The original China Brain thought experiment imagines that each person in China uses a cell-phone or other device along with a list of numbers and instructions to simulate one neuron in the human brain. For the purposes of this post I will be assuming that a China Brain is analogous enough to a human brain - perhaps supposing an increased number of simulated neurons per person - to generate a conscious entity capable of thought.
When I first heard about this, it totally fascinated me, but I saw no obvious way to go forward, until I read Meditations on Moloch and Person-moment Affecting Views. I am taking a lot of obvious inspiration from the former (such as the alliteration) but the latter was a necessary piece as well.
If we grant that a thoroughly interconnected and efficiently organized nation can generate a mind, then what happens as we adjust the dials on connectedness and organization?
As a quick sanity check, we already know that there exists a sliding scale of consciousness - the animal kingdom. It seems reasonable to think that dolphins and chimps are closer to humans on the Great Scale of Being (that was a pun and not an ethical assertion) and that ants and bees are probably somewhere on there, just significantly further to the left. So, in principle, if a China Brain - which for our purposes will include any arrangement of multiple human beings sufficient to simulate a single conscious entity, not just one that simulates human brains - is somewhere on the right next to humans, we should be able to to at least consider where we would place other, more diffuse or chaotic groups of humans.
In the spirit of simulating certain human brains, let's skip better examples and jump straight to America -
Is America a mind? A good reason to suspect that the answer is no is that the actual parts are constantly shifting. In the interest of simplifying the question and dissolving that objection, "America" shall refer to all residents of the United States of America who are reasonably likely to continue to be residents in the near future. The problem no slightly less ill-defined, let us consider some points in favor of an affirmative response:
- A majority of America's parts are aware of and accept the existence of America as a meaningful unit
- Parts of America are constantly commenting on desirable and undesirable traits of America and reflecting on the nature and properties of it. Ahem
- The subset of parts of America that exerts the greatest disproportionate influence on the whole of America is regularly redefined by a function that seeks to approximate the vector average of the interests of all of a significant fraction of all other parts.
- Parts of America deliberately converge on common understandings of phenomena, even when the actual details do not warrant such convergence, and encourage and train other parts to do so
- The aforementioned disportionately powerful subset (i.e. the federal government) presents a public face as a single unified being with a single unified interest, and interacts with other nations on that basis
- Most parts (be they people or low-level organizations) are reasonably capable of contacting a large number of other parts
While this is all true, and while the mind explanation might serve as a decent abstraction, the similarities break down fairly quickly. America is just not focused, united, or stable over time to really warrant a comparison to human beings, and while it is capable of self-reference, the extent of the self-reference is relatively shallow. Another problem might be the miniscule extent of goal-orientation. America is best modeled as thousands of competing interests with occasional agreement that certain ideas are even worthy of thought, not a single being with a clear goal. Lastly, even though Americans are connected, they are not connected enough (yet) to form bonds as a nation that approach interpersonal bonds in strength.
As counterintuitive as it might be, however, I would label America as a sort of conscious being, given that it displays some goal-oriented behavior, self-awareness and capacity for directed self-modification, and a national identity (if an unstable and inconsistent one).
(I chose America for the sake of ease of writing, I think this all generalizes)
So in summary, relaxing constraints on the China Brain experiment to match real life produces nations which can only weakly be described as constituting minds, in the same way that simplifying the architecture of the human brain produces animals which are only barely sentient (such as small insects, etc).
I grant that this analysis is cursory and informal at best, but I would like to get this discussion going. What levels of organization in humans, if any, are mind-like? And what about non-humans, such as ant colonies and beehives? (The above pretty optimistically assumes that any other human will read this post)