In some respects human communities function like intelligent subjects. They acquire and process knowledge, and then act on it. This collective "intelligence" is not reducible to individuals: information obtained by direct observation is recorded on paper and electronically, communicated to others by various physical channels, stored in libraries and on servers, from which it can be accessed long after the fact, and especially now partly processed and acted upon by computers (and in the past by people who behaved quite mechanically in the process). We talk about public attention, public memory, public knowledge, and even public consciousness. What's more, we get to see it all from the inside, as in Searle's Chinese room.

The analogy finds support in unexpected quarters, the foremost continental authority on consciousness and intentionality:"The central feature of Husserl's theory of community is the notion of 'personality of higher-order'. Different sorts of communities ranging from the family to the state are understood as analogous to the individual. A community is a "multi-headed ... yet connected subjectivity", and as such a subjectivity it too has a 'personality', displaying particular tendencies, moods, and traits such as memory - indeed, many of the features usually attributed to individual existence... the personal features of the community are something 'new;' they are not a mere conglomeration of individual features". See Buckley's Ch.10 in Husserl and the Sciences.

The analogy to brain, neurons, nerves, muscles, etc., is far from perfect, but there is something to it. More than Block's China brain simplification allows. What about "mental states"? In communities there are those intangible "culture and tradition". They do not distribute over individuals, nor reduce to material infrastructure, from which nonetheless they can be partly recovered (as happened with the culture of classical Greece). Yet there is no apparent immaterial psi-field, where they might reside, and they have tangible physical effect on collective behavior. Parts of them (such as philosophy and social sciences) are dedicated to social self-reflection, as in "consciousness" reflecting on itself. But the best part is again that we get to observe them from inside the room, so to speak.

Of course, social activities hardly compare to executing a program, so Searle's argument against the strong AI stands. But Searle also believes that only biochemical processes possess a special umph that can produce "mental states", and Block argues against functionalism in general, so presumably both would deny "mental states" to community as a whole. But not Husserl it seems, who is more materialistic on the issue than some materialists. Humanity itself may or may not be a philosophical zombie.

Question: Dennett characterized the Chinese room and the China brain as intuition pumps, can Husserlian "personality of higher-order" serve as a counter-pump? It seems (to me) intuitively easier to identify "culture and tradition" with community's "mental states" than to find something suitable in Searle's or Block's scenarios. What exactly makes the difference, if there is any? For purity let's replace humans with philosophical zombies (if need be), by definition this would leave community functioning exactly the same, including the role of "culture and tradition". So can this psycho-social analogy serve as a counter-pump and make the systems reply to Chinese room more plausible, or is there a difference in some key aspects that breaks it down?

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    The difference, in my book, involves intention. The community takes up problems to solve via the aggregate intentions of its members, in a way that the man in the Chinese room lacks the intention to converse. So the man in the Chinese room is being a zombie, but a community is a persona with a consciousness.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 23:57
  • @jobermark To which book do you refer as "my book"?
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 7:20
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    None 'in my book' is an idiom that means that it is a considered opinion, not a fact, or a strong position... This is actually a premise of psychoanalysis against behaviorism. We consider the insane and impaired to have consciousness, but not programs or robots, so consciousness is about the illusion of free will, and the power to choose one's own problems, rather than about proficiency or behavior. The Chinese Room argument shows this too. Proficiency does not indicate understanding. But choice, in some sense, does.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 15:36
  • @JoWehler Note that I just intended to back up Husserl's framing from another direction, not broaden the argument. If groups are personalities, not zombies, the question loses a layer of confusion and pointless vocabulary.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 18:11

4 Answers 4


Coming from a psychoanalytic bias, the deciding point on consciousness, for me, is intensionality.

On that basis, The Chinese room analogy stands, as long as the paper-pusher in the room never notices any pattern in the input, or any intermediate stage of storage or any other part of the machine he is operating.

If he is allowed full access to what is going on, adequate intelligence and time, the odds are he could use the machine's internal processes and the behavior of the interlocutors to actually know what the machine is going to produce in response to many inputs, and may be able to predict the output, or mimic it himself. He can probably, after enough study, skip parts of the script and inject his own thinking and his own opinions for those the machine is pretending to have. At that point, he prosthetically speaks Chinese, using the machine as an intermediary. He may ultimately speak Chinese the way Oscar Pistorius runs, that is, better than, if differently from, a native who does not need the prosthesis.

But we do not have the same opacity when we are taking part in a group. Some of the interactions are too subtle, or too widely distributed for us to process consciously, but we do understand them, right from the start. The charismatic start right off "prosthetically" expressing their intentions via the group itself, if in the face of considerable resistance from second thinking.

We are immediately taking part in the construction of group opinions and group intentions. We do not disbelieve that those shared intentions or decisions exist. So although we resist the vocabulary, this is not a model or indirect instantiation of thinking or consciousness, but a different form.

So there is no zombie here, Husserl can be taken somewhat literally -- there is a personality. At root it is one that is less decisive and less intelligent in a lot of ways than many of its subordinate groups or members since the limitations of any one part's understanding of another part can prevent the incorporation of important ideas into its repertoire. On the other hand, it has a potentially enormous lifespan and tons of prosthetic memory at its disposal, and by distributing itself over time and space can collect and refine work much more powerfully than they can.

  • In your fourth paragraph, I do not understand "opacity" and "charismatic" and "second thinking." Perhaps terms I just don't know. Is it easily clarified? Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 21:19
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    In a group we can understand what is going on better than the Chinese Room guy, so much so that some of us (selected largely by personality) can jump directly to getting our intentions accomplished through the mechanism of the system, though they will eventually be resisted by better thinkers and other nay-sayers over time. (Is that clearer?)
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 21:30
  • You seem to split the answer based on the nature of individuals. This was my first instinct too but there is a problem with it. Individual intentionality either fully manifests in overt physical actions or it does not. If it does not it can play no role in generating communal intentionality, there is no mystical link between private minds. If it does and communal intentionality reduces to physical actions, we can replace individuals with zombies. Searle really has to deny "true" mental states to communities, or his argument fails, there is no splitting the answer.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 23:41
  • Talking is a mystical link between private minds. Do you really think you know how that works? If that is not mystical, I surely don't believe in the mystical nature of consciousness that can be removed without affecting behavior. If intent and autonomy are the critical components of consciousness, then consciousness can be determined by the apparent unpredictability of certain choices. Since community thinking is really as capricious as human thinking, free will is still evident, and its divergence from the human composite capriciousness is also still evident.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 16:00
  • So zombies need to be caged by something that removes free will in order to actually be zombies. The Chinese Room executor lacks understanding and constitutes a zombie relative to his task, because he is isolated from affecting it with his free will. That same isolation does not exist between us and a democratic process.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 16:01

Analogies and metaphors are useful, but can also cause problems. The fact that communities can be described using anthropomorphic metaphors in some respects doesn't imply, let alone require, any kind of ontological relationship.

I can describe my car as having a "personality" - temperamental, doesn't like cold weather, prefers expensive repairs to cheap ones - what could it possibly be thinking? It also has a memory. It knows how long its been since I got the oil changed. It is capable of self-reflection, or at least I assume it is because it knows when it needs more window washer fluid.

I don't suppose I've addressed your question very well yet, but I had to start off by making the point that Husserl's statement seems to be using anthropomorphic metaphors to describe communities. The fact that these metaphors provide useful insight into certain aspects of communities does not logically imply, let alone require, any particular ontological relationship with human consciousness, nor can we infer that other properties are shared between communities and people.

When you talk about a community having a "memory", that is an anthropomorphic metaphor for the fact that there is a body of knowledge about the community's history shared between its constituents. It may even be written down. But in what way is it really the same as a human "memory"? Is it functionally the same? Do human memories serve an identical function to communal memories? Similar maybe, but not identical as far as I can tell. Physically they are not the same. They have different properties - human memory has properties that communal memory does not - i.e., a first-person subjective properties. I don't see how they are the same except that they both relate to information about the past. So even when we say "Communities are like humans with respect to memory," there is a hell of a lot more unpacking that has to be done before that statement can hold any specific, non-metaphorical meaning. And until the unpacking is done, it has no real, specific truth value that could serve as a predicate for some additional conclusion.

In your question, various metaphors are used to describe how communities possess qualities that resemble aspects of human consciousness. Communities "process information" - do they? information processing is observer relative, so who is the observer? does the process serve the same function as human information processing? is it physically identical? Communities "self-reflect" - do they? again, describe the actual function, physicality and meaning of "self-reflection" and explain how it is identical to human self-reflection.

So for me, the whole analogy breaks down before it even really gets started, if only because the anthropomorphic metaphors don't work as predicates for any kind of logical conclusion about mind, consciousness or understanding. They are descriptive in a literary kind of way, but if they are going carry any water beyond that - if, for example, they are going to be used as evidence that communities possess mental states - the nuts and bolts of these communal properties like "memory" and "self-reflection" would need to be explored in detail.


I don't know if this is directly responsive to the question, but I'll throw it in there anyway, because it is something that bothers me about the concept of a "collective consciousness", be it a zombie or not. I'm not sure what would actually constitute a collective mind...

For example, you could say that the United States Congress is a separate "mind", with its own memory, mental states, etc.

But then within the Congress you have the Senate and the House. Are they each a new mind? Are they separate from the higher-order Congressional mind? And if they are each a mind, what about Republicans and Democrats? Are they each a different mind? Do House Republicans and Senate Republicans share a mind or are they each a separate mind? What about the Congressional Black Caucus? Or Blue-dog Democrats? Are these all separate minds? What is their relation to the Congressional mind?

What about Democrats who abandon the party position and vote for a piece of Republican legislation? Have they abandoned one mind and joined the collective intentionality of the other?

You run into that problem at every possible level of "community". Am I part of humanity's mind, a United States of America mind, a Washington State mind, a Seattle mind, my neighborhood's mind, etc.?

I am married and have a son. How many minds are there? Collectively, there could be at least seven. One for each of us, one for the marriage (my wife and I), one for all three of us together (the family mind?) one for my son and I (the father-son mind), and one for my wife and son (the mother-son mind). If we had another child, we'd suddenly have at least 15 possible minds.

The question asked if "humanity as a whole" is a philosophical zombie, but if it is then so are all of these other "collective minds" (and trillions more when you start thinking about all the ways you can divide the world into communities).

  • It seems clear from the context that Husserl does not mean to use "personality" and "subjectivity" metaphorically, i.e. he considers memory, etc., functionally close enough to qualify. Nothing is exactly identical, so close enough is good enough, e.g. we call "electron gas" in metals gas on functional grounds. Arguably all non-trivial linguistic use is metaphorical, and ontologies are make-believe, so only empirical functionality matters. But I am curious where the analogy breaks down for you as analogy, regardless of physical implementation?
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 0:58
  • A la Searle, I'm a sucker for qualia and the first-person ontology of mental states :) I think they are part of the definition of a mental state and that they are not ontologically reducible to physical processes or functions. So, the analogy breaks down as soon as we acknowledge that there is no evidence or reason to believe that a community has first-person, subjective experiences. That doesn't mean that collective intentionality doesn't exist or isn't real, just that it it doesn't produce a new conscious mind with mental states of its own. Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 16:34
  • @Conifold My marriage is a community...it has a metaphorical personality (customs and traditions), it has a metaphorical memory (records, photographs, old tax returns), it metaphorically self-reflects (had to get some counseling once), etc. And my wife and I often experience "collective intentionality". But alas, our marriage doesn't have a "mental state" of its own. Take the question, "What's it like to be a bat?" and apply it to a community. "What's it like to be a marriage?" "What's it like to be Utah?" "What's it like to be the YMCA?" If the analogy held, those questions would be coherent. Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 16:58
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    "we have no more to go on with other people either..." I'm not sure I agree with you there. We have a working hypothesis (other people have minds) which fits all available behavioral data, has never been falsified, resonates with our intuition, produces useful results in the world, and seems biologically inevitable since they possess all of the same biological and sensory apparatuses that give rise to my own consciousness. That's a lot of evidence that other people do, in fact have minds complete with first-person, subjective experiences. All of the evidence seems to point in one direction... Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 23:52
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    The working part of the hypothesis concerns Husserlian mind only, first person "feel" has no effect on explaining behavior of others, it is an unfalsifiable decoration attached by analogy, like Wittgenstein's beetle in a box. As such, the "feel" is unlikely to have any evolutionary significance either, some people may have it, some not, only overt behavior matters in the end. It is also suspicious that the more something resembles us (higher animals, human-like AI) the more willing we are to bestow the "feel" as well, the kind of thinking that gave us geocentrism and being made in God's image
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 1:08

or is there a difference in some key aspects that breaks it down?

A crucial difference that might break down the analogy might lie in the capacity for self awareness. It might be that self-representational models of consciousness, like Hofstadter's strange loop hypothesis, are indeed accurate, but with a major caveat: the information processing system has to be localized both in space and time for it to develop into a full fledged consciousness. Although we can speak of public memory and public knowledge, this doesn't happen in a sufficiently localized way, or fast enough, for it to develop self-awarness. The process of monitoring its own thoughts is too diffuse and disjointed for the public "mental states" to develop into an autonomous self. This fact, along with the lac of agency and intentionality (as jobermark pointed out), is what might be keeping human communities from developing into full fledged sentient beings.

The question is: What about the internet? The above mentioned caveat doesn't apply to the internet (or at least some parts of the internet, such as Google's server infrastructure), and it constitutes a much more concrete and physical example of memory manipulation and high level symbolic processing which is perfectly capable of monitoring itself. The way I see it, either Searle is right, or Skynet is just around the corner.

  • What would make "full fledged consciousness" is what I am most curious about, Searle believes in some unknowable at this stage qualitative leap in the brain that mechanically tied communities obviously lack, you seem to say it is more of a difference in quantity, but also mention "self-awareness". Do you see the beginnings of that in something physical communities do and describable accordingly, or is there a qualitative leap to self-awareness that is supposed to happen in between?
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 23:50
  • I think that there is a qualitative leap, but something that is more akin to a physical phase transition than to any "ontological" qualitative change. At some point a critical mass or density will be achieved and then the public mental state will transform into a public consciousness. The reason why I believe this, is that this has to have been the case for biological beings, that they evolved on one hand continuously, but on the other hand there is a qualitative difference between starfish neural systems and human brains. This can only be explained if there was some sort of phase transition. Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 0:07
  • I'm not sure I can accept the idea of a "leap" to consciousness in biology that might almost happen in a fully non-biological parallel. First, whatever human "consciousness" may be it still remains within and fully dependent upon the whole biological continuum, even the bacteria without which our bodies would not operate. Forever, our "complexity" is a random blip relative to the longevity, biomass, and genetic diversity of bacteria. Machinery can never get "conscious" or "self-perpetuating" apart from life. Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 0:20

Systems all the way!

First, I'm not sure I entirely grasp the gist of the question, and while I should read more on the topic, the Chinese Room and its offspring always strike me as incredibly tinker-toy.

The community as an irreducible, collective subject has a long, wide history, from The Republic and Leviathan, to Reason or Geist in German idealism, to Levi-Strauss, Luhmann, or textual constructivists. To me, it seems highly implausible to discuss "consciousness" as divisible into individual minds, brains, or thinkers. Or to store it for long in any inanimate, mechanically driven substrate.

The medium of consciousness is life. Life is a cellular continuum that reproduces itself, incorporating copying errors and distributing "circuit breakers" in embodied individuals. If there is no "substance" duality, there is what we might call a "directional" duality. Life must "re-turn" and "re-member" itself in order to reverse entropy. Because of this, neither life nor consciousness can be stored for long in machines or inanimate, mediating materials, which are instantly subject to entropic degradation.

An interesting example relating to "cultural and tradition" is pertinent here. While archaeolinguists can decode and translate "dead" languages," we cannot do so where there is no primary or secondary common link to a spoken, living language. All languages are fundamentally oral (and only peripherally ideogrammatic). We cannot recover a recorded language by matching it up to objects. (See, e.g. Walter Ong) Where the oral continuum, or literally the "breath of life," is disrupted the language goes dead. One can extrapolate to all machines and technologies. Absent human "breath" they collapse in a matter of days. And they don't go backwards and "pull themselves together."

For this reason, I would take a somewhat radical systems approach to your question. Every "community" becomes, in turn, only an "individual" in a continuum of communities called, in general, "communication." This communication must reproduce itself and "mind" cannot be lifted out of it or "carved at the joints." The continuum of self-reproduction must be part of the definition of consciousness.

The system that "speaks Chinese" extends not only across generations but to the very rice entailed in reproducing those generations. The factotum in the Chinese Room is no more "conscious" than Schrodinger's Cat until it is "recognized" systematically by that communication continuum. And, not incidentally, earns her daily rice inputs. We do not get to the final "meta-system" of Chinese any more definitively than we get to the final subatomic particles. I am not sure if this position has a name, is absurd, is a cliche, or has been brutally refuted.

Conceptually, the "natural boundaries" between systems have to do with semantics or "meaning," but I am not up to grade on the many analytical discussions of this term. I take it to be a dynamic ratio of "possible" to "actual," once again involved in the redirection of entropy. There is no "meaning" inside the Chinese Room because there is an insufficient level of "possibility" for the room and its contents to reproduce itself. Yet "meaning" is a matter of degree. So "meanings" generated collectively across individuals do not imply that individuals are therefore "meaningless" zombies.

  • I think I agree with most of it, although some middle paragraphs are too Hegelian for me to process :) Interesting that all answers split the difference between communities and the room, albeit for different reasons. I am skeptical that such a way out is consistent. Robotic enhancements to the Chinese room that add ability to act and even perhaps self-repair, have been suggested. Searle analyzed such enhanced rooms and showed that a rephrased argument still applies to them. Systems reply seems consistent but it requires biting the bullet on the Chinese room, and counting it conscious.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 23:56
  • Wait, am I missing something? Systems replies would only say Room is "part" of consciousness, but wholly dependent and not in any sense "conscious." Nothing is conscious "in itself." The person in the room is immaterial..or rather a material medium. For me it is the self-perpetuation. With Von Neumann replicators computers might get conscious, though never identical with human consciousness. But I need to read the Room literature.... Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 0:50
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    Systems reply says CR "as a whole" (guy+pens+notebooks+filing cabinets...) is conscious, albeit dimly. For Searle it turns on understanding, and insufficiency of any externally administerable test, communal mind won't cut it. Dennett accuses him of selecting an extreme case in terms of dimness, and exploiting it to discredit attribution of "understanding" to systems. Wikipedia article is not a bad first reading on CR, robotic enhancements are briefly covered "en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 2:34

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