If materialism is true, the United States is probably conscious

Abstract

If you’re a materialist, you probably think that rabbits are conscious. And you ought to think that. After all, rabbits are a lot like us, biologically and neurophysiologically. If you’re a materialist, you probably also think that conscious experience would be present in a wide range of naturally-evolved alien beings behaviorally very similar to us even if they are physiologically very different. And you ought to think that. After all, to deny it seems insupportable Earthly chauvinism. But a materialist who accepts consciousness in weirdly formed aliens ought also to accept consciousness in spatially distributed group entities. If she then also accepts rabbit consciousness, she ought to accept the possibility of consciousness even in rather dumb group entities. Finally, the United States would seem to be a rather dumb group entity of the relevant sort. If we set aside our morphological prejudices against spatially distributed group entities, we can see that the United States has all the types of properties that materialists tend to regard as characteristic of conscious beings.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For purposes of this essay, I’m going to assume that we know, at least roughly, what “material stuff” is. I recognize that this assumption might be problematic. Discussions include Montero (1999), Chomsky (2009), Stoljar (2010).

  2. 2.

    The empirical literature on folk opinion about group consciousness is more equivocal than I would have thought, however. See Knobe and Prinz (2008), Sytsma and Machery (2010), Arico (2010), Huebner et al. (2010), Phelan et al. (2013).

    Few scholars have clearly endorsed the possibility of literal group consciousness. On group minds without literal consciousness see Bosanquet (1899/1923), McDougall (1920), Wilson (2004); and the recent literature on collective intentionality (e.g., Gilbert 1989; Clark 1994; Bratman 1999; Rupert 2005; Tuomela 2007; Searle 2010; List and Pettit 2011; Huebner 2014).

    For more radical views of group minds see Espinas (1877/1924), Schäffle (1896); maybe Wundt (1897/1897); maybe Strawson (1959) (none of whom were materialists). Perhaps the best developed group consciousness view—with some affinities to the present view, though again not materialist—is that of Teilhard de Chardin (1955/1965). See also Lewis and Viharo’s “Google Consciousness”, TEDxCardiff (June 9, 2011); Vernor Vinge’s science fiction portrayal of group minds in Vinge (1992, 2011); Averroës (Ibn Rushd) on the active intellect, (12th c./2009), Edelman (2008, p. 432), Koch (2012, pp. 131–134).

  3. 3.

    I develop this idea farther in Schwitzgebel in draft. Some others who doubt common sense as a guide to metaphysics are Churchland (1981), Stich (1983), Gopnik and Schwitzgebel (1998), Kornblith (1998), Dennett (2005), Ladyman and Ross (2007), Mandik and Weisberg (2008). Hume (1740/1978) and Kant (1781/1787/1998) are also interesting on this issue, of course.

  4. 4.

    On the last, see Bettencourt et al. (1992).

  5. 5.

    See, for example, the essays collected in Wittenbrink and Schwarz, eds., (2007), Petty et al. (2009). Philosophical discussions include Gendler (2008a, b), Haslanger (2008), Schwitzgebel (2010), Saul (2013).

  6. 6.

    Especially if the entity’s parts move on diverse trajectories. See, for example, Campbell (1958), Spelke et al. (1992), Scholl (2007), Carey (2009). See Barnett (2008) and Madden (2012) for philosophical arguments that we do not intuitively attribute consciousness to scattered objects.

  7. 7.

    See discussions in Korman (2011), Elder (2011).

  8. 8.

    These last thoughts are inspired by Parfit (1984), Churchland (1981), Egan (1992).

  9. 9.

    See, for example, Greene (2011).

  10. 10.

    See also Barnett (2008, 2010), Madden (2012); and for comparison Godfrey-Smith (2013) on the “exclusion principle” regarding biological organisms. Barnett, like Putnam, seems to rely simply on an intuitive sense of absurdity (2010, p. 162). In an earlier work, Tononi (2010, note 9) discusses an anti-nesting principle without endorsing it. There he states that such a principle is “in line with the intuitions that each of us has a single, sharply demarcated consciousness”. In his more recent article, Tononi does not repeat his appeal to that intuition.

  11. 11.

    For a review of “type materialism” see McLaughlin (2007). For more detail how some of the options described in this paragraph might play out, see Lewis (1980), Bechtel and Mundale (1999), Polger (2004), Hill (2009). Block (2002/2007) illustrates the skeptical consequences of embracing type identity without committing to some possibility of broadly this sort.

  12. 12.

    See Stock (1993) for a similar perspective presented in lively detail. On Godfrey-Smith’s (2013) three-dimensional taxonomy of “Darwinian individuals”, the United States would appear to be an intermediate case, comparable to a sponge.

  13. 13.

    For a hypothetical case that might help buttress the ideas of this section, see my blog post “Group Minds on Ringworld” (Schwitzgebel 2012a).

  14. 14.

    E.g., Hurley (1998), Noë (2004), Wilson (2004), Rockwell (2005).

  15. 15.

    E.g., Putnam (1975), Burge (1979), Millikan (1984), Davidson (1987), Dretske (1988, 1995), Wilson (2004).

  16. 16.

    See also Moravec (1997), Kurzweil (2005), Hilbert and López (2011). It is probably too simplistic to conceptualize the connectivity of the brain as though all that mattered were neuron-to-neuron connections; but those who favor complex models of the internal interactivity of the brain should, I think, for similar reasons, be drawn to appreciate complex models of the interactivity of citizens and residents of the United States.

  17. 17.

    See e.g., Davidson (1987), Dretske (1995), Millikan (2010).

  18. 18.

    In this respect, the case of the United States is importantly different from more artificial cases discussed in Lycan (1981) and Brooks (1986).

  19. 19.

    Notable exceptions include Lycan (1981), Brooks (1986), Wilson (2004) and Bryce Huebner (2014). Huebner, Brooks, and Lycan endorse hypothetical group consciousness under certain counterfactual conditions (e.g., Brooks’s “Brain City” in which people mimic the full neuronal structure of a brain), while refraining from stating that their arguments concerning literal group consciousness extend to any group entities that actually exist. Wilson I am inclined to read as rejecting group consciousness on the grounds that it has been advocated only sparsely and confusedly, with no advocate meeting a reasonable burden of proof. Edelman (2008) and Koch (2012) make passing but favorable remarks about group consciousness, at least hypothetically. Tononi and Putnam I discuss in Sect. 2.

  20. 20.

    For a review of higher-order theories, see Carruthers (2001/2011).

  21. 21.

    The theories I chose were Dretske’s, Dennett’s, Humphrey’s, and Tononi’s pre-2012 view. You can see some of my preliminary efforts in blog posts Schwitzgebel (2012b, c, d, e, f) (compare also Koch’s sympathetic 2012 treatment of Tononi). On the most natural interpretations of these four test-case views, I thought that readers sympathetic with any of these authors’ general approaches ought to accept that the United States is conscious. And I confess I still do think that, despite protests from Dretske, Dennett, Humphrey, and Tononi themselves in personal communication. See the comments section of Schwitzgebel (2012d) for Humphrey’s reaction, the remainder of the present section for Dretske and Dennett, and Sect. 2 for Tononi.

  22. 22.

    In his 1995 book, Dretske says that a representational is natural if it is not “derived from the intentions and purposes of its designers, builders, and users” (p. 7) rather than the more general criterion, above, of independency from “others”. In light of our correspondence on group consciousness, he says that he has modified this aspect of his view.

  23. 23.

    Although Chalmers is not a materialist, for the issues at hand his view invites similar treatment. See especially his (1996) and (forthcoming).

  24. 24.

    P.M.Churchland (1984/1988), P.S.Churchland (2002), Stich (2009). Contrast skepticism about loaded versions of “consciousness” or “qualia” in Churchland (1983), Dennett (1991), Frankish (2012).

  25. 25.

    Churchland characterizes as a living being “any semiclosed system that exploits the order it already possesses, and the energy flux through it, in such a way as to maintain and/or increase its internal order” (1984/1988, p. 173). By this definition, Churchland suggests, beehives, cities, and the entire biosphere all qualify as living beings (ibid.). Consciousness and intelligence, Churchland further suggests, are simply sophistications of this basic pattern—cases in which the semiclosed system exploits energy to increase the information it contains, including information about its own internal states and processes (1984/1988, pp. 173 and 178).

  26. 26.

    On the homunculi, see e.g., Fodor (1968). Leibniz imagines entering into an enlarged brain as into a mill in his (1714/1989).

  27. 27.

    Hutchins (1995) vividly portrays distributed cognition in a military vessel. I don’t know whether he would extend his conclusions to phenomenal consciousness, however.

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Acknowledgments

For helpful discussion of these issues in the course of writing, thanks to Rachel Achs, Santiago Arango, Scott Bakker, Zachary Barnett, Mark Biswas, Ned Block, Dave Chalmers, David Daedalus, Dan Dennett, Fred Dretske, Louie Favela, Kirk Gable, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Chris Hill, Linus Huang, Nick Humphrey, Enoch Lambert, Janet Levin, Bill Lycan, Pete Mandik, Tori McGeer, Luke Roelofs, Giulio Tononi, Till Vierkant, Vernor Vinge, and Rob Wilson; to audiences at University of Cincinnati, Princeton University, Tufts University, University of Basque Country, Consciousness Online, University of Edinburgh, and Bob Richardson’s seminar on extended cognition; and to the many readers who posted comments on relevant posts on my blog, The Splintered Mind.

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Schwitzgebel, E. If materialism is true, the United States is probably conscious. Philos Stud 172, 1697–1721 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-014-0387-8

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Keywords

  • Metaphysics
  • Consciousness
  • Phenomenology
  • Group mind
  • Superorganism
  • Collective consciousness
  • Metaphilosophy