Graph minds destabilize naive notions of individuals
This is part of the Graph Minds Notebook series
The more I think through the concept of graph minds, the more it seems that the concept of an isolated “individual” is just not very real, and requires a good deal of rather contrived effort to sustain. Physical bodies only come in an individual form factor, and are only inter-networked via the relatively low-bandwidth channels of sight, sound, and touch, but that’s really not saying very much. Rocks come in pieces too, but chemistry rather than geometry is what identifies a rock. Water comes in puddles, lakes, and oceans, but has no macroscopic geometry at all. Celestial bodies come in spheres and mainly interact through gravity, but are still tightly bound into systems defined by the mechanical and chemical properties of their nebulas of origin.
So a fundamental question is: Is there a meaningful notion of an individual mind considered in isolation, or are minds somewhere between water-like and rock-like, with the “individual geometry” being somewhere between unimportant to undefined?
The usual term of art in political science for the idea that “individual” in isolation might not be a well-posed concept seems to be mutualism. The first and best version of the concept is the one I encountered in Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (though she doesn’t use the term), but it probably has a more complicated provenance. The basic idea is that a human who acts like an idealized individual is in fact in a degenerate subhuman condition. In her formulation, mutualism is characterized by true freedom, which can only be experienced in the presence of a plurality of other free individuals. Plurality is the load-bearing notion in her formulation, and in my opinion the main element of any well-formed notion of mutualism. It is an element which is lost in communist and fascist notions of mutualism, which look superficially similar. In those, you get the sense that the object of interest is a mass of fungible bodies bound by a solidarity of shared pain, shared identity, or both. I’ll call these latter varieties of group conditions pseudo-mutualisms to distinguish them.
A definition of mutualism in an Arendtian spirit might be: Mutualism is the condition of being in maximally free entanglement with a plurality of other maximally free humans.
Several writers and thinkers besides Arendt appear to operate by this basic definition, including Urusla Le Guin (especially in The Dispossessed), Jane Jacobs, Ivan Illich, and James Scott. But I’ve never seen something like this definition of mutualism laid out.
The way I’ve worded my definition, I’ve obscured a certain apparent circularity in Arendt’s conception. It might seem like Arendt defines freedom as “being with other free people.” But this is only a cosmetic paradox. The claim is simply that freedom is only a condition that makes sense for humans in a shared state of being. Just as “marriage” doesn’t really make sense for one person,1 Arendt simply claimed that “freedom” doesn’t make sense for a single person, or even for a single person in an undifferentiated mass of humans.
The reason it is confusing is that the idea of freedom, unlike marriage, is usually invoked in relation to a single individual, rather than in relation to an intersubjectivity. When groups are characterized as being free in everyday language, usually all that is meant is that each individual within the group is individually free. There is no conceptual dependence on the fact of being in a group, only a certain economy of scale of sorts.
It helps to separate out the related simpler concept applicable to individuals too: Sovereignty. The (contemptuous) Arendtian sense of this term is roughly synonymous with the sense of it that libertarians fetishize. It’s the same idea with flipped valence. In Arendt’s theory, which I largely agree with, it is a lesser human condition, a kind of degeneracy. You’re missing all the best bits that the fuller concept of freedom offers in pursuit of an impoverished illusion of yourself.
I suspect for libertarians, there is no significant difference between sovereignty and freedom, while for mutualists of any sort, there is all the difference in the world. As Ursula Le Guin put it, “to be whole is to be a part.”
All that said, we still haven’t actually characterized mutualism. The concept is surprisingly hard to pin down formally. What exactly is it?
Arendt’s mental model seems to be based on ancient Greek public life. Basically guys standing around in the public square making speeches (an ancient form of Twitter thread) while slaves and women stayed home to make olive oil. The fuel of Arendtian mutualism is what she called action, the fullest mode of human agent-like behavior. As with freedom, there are degenerate lesser siblings of action — making and laboring — that are experienced by less free and unfree individuals. She also identifies two special cases, art and commerce, as sort of almost free, but no cigar.
So the basic Arendtian model is: fully free humans go off to act in the world — explore strange new worlds, go where nobody has gone before, discover strange new worlds, meet strange new people and kill them — and then return to enjoy the fruits of action in mutuality with their free peers. Your free peers recognize you for your actions when you appear in public, and that’s the payoff. Action, return, recognition, and appearance in public are all heavily loaded ideas in Arendt’s thought and integral to her idea of freedom (and in Ursula Le Guin’s fiction, which appears to be heavily inspired by it, though I can’t trace a direct line of influence).
An additional element in Arendt’s model is what she argues is a uniquely Christian ethos of transgression and forgiveness. The ability to transgress, and seek and supply forgiveness, is central to an expanded notion of Arendtian mutualism.
I read this expanded notion as extending the domain of action to within the public that underwrites your freedom and full humanness. In this expanded sort of mutualist condition, you’re allowed to act in the Arendtian sense not just against random primitive barbarians beyond your enlightened polis, but against your peers within the polis too. But because they’re free with you in a public all have a stake in, action requires taking responsibility for consequences, which means a formal moral calculus of transgression and forgiveness. This she identifies as the main innovation of the Christian tradition beyond the Greek.
If you’ll forgive a bit of word salad: You internalize the externalities of acting against your interiority, by seeking and supplying forgiveness.
This is… okay. It’s not a terrible model, but it’s not a great one either. It’s got the usual Greek fetish thing going that European philosophers never quite seem able to get past, with some limited theorizing to generalize beyond the specificity of the European historical experience. It is not immediately obvious how to apply this mental model to other cultures and histories, or critically interrogate Arendt’s obvious Eurocentric conceits. The Christian element (Arendt was Jewish) seems genuinely conceptually important though. It opens up the possibility of internally adversarial mutualism that does not destroy the group. If you only ever act adversarially against barbarians whose humanity you never see, and whose recognition is irrelevant, your freedom is in some sense incomplete. It may be superior to the sovereignty of individuals, but it is not all it can be. If you can exercise your potential for action to the fullest degree within the public that underwrites your freedom, but without destroying it, you are maximally free.
Here is a convenient set of rules of thumb:
You’re sovereign if it’s you against the world
You’re tribalist if it’s you and your tribe against all other tribes
You’re mutualist if it’s you against the world, but you say sorry to part of it for unintended consequences of things you do
The limitations of this model all have to do with the historicist specificity. Is there a way to reconstruct Arendtian mutualism from first principles in a non-historicist way?
There’s an obvious candidate conceptual metaphor from physics that could work as a starting point: entanglement.
In physics, entanglement is about the quantum states of two particles getting informationally linked. Let’s try to construct a parallel notion of human entanglement. If we can do that, we’ll have the beginnings of a first-principles theory of mutualism.
Let’s say Alice and Bob are an annoying sort of married couple who seem to think with one mind. Let’s say you separate them by a thousand kilometers, and then ask Alice to pick a random time on a normal 12-hour clock face. Let’s say she picks 4:47.
Then you ask Bob. Turns out, no matter what Alice has picked, he always picks a time that’s 90 degrees (3 hours) ahead of her choice, so in this case he’d pick 7:47.
It works in reverse too. If you ask Bob first, no matter what he picks, Alice always picks a time 90 degrees behind his. And it works even when they are not allowed to communicate.
Now this is an utterly silly and contrived example, made up to mimic the structure of quantum entanglement, but something like this seems to be true of strongly entangled pairs of humans, such as married couples or close friends (like Antonio and Bassanio in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, who had “one heart and one purse between them” in the Charles Lamb’s retelling).
If you extend this to n>2, things get more complicated, but you can start by thinking of structured, closed-world examples like sports teams. Clearly, individual players have distinct roles and abilities, but those abilities only find maximal expression when all players are properly cast. This applies even to star players. Soccer connoisseurs point out how Lionel Messi’s uniquely effective playing style is only possible because his team mates have taken on roles that maximize his effectiveness. There is a group selection effect at work.
If we extend our silly Alice/Bob type scenario to a soccer team, we can think in terms of what particular players would do given different configurations of players on the field. In one situation, Messi might pass the ball. In another seemingly identical situation, he might take a risky shot himself. The difference in behavior would be due to small differences in the prevailing patterns of mutualism, with large differences in emergent effects in the two cases. Perhaps a key position in the scoring play is occupied by players with different skills in the two cases, and the risks of passing vs. shooting work out differently.
This particular example, incidentally, shows that mutualism, properly constructed, does not require arbitrary imposition of egalitarian principles or de-individualization. Entangled individuals may be more or less prominent depending on the situation. They may even be rewarded unequally. Mutualism does not entail socialism or fascism, or any other -ism that attempts to enforce a substantive sort of uniformity on a group. It does not require that there be no heroes, celebrities, and stars (Arendt gets this, but Le Guin for example, seems uncomfortable with it). All we require is that the group context be necessary for individual freedom to find its fullest expression. Messi is maximally free to play to his potential when entangled with team members who are maximally free to play to their potential in a team that includes Messi.
Mutualism is the operating system of maximal non-zero-sum outcomes if you like, though I don’t quite like a game-theory lens for this, since it still centers the atomic individual rather than the group.
What distinguishes mutualism from similar-looking conditions is that it is an evolving adaptive condition of joint responsiveness to live circumstances. By contrast, there is a certain deadness to both the conceptualization and realization of the pseudo-mutualisms of fascism, socialism, and communism.
Let’s connect all this up to graph minds. Why are graphs topologically useful here? An undifferentiated mass of collectivized humanity is typically modeled geometrically in a low-information way. Fasces, or bundles of sticks tied together, from which we get fascism, do not require a given stick to be in a given position in the bundle. Communes and socialist collectives might accept a certain amount of specialization, but try to make individuals as interchangeable as possible.
A graph, however, models mutualism in a way where an “individual” is primarily, perhaps even entirely, defined by the pattern of connections, up to various sorts of situated symmetry. For example, in a simple ring-shaped graph on an oriented plane, with say one individual at 12 ‘o clock, let’s call him “Arthur” why not, individualized structure emerges via angular distance from “Arthur.” Clockwise and anti-clockwise matter because (say) Arthur is right-handed.
I specifically like the ring/round table example of a mutualist group because it is apparently set up to embody an egalitarian conceit (the round table), but the Arthurian legends themselves reveal quite clearly that the situation is a mutualist one. Each knight’s story pops, but only in the shared context.
I also like the example because it allows me to talk about benzene. When you first learn about its molecular structure in introductory chemistry, they tell you that the six-carbon ring comprises alternating single and double bonds. In more advanced classes, they tell you that all the electrons in the bonds sort of form a single pooled set in a “resonance hybrid.” You go from drawing hexagons with alternating dashes to hexagons with little circles in them.
My organic chemistry is rusty, but I believe the resonance hybrid is something like a blur between the two ways you could draw the alternating single/double bond picture. It seems like a good motif for mutualism. Or perhaps we should use a phenol ring, which is a benzene ring with one of the hydrogen atoms replaced by a hydroxyl (OH) or “King Arthur” group.
It’s a graph like any structural formula of an organic chemical, but it’s somehow a bit more. The whole has an emergent, entangled character created by the electrons sloshing around at the level of the molecule rather than around individual atoms or even in individual “bonds.” This kind of emergence gets even more sophisticated with crystals and metals. There is a “band theory” of solids used in solid-state physics and electronics that is like the benzene example on steroids.
More complex graphs have more complex mutualism semantics. There is entanglement because each node’s behavioral responses will be a function of the whole. But individuals don’t merely occupy roles in a graph template, they define the template. If Arthur’s “right-hand man” changes, Arthur’s behaviors change in a way that changes the meaning of “right-hand man.”
This is only a modest conceptual metaphor I’m offering as a starting point for thinking about mutualism of course. Examples from sports or Arthurian legend don’t quite get to the full range of possibilities here.
Mutualism is a grammar of freedom-maximizing sociality that has rules, but the legible rules of sports or knight-errant milieus only scratch the surface of what’s possible once a group of humans chooses to get entangled.
What are the limits here? How large can a fully entangled group get? How stable are such groups? How do mutualist situations without specific governing rules behave? How do norms emerge? How do substitutions, additions, and losses affect a mutualist situation?
Lots of good questions here, and I think the key to understanding and constructing graph minds is finding good answers to them.
Though as you might expect, there is a fringe tradition of sologamy. “Marrying yourself” is a thing now, though I think the idea first popped up in the original run of Sex and the City. I don’t think this is a serious thing. It’s just a way for single people to fix the unfavorable trade balance for single people in the gift economy, and also normalize being single socially. Though I think that part might have backfired.