I've been arguing that if materialism is true, the United States is probably conscious. My argument is essentially this: Materialists should accept that all kinds of weirdly-formed aliens would be conscious, if they act intelligently enough; and the U.S. is basically a weirdly-formed alien.
One objection is that if an alien is weirdly enough constructed, we should deny that it's conscious, or at least withhold judgment, regardless how similar it is to us in outward behavior. Consciousness requires not only intelligent behavior but also an internal organization similar to our own.
Now I grant that a certain amount of complex structural organization is necessary if a being is to exhibit sophisticated outward behavior; a hunk of balsa wood won't do it. But it's plausible that a vast array of wildly different structural organizations could give rise to complex human-like behavior -- parallel processing or fast serial processing, carbon or silicon, spatially compact entities or spatially distributed entities, mostly subsystem driven or mostly centrally driven, and at all sorts of time scales. I've explored a few weird examples in previous blog posts: Betelgeusian beeheads, Martian smartspiders, and group minds on Ringworld.
Suppose we grant, then, that there's a vast array of possible -- indeed in a large enough universe probably actual -- beings with behavior of human-like sophistication, emitting complex seemingly communicative structures, seeming to flexibly protect themselves and flexibly exploit resources to enhance their longevity and power, seeming to track their own interior states in complex ways, and seeming to produce long philosophical and psychological treatises about their mental lives, including their streams of conscious experience. Would it be reasonable to think that although we have phenomenal consciousness (qualia, subjective experience, what-it's-like-ness), they don't, if they're not enough like us on the inside?
Consider the Copernican Principle of cosmological method. According to the Copernican Principle, we should tend to assume that we are not in a specially favored position in the universe (such as the exact center). Our position in the universe is mediocre, not privileged, not especially lucky. My central thought for this post is: Denying consciousness to weirdly structured but behaviorally sophisticated aliens would be a violation of the Copernican Principle.
Suppose we thought human biological neurons were necessary for conscious experience and that no being made of silicon or magnets or beer cans and wire, and lacking human-like neurons, could be conscious, regardless how sophisticated its patterns of outward behavior. Then suppose we met these magnetic aliens and we learned to communicate in each other's languages (or seeming-languages). Perhaps they come to Earth, begin to utter sounds that we naturally interpret as English, interact with us, and -- because they are so delightfully similar in outward behavior -- become our friends, spouses, and business partners. On the un-Copernican view I reject, we human beings could justifiably say: Nyah, nyah, we're conscious and you aren't! We got neurons, you didn't. We're awesomely special in a way you're not! (Fortunately, the magnetic aliens' feelings won't be hurt, since they will have no real feelings -- though they sure might behave as though insulted.) Our functional organization would be importantly different from all other functional organizations of similar sophistication in that it alone would have phenomenal consciousness attached. This would seem to be a violation of mediocrity, a claim of special favor, weird humanocentric parochialism.
Similarly, of course, for distinctions based on parallel vs. fast serial processing or spatially compact vs. spatially distributed processing, or whatever.
Even if we confess substantial doubt, we might be guilty of anti-Copernican bias. Here's a possible argument: I know that creatures with neurons can be conscious because I am one and I know through introspection that I'm conscious; but I don't know that magnetic beings behaviorally indistinguishable from me can be genuinely phenomenomally conscious, because I have no direct introspective access to their mentality, and the structural differences are large enough that there's room for considerable doubt in inferring from my own case to theirs. In my more skeptical moods I'm quite tempted by this argument.
But I think the argument is probably un-Copernican. It's tantamount to thinking that we neuron-owners might be specially privileged. Maybe we are at the center of the universe! -- not physically, of course, but consciously. A map of the distribution of mentality in the universe might put dots for behavioral sophistication all over the place, but the big red dot for true phenomenal consciousness might go only on us!
Now the Copernican Principle isn't inviolable. It could have turned out that we were at the geometric center of the universe. So maybe it could turn out Earth indeed is just the lucky spot where sophisticated behavioral responsiveness, self-monitoring, and linguistic-seeming communication is grounded in consciousness-supporting neurons rather than mere zombie-magnets (or zombie-hydraulics, or zombie-silicon, or whatever). But entertaining that view other than as a radically skeptical possibility is a parochialism that I doubt would justifiably survive real contact with an alien species -- or even a good, long immersion in well-constructed science fiction thought experiments.