A Swarm Mind and the Chinese Nation

I just saw a fascinating PBS documentary called What Animals are Thinking. One of the scenes was the hive of honey bees trying to decide which place to move to as its new home. Some experts in this documentary suggested a striking parallel between how a hive of bees makes decisions and how our brain makes decisions. The parallel between both of them is that both consist of excitation and inhibitions. Our brain is made out of neurons that form a network of neurons called a neural circuit. When a neural circuit is activated it enters in a state of excitation. However, there are other neural circuits that are also in a state of excitation, but these neural circuits are competing with each other. When these neural circuits are in a state of excitation, they also try to inhibit one another. The dominant neural circuit succeed in inhibiting another neural circuit and consequently succeeds in remaining in a state of excitation. Similarly, there are inhibitions and excitation among bees as they try to communicate with each other. In the bee experiment, there are at least two group of bees from the same hive. One group finds a potential home A with a large entrance, whereas another group finds a potential home B with a small entrance.  The latter group is dominant, since bees in general favor a small entrance, which makes their new home less conspicuous to future predators. Both sides try to waggle dance in an angle that points to their potential home, which communicates information to their peers, but the dominant side tries to inhibit the other from waggling. Soon, when most bees receive an information to their new home, they ultimately decide to move to their new home. This phenomenon is called swarm intelligence, which is the theory that a collective of non-intelligent agents can constitute a collective intelligence. Perhaps individual neurons are a case of swarm intelligence, since each individual neuron are non-intelligent and form neural circuits to perform intelligent tasks. In fact, this insight was also pointed out by a neurobiologist Thomas D. Seeley.

When this parallel was drawn in the documentary, I also notice another parallel: Ned Block’s Chinese Nation. For those of you who don’t know Ned Bock’s Chinese Nation, it is essentially a thought experiment proposed by Ned Block as an objection against Functionalism. In this thought experiment, there is at least a billion Chinese citizens who are using their walkie talkie to send radio signals to each other in terms of inputs and outputs that correspond to how mental states function. If Functionalism is true, then an entire Chinese population constitutes a mind. But this would sound so counter-intuitive, because such a mind wouldn’t seem to have a conscious qualitative experience. This thought experiment was suppose to be a disturbing objection against a Functionalist who wouldn’t think that an entire Chinese nation has a mind.

But how does Block’s Chinese Nation parallel with a hive of bees? In a Chinese nation thought experiment, perhaps excitation is a successful transmission of radio signals, whereas inhibition is when a radio signal is not transmitted. In this sense, a Chinese nation looks a lot like a hive of bees engaging in excitation and inhibition. Both are probably a case of swarm intelligence. If the functions of mental states are essentially (but not only) excitation and inhibitions , then perhaps we really do have something like a Chinese Nation, except its not the citizens of China, but rather a collective swarm of bees. Instead of having an abstract and remote scenario that only occurs in a thought experiment, we might have a real scenario that is analogous to the Chinese Nation thought experiment. If functionalism is true and the function of mental states consists of excitation and/or inhibition, then a swarm of bees essentially constitutes a single mind. After all, a group of bees engages in excitation and inhibition in order to get to a certain outcome, which is to find which place to inhabit as their new home. So, if there is a parallel between a swarm of bees and a Chinese nation thought experiment, then a swarm of bees might also count as a mind under Functionalism.

I’m not claiming that a swarm of bees is in fact a mind, but rather a functionalist would have to consider a possibility that a multiple parallels between a swarm of bees and functions of our mental states (or neural circuits) might warrant a conclusion that a swarm of bees would constitute a single mind. The only problem I suspect is whether or not there are sufficient parallels between both a swarm of bees and our brain. After all, there is still a lot we need to learn about the brain, so perhaps such parallels are superficial at best. For now, I’m only entertaining a thought that a swarm of bees might constitute a mind.


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