Hive Minds and Consciousness

This is my last post on hive minds. Setting aside cultural analyses or speculations about personalities, the concept of a hive mind raises a far deeper question. This question is, in fact, probably among the top 5 most basic and most baffling questions of metaphysics. It is this:

“What physical interactions between two conscious experiences cause there to be a single conscious experience of which the two are parts?”

Or more concisely, “What interactions between consciousnesses unify them?”

We have two major data for answering this question. On the one hand, we know that the sort of interactions that go on inside a human brain, and probably inside the brains of other complex animals, do unify consciousness. On the other hand, we know that almost every other sort of interaction we’re familiar with, doesn’t.

That is – even though at least some parts of a brain are demonstrably capable of consciousness without other parts (because people can lose those parts, in accidents etc., and remain conscious), when we have both parts present, we appear to have only one, integrated, stream of consciousness.

I who am thinking these thoughts now am not my left frontal lobe, manipulating my parietal lobes in order to control my arms – I am, it would seem, my whole brain together.

But when two brains interact, they apparently have two distinct streams of consciousness. Even when they are face-to-face, sending signals via. mouths and ears in a fraction of a second, they don’t become a single unified consciousness.

(Note that for this reason, it seems likely that eusocial insects don’t really have a hive mind – ants, termites, etc. interact by means like smell, which probably don’t unify consciousness)

Now, it might be that neural interactions are the only unifying interaction that’s possible in the whole universe – myelinated axons, sodium ion channels, etc. are just so amazing that they perform this unique feat. But that would seem inexplicable and somewhat magical: why should this particular configuration of atom and no other have this amazing result?

So I’ll presume that the true answer is more systematic than this, and will involve thinking about possibilities like:

1) a cable linking two brains, made out of copper wires;

2) a cable linking two brains, made out of nerve fibres;

3) a radio link between two brains, ‘beaming’ information from an implant in one head to an implant in the other at the speed of light.

Now, I’m not at all suggesting I have an answer to this question. But I am going to suggest that, if we do assume a generally systematic universe with consciousness as a systematic feature, the problem gets really really weird.

Because the difference between within-brain interactions and all other interactions is only a matter of degree. In principle, all that happens in any of these interactions is that particles of matter convey energy to other particles of matter.

What’s really striking about within-brain interactions is that they are 1) very fast, 2) very informationally rich/dense, 3) very organised. But they also 1) take up some time, 2) have limits on information flow, and 3) are not perfectly organised.

If it’s only a matter of degree, then that suggests that unified consciousness may also be only a difference of degree – that two streams of consciousness might be somewhat unified, but not entirely: somewhat a single stream, and somewhat two streams.

But that’s really hard to make sense of or to imagine. And what’s worse is that this means there might be a single, unified, stream of consciousness between me and you right now, but to such a fantastically weak degree that we hardly notice. That’s even more challenging to make sense of. It may even require a revolution in the whole idea of consciousness.

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