Philosophy Phriday: Unity and Antnihilation

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the forty-ninth contribution in the series, submitted by Jack Samuel.

Unity and Antnihilation 

Ants do things together. So do humans, though not quite in the same way. Ants do nearly everything together, but then, come to think of it, this is true of humans as well, though it’s easy to forget. (I’m working toward pointing out a difference.) The togetherness of ant activity is so thoroughgoing, in fact, that it has led many (including many past contributors to this blog) to wonder whether there mightn’t be some sense in which their togetherness constitutes a new entity: a colony, itself conceived of as an individual (perhaps, following Wilson and Hölldobler, a “superorganism”, which can be the subject of more perspicuous evolutionary explanations than a collection of individuals, just as organisms make better explanatory subjects than collections of atoms) of which we might predicate activities, aims, plans, and intentions, or whatever version of these we are prepared to predicate of non-human animals, if we harbor any rationalistic scruples against attributing genuine intentions to creatures lacking logos.

Watch who you call “lacking logos”, dude. Photo: Alex Wild

Is this more than a metaphor? Is the colony really, truly, an individual on its own, or is this just a shorthand for speaking of the combined activities of the ants that constitute it? One of the most provocative ways of saying “yes” is to hold, with Eric Schwitzgebel, that a group of insects of sufficient functional complexity could constitute an individual, conscious mind, one of which we could confidently predicate full-blooded, rational mental states like the ones we attribute to one another. (This is not a special feature of insects – Schwitzgebel makes similar claims about any number of other complex collectives, like countries, which he thinks can have beliefs of their own.) An extremist of the opposite sensibility might insist, noting the hardness of her nose and the metaphysical extravagance of the alternative, that the colony is really nothing “over and above” a bunch of individual ants, going about their business, albeit with an impressive degree of coordination.

I’ll confess that when it comes to ants, I don’t find these issues of metaphysical composition terribly compelling. Further, there is a nearby question for biologists, whose purposes may be better served by opting for one kind of ontology or another, at least as far as biological categorization goes; as when looking at colonial “decisions” about which food source to target, or investigating the “personalities” of nests and hives (e.g. exploratory behavior, aggression levels, etc.). Compare the bonds that hold molecules together. Is the result a distinct individual, “over and above” the atoms that make it up, or are molecules really just atoms arranged a certain way? I expect that chemists are satisfied with treating molecules as individuals for the purpose of doing chemistry, whatever their metaphysical status, and when it comes to the ant colony I’ll go on speaking of it as its own thing just in case Benjamin says that’s the way to go.

Speaking only for myself, I find that things get a bit trickier when we start thinking about humans doing human things together. I won’t go so far to suggest that ethics and politics are to human togetherness as some branch of myrmecology is to ant togetherness (we have the social sciences for that, though early work in sociology maps more closely onto the issues I’m about to raise than you might think), but whether or not ethics and politics are sciences they certainly do concern themselves with forms of human togetherness; questions of what happens when humans do things together, and how best to think about it, take on a certain kind of urgency.

Ants were building bridges millions of years before humans, which are not special. Photo: Alex Wild

When humans do things together – build a bridge, take a walk, exchange vows, uphold a social convention, constitute a government or other institution – do they generate a new individual, a collective agent, to whom we can literally attribute beliefs and intentions and actions? Some philosophers look for explanations of such collectives that explain away the appearance of unity. Conventions (David Lewis), bridge-building and other collective actions (Michael Bratman), and making and taking up a promise (Thomas Scanlon) have been theorized in terms of corresponding beliefs, intentions, and so on of the individuals involved: a convention, for example, is perhaps just a bunch of people doing certain things, along with certain beliefs about what others are doing, and beliefs about what others believe, and so on. Such accounts, call them “reductive”, resist the temptation to posit anything over and above the activities and beliefs of individuals, and try to account for everything that happens when humans do things together in terms of sums of individual human doings and thinkings.

If the reductive approach represents a hard-nosed (or, as William James would have had it, a tough-minded) sensibility, there are those who insist to the contrary: perhaps the state is a sort of organism of its own (a view sometimes associated with Plato or Hegel), and its people form together a “general will”, one that wills its collective freedom as a single sovereign (Rousseau). Perhaps something so mundane as taking a walk together generates a single, collective agent – the walking couple – with respect to which the individuals are mere organs (compare Margaret Gilbert). A view of sexual interactions in terms of the rights and permissions and desires of individuals (compare Robert Nozick) is reductive, and one on which the individual is “annihilated” in becoming one with another we might call “totalizing” (such a view was held by Kant, according to Candace Volger – and so much the worse for sex, by his lights; compare also Leo Bersani). The totalizing approach represents a kind of tender-heartedness, for James, or, as Michael Thompson puts it, a soft-minded romanticism.

Among the early sociologists, Weber preferred reductive accounts of social phenomena, and Durkheim totalizing. So, at least for sociologists there is something beyond metaphysics at stake in picking sides: different strategies will serve different explanatory aims. (Durkheim was interested in investigating emergent social phenomena, and Weber in how institutional roles were embodied by individuals, whose values contributed additively to settling the direction of the institution.) What hangs on this question for the philosopher? Is this more than a matter of sensibility, beyond any potential scientific payoff? One job of the philosopher is to help us understand ourselves and what we’re up to together. So far I’ve just been summarizing what others think about these things, and I’m running long enough at this point that I doubt there’s much more I can do. In concluding, however, I’d like to simply gesture in the direction of a thought that still eludes us: that sometimes in our togetherness we are at once more than individuals, but still individuals nonetheless. This thought represents a move beyond reductive or totalizing explanations, or so I hope.

A philosopher scales a mountain – greeted by a band of ants who have been sitting there for centuries. Photo: Alex Wild

Two people enjoying a sunset together seem to be experiencing a moment that is poorly accounted for by looking simply to the mental states each has, given that part of the experience, for each, is the sharing of it with the other (compare David Velleman). Perhaps love and friendship are more than a feeling that two (or more) people can have for each other, but something (a feeling?) people can be together *in* (compare Buber). Intentional action can perhaps be explained as the interaction between the level of the collective agent (with persons for parts), and individuals who reason using the one’s intentions and activities as premises. But, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, there is something to the idea that when we work together we are, even from the standpoint of the whole, “toward one another”.

Promising is especially hard to make sense of on the two dominant pictures: no matter how high you stack the “doxastic pancakes” (the “he believes that she believes that he believes…”s in one stack, the “she believes that he believes that she believes…”s in another), you still just have two stacks sitting next to each other (I borrow the term “doxastic pancakes” from Michael Thompson, who borrows it from Rogers Albritton). The totalizer, on the other hand, runs the risk of making the individual disappear entirely. From the standpoint of the collective agent, individual persons are functional appendages, and it is hard to see what promising could be without two individuals: the promisor and the promisee. It seems to involve what Reid called a “social act of mind” (see Richard Moran). If there is a structure in which individuals can be toward one another in their togetherness, their individuality at once destroyed and preserved in a higher unity, it is one that I think deserves the name “mutual recognition”, and I think it plays an important and under-explored role in making sense of human togetherness.

This suggestion is, at best, well, suggestive, and so it will have to stay. I’ll just end with one last note: whether an ant colony is a single, unified whole or just a bunch of individuals, it’s not clear that there’s a place for ant mutual recognition. Perhaps ants can be toward one another within the whole in the way that we, I’m thinking, can, but I don’t quite see how. Mutual recognition is, plausibly, only available for humans, and not ants, because it involves a kind of shared self-consciousness of what we’re up to together. We have the capacity to have experiences and feelings and beliefs and intentions in which we self-consciously represent one another, not merely as objects, but as those with whom our togetherness is shared. How to think about this is a question that interests me a great deal, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to begin to think through it here.

image1Jack Samuel is a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh who is interested in the role the sociality plays in ethics and moral theory, the relationship between ethics and politics, and 19th century philosophy. His dissertation is not really on this topic, but in a way it is, because if these sketchy remarks are right then this post concerns a phenomenon at the root of social norms, directed obligations, shared forms of life, and the sociality of human agency and personhood.