How Do Collective Agents Think?
In economics prominence has been given to a peculiar reductionist view according to which ‘collective thinking’ is the straightforward result of the work of a specific algorithm - the social welfare function - by means of which any set of potential collective decisions may be ranked. The mental process is seen as the product of the work of a software. The question of which kind of hardware can support this software has been traditionally regarded as unimportant. In this paper the attempt is made to put forward a framework to explain public decisions which builds upon the hypothesis that ‘collective mind’ should not be analysed by abstracting from the features of collective brain. Indeed, collective mental processes will be interpreted as ‘caused’ by the structure of the collective brain that sustains them. It is suggested that the analysis of the collective brain ought to be the starting point in the search for a theory of public decisions. By defining collective brain as a ‘specialised network of individuals’ it will emerge that collective thinking is based on an ‘institutional base’ which is its fundamental causal factor of public decisions. But addressing the question of the ‘institutional base’ of collective thinking requires a new set of concepts and theoretical statements if one wants to give a meaning to the empirical evidence. A further step in the analysis will be the observation that in modern democracies collective brain is usually ‘partitioned’ and the collective mental process segmented. This segmentation has been historically accompanied by a remarkable increase in the specialised production of knowledge functional to collective decision-making. Collective brains become more differentiated as a result of the fact that they incorporate ‘technical units’ devoted to the production of knowledge. A further consequence of having a segmented mental process is the intrinsic ‘coevolutionary nature’ of collective thinking. Although to various degrees, each decisionmaker is (or ought to be) a system which is open in terms of informational flow. If collective decision-makers want to be up to their moral canons they have to use the relevant knowledge that is dispersed in the environment in their decision process. Coevolutionary collective thinking is both an observed phenomenon and a standard of collective behaviour.
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