Our ancestors–probably long before they were even human–had to differentiate between living and non-living things. Living things can be eaten (and, importantly, can eat you back); non-living generally taste bad, can’t be eaten, and won’t try to eat you.
This is a task of such essential importance that I think it is basically an innate ability common to all thinking animals. Rabbits and fish need to distinguish between living things; both need to know whether the lump over there is a rock or a predator, after all. And we humans don’t have to explain to our children that cats and dogs are alive but tables aren’t. (Indeed, a defect in this ability that caused a person to regard tables as alive or other people as not is remarkable–and dangerous–when it happens.)
It is easy to divide most things into living and non-living. Living things move and grow; non-living things do not. Rabbits move. Rocks don’t. (Plants don’t move much, but they do grow. They’re also helpfully color-coded.)
But what about non-living things that nonetheless move and grow, like rivers or clouds? You can’t catch a cloud; you can’t eat it; but it still has a behavior that we can talk about, eg: “The clouds are building up on the horizon,” “The clouds moved in from the east,” “The clouds faded away.” Clouds and stars, sun and moon, rivers and tides all have their particular behaviors, unlike rocks, dirt, and fallen logs.
When it comes to mistakes along the living/non-living boundary, it is clearly better to mistakenly believe that something might be alive than to assume that it isn’t. If I mistake a rock for a lion, I will probably live until tomorrow, but if I mistake a lion for a rock, I very well may not. So we are probably inclined to treat anything that basically moves and behaves like a living thing as a living thing, at least until we have more information about it.
And thus our ancestors, who had no information about how or why the sun moved through the sky, were left to conclude that the sun was either a conscious being that moved because it wanted to, or was at least controlled by such a being. Same for the moon and the stars, the rivers and tides.
Moreover, these being were clearly more powerful than men, especially ancient men. We cannot catch the sun; we live at mercy of the wind and the rain. Rivers can sweep us away and sudden storms dash boats to pieces. We live or die according to their whims.
So ancient man believed these things were sentient, called them “gods” (or devils) and attempted to placate them through sacrifice and prayer.
Centuries of scientific research have gradually uncovered the secrets of the universe. We’ve figured out why the sun appears to move as it does, why clouds form, and that frogs aren’t actually generated by mud. We’ve also figured out that the “influence” (influenza, in Italian) of the stars doesn’t actually cause sickness, though the name persists.
We know better rationally, but the instinct to ascribe personhood to certain inanimate objects still persists: it’s why programs like Thomas the Tank Engine are so popular with children. Trains move, therefore trains are alive and must have feelings and personalities. It’s why I have to remind myself occasionally that Pluto is an icy space rock and doesn’t actually feel sad about being demoted from planet to planetoid.
If something acts like a conscious thing and talks like a conscious thing, we’re still liable to treat it like a conscious thing–even if we know it’s not.
Today, the vast implacable forces that rain down on people’s lives are less the weather and more often organizations like the IRS or the local grocery store. These organizations clearly “do” things on purpose, because they were set up with that intention. The grocery store sells groceries. The IRS audits your taxes. Wendy’s posts on Twitter. The US invades other countries.
If organizations act like conscious entities, then it is natural for people to think of them as conscious entities, even though we know they are actually made of hundreds or thousands of individual people (many of whom don’t even like their jobs) executing to various degrees of accuracy the instructions and procedures laid down for them by their bosses and predecessors for how to get things done. The bag boy at the grocery store does not think about lofty matters like “how to get food from the farm to the table,” he merely puts the groceries in the bags, with an eye toward not breaking the eggs and not using too many bags.
Human institutions often become so big that no one has effective control over them anymore. One side has no idea how the other side is operating. An organization may forget its original purpose entirely, eg, MTV’s transition away from music videos and The Learning’ Channel’s away from anything educational.
When this happens, their behavior begins to look erratic. Why would an organization do anything counter to its stated purpose? The answer that it’s because no one is actually running the show, the entire organization is just a lose network of people all following the instructions of their little part without any oversight or ability to affect the overall whole and the entire machinery has gone completely out of kilter is dissatisfying to people; since the organization looks like a conscious thing, then it must be a conscious thing, and they must therefore have reasons for their behavior.
Trying to explain organizations’ behaviors in terms of conscious intent gets us quickly into the realm of conspiracy theories. For example, I am sure you have all heard the claim that, “Cheap cancer cures exist, but doctors don’t want you to know about them because they want to keep you sick for longer so they can sell you more expensive medicines.” Well, this is kind of half-true. The true part is that the medical system is biased toward more expensive medications, but not because doctors make more from them. (If you could prove that you can cure cancer with, say, a mega-dose of Vitamin C, the vitamin companies would be absolutely thrilled to bring “Cancer Bustin’ Vit C” to market.) The not-true part is the idea that this is all being done intentionally.
Doctors can only prescribe medications that have official FDA approval. This keeps patients safe from quackery and keeps doctors safe(er) from the possibility of getting sued if their treatments don’t work or have unexpected side effects.
FDA approval is difficult to get. The process requires long and rigorous medical trials to ensure that medications are safe and effective. Long, rigorous medical trials are expensive.
As a result, pharmaceutical companies only want to spend millions of dollars on medical trials for drugs that they think they have the potential to make millions of dollars. Any drug company that tried spending millions of dollars on cheap treatments that they can’t sell for millions of dollars would quickly go out of business.
- Doctors can only prescribe FDA-approved treatments
- The FDA requires long, rigorous trials to make sure treatments are safe
- Long trials are expensive
- Drug companies therefore prefer to do expensive trials only on expensive drugs they can actually make money on.
None designed this system with the intention of keeping cheap medical treatments off the market because no one designed the system in the first place. It was assembled bit by bit over the course of a hundred years by different people from different organizations with different interests. It is the sum total of thousands (maybe millions) of people’s decisions, most of which made sense at the time.
That said, the system actually does make it harder for patients to get cheap medical treatments. The fact that this consequence is unintended does not make it any less real (or important).
There are, unfortunately, plenty of people who only focus on each particular step in the process, decide that each step is justified, and conclude that the net results must therefore also be justified without ever looking at those results. This is kind of the opposite of over-ascribing intention to organizations, a failure to acknowledge that unintended, emergent behavior of organizations exist and have real consequences. These sorts of people will generally harp on the justification for particular rules and insist that these justifications are so important that they override any greater concern. For example, they will insist that it is vital that drug trials cost millions of dollars in order to protect patients from potential medical side effects, while ignoring patients who died because drug companies couldn’t afford to develop treatments for their disorder.
But back to conspiracy theories: when organizations act like conscious creatures, it is very natural to think that they actually are conscious or at least are controlled by by conscious, intentional beings. It’s much more satisfying, frankly, than just assuming that they are made up of random people who actually have no idea what they’re doing.
Now that I think about it, this is all very fundamental to the principle ideas underlying this blog: organizations act like conscious creatures and are subject to many of the same biological rules as conscious creatures, but do not possess true consciousness.
Businesses, for example, must make enough money to cover their operating expenses, just as animals must eat enough calories to power their bodies. If one restaurant produces tasty food more efficiently than its competitor, thus making more money, then it will tend to outcompete and replace that competitor. Restaurants that cannot make enough money go out of business quickly.
Similarly, countries must procure enough food/energy to feed their people, or mass starvation will occur. They must also be strong enough to defend themselves against other countries, just as animals have to make sure other animals don’t eat them.
Since these organizations act like conscious creatures, it is a convenient shorthand to talk about them as though they were conscious. We say things like, “The US invaded Vietnam,” even though the US as a whole never decided that it would be a good idea to invade Vietnam and then went and did so. (The president has a major role in US foreign policy, but he doesn’t act alone.)
Most systems/organizations don’t have anyone that’s truly in charge. We can talk about “the American medical system,” but there is no one who runs the American medical system. We can talk about “the media,” but there is no one in charge of the media; no one decided one day that we were switching from paper newspapers to online click-bait. We talk about “society,” but no one is in charge of society.
This is not to say that organizations never have anyone in charge: tons of them do. Small businesses and departments in particular tend to have someone running them and goals they are trying to accomplish. I’m also not saying that conspiracies never happen: of course they do. These are just general observations about the general behavior of organized human groups: they can act like living creatures and are subject to many of the same rules as living creatures, which makes us inclined to think of them as conscious even when they aren’t.