Monday, October 31, 2011

Is the United States Conscious?

I wrote a bit about this issue last May, and it's still really bugging me. Let me try another angle in.

It would be bizarre to suppose that the United States has a stream of conscious experience distinct from the streams of conscious experience of the people who compose it. I hope you'll agree. (By "the United States" here, I mean the large, vague-boundaried group of compatriots who sometimes act in a coordinated manner.) Yet it's unclear by what materialist standard the U.S. lacks consciousness. Nations, it would seem, represent and self-represent. They respond (semi-)intelligently and self-protectively, in a coordinated way, to opportunities and threats. They gather, store, and manipulate information. They show skillful attunement to environmental inputs in warring and spying on each other. Their subparts (people and larger subgroups of people) are massively informationally connected and mutually dependent, including in incredibly fancy self-regulating feedback loops. These are the kinds of capacities and structures that materialists typically regard as the heart of mentality. Nations do all these things via the behavior of their subparts, of course; but on materialist views individual people also do what they do via the behavior of their subparts. A planet-sized alien who squints might see individual Americans as so many buzzing pieces of a diffuse body consuming bananas and automobiles, invading Iraq, exuding waste.

Even if the U.S. still lacks a little something needed for consciousness, it seems we ought at least hypothetically to be able to change that thing, and so generate a stream of experience. We presumably needn't go nearly as far as Ned Block does in his famous "Chinese nation" example -- an example in which the country of China implements the exact functional structure of someone's mind for an hour -- unless we suppose, bizarrely, that consciousness is only possible among beings with almost exactly our psychology at the finest level of functional detail. If we are willing to attribute conscious experience to relatively unsophisticated beings (frogs? fish?), well, it seems that the United States can, and does sometimes, act with as much coordination and intelligence, if on a larger scale.

The most plausible materialistic attempt I have seen to confine consciousness within the skull while respecting the broadly functionalist spirit of most materialism is Andy Clark's and Chris Eliasmith's suggestion that consciousness requires the functional achievements possible through high bandwidth neural synchrony. However, it's hard to see why speed per se should matter. Couldn't conscious intelligence be slow-paced, especially in large entities? And it's hard to see why synchrony should matter either, as long as the functional tasks necessary for intelligent responsiveness are successfully executed.

Alternatively, one might insist that specific details of biological implementation are essential to consciousness in any possible being -- for example, specific states of a unified cortex with axons and dendrites and ion channels and all that -- and that broadly mammal-like or human-like functional sophistication alone won't do. However, it seems bizarrely chauvinistic to suppose that consciousness is only possible in beings with internal physical states very similar to our own, regardless of outwardly measurable behavioral similarity. If aliens come visit us tomorrow and behave in every respect like intelligent, conscious beings, must we check for sodium and calcium channels in their heads before admitting that they have conscious experience? Or is there some specific type of behavior that all conscious animals do but that the United States, perhaps slightly reconfigured, could not do, and that is a necessary condition of consciousness? It's hard to see what that could be. Is the United States simply not an "entity" in the relevant sense? Well, why not? What if we all held hands?

In his classic early statement of functionalism, Hilary Putnam (1965) simply rules out, on no principled grounds, that a collection of conscious organisms could be conscious. He didn't want his theory to result in swarms of bees having collective conscious experience, he says. But why not? Maybe bee swarms are dumber and represent less than do individual bees -- committees collectively act and collectively represent less than do their members as individuals -- but that would seem to be a contingent, empirical question about bees. To rule out swarm consciousness a priori, regardless of swarm behavior and swarm structure, seems mere prejudice against beings of radically different morphology. Shouldn't a well developed materialist view eventually jettison unprincipled folk morphological prejudices? The materialist should probably expect that some entities to which it would seem bizarre to attribute consciousness do in fact have conscious experience. If materialism is true, and if the kinds of broadly functional capacities that most materialists regard as central to consciousness are indeed central, it may be difficult to dodge the conclusion that the United States has is own stream of conscious experience, in addition to the experiences of its individual members.

(Yes, I know this is crazy. That's the point.)

33 comments:

Kapitano said...

Certainly the way people lie to themselves resembles the way countries develop ideologies. A person raised in a life of crime develops justifications for their actions, and when their lifetyle changes they develop a new set for new actions - but the old set is still there, leading to some cognitive dissonance and twisted rationalisation.

Likewise, every epoch creates self-explaining and self-justifying ideologies - sometimes several mutually incompatible ones at a time. And the can hang around for centuries after they've been useful.

But: When one country invades another and takes over it's infrastructure, is this akin to an invasive vulcan mind meld? A mind rape?

If countries have consciousness, can they lose it? Can they sleep and dream? Daydream? Can their minds wander? Can they have false memories? Delusions?

In fact, could a country go insane? And is that what's happening right now to the US?

akammer said...

I've had the same thought a few times and wonder that so few people have developed it.

The whole state actor approach to international relations seems to take some version of this theory for granted. It's almost explicit in the various rational actor and 'realist' approaches to understanding state behavior. You can certainly analogize the internal conflict nations face to the experience any conscious person experiences. Maybe that's just anthropomorphism, but because nations are composed of people and they interact with the entity as if the entity were conscious/rational, it's probably worth examining more closely.

It's also a common experience that the fact of being with another person rewires them both, so that your interaction/relationship almost has a mind of its own, and it's not exactly how either of you would be taken independently. (i'm thinking of the book, A General Theory of Love, which describes how lovers' brains sync and rewire). There's no reason similar analysis couldn't be applied to larger collective entities.

The idea that consciousness comes from the aggregation or synchronization of discrete events is not that very fetched either. It certainly comes up when people like EO Wilson talk about the ways ants make collective decisions. And the bee swarm you described is another great example. Individual neurons and brain regions acting in a coordinated manner produce the emergent phenomenon that we recognize as consciousness.

In the end, it probably comes down to a kind of word game, about what you mean as 'conscious.' i.e. it's very different to posit some kind of self-aware soul/spirit than if your idea of consciousness is more like an emergent phenomenon that exhibits complicated decision-making properties and takes past experiences into account. it's like the question whether non-human animals are conscious, where other norms and agendas will color the definition to get you to the answer you want.

anyway, i really appreciate that you took the time to write this post.

Jonathan Ichikawa said...

I disagree with you. I don't think it's crazy at all.

penfold said...

Isn't the problem one of analogy? Everything we commonly ascribe conscience to shares a common context and history of a central nervous system (cns) which is *specifically* comprised of highly complex genetic tissues.

It is a fair point to argue that there is an analogical relationship in terms of function with a nation. These analogical relationships are well detailed in the above.

What concerns me is the jump from pointing to an analogical relationship (in function and structure between a cns and a nation) to making a claim about consciousness.

I think group behaviour is worthy of philosophical study, I just remain to be convinced that philosophy of mind provides the most appropriate language for that task.

TUM said...

I don't see this as necessarily an analogous argument, more phenomenological. We don't effectively know what consciousness is, to the extent of measuring it or anything. We can only meaningfully look at the outputs/behaviours of a system and check for similarities. Confining ourselves in individual neurological systems is just prejudicial.

Roy said...

Consciousness usually resides in an executive center that is required to assess the final set of options and take action. So in that sense our President represents, for better or worse, our consciousness in the US.

(Republicans of course are all subconscious.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, folks!

@ Kapitano: Interesting questions, if one accepts the ground-floor idea!

@ akammer: I agree that in many contexts we seem to treat states as agents. That issue is, in my mind, to some extent terminological. But it doesn't seem to me that the issue of whether there is really something it is like to be the U.S., whether there is a distinct stream of qualia or phenomenology, is in the same way terminological. I am, in that sense, a "phenomenal realist".

@ Jonathan: The full defense of the idea that it's crazy, and not just bizarre, requires a longer treatment. Will you grant that it's at least bizarre in the sense of a violation of common sense? Or do you think that common sense folk psychology permits something like this?

@ Penfold: It's partly about analogy, but the heart of the argument is not about analogy but about criteria: Most materialists' criteria for consciousness (to the extent they aspire to a general theory of consciousness that could apply to all hypothetical beings, not just beings with neurons), though generally only vaguely put, seem to be *literally*, not just *by analogy*, satisfied by the U.S.

@ TUM & Roy: Broadly speaking, agreed!

Brian Fiala said...

I think you're right to suggest that we shouldn't put too much stock in the intuitive bizarre-ness of nations, swarms of bees and so forth might be conscious. My view is that these cases seem bizarre partly because they don't trigger our 'agent-detector', which is a kind of quasi-perceptual mechanism for detecting other minds. The A-D normally gives gut level support for our judgments that something is conscious, but fails to do this in various non-paradigm cases.

With this in mind, I suspect your suggestion that we "jettison unprincipled folk morphological prejudices" may be a bit misleading. This sounds like a good suggestion. But on the other hand, I don't think our "bizarre-ness" intuitions here are altogether unprincipled. They seem to arise from reliance on a heuristics or shortcuts for making judgments about consciousness: Does x have eyes? Does it move in the right sort of way? Can I have a conversation? If "yes" then x is conscious, otherwise not. On this picture, the intuitive judgments are produced by heuristics that are pretty accurate for a wide range of cases (and 'principled' to this extent). But the principles are nonetheless fallible, so sometimes error will result (as in, e.g., the Nation of China case).

Michael Drake said...

"However, it's hard to see why speed per se should matter."

Interesting. I have exactly the opposite intuition. Why should we think we'd still be "conscious" if our neurons fired, say, once a day instead of 1,000 times a second (or whatever it is)?

The qualitative character of all kinds of cognitive activity is sensitive to rate. Can you "listen to a piece of music" when its tempo is slowed down to a 100,000th of the original? Can you "read a book" by reading one word of it a year? I don't think so. (To be sure, you'd be doing something cognitive with respect to the content of the music or the book, just not, it seems to me, the cognitive activity characteristically denoted by the respective descriptions.)

And then of course on the purely physical side, there are no such things as, say, hyper-slow tornadoes or hyper-slow ionization; such phenomena are physically possible only once certain critical velocities are reached.

So there's a whole range of phenomena whose existence is time-dependent in this way. Intuitively, I would think consciousness is one of them.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Brian: I agree with you completely. In fact, in the essay in draft from which this post is derived I favorably discuss your work on this issue.

@ Michael: Thanks for pushing on that point! My impression is that your objection depends too much on mixing slow and fast paced cognition. One can't read a book at one word per year because of the pace of all our other cognitive processes. But if there were a being *all* of whose cognitive processes were comparably slowed, why not? To use an example from Block, what if we came across aliens who seemed to be motionless but whose intelligent behavior and action could be revealed by time-lapse photography, and with whom we could communicate in that way?

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Mark Waser said...

I think that you would be very interested in (and agree with) the work of Tononi ("An information integration theory of consciousness" at http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/tononi%20iitoc.pdf and "Qualia: The Geometry of Integrated Information" at http://www.ploscompbiol.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000462) and Chalmers (Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness at http://www.imprint.co.uk/chalmers.html).

Jonathan Ichikawa said...

I guess I agree that it is contrary to common sense that the United States is an entity that is conscious, at least in the sense that most people ordinary would find the idea surprising. But I don't really see that, in a case like this, we should be much bothered by a view that is counterintuitive in that way.

penfold said...

@ Eric,

The problem as I see it is that 'criteria' split off from the neuronal context, do only give us an analogical relationship.

Take the following example.

Water is liquid. This property of being liquid has the following functional 'criteria': (i) it flows; (ii) it will alter its shape to fit the shape of its container.

A pile of sand also displays the following 'criteria' (i) it flows; (ii) it alters its shape to fit the shape of its container.

Therefore a pile of sand is a liquid...

Isn't this of the same form as your putative argument? And isn't this argument flawed because we have split off our two 'criteria' from the context of the particular structure of liquids (just as you seek to split off criteria of conscience from the particular structure of genetic tissues)?

Wouldn't a proper conclusion be that: a pile of sand can behave *like* a liquid.

Applied to your argument: a nation can behave *like* a consciousness. - which is a limited conclusion pointing at an analogical, NOT a literal, relationship.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Mark: Thanks for the links! I appreciate it when readers share references they think are relevant -- though in this particular case I was already familiar with the authors' work.

@ Jonathan: Agreed!

@ Penfold: I'd say if that's your general theory of a liquid, your theory needs work and sand is a counterexample. However, if you are assuming certain background conditions are satisfied and then adding those two, it's a different story. So I see three options for most materialist accounts: (1.) Accept USA consciousness (call sand a liquid), (2.) Clarify or change the theory to exclude USA consciousness (revise your general theory of a liquid), or (3.) Say that your theory of consciousness is not fully general but applies only given certain other background assumptions about the organism in question (stick with your theory of liquidity but only over a limited range of cases). Some materialist theories -- e.g., in terms of neurons and the human brain -- are pretty clearly in category (3) and so not really relevant to the current post.

Jonathan Ichikawa said...

Here's what might be a helpful thought experiment to motivate the who-says-the-US-can't-be-conscious view. There is no incoherence, I take it, in the idea that humans are actually made up of tiny particles, each of which comprises a conscious organism of its own. This would, to be sure, be a surprising empirical discovery, but there's nothing at all incoherent about it. Maybe those organisms experience life on a much quicker scale than we do; that doesn't introduce incoherence either. Call these tiny people Whos, after the Dr. Seuss society. Maybe it turns out that humans are actually made out of Whos.

Whos are like us. Most Whos don't know or think it at all plausible that they comprise a larger conscious organism. But their sociologists have of course noticed that Whos form a physical configuration that can be, for certain purposes, usefully theorized about. Its spacial configuration and location, for instance, change over time; in certain lax contexts, it might even be useful to 'whopomorphize' these larger entities, e.g., attributing 'desires' to explain certain 'actions'. None but the most creative of Who philosophers, however, would take seriously the idea that these giant, lumbering collections of Whos were themselves conscious.

But the Whos' perspective towards us looks exactly like our perspective towards countries. And the Whos, of course, are wrong; we are conscious. What reason have we to deny that we are too?

Richard Marshall said...

Your example seems to resemble Searle's Chinese Room argument that tries to show that consciousness isn't reducable to non-intentional mechanisms such as modular computerisation etc. But if consciousness in humans seems to depend on/supervenes on brain mechanisms and New York is something that seems to work like a brain in salient respects then the US may well be conscious. But would that tell us what consciousness was? If we assume NY is conscious, do you think higher order theories of the mind be applicable? If they don't, do you think that would undermine the idea of NY being possibly conscious, or would it threaten higher order theories of consciousness by being a counter-example?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Jonathan: That's a terrific thought experiment. I tried something in broadly that direction in my May post, but yours is much cleaner. (There's also a resemblance to Block's tiny-men-from-another-galaxy thought experiment in Troubles with Functionalism.)

@ Richard: I could see it playing either way. If we accept the conditional that HOT/similar-materialist theories -> NY/USA consciousness, then I think could could choose between modus tollens and modus ponens. My best guess is that pretty much every materialist theory that aims to be universal (and not just about human brains) is going to have to either make some tough chauvinistic-seeming stands about what kinds of material systems can be conscious or imply USA-or-similar consciousness, so modus tollens isn't as easy as it might look at first glance.

Anonymous said...

Here is an interesting problem: if a group entity can be said to behave in certain ways according to the behaviour of its constituent parts, then if it can be constituted in two different ways, it may be able to engage in two contrary behaviours at once. And if its behaviour is conscious behaviour, is accompanied by experience, either it will have one very strange consciousness, or two consciousnesses.

For instance, a political organisation can be said to move to the political right or left, to change its stance, as a result of changes of the political positions of its members. This could be considered either a rational or emotional change of position, potentially accompanied by a certain conscious sensation in the group consciousness. Now imagine a political organisation made up of representatives of various parties, who are divided into committees to consider individual problems. I think it could happen that the majority of parties move politically to the right, the majority of committees move politically to the left, and the overal distribution of political views among their individual members remains the same. (This could be due to a ‘Simpson’s Paradox’-type case.) Then the organisation qua group of individuals has had no change of mind, the organisation qua group of parties has shifted rightwards, and the organisation qua group of committees has shifted leftwards.

Each of these changes or non-changes is as much of an action/behaviour as any of those of the US you gave as examples. I don’t see any reason why, if any of the behaviours is accompanied by conscious experience, the others aren’t too. So if the organisation has a single consciousness, it is one that can simultaneously experience shifting left and right (and staying where it was). Or it has multiple consciousnesses.

Of course, it could be that even human beings can have multiple consciousnesses, which experience it as performing different behaviours. But I think our ethics depends on being able to recognise exactly one consciousness in each conscious human, and for each apparent behaviour to be the only behaviour reasonably attributable to a person over some period of time.

Richard Marshall said...

Hi Anonymous
I wonder if your thought experiment is wanting to say that the dissonance you describe in the political organisation's mind is peculiar to group entities rather than single minds. If it is I'm wondering if that's right. What do you think about the kind of mental states that Eric talks about when he's looking at dissonance between what people say they think and other behaviours or responses that suggest contradictory thoughts. Do you think the case you describe is like that kind of thing, where there is a dissonance that might make us conclude that they have these mental states but they can't count as a belief becauseof the dissonance. If so, does that make your thought experiment a good example of how consciousness works in humans and single consciousness as well as political organisations and group entities. And maybe that kind of supports NY having thoughts.

Martin said...

"So if the organisation has a single consciousness, it is one that can simultaneously experience shifting left and right"

Well, as a human, I can simultaneously experience becoming more hungry and becoming more determined not to eat anything.

Anon 05:49 said...

Richard,

I don’t want to argue that human consciousness isn’t a form of group consciousness, because as Jonathan’s Who example shows, we might not be able to tell whether it is without further investigation into our parts. I think there’s a difference between the belief-status of the organisation in my example and that of a human who has ‘in-between’ beliefs. I was assuming a sort of simplistic correspondence principle for group consciousnesses, so that a group’s opinions shift with the weight of the opinions of its components, which causes problems if the group can be decomposed in multiple ways. If under one analysis its opinions shift leftwards and under another they shift rightwards, that simplistic principle should assign it a shift in both directions, accompanied by a conscious sensation of shifting opinion in each direction. That weird state would be different from e.g. growing to verbally identify more and more with the political right, while also growing to act more and more in according with left views, which is a type of ‘in-between opinion-shifting’ that is more analogous to in-between believing.

I defend my use of that very unsophisticated correspondence principle by comparison with the sorts of principles we use to talk about nations, which are the example of a potentially-conscious group used in the post. I think that we talk about the opinions of a nation shifting just when the weight of opinion of its inhabitants does, and that when nations ’represent and self-represent’ they also do so in accord with the correspondence principle I gave. However, I recognise now that some actions of nations do not obey this rule. For instance, a nation can behave aggressively towards another nation without many of its inhabitants doing so. We’d want this behaviour to be conscious if any is. This is confusing, but perhaps there is a different sort of correspondence here, so that the attitudes of a nation can vary only with those of the few of its inhabitants who have the power to express those attitudes, e.g. aggression against other nations.

Anon 05:49 said...

Martin,

I think a closer analogy to the state my example organisation ends up in would be the state of both coming to be more prepared to resist my hunger and coming to be more prepared to indulge my hunger. I can’t imagine ever experiencing this state or attributing it to someone else. However, your mention of hunger does make me wonder how, when a nation is attributed hunger (for resources, for freedom, for power, etc.) this state, if it is conscious, can depend on the states of its components. (I think that, if it is not a conscious state, how this happens is not so important.) Perhaps it varies between types of hunger.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 05:49 (and Richard and Martin): Very interesting example! Once the possibility of group consciousness is opened up, then the possibility of subgroup and supergroup consciousness opens up too, so there might be multiple layers of entities each with different conscious experiences: There might be 10,000 people with their experiences, 100 100-person groups with their experiences, a different way of dividing up 100 100-person groups with different sets of experiences, and 1 supergroup with its own experiences -- and there might be all kinds of cool conflicts within and between. It's a neat idea. But I don't see that we need to endorse a simple bottom-up correspondence principle any more than it has to be the case that my color experience has to be determined by simple neural vote as it were.

As to whether a single particular unified stream of conscious experience might contain conflicting contents at the same time, I think I'm broadly with Richard and Martin. Maybe some illusions of motion, some self-deceptive states, some feelings of paradox or indecision, can be cases in which one simultaneously experiences contradictory contents. I don't know that there's a clear knock-down case, but that might be because of the difficulty of accurately introspecting in such cases and the awkwardness of describing one's contents of consciousness in that way.

Worth some further thought.

kired said...

Hey Eric?
I'm a pneumatologist. When I'm channeling and talking to entities from other worlds would it be alright to adapt parts of your essay discussing whether or not Mass Homogenizing Swarm Objects have the same right-to-exist that us bog-standard entities do? ("Adapt" because it wouldn't reference the USA, obviously. Never lead a MHSO home.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Feel free to reference this if you like, Kired. Best wishes for your explorations!

Wumpus said...

Our brains required billions of years of natural selection to design!

Analogy. A sewing machine was designed to sew.
Putting a bunch of sewing machines together in a room does not make a larger sewing machine. In theory one could make a sewing machine out of sewing machines. However, this would take design work!

Anonymous said...

I'm also a materialist but this idea seems completely false to me, and not just because it is counter-intuitive as I'll explain. Defining consciousness as it "being like" something to be the United States, the big problem with this is that all of the conscious features you describe the United States as having are completely executed by human brains and only matter to individual human brains. Take them away and simply look at the raw state/social structure of the United States and you have something completely inoperative (and actually rather simple), every stage requires a homunculi to work. By contrast in the human brain (according to computational theories at least) as a general rule as you increase the magnification the tasks become simpler and less conscious in themselves. Virtually all the information processing and all of the consciousness of the United States is localized in its most basic subparts, humans.

It is easy to get carried away by the analogy between ideologies waxing and waning and thoughts moving in and out of consciousness, and the analogy between the state declaring war and a conscious decision to do something, but the simple fact that we can comprehend such things about the supposed superconsciousness of which we are a part should tip us off to the misleading nature of such analogies. As if my brain stem could have an opinion about my love life or one of my cortical columns could have serious doubts about my job, all on their own. The United States is far, far too loose, slow and simple a network to be conscious. Too loose, too slow and too simple compared to what? Compared to the human brains which it is made up of. Think about it this way, take the smallest pieces of neural architecture in the brain and then note all the connections between them, all the information that travels and gets stored. The network you draft across the whole brain will be many, many times more complex than any one of the individual pieces of neuronal architecture. But if you do this with the United States, noting all the information that travels and gets stored between individual people, this doesn't hold true. Each individual person has perhaps a trillion or more axons, 10 billion or more neurons all firing many times a second. Even if the information sent between all the individuals in the United States exceed that (and remember it must be within the same length of time), it will not be by much. I.e., the United States as a network is probably less complex than any one of its three hundred million smallest pieces, and works much slower. Noting this, it is not surprising that all the information in the United States is only relevant to its most fundamental pieces. Take away people from the US and replace them with black boxes, and all the information being transferred around is arbitrary squiggly lines on paper, arbitrary sounds and radio waves, all magically transformed into other arbitrary signals by the black boxes. This is not true of the human brain. You can't learn much about the whole brain by focusing on a single tiny part, whereas you could learn a lot about the US by talking to just a hundred people.

All of the conscious features you have attributed to the United States are really features of individuals who comprise it, and make no sense if you look at the network even just a single level higher. Self-regulating feedback loops (need people to observe and make decisions), self-protection (because individual people care about their own protection and that of others), storing information (only relevant to individuals, even if they sit on committees), self-represent (only in the minds of the individual, all the monuments and flags mean nothing to groups of people, like committees, if you ignore the individuals that comprise them).

Anonymous said...

Where information is actually processed, and how much of it is sent and at what speed between two parts of a network, is important in determining where consciousness lies. Either one of your brain's hemispheres can sustain consciousness by itself as those who have undergone a hemispherectomy demonstrate. So why do we not all consider ourselves Left Me and Right Me? Because of all the information that is constantly transferred between the hemispheres. But now follow this thought experiment which takes us from the level of information transfer in a brain to the level between brains (as in the United States). Say you undergo a hemispherectomy but instead of the hemisphere removed being thrown away it is placed into a exact copy of your body. Now the two hemispheres rather than communicating at the super high capacity and high speed they used to are relegated to ordinary speech and body language. Do you think a consciousness is created every time these half-yous talk, a consciousness separate to them as individuals? Is that consciousness snuffed out every time they turn their backs on each other and walk away? I think you'll see they certainly aren't conscious in the same way they used to be when they shared the same head and communicated via corpus callosum. And this illustrates the importance of the relative speed and quantity of information transferred to the question of where consciousness is.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Anon! Have you seen my new full-length essay on the topic? There I do address (not fully adequately, I'm sure) the issues of reductionism and whether a conscious entity can have other conscious entities as parts. If you end up having the time and interest to read the essay, I'd be interested in your further thoughts!

Anonymous said...

As to the speed problem the speed needed would depend on one's external environment. If there were a being the size of a galaxy whose neurons transmitted information between each other taking light years to reach each other but who lived in a part of the Universe where things changed so slowly he was able to respond to things in a timely manner for his purposes then we would still consider such an entity conscious.

As to people having different opinions in government, that would be analogous to people being conflicted over what decision to make or what beliefs to hold.

Also you'd have to consider that just like we're not conscious of every little piece of information that passes through our neurons and probably not even in any way resembling the way they would perceive it if they were conscious similarly the United States would experience consciousness in a way that is almost unfathomable to us. If the United States is conscious then it wouldn't be conscious of the world as we see it but conscious of things in a manner reflecting how it interacts with its environment. If transported there and back we would probably describe it as "another plane of existence".

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for that thoughtful comment, Anon! That all sounds right to me.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

(Bracketing issues of panpsychism or vastly nesting sublayers of consciousness.)