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Does the World Think? The Wisdom of Groups..

I wrote a blog post about a few interesting books, including one titled “How the World Thinks”. A reader objected, saying that thinking is done by people… So, does ‘the World’ think?

Does the World Think?

A Discussion

A while back, I wrote this post (https://ahijazi.website/2024/wisdom-world-history-applications/) where I recommended a number of books trying to seek ‘macro’ wisdom, by examining lessons from different epochs of human history, or lessons from different cultures and groups.

The books discussed there include:

  • How the World Thinks (Baggini)
  • The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time (Durant)
  • The Lessons of History (Durant)
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (Diamond)

A number of interesting discussions started, particularly whether we can really learn from history, or are we doomed (destined?) to repeat the same mistakes over and over.

Other points argued about the west-centric view of the books (especially in the Durant case, which the writer clearly admits).

One particular comment stopped me… A reader argued that the world doesn’t think… only people do.

This was interesting to me because it resonates with my exploration of approximation and incompleteness in Fuzzy on the Dark Side: Approximate Thinking where I discuss how sometimes we tend to conflate things and anthropomorphize large groups for the sake of simplicity.

So… Does the World Think?

I frequently caution people against overusing the logic of ‘Company A’ wants this, ‘Country X’ did that… There are specific people who want and do…

The Company/Country/etc… here is an abstraction: A convenient approximation, which can be problematic.

Abstracting the doer can lead to fallacies.. You might lose track of interests in every situation, and miss people’s objectives from certain actions.

The keyword here is ‘actions’. Actions are done by a set of agents, and that – to an extent – can be clarified.

If you’re working with actions, you need to be as precise as possible.

“Act Locally!”

However, I think when we talk about ‘Thinking’, things can become a bit more nuanced.

Saying “The World doesn’t think, only humans do” isn’t the same as saying “Google doesn’t act, only Eric Schmidt acts”…

This is because actions can be traced more easily than ‘thinking’. Actions can be – more easily – attributed to one source. Collective thoughts, on the other hand, are much more challenging.

The world doesn’t think, in the same sense a human doesn’t think…

Because only neurons do…

But then neurons don’t think – only dendrites do… all the way down.. What’s the simplest thing you can accept as a thought?

Is ‘I’ll move’ a thought? or Is ‘Plato’s philosophy is the cornerstone of thinking’ a thought? are they both?

A bacterium can have the first.. A world can have the second.

Cover of Baggini’s “How the World Thinks”

Groups Think

We can say that people think, groups think, cities think, worlds think, the universe thinks… if thinking is defined as processing of information and generation of new information.

Being clear on what the word signifies can solve the dilemma.

You can think of a group – just like a human – as a black box, that gets some information inputs, which get processed, and these lead to actions.

Thinking is emergent… It happens on many levels. This is the difference.

If you try to do the same with actions, you lose very important analytical tools.

The World thinks… its groups think in the sense that there are specific thoughts and patterns and norms that survive and thrive… and become adopted on a bigger scale. These ideas then shape the thoughts of more people and keep evolving.

The key here, is to keep track of the level you’re on… and what you’re trying to understand/do.

Our thoughts are the world’s thoughts. Just like our neurons’ collective thoughts are our thoughts. A thought here is processing information.

In fact, the most beautiful and magnificent thoughts are those collective thoughts that the world (universe) as a whole thinks.

More Resources

The Atlas of Worldly Wisdom

The Atlas of Worldly Wisdom is an online course on seeking individual, practical wisdom, and finding our purpose and great work. It is an integration of many models and super ideas on learning, success, and personal growth, and it has discussions on utilizing knowledge, good plans, and disciplined work towards those goals.

Passing Clouds

I happened to explore the nature of ‘world thinking’, in a short story ‘Extension’, in the ‘Passing Clouds’ collection.

Can we assume that our thoughts are our world’s thoughts? Where is the boundary between the group and the individual?

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