Acting Together

15 March 2014

The great English philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously said that in the state of nature, life is solitary, brutish and short -- as if nature designed people to act alone, rather than together.   But acting together, this week's topic,  is one of the most natural things in the world. If we never acted together, there would be no families, no teams, no countries. But what exactly is it to act together?  

Suppose we’re outside and it starts to rain. We both run toward the door to the studio. We’re trying to do the same thing -- get into the studio and out of the rain. Though we’re acting at the same time, we aren’t acting together. So doing the same thing isn't enough.

Suppose we’re having a picnic. It starts to rain. I grab the food and put it in the cooler and run to the car.  You fold up the blanket and run to the car.  Now we’ve done something together -- something that neither of us did alone.  We jointly put the picnic stuff into the car.  In the earlier example, we were each trying to keep ourselves dry; in this case, we are both trying to accomplish the same thing, keeping the picnic stuff dry.

But don’t we still perform two separate and distinct actions in your scenario? I put the blanket in. You put the food in. No togetherness there. 

We still do separate actions, but  we share an over-arching goal. We break this goal down into smaller tasks and we divide them up. We each take responsibility for a share of these sub-tasks and rely on the other to do the rest. That’s acting together!

Still, suppose that neither of us knows the others plans or intentions. My plan is to get the food and come back for the blanket. Your plan is to get the blanket and come back for the food. Did we really do it “together?”    In this case, it seems more like a lucky accident than something we intentionally  did together. Don’t our plans and intentions have to be interdependent, if we are to act together? 

By now its getting pretty complex. We have to share an overarching goal. We have to agree on a way of dividing up the tasks so that each of our contributions to the common goal dovetails with our partner’s contributions. And we have to make a commitment to actually doing our part, while relying on our partner to do his too.   

So I've got doubts.      Does it have to be that complicated and cerebral? Think of ants.   They act together all the time to build their hills and gather their food. But they don't go around forming complicated beliefs about each other or making commitments to each other.   

I'm sure we'll clear everything up on the program.

Comments (9)

MJA's picture


Saturday, March 15, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

In Nature life = is Nature

Life is Nature too.  
As One is the single truth .=

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, March 15, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

I won't critique such a mind

I won't critique such a mind as Thomas Hobbes---I just never found his ideas all that original or helpful. Earlier comments /opinions regarding such giants as Friedrich N. and Soren K. were similarly situated in my limited consciousness. (And, no, I do not spell so well, but, this handicap does not limit thought---thank genetics!) Acting together has always, and in many (if not all) ways, been a human inadequacy-as seeming interminable warfare illustrates. Ants, termites, and honeybees lead purposeful, albeit, short lives. Individually, they don't even know what they are doing. The beauty of their life and purpose is complexity in simplicity. They are genetically wired to the ages-old reasons for their being. And, accordingly, their lack of individual consciousness is advantage, rather than hindrance. Humans have agendas that extend beyond simple purpose(s). Acting together only works when it suits a locally collaborative purpose and agenda. There is a book by someone named Brian McClaren I plan to research. It involves Jesus, Moses, The Budda (or is that Buddah?) and Mohammed (or is that Muhammad?) and why they crossed the road. Didn't know they did. Hopefully, Mr. McClaren (spelling?) will tell me. Maybe the crossing had something to do with my notion of historionic effect...
Oh---and why is it that the word overarching has become so, uh, trende largesse? Never noticed  it before maybe ten or eleven years ago... just curious; hi to Ken. love to Laura, health and prosperity to all.

mirugai's picture


Saturday, March 15, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Ah Neuman, you bring up the

Ah Neuman, you bring up the issue of animal consciousness, addressed in the show. AC has always been alluded to as something differentiated from Human Consciousness, as a way of pointing out how the simplicity of animal behavior is so unlike the complexity of human thought-motivated behavior.
Philosophy concerns itself with two types of questions not addressed by other disciplines: 1. unanswerable questions (such as, is there anything other than my consciousness), and 2. 50/50 questions (like, which came first, the radio or the radio station).  We can all talk about HC (though, authoritatively, only our own); but we can say nothing about AC.  We are making wholly speculative assumptions about AC by looking at animal behavior and extrapolating along all kinds of speculative lines, to consciousness. And while this may sound like a type 1 philosophical question, the doing of philosophy means doing rational thinking about thought, and we have neither the "rational" capability to understand animal thought, nor can we even describe AC as "thought."  Anthropomorphisizing about AC is not "rational." You can say ants are doing communal work, but calling the work "intentional," or "planned," or, even worse, "the expression of shared social goals," is beneath us as rationalists.  We just don't know one thing about what and how an animal is thinking.

Guest's picture


Thursday, March 20, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Actually, there is a case to

Actually, there is a case to be made for anthropomorphizing. For one thing, we are genetically related to all other life - that's why the behaviors of seals seem more familiar to us than the behaviors of fish or octopi, we're more closely related. For another, we're subject to the same evolutionary pressures as other organisms are - bears, for instance, are fairly intelligent, and they're omnivores, they eat a variety of things like we do, so they have to be smart enough to track down the different of foods they eat. Compare that to cows, which only eat grass.

Daniel Pech's picture

Daniel Pech

Sunday, March 23, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Hmm.. Human society has long

Hmm.. Human society has long since been finished with its Honeymoon stage. 'Complicated' and 'cerebral' is, in principle, just part of how we can figure out the reasons why we often do not so naturally get along any more.
But, is it possible to be mal-motivated such that we end up over-analyzing our potential disharmonies, and therein draw mistaken conclusions as to what constitutes entirely justified solutions?

MJA's picture


Tuesday, March 25, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

An entirely justified

An entirely justified solution:
E Pluribus Unum

MJA's picture


Tuesday, March 25, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

An entirely justified


gee's picture


Thursday, March 27, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Disaster is a driver to get

Disaster is a driver to get people to act together - need is a push but the more pressure exerted at the moment the easier it is to get cooperation. Love hate and fear are also very big players on the group.

mirugai's picture


Sunday, March 30, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Fred - Philosophers should

Fred - Philosophers should reject the idea that because two animals are genetically related (or better, similar) that there is any relationship or coincidence of consciousness. Genetics only relates info on cell structures, despite the claims of the new pop-science (TED favorite) neuroscience. Philosophers and poets and comedians are the only professionals qualified to debate consciousness.
When someone tells me how smart a crow, or a dolphin, or an ant, or FGS, their dog or cat, is; or if someone reminds me how close the DNA of a human is to the earthworm, I say ?Please let me know when your cat requests an encrypted email with its lost PIN number (sic) enclosed.?
I saw a group of framed lithographs (of Ceylon sights) on the walls of a beautiful guesthouse in the highlands of (now) Sri Lanka. They were so remarkable that I took photos of them with my iphone, and close-up photos of the information at the bottom of each image. When I got home to San Francisco, I googled what I took to be the name of the artist, and in the Wiki entry I saw the name of the book containing the lithographs.
I asked a friend who is expert at finding books online, to try to find any copies of the book for sale, and she found one copy (only one) in the possession of an antiquarian bookseller in Germany.
I emailed the bookseller, and we set up payment in euros with my credit card, through PayPal, and now the book is on its way to me by UPS.
This was written at 3 AM in San Francisco while watching Federer and Murray play in the quarters of the Australian Open, live on TV. I had been awakened by a cellphone call from my wife who is travelling in Burma, and was watching the same tennis match at exactly the same time.
Fred, how close can your seal or your bear come to this? Think how enormous the distance in consciousness must be, based on the only indications of consciousness we have, behavior (not speculation).