Friday, May 13, 2011

Group Consciousness

I believe that you, dear human reader, have a stream of conscious experience. There is something it is like to be you; you have (as we call it) "phenomenology". Your dog does too. Maybe even the ants in my backyard. But, I have always been inclined to think, the United States does not have phenomenology. Individual people in the U.S. do, of course, but not the country itself. It's not as though there are three hundred million individual American consciousnesses and then one additional consciousness which is the group consciousness of the U.S.

But I find myself wondering: Why am I so sure of that?

Let's start with a thought experiment, adapted from Ned Block. Suppose that whatever functional contribution each of your brain cells makes to your consciousness could be implemented instead by an individually conscious being -- a miniature person, suppose, inside your skull. One by one, we replace your brain cells with miniature people, and by the end we have a "you" with no brain cells but with the same cognitive-functional brain structure you had before the experiment. If we ask this being: Do you still have conscious experience? It will say "yes, of course!" If we drop a rock on its toe, it will jump around and holler. If functionalism is true, then that being will be conscious.

Now let's populate your brain with miniature chairs and beds and kitchenettes for all these miniature folks. Maybe even we can expand your head to the size of a planet and connect it by remote control to the rest of your body. You should still be conscious, right? Now, let's suppose that these brain people can also engage in side-conversations with each other that don't disrupt their functionality as parts of your brain. Will they think you are conscious? Maybe not. Maybe they will say: We're implementing a complex architecture to control this body, and of course we are conscious as individuals, but the overall system is not conscious.

Functionalism is probably the dominant view in philosophy of mind and consciousness studies. And it suggests (if straightforwardly developed) that those brain-people would be wrong: There's a higher-level group consciousness of which they're unaware. Block finds this absurd and thus rejects functionalism -- but we can ride the conditional the other direction. Maybe functionalism is right.

Now of course we U.S. citizens are not implementing the functional architecture of a brain controlling a body. But is our situation really relevantly different? The body, for example, seems unnecessary: Most people think that a brain in a vat could be conscious. We're causally and functionally related to each other in a variety of ways. We talk to each other. We engage in group projects. We pay taxes to support the military. We vote. We pass laws and enforce them. We react to foreign threats. We trade. We explore Antarctica and the moon. Might that connectivity among us be enough to support a group consciousness? -- a real, literal group consciousness, with its own singular stream of experience, as singular and real as the stream of any biological human?

Let's suppose we're liberal about biological consciousness: We think that individual ants probably have a stream of experience -- a stream very different, presumably, from human experience, reflecting the radical difference in their functional architecture. Is the United States, as a functional structure, less complex, less interconnected, less reactive to its environment, less planful than an ant? In what functional respect do we fall short?

Maybe we're not tightly biologically integrated. But why should that matter? Maybe we didn't arise as a naturally selected species. But why should that matter? Maybe the boundaries of membership in the U.S. super-organism are vague. But why should that matter?

Of course it's unintuitive that the United States would be conscious. But why should we think our intuitions are a good guide here? (And in any case, such intuitions might not be stable across cultures.) If one carefully follows through the consequences of any general theory of consciousness, one will find, I think, something highly unintuitive. Functionalism has some seemingly crazy consequences. But so also do all competitor theories: substance dualism, idealism, panpsychism, biological chauvinism, etc. Something that seems crazy must, I think, be true about consciousness. (I call this "crazyism".) Why not this crazy thing rather than some other?

25 comments:

shane said...

maybe political entities are analogous to the areas of our brain that give rise to speech.

About Nick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
About Nick said...

This reminds me much of Hume when he says that a self (or the various ideas formed by impressions that exist in what people call the 'self') is best described as a Republic. Very interesting. Plato, Hume, and now you -- not that I mean to conflate you all.

Your ability to concise and also available to the lay reader on this topic is impressive.

Brian Fiala said...

Re: the question of what the homunculi would believe, which you pose in paragraph four, I think the existence of a body being controlled might well make an intuitive difference here. Relatedly, it's not clear to me that the homunculi really would deny that the 'meta-being' is conscious, to the extent that they're aware of the overall functional architecture in which they play a role. A connection to a humanoid body strongly suggest that the homunculi's activity is contributing to a functional scheme of the right sort (as well as resulting in important perceptible cues that consciousness is present---see below).

Our actual situation is disanalogous to the homonculus-head scenario in that as far as we know, there is absolutely no reason to suspect that we U.S. citizens are playing some role in an overall scheme that would give rise to consciousness in virtue of the scheme's functional architecture. Setting aside the in-principle question of whether groups could be conscious, there's no particular functional reason to suspect that America is actually conscious. So it may be that firmly held belief about the actual here corrupts our intuitions about the possible.

There is also a further, more powerful reason to suspect that our intuitions are not a good guide to truth in this vicinity. As a partial answer to your questions about the difference between the USA and an ant: one key difference is that an ant has eyes, moves in distinctive patterns (especially self-propulsion and unforced directional changes), and interacts contingently with the surrounding environment. All these are visible features of the ant, but not of the United States. This is important, because simple, visually perceptible features like these arguably trigger our intuitive attributions of mentality in everyday cases---see the work of Heider & Simmel, Susan Johnson, and more recently Arico, Fiala and Nichols who focus on intuitive attributions of consciousness specifically (in fact, the category "ant" is a crucial stimulus in one of our experiments). Since we cannot perceive the United States as having these simple features (e.g. having eyes, moving in a distinctive trajectory), it's not so surprising that we lack intuitive support for the idea that USA or other collectives could be conscious.

Anonymous said...

I'm inclined to think that there is a group conciousness possibly related to buddhist influences in my youth and a tendancy towards collectivism for the same sort of reasons you have outlined here. But its.. er.. just not the same as our conciousness.

"Maybe we're not tightly biologically integrated. But why should that matter?"

I think this one does matter not in whether you have phenomenology but in terms of if that phenomenology is anything particularly interesting. Maybe the pattern of signals you can get from a structure like the USA (or the globe) mean that you dont get phenomenology any more exciting than the ant has in terms of what we are looking for.

on a side note - I remember a science fiction story about when some aliens came to earth and the humans were discussing how the aliens didnt recognise humans as sentient - the only thing they found was "islam". Quite a good short story.

GNZ

JLinCh said...

Eric,

Given that you use the 'brain-people' as a means of identifying a biological mechanism on a macro level: what explains the brain-people's consciousness? How do you attribute consciousness to the brain-people while avoiding a circular argument or ad-infinitum?

I'll agree with you that consciousness is a very odd and intricate phenomena and I don't think people should be labelled "wacko" for using un-traditional theories to explain the phenomena (ala property-dualism, etc). I think that a bizarre theory may be needed for such a bizarre phenomena.

In regards to the group consciousness topic, I must say that at first glance it seems as if it is just a metaphor for a socially constructed empirical phenomena. I wouldn't attribute any metaphysical significance to such.

Regards,

JL

Michael Drake said...

"In what functional respect do we fall short?"

At least one function that is unaccounted for is declaring that I am having this or that phenomenal experience. Groups exhibit various forms of collective behavior that indicate collective awareness. But not that particular form.

Anyway, while we can't say what is missing from your test cases, we can prove that something is missing. Suppose there is some bit of group-level behavior that suggests a form of collective awareness. We ask: Is the group- or system-level "awareness" isomorphic to the awareness exhibited by its constituents (or at least some subset of it)?

In the the Block case, the answer is no. There is (by hypothesis) system-level awareness that is independent of what any of the miniature people "knows." Once the knowledge of all the people is taken into account, there will be system-level behavior that still needs to be explained.

Whereas in the anthill case, the answer is yes. The system-level awareness is simply a function of the individual awareness of its constituents. A forager becomes "aware" of food, and leaves a trail of pheromones signaling food, of which other ants become "aware." There's no residual, system-level awareness that needs explaining.

Allen said...

I think you are looking at it the wrong way. If explaining consciousness in terms of the world results in "crazyism", perhaps a better approach is to instead try to explain the world in terms of consciousness.

I find it entirely plausible that nothing explains conscious experience. Perhaps conscious experience isn’t explicable in terms of anything else. Rather, maybe conscious experience is fundamental.

Perhaps we’re not at the top of a explanatory stack looking down at what supports and causes our experiences. Instead, maybe we’re at the bottom, looking up at all the things built on top of our conscious experience.

Things which aren't independent of our experience, but rather are aspects of it.

Yes? No? Maybe?

Anonymous said...

@Allen- very new-age comment, put down the Chopra book...

Allen said...

@Anonymous:

No Chopra here.

My point is that if you use the "external world hypothesis" to explain the order and consistency of your experiences, then the question just becomes, "what explains the order and consistency of the external world?"

You didn't answer any questions by introducing the "external world"...all you did is shift the exact questions you had about your experiences to that external world.

The same questions remain, but you feel like you've made progress because you've pushed them one step further away - by introducing an unexplained explanation. But this is just the first step to infinite regress.

Not only do you still have the original question about the origin of order and consistency, there's also this new question of exactly *how* this external world gives rise to experience.

To me it makes more sense to reverse the standard order, and take consciousness as fundamental - instead of assuming that *what* we observe is fundamental and then trying to explain the fact *that* we observe in terms of it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the comments, folks!

Brian: You write: Our actual situation is disanalogous to the homonculus-head scenario in that as far as we know, there is absolutely no reason to suspect that we U.S. citizens are playing some role in an overall scheme that would give rise to consciousness in virtue of the scheme's functional architecture. Setting aside the in-principle question of whether groups could be conscious, there's no particular functional reason to suspect that America is actually conscious.

This seems to me to beg the question.

And you write: One key difference is that an ant has eyes, moves in distinctive patterns (especially self-propulsion and unforced directional changes), and interacts contingently with the surrounding environment. All these are visible features of the ant, but not of the United States. This is important, because simple, visually perceptible features like these arguably trigger our intuitive attributions of mentality in everyday cases.

I completely agree -- but unless there's reason to think our intuitive judgments about such matters are well-grounded, this could be diagnosis rather than defense, yes?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

GNZ: Yes, it's another question how interesting the phenomenology is. I wouldn't rule out that it's interesting, but that's a question that is probably beyond me (and in any case for another day).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

JL: I'm not sure I understand your concluding comment. On circularity, I'm just taking the consciousness of the brain people as a hypothetical starting point -- which should be allowable unless it's incoherent, no?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Allen: I have no problem with accepting consciousness as fundamental (except insofar as I'm not sure what that means). But even if it's fundamental, there's still a question of what beings have it and don't, right? And *that's* what this post is about. If consciousness were reducible and we knew the reduction base, we could answer the question that way, but I don't think anything I've said depends on the truth of reductionism. No?

I am he as you are as you and we are all together said...

And thus does an extremely individualist empirical philosopher grope his way toward a notion of CULTURE. Premodern western thought took it almost for granted that an individual was nothing without constituting a "member" of a greater body (be it polis, church, guild, religious order, state).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Seems to me a more radical thought than is usually expressed by the term "culture" though.

Notcathy said...

I agree to this post that brain and body is really function to each other. For me you can't control your brain but you can control your body..

matthias said...

is there any book / philosopher you know oh that has dealt with group conciousness and specifically its phenomenology at length? i'm interested in the subject but can't find anything on the internet. thank you in advance

Michael Drake said...

I think one reason we're (reasonably) sure that there's no additional consciousness which is the group consciousness of the U.S. is that once the awareness of all the individual people in the U.S. is accounted for, there is no residual group-level awareness behavior that needs accounting for. That is, the group- or system-level awareness is merely the integrated sum of the relevant awareness of all the individuals. (This ties in with Brian's point, above.)

Also, at least in the case of conscious human agents (if not ant hills), we can point to at least one example of an individual behavior for which there is no functional analogue in the collective case: the declaration that I am having such-and-such, seemingly irreducible phenomenal experience. Corporate bodies don't exhibit anything like this (very peculiar) sort of behavior.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Matthias: I'm not aware of any, but that doesn't mean there aren't any. I haven't done a serious lit search yet and there's an enormous amount of stuff out there!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Michael: On your first point: Couldn't the same type of reasoning suggest that human beings have no phenomenal consciousness -- since we could (presumably!) in principle explain all their behavior by means of cell activity, etc.?

On your second point: Dogs also don't exhibit that type of behavior. But presumably they have phenomenal consciousness, yes? So I agree the collective does not exhibit that behavior, but it doesn't seem that exhibiting such behavior is necessary for consciousness.

Michael Drake said...

"Couldn't the same type of reasoning suggest that human beings have no phenomenal consciousness -- since we could (presumably!) in principle explain all their behavior by means of cell activity, etc."

Well, the status quo is a situation in which we have (1) an incomplete (some would argue nonexistent) explanation of the relationship between unconscious cell activity and the observed awareness behaviors of individual human agents, and (2) a complete explanation of the relationship between individual agent activity and observed group awareness behaviors.

If we had an actual theory that explained the relationship between unconscious cell activity and conscious awareness, it is prima facie unlikely that that theory would predict group consciousness from paradigmatically conscious agent activity, since the underlying causal-dynamic factors are so obviously different in kind. To the extent that the Block example is gripping (and I personally don't find it gripping because it elides, among other things, the time-sensitive dynamical factors that seem to me likely to be crucial in generating any kind of phenomenal consciousness), it gets its grip by constraining agent activity to tasks that are isomorphic to the nonconscious activity going on in neurons or the like. The agent's own consciousness is, in this sense, bracketed out. But that's not what's going on in the United States or ant hill examples, where all of the group level awareness behavior bears a transparent relation to the apparent awareness of its constituents.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Michael: Thanks for your interesting comments. I suspect (2) is not especially less aspirational than (1), though. Would you disagree?

Graham said...

I definitely think that the US is a conscious entity. Ditto for any collection of minds such as NASA, a family, and the planet. Indeed, I think this also applies to the brain itself, which can be considered as comprising two sub-minds (hemispheres). One bit of evidence of this is that split brain patients seem to have two somewhat independent consciousnesses.

Here's a video I made that goes into a little more detail:

http://grahamglass.blogs.com/main/2009/04/making-minds-episode-3.html

Michael Drake said...

I guess I take you to be expressing skepticism about the "complete explanation" part. But I don't mean by the phrase a complete predictive model (which I would agree is aspirational, and would require more than conscious awareness to succeed). I just mean we have an explanatory framework that we will generally apply retrospectively. E.g., if the United States behaves as if aware that Osama bin Laden's is hiding out in a private residential compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, we don't wonder, "Wow, where did this group awareness come from? This is a hard problem!" Instead, we know (whether or not we have all the facts to hand) that there's some kind of story to tell that will account for that collective awareness in terms of descriptions of the phenomenal awareness of some class of individual agents independent of the mechanisms on which that conscious content supervenes.