In a recent post, I discussed a book by Bernd Heinrich, which was about how insects cope with being cold-blooded. Some of the behavior exhibited by social insects, namely bees, ants, wasps, and especially termites, is remarkable. They cooperatively construct elaborate and effective ventilation and air-conditioning systems.
Heinrich, and most scientists, agree that there seem to be emergent properties in such behaviors. However, I am not aware of any scientists who believe that social insects have a single controlling intellect, somehow guiding the behavior of each worker. Rather:
Many of the bee's responses are shaped by social needs, and in that sense the colony is like a machine, or "superorganism," with different parts that contribute to the functioning of the whole. Although this analogy acknowledges the obvious, it is not generally useful in specifying how coordination is achieved. It does not reveal how the individuals react, or why they react, in the way that we know how the various organ systems are controlled to produce an overall effect in an individual organism. Ultimately, the functioning of the whole can only be understood by dissecting it and learning how, when, why, and to what the individuals respond. Bernd Heinrich, The Thermal Warriors: Strategies of Insect Survival. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 180)I was a little surprised to note Heinrich's use of "superorganism." There were, decades ago, influential thinkers who believed that there was, somehow, a collective consciousness in colonies of social insects, especially in African termites. Maurice Maeterlinck, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911, was one such. (See here, for an interesting complication to this.) J. R. R. Tolkien was not a scientist, of course, but this passage illustrates the idea:
As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless; and some slew themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or fled wailing back to hide in holes and dark lightless places far from hope. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1963, p. 227.Scientists of today would almost all agree with Heinrich: "Ultimately, the functioning of the whole can only be understood by dissecting it and learning how, when, why, and to what the individuals respond." Natural selection, in other words, operates at the level of the individual. There is no "swollen brooding thing" in an ant or termite colony. The colony doesn't become self-aware as more individuals are added. At least we don't think it does.
As I noted above, there are important current thinkers who believe that self-consciousness is an emergent property of intelligent animals. That is, simply having all those connections in the brain is enough to cause consciousness to appear. Perhaps they are right. We have not reached general agreement on what self-consciousness is, and how it comes about. Most Christians suppose that consciousness was somehow imparted to humans, as part of the image of God, but I don't think that we have any better idea than anyone else how to explain what it is and how it works, nor can we prove that, say, dolphins or gorillas do not have self-consciousness. It is possible that, indeed, I am self-conscious because I have more connections than some threshold. That could be God's mechanism for putting self-consciousness in humans, just as DNA is His mechanism for passing on characteristics.
There are important current thinkers who believe that computers now have, or soon will have, consciousness as an emergent property. Kevin Kelly, in an important article on the state of the Internet, 10 years after the Netscape initial stock offering, seems to be one such example:
When we post and then tag pictures on the community photo album Flickr, we are teaching the Machine [The global Internet] to give names to images. The thickening links between caption and picture form a neural net that can learn. Think of the 100 billion times per day humans click on a Web page as a way of teaching the Machine what we think is important. Each time we forge a link between words, we teach it an idea. Wikipedia encourages its citizen authors to link each fact in an article to a reference citation. Over time, a Wikipedia article becomes totally underlined in blue as ideas are cross-referenced. That massive cross-referencing is how brains think and remember. It is how neural nets answer questions. It is how our global skin of neurons will adapt autonomously and acquire a higher level of knowledge.
The human brain has no department full of programming cells that configure the mind. Rather, brain cells program themselves simply by being used. Likewise, our questions program the Machine to answer questions. We think we are merely wasting time when we surf mindlessly or blog an item, but each time we click a link we strengthen a node somewhere in the Web OS, thereby programming the Machine by using it.
Kevin Kelly, "We Are the Web", Wired, July 27, 2005.
Perhaps the time will come when computers are allowed to vote, or to join a church, or when they will inspire evangelization. (How would one become a missionary to computers?) I don't think it is here yet, and am not certain that it ever will be. If it ever does occur, it won't be a surprise to God.
*In this post, I am supposing that "consciousness" is the same thing as self-consciousness, or self-awareness. That's probably being a little too loose with words.