1971 working for the Navy Department, I woke up one October morning to a Washington again without baseball  Bob Short sold them out.  They became the Texas Rangers.

Expansion teams (as the Kansas City Royals have often proved with their small ball) tended to do better than expected over the years.  I would eventually get to follow the Texas Rangers (when I lived in Dallas from 1979-1988) and the Minnesota Twins (when I lived in Minneapolis 1997-2003).

All of this will fit in later when I talk further about “belonging to the group”   This really matter when things go south “for the individual”.  It may very well be everything in the afterlife.

(Posted: Tuesday, July 11, 2017 at 11:45 PM EDT)


Does distributed consciousness really exist with humans? If so, that matters

We often hear loose allegations in the literature about “distributed consciousness” among some animals. In different contexts, we may hear the term used about social insects (bee and ant colonies), siphonophores (like the Portuguese Man-o-War), all the way to mammals who live in social groups.  Orcas (the film “Blackfish“) are said to experience a “distributed sense of self”.

I wonder about the same idea for human society.  Is an extended family, a tribe, a clan, or small nation in some sense conscious?  Authoritarian leaders (whether religious, as in the Islamic world, or secular, as with Vladimir Putin) sometimes talk this way.

One paper that caught my attention recently was a British paper by Johnathan CW Edwards from University College, London.  The paper proposes that every cell in your body has a “copy” or image of your consciousness (rather like every computer in a network having a copy of everything in a network cloud, and constantly refreshing it, rather like the inverse of a product like Carbonite or iCloud).  But the sentience that you experience as “you” has something to do with the “binding” of all of these copies back.  As individual cells dies, other new cells can download the copies.  He then goes on to a long discussion of “the binding problem”.   (Along these lines, the “consciousness” of cephalopods like the octopus (Atlantic; NY Times) becomes interesting to compare with that of a mammal like me;  there is also research that animals like crows don’t need a cerebral cortex like ours to be very smart and sentient.)  Even plants are said to have cellular consciousness (I once saw how a wild grape vine can attach itself to my own cable line, and PBS Nature has a series “Plants Behaving Badly“.)

Parts of the human body sometimes seem to have their own identities — involuntary muscles, twitches, reflexes, and “muscle memory” of events. That would really be strong in a decentralized animal like the octopus.

There seems to exist a loose idea, that if individuals having consciousness (uploading to sentience) bond together with enough solidarity, the larger group will take on sentience of its own.  This idea has certainly been explored in science fiction, like Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End”, a big miniseries at the end of 2015.  It isn’t hard to see that this idea can appeal to collectivistic or authoritarian politicians and theologians.

What could go into such “binding” of a group consciousness?  The most obvious element would be the common DNA (nuclear and even mitochondrial) of extended families.  Do some wild animals sense this?  In a pride, the alpha-male lion sometimes kills the cubs of rival males so his own genes propagate, as if he were competing for his own group-uploaded vicarious immortality.  With a little thought, you can see how this could feed homophobia.  I am an only child.  You can imagine what my parents could have though in the fall of 1961 when they learned from a college dean that I had said I am gay.  The idea of “loyalty to blood” came out in an unusual way in an episode of the 2003 series “Jake 2.0”, about a young man accidentally “infected” with nanobots and getting superpowers.

But people in religious, spiritual or meditation practices often deny that blood lineage matters all that much, saying there are many other ways to develop connections to people, that survive mortality. Much of this practice seems to have to do with the willingness to disband old limitations on the ability to love and perceive people in terms of pre-learned physical standards of appearance.  I do see, sometimes in social media, calls to openness to connections to people in need (or who have had permanent losses, sometimes caused by the violence of others), that would not have been contemplated in the more restrictive and socially conservative culture in which I grew up in the 50s and early 60s.  In my day, there was more an attitude of “it is what it is”, and “what you see is what you get”.

In conjunction with a view of afterlife that I discussed  June 6, it seems that strong connections with others in groups while living may be the only way you own “microverse” can keep up after you’re “gone”.  So there may be something at stake when whole groups or families are destroyed.  The “souls” of those who have gone will no longer have others to keep up with.  Maybe this idea does feed some religious fundamentalism, and the idea that what others do really does matter for your own collective “eternity”.

How do you become “connected” to a group?  I can think of perhaps silly examples.  One is rooting for a professional sports team and feeling let down when the team blows a won game (because of a weak bullpen in baseball – the Washington Nationals).  The only thing I can do about it is to start playing chess more again and hold on to my own endgames.

But more challenging are the calls to give up one’s own internal crutches in personal fantasy(as a legacy of my days at NIH in 1962).  The “Tribunals” that I skipped out on that lost fall semester at William and Mary in the fall of 1961 provides one example.  Sitting in the barber’s chair for “Be Brave and Shave” sessions for cancer patients, rather than just filming other people stepping up to it, could provide another example.  I remember that buzz cut the first morning of Basic Training at Fort Jackson in 1968, and the idea of “unit cohesion” as explored in the film “The Strange History of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’”. It does sound like sometimes one is called upon to suspend the old sense of individual self, with all its external trappings, because not of these are permanent anyway.

Indeed, I do appreciate different senses of myself at different times, in dreams, before getting up in the morning, and once involved with the activities of the day, where the momentum of my established drives and initiatives take over.  Yet, maybe we all have the feeling sometimes, “Why am I still doing this?”  The next little brain fix, whether eusocial (a Nationals win without blowing a lead in the ninth), or individual (a chess win, after your opponent blunders and give you the opposition in a king-and-pawn ending), or fantasy-based (the hidden arousal when an icon from my life shows up in shorts at church on Sunday morning, as if to show off a standard of physical perfection for everyone else to follow – “I’m the ocelot without clay feet”) – all of these invoke variations of the former self that can become blurred or lost by absorption into the consciousness of the group.

I’m left with the question, can I become someone other than who I am?  Stay tuned.

(Posted: Thursday, June 15, 2017, at 12 noon EDT)