Monday, June 25, 2012

New Paper in Draft: If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious

Regular readers will have noticed over the past year a so a variety of posts on group consciousness.  I have finally synthesized my thoughts into a full-length paper draft, which I have posted online here.

Here's the core argument: There seems to be no principled reason to deny entityhood to spatially distributed but informationally integrated beings (such as Martian Smartspiders or Betelgeusian beeheads). The United States can be considered as a concrete, spatially distributed but informationally integrated entity. Considered as such, the United States is at least a candidate for the literal possession of real psychological states, including consciousness. The question, then, is whether it meets plausible materialistic criteria for consciousness. My suggestion is that if those criteria are liberal enough to include both small mammals and alien species that exhibit sophisticated linguistic behavior, then the United States probably does meet those criteria. The United States is massively informationally interconnected and responds in sophisticated, goal-directed ways to its surroundings. Its internal representational states are functionally responsive to its environment and not randomly formed or assigned artificially from outside by the acts of an external user. And the United States exhibits complex linguistic behavior, including issuing self-reports and self-critiques that reveal a highly-developed ability to monitor its evolving internal and external conditions.

I leave it open whether we should (a.) do modus ponens and accept the conclusion, (b.) do modus tollens and deny the antecedent, (c.) see this as a challenge to find a good justification for accepting the antecedent while denying the consequent, or (d.) see this exercise as supporting skepticism about a certain style of metaphysics.

As always, thoughts and comments welcome.

46 comments:

Alex said...

Would you also argue that the US is able to experience pain?
The only conscious beings we ever deal with are humans and (to some degree) animals. But those share more common qualities than just consciousness, such as: they are able to feel pain, and they are connected clumps of matter. So if your argument is indeed correct but *feels* wrong, it might very well be the case that because it's very difficult to provide a proper definition of consciousness, we subconsciously (;-)) also take other properties of conscious entities we know into account, and since the US is not a connected clump of matter something seems fishy.

Gary Williams said...

Very interesting paper, but something worries me about this argument. The focus on individual nations seems arbitrary to me. Imagine a future Earth where there is just one global nation and zero political boundaries. 10 billion people are all just interacting with everyone else. Assume that each of the 10 billion people have different goals. It seems strange to me that there would be a unified group consciousness above and beyond the consciousness of the individual people. Normal organisms usually are more unified in their goal states at least insofar as everything strives to maintain homeostasis. The global consciousness of everyone would seem to have no such unified goal states, for how could we concretely specify what the goal of an entire planet of people with different goals really is? You might respond by saying that the global consciousness would have the goal of staying alive and preventing threats to its existence such as from aliens. But so long as we are using our imaginations, suppose that half the planet wants Earth to be destroyed and the other half wants it to be preserved. Do we now have a split personality in the global consciousness? This seems unrealistic to me. Such notions as global consciousness seem better off understood as convenient or even thought-provoking metaphorical abstractions, but nothing more.

Arnold Trehub said...

But the USA lacks *subjectivity* -- a fixed spatio-temporal locus of perspectival origin. For example, see "Where Am I? Redux", here:

http://theassc.org/documents/where_am_i_redux

Do you claim that an entity that lacks subjectivity can be a conscious entity?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

@ Alex: I don't know if the US would experience pain. Some *people* don't experience pain, apparently, but we probably don't want to say they lack consciousness. So I don't think we want to consider pain-feeling a necessary condition of consciousness. The USA does act to protect itself from threats and can revenge when damaged. But maybe your core point is that we are nervous about ascribing consciousness to entities that would, if conscious, have very different presumptive phenomenology. That seems right to me -- but that hesitation might be prejudice rather than good sense.

@ Gary: A global community won't engage in very many actions directed at things outside its body (unless we include its roads and air as outside its body) and it won't engage in social interactions with like-minded entities -- or at least that's the case unless we imagine a variety of other changes. It will also be less informationally integrated as an entity, e.g. due to language and cultural barriers. That's why I chose a nation as the target group size. It's crucial how it is organized; not just any aggregation of people would be conscious by materialist principles of the sort I invoke in the essay.

@ Arnold: Why do you say the USA lacks a fixed spatio-temporal locus of perspectival origin? It's just a larger spatiotemporal region than the human locus. A satellite will be over the USA, or not, a terrorist cell will penetrate its border, or not, etc. I don't know that I would accept that "subjectivity" in this sense is necessary for consciousness, but even if I grant that, the US would seem to qualify, wouldn't it?

Gary Williams said...

Hi Eric,

"It's crucial how it is organized; not just any aggregation of people would be conscious by materialist principles of the sort I invoke in the essay."

Ok, this makes your hypothesis more concrete but now I am worried about a Sorites paradox. To simplify things, imagine a future Earth where there are only two nations on Earth: America and China. Your hypothesis is that each nation is conscious, but that a global society wouldn't have the right organizational properties since it's not integrated as well as a single nation. Ok, so now imagine that at first America and China are very closed off from each other. Now let's imagine their borders slowly become more porous. Eventually, there should arise an equilibrium stage where the America/China distinction blurs into a global society. Depending on your views about vagueness, then it seems like the consciousness of America would be in constant flux as that equilibrium stage was perturbed. The addition or subtraction or a few people would tilt the nations either from being conscious or not. This seems like an desirable view (or maybe you will just bite the bullet here).

Also, I'm pretty sure "the rest of the universe" would count as things for a global consciousness to react to (including other alien species). Also, you said that a global society would be less informationally integrated than a single nation. But this depends crucially on the parameters of the thought experiment. First, I see no reason why a truly global society wouldn't have a global language so linguistic and cultural barriers would be melted away.Second, in your paper you mentioned the internet as a means to higher information integration within a single nation. But we can imagine the far-future global society has the internet on steroids and they are massively informationally connected to everyone else on the net. Why would this not count as the right kind of information integration? The nesting principles you defend in the paper seem to lead to the coherence of a global consciousness. But this seems more outlandish than a single nation being conscious if all the individuals have radical different goal states.

UserGoogol said...

I don't think Eric is actually arguing that a world society wouldn't be conscious, but that nation-states have additional structure which makes it easier to argue that they are, so he's focusing on that.

Arnold Trehub said...

Eric: "Why do you say the USA lacks a fixed spatio-temporal locus of perspectival origin? It's just a larger spatiotemporal region than the human locus."

The human locus of perspectival origin (the self locus) exists within a neuronal medium that represents perceived objects and events within its egocentrically organized space. For example, a bright satellite in the sky might be represented in one's brain as a distant object traveling from left to right with respect to one's locus of perspectival origin. What medium would the USA have to support a similar phenomenal representation?

e z said...

1 The supercomputer "Colossus" in B-grade scifi movie "Colossus: The Forbin Project" is built to control the nuclear arsenal. But then it takes over the US. The military-industrial complex transfigurates itself into Frankenstein's monter.

And it communicates with humans at our frequency - per Eliasmith and Clark.

2 Probably Colossus passes the Turing test. But is that the right test?

Maybe we should look for evidence of irrational behavior - painting pictures, rooting for the Red Sox, posting comments on blogs.

(3 Now the military industrial complex seems less a threat to US than extreme laissez-fairism and its 4 pr 5 Thomist zombies on the Supreme Court of the United States.

clasqm said...

Like Gary Williams, I question the use of the US as the unquestioned unit of analysis, but I want to take the opposite tack. Consider Colin Woodard's argument that the US is a state that actually contains 11 nations (a useful summary of his book in five parts starts here).
In Woodard's view, these nations actually spill over into Mexico and Canada. Of course, one can disagree with Woodard, but he does seem to have a lot of evidence in his favour, and if so, his 11 nations might seem a more logical substratum for a group consciousness to form than the United States.

'm not opposed to the idea that consciousness could exist on a grander scale than the merely human. But I do think we need to think very carefully on what geographic basis such a consciousness would form. Most of today's countries are the products of historical accidents and arbitrary decisions (witness the arrow-straight lines on a map of the US). If the US as it exists today is conscious, it may be suffering from severe Schizophrenia and/or Multiple Personality Disorder.

clasqm said...

Sorry, that link I posted didn't come through properly.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-09-29/real-u-s-map-a-country-of-regions-part-1-commentary-by-colin-woodard.html

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Gary: You can get the same sorites paradox with the transition from split brains to a unified cortex, no? So tu quoque?

@ Gary/UserGoogol: As long as a hypothetical global society is richly enough interconnected and responsive to its environment -- I use rabbit-level connectedness and responsiveness as my benchmark -- that society will be conscious by my arguments too. Yes, I agree that the conclusion is bizarre, and it might involve several nesting layers of consciousness. For this reason, I don't rule out rejecting materialism or adopting a non-standard version of materialism if one can be reasonably sustained. Now maybe we already have sufficient integration at the global level; but as UserGoogol says I'm focusing on USA consciousness as my best case in support of an existence claim.

@ Arnold: Why do we need neurons? If you accept that weird alien entities with sophisticated linguistic behavior might be consciousness, then you will presumably want to reject neurons as a necessary condition. The USA has plenty of informational structure. (In fact it has plenty of neurons, too, about 3 X 10^19 of them, just not organized in a single mammalian brain.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ E Z: Thanks for the reference. I'm guessing the movie doesn't get deep into the philosophical issues around consciousness. If it does, though, I'll put it on my list!

@ clasqm: Thanks for the link. I think the USA is the best estimate for the unit, since there are lots of things that the USA does as an integrated group (like declare war, elect a President) that subculturally-defined collections don't do (or do in a more every-individual-severally way), and its borders are reasonably well defined. But I'm not committed to that. For my broader purposes, any real-world (not bizarre hypothetical) case of literal group phenomenal consciousness will do.

clasqm said...

@Eric: Declaring war I can see the point of. Actually, nobody "declares" war any more, that is a very 19th century concept. Has anyone actually "declared" a war since 1939, with all the formalities of issuing ultimatums etc? We just go ahead and "wage" war nowadays. But it would be the equivalent to me deciding to punch you in the snoot. Or writing a snide rejoinder to your conference paper.

But as for electing a president, well, for all I know, my neurons get together every few days and declare one of themselves to be Grand Pajandrum of ALL the Neurons. And so what? That is something significant only on THEIR level of consciousness. If it occurs, it occurs far below MY level of consciousness. It is just part of the general housekeeping of my being-conscious-in-the-world.

It might be of interest to neurologists to know that periodically a single one of my neuron shows unusual patterns of behaviour. But it does not affect my overall functioning. If neuron x stops doing it, then neuron y will take over. The general pattern is maintained. Somehow that pattern creates and maintains my consciousness. Thanks, neurons. Keep it up.

Now could the neurons use their Pajandrum-choosing activity as a basis to decide whether I am conscious? Only if they were trying to decide whether I had the level of consciousness appropriate to a neuron. They would be trying to understand my level of consciousness, which is qualitatively different from theirs (I am trying to avoid higher/lower language here and not succeeding, sorry) solely in terms of their own.

So, whether the US elects a president, is run by a shadowy secret organisation, belongs to an absolute monarch or self-organises along anarcho-syndicalist lines is, as far as a conscious US is concerned, a problem below its level of attention. A conscious US would not know who or what Obama was. It would know that some other presumably conscious entity hurt it on 9/11.

If we are trying to think of actions a conscious nation-state would exert that are analogous to those of a conscious human, then war would be a better example. It is directed outward, it is empirically observable action. Electing a president is an internal change, just part of the housekeeping.

Which is an extremely long-winded way of saying "bad example, maybe?"

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Well, the U.S. does announce to the world who has won election as President, so in that way it's not quite like the secret Pajandrum election of my neurons. The relevant issue is not that there's one person in charge (which isn't really the case anyway) but that it's a highly visible and "self-conscious" activity of the nation as a whole. But waging war is also a good example, with the advantage that it involves sensory-like environmental sensitivity in light of which the group actions are guided.

Scott Bakker said...

Great read. I’m not convinced spatial contiguity is going to be a ‘prejudice’ that many of your readers suffer. It certainly isn’t for me. Granting that I might be simply running afoul the consensus fallacy, my hunch is that most of your target audience will feel the same way.

Now you want to say that communication between brains should be sufficient for some kind of superpositional consciousness, given the assumptions of materialism. Once you agree that contiguity is not a necessary condition of consciousness, the question becomes one of why we would think contiguity is important at all. The easy answer is simply that our brains are contiguous, and our brains generate consciousness. Therefore, contiguity is plausibly a necessary condition of consciousness. But things like the Scattered Brain thought experiment suggests that contiguity is simply a side effect, something nature used to achieve a different kind of effect, one that is in fact necessary for human consciousness. Informatic organization is the necessary condition: systematic differences making systematic differences in a particular way. One of the shortcomings of your paper, I think, is how you seem to dismiss the significance of spatial contiguity tout court. Even if it isn’t a necessary condition for the possibility of consciousness generally, it definitely IS a necessary condition for consciousness as we’ve developed it, and since we are the only example of consciousness we got, I think you need to consider why in greater detail.

This is where ‘information integration,’ which you use to replace spatial contiguity, seems to become strategically fuzzy: you provide what seems to be an incomplete list of organizational features. For me anyway, the greatest problem facing group consciousness is the far, far fuzzier relationships you find between brains, even in regimented social contexts. The bottom line is we have no idea how strict the systematicity obtaining between interaction patterns needs to be.

All you have to do is run your thought experiment in reverse, postulate a brain where neurons interact and communicate in a manner that structurally mirrors the systematicity of America: could a brain where neurons produce a wild variety of outputs for singular inputs (precisely because they are continually bombarded by contextual information) be capable of generating consciousness? Expressed this way, the answer clearly seems to be no, no?

This is where spatial contiguity returns to bite your backside. Packing circuits within restricted volumes of space has the effect of crowding out contextual noise, orthogonal differences making differences at odds with the systematic requirements of the whole. Spatial contiguity isn’t the necessary condition, but the functional consistency it facilitates could very well be.

And this offers any materialist a very handy way to simply side-step the counterintuitive horns you position about them.

Juan said...

Something else to consider here is epistemology. You say that privileging brains over other informationally integrated beings is mere morphological prejudice, but what if it can be justified as a case of Universal Reductionism in empirical science? Universal Reductionism says, very roughly, that all there is ultimately boils down to the laws of physics. So something like particle physics is more "fundamental" than biology. So I think the issue here is that neurons are reduced more easily to physics than mutually interacting brains. As Scott said, the informational relationship between human brains is much more fuzzy than that between neurons. I wonder: if we accept your metaphysical conclusions ("countries are conscious"), would this mean that universal reductionism is false? If consciousness fundamentally "emergent" at different levels of organization? Or is city level minds still reductible to physical processes, and it's just a size thing?

Arnold Trehub said...

Eric: "If you accept that weird alien entities with sophisticated linguistic behavior might be consciousness, then you will presumably want to reject neurons as a necessary condition."

Why should we believe that sophisticated linguistic behavior, in weird alien entities or in complex robots, indicates consciousness? I don't think that linguistic behavior (the Turing test?) is what characterizes consciousness.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, folks!

@ Scott: Those are interesting points. I guess I don't feel the pull you do to think that a brain composed of neurons with very different responses to inputs would not be conscious, as long as it enabled coherent action -- especially action readily recognized by us from the outside as showing intelligent co-ordination. In fact, my intuitions go the other way. The point about shielding from external forces is an interesting one, though. I'm disinclined to agree with you that that should be regarded as a difference-maker if sufficiently intelligent "outward" action is still possible, but it's something I should probably explicitly address in the next revision. Thanks!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Juan: If neurons can be reduced, and thus brains can be reduced, I don't see why nations also couldn't be reduced. I'm not committed on reductionism, one way or another, but I'm not seeing a difference in principle here, just a size difference. No?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Arnold: So you would be one of those curmudgeons who thinks the Sirians and Antareans, despite their intelligent-seeming behavior, would not really be conscious?

Arnold Trehub said...

@Eric: Sure, intelligent seeming behavior is not enough. I would want to see clear evidence of SUBJECTIVITY, an internal representation of the space in which the alien exists that is organized around a single locus of perspectival origin (the self locus). For example, see here:

http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/trehub01.htm

and here:

http://theassc.org/documents/where_am_i_redux

Matt Sigl said...

EXCELLENT Paper! I was thrilled to read an in-depth analysis of the ideas you had posted on this blog. Putnam's claim that a swarm of bees couldn't be (or include) a single consciousness is looking not-so-obvious anymore. I'm going to re-read the paper and think about it more but I think it's an interesting contribution to consciousness studies right now.

Whether or not the voting example "actually" generates enough integrated information is a bit of a moot point as in theory it certainly could (given enough voters) and that's all you need to concede to argue for its possible super-ordinate consciousness.

I wonder, why not go the end and entertain the notion that ALL possible arrangements of matter, over a certain timescale, generate at least 1-bit of consciousness, no matter how you slice and dice the world. So, my neurons generate a lot of consciousness over 300ms but my neurons plus a particular rock on Mars generate, as an entity, perhaps one-bit of consciousness. An idea like this in spirit was put forth by Philip Goff in this paper (though his overall conceptual scheme is a little different): http://consciousnessonline.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/property-dualists-should-be-panpsychists.pdf

Scott Bakker said...

Eric: "Those are interesting points. I guess I don't feel the pull you do to think that a brain composed of neurons with very different responses to inputs would not be conscious, as long as it enabled coherent action -- especially action readily recognized by us from the outside as showing intelligent co-ordination."

So "intelligent coordination" is your primary criterion then, and information integration secondary?

You do realize how much this changes the stakes of your argument. I actually think you don't have much choice but to go this route. The thing is, we don't know what SPECIFIC kind of information integration (II) is required. Your argument amounts to saying that materialists are committed to the notion that ANY kind of II will do, so long as it's correlated with phenomena that we can call 'intelligent.'

I'm not sure why they wouldn't just say, "No I'm not. My II is more specific."

In other words, I think you're trying to pack some important questions and considerations into too nifty an argumentative package. I just don't think the subject matter allows you back your reader into your modus ponens.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Arnold: Does it become clear in those links why the US would not have a subjective location?

@ Matt: Thanks for the kind words. I do consider panpsychism a live option, but it seems to me there are other live options too. I'm not sure how to settle it.

@ Scott: Your helpful comments are making more vivid for me a disjunction that I think the materialist is committed to: Either say that intelligent behavior (of the right sort (?) and of a naturally evolved organism (?) and maybe meeting a few other conditions) is sufficient for consciousness, and thereby let in all kinds of weird underlying structures including maybe the USA; or go for some sort of chauvinism on which intelligently behaving (naturally evolved) entities won't be conscious if they don't have the right sort of internal states, despite outward appearances; or commit do denying widespread ideas about the huge variety of physically possible ways to implement intelligent behavior. Does this seem like a correct analysis of the situation to you? If so, then we can discuss which of the three options is the most theoretically attractive.

Arnold Trehub said...

Eric: "Arnold: Does it become clear in those links why the US would not have a subjective location?"

No. The papers linked don't discuss why The US would not have a single subjective location. But they do support the case that anything that is conscious must have an internal perspectival representation of the space in which it exists -- i.e, if it does not have a single locus of spatio-temporal origin in its global representation of its surrounding space it cannot be said to have subjectivity/consciousness. In this view, those who claim that the US is conscious would have to show how the US has a single perspectival representation of the space in which it exists (subjectivity). Otherwise the claim fails.

Scott Bakker said...

I guess I’m saying that your argument is first and foremost an argument by analogy, that this is where you will be critiqued, and that short of making your analogies air tight (which I don’t think is possible), the way you frame your disjunction seems too ambitious. So the question is one of how adding a third disjunct will impact your conclusions.

intelligent behaviour: the problem here is that the superpositional intelligence can be explained in terms of the intelligence of the subpositional parts. (A possible way out of this might turn on ‘crowd intelligence’ phenomena, things like ‘market solutions’?)

wide implementation: the problem here is that superpositional implementations quite obviously exhibit drastically different informatic structures from the one we KNOW is correlated with consciousness, the human brain. I understand that contextual noise intrinsic to America doesn’t strike you as problematic, but it remains a big disanalogy, one that will be far harder to explain away than spatial contiguity.

narrow implementation: this is where the materialist will find shoulder-shrugging refuge (as Arnold has with his EMF criterion), since it will allow them to handily impute consciousness to Rabbits while denying it to America.

When you frame your argument in these terms, your critics can say that what you’re doing is actually arguing FOR ‘narrow implementation,’ simply by showing how intelligent behaviour and wide implementation fall into the lap of your reductio. Maybe you should scale your conclusion back to this?

But the bottomline, I think, is that spatial contiguity isn’t the prejudice that you need to circumvent. It’s the functional dividends provided by proximity, such as context insulation in my objection, or the range of EMF effects in Arnold’s. The problem is that this tosses the issue squarely into the jaws of neuroscience, and as result seems to make the kind of principled case you argue here that much more difficult.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Scott, I agree that one response that people might find appealing is to accept something like what you call "narrow implementation". In my view, this falls into the class of responses that I describe as "neurochauvinism". I wouldn't want to insist on the falsity of such a view; I don't claim that materialism strictly implies that the US is conscious. There are various ways out, and that is one of them.

But I do think there are costs to such a move. One cost that that insistence on specific internal criteria will generate unintuitive results for weirdly implemented aliens. Another cost is that the move seems theoretically unmotivated if one is aiming at a universal metaphysics. Maybe those costs are worth paying to dodge the unintuitive conclusion about US consciousness; but it's not clear to me how much credit to give to that intuition.

If the conclusion readers draw from my paper is that we really would need to look inside the heads of the Sirians and Antareans to figure out whether such beings have conscious experience, lest we end up committed to weird possibilities like USA consciousness, I wouldn't mind too much -- though my own judgment is that that's not really the best way to go.

Scott Bakker said...

I guess I just don't see these costs, and so assume that others won't as well. You agree that 'Information Organization Willy-nilly' isn't sufficient for consciousness. The real issue is one of what *warrants* various commitments to this or that *specific* IO. Arguing that consciousness requires specific Informatic Organization is no more problematic than arguing that life requires specific material organization (MO) to emerge.

*If* you are arguing nonspecific IO, however, then you just seem to be arguing panpsychism. Taking life as an analogue, you would be arguing for a nonspecific 'MO,' that everything is 'living' in some sense.

But if you're arguing (as I clearly think you are) for some specific IO, then the devil clearly retreats into the empirical details, out of the reach of the broad metaphysical commitments you want to use to force your dilemma, or the 'alien examples' of conceiveable conscious systems.

It doesn't have to be, but this really IS the problematic nub of your paper, given the way you've structured it. Given this structure, the natural thing is to argue WITHIN it, when the real issue between you and your readers (I think, anyway) will be whether the dilemma is a false dilemma (because it turns on metaphysical commitments that are too broad to warrant specifications of IO) or not. I'm not so much saying that you're wrong as I'm saying you've boxed yourself in with a problematic thetic approach.

I expected you would be at the ASSC conference, Eric!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Scott, I'm not getting how that the avoidance of panpsychism forces me into something empirical. What empirical research on Earth, for example, do you think would license us in concluding that thehypothetical Antareans aren't conscious? Suppose we find out, say, that 40 hz oscillations of neurons in brain regions corresponding to the focus of attention was the perfect neural correlate of consciousness. Do we then say, "Antareans wouldn't have 40 hz oscillations, so they're not conscious." That doesn't seem warranted to me. At the very least, justifying such an exclusion would require much more than what flows straightforwardly from empirical research.

I'm finding your reaction interesting and valuable, but I feel like I'm still not quite getting the heart of it.

My hope is that the weird alien examples bring out the idea that, as you say, Information Organization is where the action is in consciousness. I don't want to commit to a specific IO, but I also don't want to say any IO will do. Rather, it's that I don't see any plausible IO that would include rabbits, weird aliens to which it would be folk-intuitive to ascribe consciousness if we met them, and which excludes the USA. One way to read the paper is as a challenge to people to specify a plausible, non-ad-hoc, theoretically motivated IO that meets the desiderata of including those entities but excluding the USA.

Callan S. said...

I suppose my rather grim criteria is whether they all die together? The Darwinistic bottleneck being the pinch that forms an entity. Like the old phrase about kids playing near each other rather than with each other, the more the individual parts (right down to individual humans) can survive the death of others, the more they are being concious near each other, not concious with each other.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan, would it follow that if we found a way to preserve my brain cells individually after my body disintegrates that I wouldn't be conscious even before disintegration?

Callan S. said...

Hi Eric,

Well, what do your individual brain cells do by themselves? Surely not more than an individual American citizen does? Harsh, dude! ;)

You could extend the idea to clumps, that as a unit of brain cells they can start to perform what we call tasks (when connected to a new body), even after the body disintigrates. But the tasks would probably be at the animal level and so even though they might be able to perform tasks that let them survive (ie, forfil Darwin requirements), they can't perform tasks we associate with conciousness. And if the 'clump' size gets bigger (so as to do the more complicated stuff like we see from humans), then it probably covers most of your entire brain anyway.

On the other hand, withdraw food and especially water from Americans for three days and hey, how many of them can survive without the main infrastructure? So my assertion of behaviour (we associate with conciousness) continuing to exist even outside the main structure perhaps doesn't lead to much if it's mostly done whilst dying of dehydration, I'd grant.

Scott Bakker said...

Hi, Eric. Back from holidays - and from rereading PoC, btw! Maybe my criticism is more superficial than I initially thought - and my reading more idiosyncratic. I never felt the Rabbit/America dilemma you were trying to foist on me simply because I think the question of IO specification is the magical *empirical* question, and it seemed very clear that you were using a quite loose specification - being 'neuropromiscuous.' The problem, it seemed to me, was that the range of implications that follow from materialist commitments includes 'narrow IO' as readily as your 'wide IO.' Since you didn't happen to engage the particular specification I had in mind, I simply slipped through your net.

So for me, your paper read as an argument *against* wide IO only disguised as a challenge to materialist approaches to consciousness. Like I say, this may simply be due to my idiosyncratic approach, or it could highlight a more general problem you'll have: The narrow IO crowd will all be looking for your account of their own specifications, will all see it as a matter for a more mature neuroscience to decide (and your dilemma as more reason to think they have the winning empicical ticket). Given the amount of territory you cover, the fear is that they will slip through your nets the same as I did.

Given this, perhaps "One way to read the paper is as a challenge to people to specify a plausible, non-ad-hoc, theoretically motivated IO that meets the desiderata of including those entities but excluding the USA," should be the *primary* way to read the paper? This strikes me as important: you've convinced me that it represents a shortcoming in Tononi's theorization of his own position.

As I remember it, the focus of the paper is to deliver the materialist reader to the horns of your dilemma. *Big* game. It's been a couple of weeks though, and my sense of its proportion has been scrambled by reading your book!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Scott --

I'm glad you're finding continuing value in Perplexities!

The reaction you describe, if I'm understanding right, might be a fairly typical one. I think I got versions of it from Tom Polger and Ned Block. In revising, I will probably shift the focus a bit to put more energy into displaying what I think of as the problems for such a reaction. But I don't think I want to cast it as what the paper is *primarily* about because I think there are other interesting types of reaction that I would like to give weight to. My overall approach is not to create a dilemma for one view but rather to display a variety of alternatives, all weird and unappealing in different ways. Inevitably, this might be a tough trick rhetorically, since readers will tend to assume that their favorite approach is the one most obvious response, and I won't have space to give every approach full justice.

Scott Bakker said...

Quorums are the lifeblood of all writing, fictional and philosophical!

Anonymous said...

Ahh so you came to agree with me!

Seems it is not easy to write an article on this topic though due to the (to me, inexplicable) lack of other work on which to build on and thus the logical gap and variety of counter arguments you are trying to cover.

GNZ

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

GNZ: I've forgotten. Did you suggest this to me, and it got lost in the reaches of my memory, seeming like my own idea? I do think that sort of thing happens all the time. Let me know and I'll be sure to give you an acknowledgement!

Anonymous said...

Ahh.. I doubt I deserve much of a mention in regard to your thought process, I just have had this position and discussed it for a long time as per my comment when you raised this in March 2011.

GNZ

Noctambulant Joycean said...

This may not be the appropriate forum for asking this, but I cannot figure out a better way of doing this. So here goes:

I was wondering how to get a copy of Nick Baiamonte's doctoral thesis. I'm really interested in it after reading the abstract (all I could get my hands on) and since you acted as his faculty advisor I thought you might be able to point me towards the best place to get a copy.

Thanks.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Joycean: Email me and I can put you in touch with Nick.

LukeRoelofs said...

Eric, I’d like to thank you for this blog series, and the paper. I’m currently in the early stages of a dissertation about group-consciousness and part-consciousness, so this is all right up my alley.

I do want to ask you something though: in a few places you’ve used the phrase “a stream of experience over and above the experiences of the individual citizens and residents of the United States”.

Could you clarify what ‘over and above’ means here? What is it meant to contrast with – the view that the USA has a stream of experience ‘constituted by’ those of its citizens and residents (whether or not that means the one stream is identical with those smaller streams collectively)?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Neat that you're working on this, Luke. I think I mean what you suggest I mean in your final paragraph. The much less radical view that I want to contrast with is the view that "The United States is experiencing anger" just means something like "The majority of U.S. citizens are experiencing anger" (or something similar in spirit but more convoluted).

Here's another way of thinking of it. If we suppose (bizarrely, I know) that each of my neurons has insect-like individual conscious experiences, it would still presumably be the case that I have some experience over and above the sum of those individual neuron insect-like consciousnesses.

Does that help clarify?

LukeRoelofs said...

It clarifies somewhat, except that what I suggested you meant, and what you here say you meant, strike me as subtly different, though you suggest they’re the same.

That is, it seems to me there are three distinct possibilities (and perhaps more) for the meaning of “The United States is experiencing X”:

1. The majority of U.S. citizens are experiencing X (or some more convoluted statement about the contents of citizens’ streams of experience);

2. In addition to the 300 million citizen-streams there is ‘300,000,001st stream’, entirely distinct from them, which belongs to the US;

3. The 300 million citizen-streams themselves constitute a single stream of experience, perhaps on account of their connections with each other.

I take it that you mean to be considering the second of these, and contrasting that with the first. I’m interested in what you’d say about the third possibility, which is meant to be a genuine, literal ascription of a stream of experience (unlike 1) but is also meant to avoid positing a ‘further’, ‘additional’ stream (like 2), and instead simply claims that the 300 million streams together constitute a stream, just as 300 million small physical objects might together constitute a large physical object.

My suspicion is that this third possibility, which requires streams of consciousness composed of other streams of consciousness, is in some deep sense counter-intuitive or even inconceivable – or at least, I’ve seen a few people claim that it is.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Luke, thanks for following up. I think I now see much better what you are after! Possibility #3 hadn't occurred to me, though now that you mention it, it definitely seems worth consideration.

I am not attracted to possibility #3, for two independent but not entirely decisive reasons.

First, arguments about object individuation are often (in my view) arid and not very substantive -- e.g., whether there is one baseball that contains exactly these molecules and another overlapping baseball or baseball-like thing that contains all those exact same molecules minus one, whether the baseball is an object in addition the molecules out of which it is composed, etc. These seem to me to be issues of ontological line-drawing, to be pragmatically decided by practical regulations for the use of language. That seems to me a very different type of issue than the issue I'm trying to get at in the present paper.

Second, to the extent we do want to pursue the question of how to individuate streams of experience as distinct, that brings us to something like the "unity of consciousness" question. What makes it the case that the sound of tapping fingers on my keyboard and the visual image of Tim Bayne, both of which I am now experiencing, belong to the *same* stream of conscious experience, i.e., "mine"? I'm not sure how to answer that, exactly, but it seems to me that whatever it is that ties them together, the current auditory experience that Mitt Romney is having and the current visual imagery that Dan Dennett is having are not going to be unified in the same way.

If you have more well-developed thoughts about this, I'd be interested to hear!

LukeRoelofs said...

Thanks Eric, that all sounds very reasonable. I guess I don’t see issues of individuation as quite so arid (or perhaps, like a camel, my personal threshold for dehydration is higher). It occurs to me that if you wanted to dodge all the arid stuff, and simply argue for a literal USA stream of experiences, then you could just stay neutral between #1 and #3, though that might conflict with the ‘over and above’ locution.

The connections among and within streams are definitely a crucial issue, on which I may perhaps have a well-developed thought a few years from now. I think a lot turns on distinguishing absolute differences from differences of degree, and possibly on distinguishing relations reducible to causal/informational interactions (possibly including Bayne’s access-unity) from relations not thus reducible (possibly including Bayne’s phenomenal-unity).

Incidentally, I was reading your second post on Tononi, in which you seem to link to two different papers. I’ve been having a bit of trouble with the links redirecting me to index pages, but could you just confirm the titles of the papers you’re talking about? I’ve got ‘Information integration: its relevance to brain function and consciousness’ but I think there’s another…

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Maybe that's what I should do, Luke, though it's not entirely clear what the substance of (3) is, and how radical it is, until it's clear what the criteria of individuation are.

The three most important Tononi pieces on this are:

Tononi, Giulio (2004). An information integration theory of consciousness. BMC Neuroscience, 5: 42.

Tononi, Giulio (2008). Consciousness as integrated information: A provisional manifesto. Biological Bulletin, 215, 216-242.

Tononi, Giulio (forthcoming). The integrated information theory of consciousness: An updated account. Archives Italiennes de Biologie.

His just-out book actually contains less scientific and argumentative detail than these articles.