Thursday, May 02, 2019

Flavors of Group Consciousness: Vanilla, Strawberry, and Chunky Monkey with Extra Nuts

Yesterday, I was rereading Philip Pettit's 2018 article "Consciousness Incorporated". Due to some vocabulary mismatch, I find his exact commitments on group phenomenal consciousness not entirely clear [note 1]. (By "consciousness" or "phenomenal consciousness" I just mean conscious experience, the stream of experience, or "something-it's-like-ness" in a relatively theoretically innocent sense.)

Pettit endorses group consciousness of some flavor. But what flavor? A mild flavor, he hopes: something "sufficient to engage philosophical interest" but not too "challenging and mysterious" (p. 33). In contrast, in my article "If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious", I see myself as defending a radical position that clashes sharply with ordinary common sense. So the question is, can we distinguish among different degrees of ontological commitment in endorsing "group consciousness", with vanilla on one end (palatable to almost everyone) and, on the other end, well, let's call it "Chunky Monkey with Extra Nuts".

Group Consciousness: Vanilla

Sometimes a group of people all, or mostly, share a particular conscious state -- in a weak or innocuous sense of "sharing". Individually, everyone (or almost everyone, or at least enough of the group) is undergoing that type of conscious experience. So if I say that the theater audience was alarmed by the sudden collapse of the lead actor onstage, or if I say that World Cup viewers around the globe saw the amazing goal, and if we assume that the alarm and the seeing are conscious experiences, then in a certain innocuous sense the groups share conscious experiences.

(One complication: The alarm or the seeing might manifest differently in different members of the group, depending on, e.g., their mood and their viewing position. Set this aside for simplicity.)

Here's a depiction:

[as always, click to clarify and enlarge]

"The audience felt alarmed by the actor's sudden collapse": In this vanilla version of group consciousness, that statement only implies that (enough) of the audience experienced, as individuals, a feeling of alarm (conscious state A in the depiction above).

Pettit clearly wants something more flavorful than this.

Group Consciousness: Chunky Monkey with Extra Nuts

A radical view of group consciousness, in contrast, posits the existence of a stream of experience possessed by the group in addition to the streams of experience possessed by each individual. I have argued that the United States might have a distinctive stream of experience over and above the experiences had by individual citizens and residents of the United States. If streams of experience, or centers of subjectivity, are discrete, countable things (they might not be), and the group contains N members, then on the Chunky-Monkey-Extra-Nuts view, there are N+1 discrete streams of conscious experience -- 300,000,000-ish for the individual members of the United States plus another one for the group as a whole.

Furthermore, on a view of this sort, the conscious experiences of the group mind might be very different from the conscious experiences of any individual members of the group. If the United States is a conscious entity, for example, it might consciously enforce an embargo. But what it feels like, subjectively from the inside, to enforce an embargo might be completely opaque to any individual person. (Alternatively, consider a possible human-grade group mind that is composed out of smaller insect-grade individual minds, capable of appreciating Shakespeare in a manner far beyond what any insect could do: my Antarean Antheads case).

Here's a depiction:

It is highly counterintuitive (in current mainstream Anglophone culture) to think that the United States, or any existing groups of people, actually give rise to a discrete, higher-level stream of consciousness at the group level -- a distinct locus of subjectivity. On this view, group-level mental states arise from, and are not merely composed of, the mental states (and other interactions) of the members, so that there are four, not three, distinct occurrences of experience A (three among the individuals and a fourth for the group) as well as the possibility of experiences (B, D, E) that occur in none of the individuals. If you find this a weird and radical view, you are probably understanding it correctly.

Pettit presumably doesn't want to defend this flavor of group consciousness. [Note 2]

Group Consciousness: Strawberry

Can we and Pettit find an intermediate flavor -- more interesting than vanilla but not as wild as extra nuts?

Pettit compares the relation that a group mind (or "agent") has to its members to the relation of that a statue has to the molecules composing it:

As the statue relates to its molecules, so the group agent relates to its members. The group agent is not the same agent as the set of its members, because the set of members is not, as such, an agent at all. But still, the group agent is a set of members -- a suitably organized or networked set -- and qua set it is the same collection as the set of members who make it up. The group agent is distinct from the members under the one aspect but not distinct from them under the other (p. 23).

This physical analogy captures the intended non-radicalness of Pettit's view. It is a little too simple, however, since not everything in the members' minds belongs to the group mind, and since the group can have mental states that none of the members individually possess. This isn't analogous to how we normally think of the molecular composition of statues.

A favorite example of Pettit's is the following: The group has three members. Member A believes P, Q, and not-R. Member B believes P, not-Q, and R. Member C believes not-P, Q, and R. No one believes P-and-Q-and-R. The group decides collectively, however, that P-and-Q-and-R is a view they can stand behind as a group. They might endorse "We believe P&Q&R" -- though not all of them even need to endorse that, as long as there's a procedure by which it comes to constitute the group's view, for example, by being voiced by the leader after a proper consultative process.

We might depict the situation thus:

The conscious experience of the group is in the red box: The group consciously believes P&Q&R. It's not enough for the members to share a conscious state (e.g., A), and no individual believes P&Q&R, but due to structural features of their relationships, the group believes P&Q&R in virtue of the right members accepting that "we believe P&Q&R". (Let's ignore the trickier case in which the group believes P&Q&R without any individual member accepting that the group believes this.)

Now, is this an interestingly intermediate "strawberry" flavor of group consciousness? Maybe! But here's a question: In virtue of what is "P&Q&R" a conscious belief that the group possesses? If P&Q&R is a conscious belief because individual group members consciously endorse P and Q and R and/or P&Q&R in the right kind of coordinated way, then maybe this is a fairly vanilla view after all: Conscious experience is still the province of individual people. What Pettit adds is only a somewhat more complex way of picking out which individual conscious experiences count as the group's shared conscious experience. Group consciousness is just individual consciousness, plus a criterion for attributing some of those states to the group as a whole.

On the other hand, if the social relationships among the group members yield more than that, if the group's conscious experience arises from the interconnections among members so that conscious experiences at the group level aren't just individuals' conscious experiences plus a criterion -- well then maybe we're starting to get into Chunky Monkey territory after all.

Suppose there's something it's like to consciously think, "Ah, P&Q&R, that's right!" On the Chunky Monkey view, this experience could really transpire in the group entity, even if it occurs in no individual member's head. On the strawberry-that's-basically-vanilla view, that's impossible, and to say that the group consciously endorses P&Q&R is only to say something about structural relationships among what individual group members do consciously endorse.


Note 1: Pettit prefers "coawareness", which he appears to equate with "access consciousness" in Ned Block's sense. He says that access consciousness implies there being "something it's like" and maybe vice versa (at least for the case of belief). Despite this, he says he is "setting aside" the issue of phenomenal consciousness -- perhaps thinking of "phenomenal consciousness" as a phrase that is more theoretically commissive than I hear it as being (see p. 12-14, 33).

Note 2: In footnote 6, for example, Pettit favorably cites his sometimes-coauthor Christian List's 2018 criticism of my article on USA consciousness.


howard b said...

Why not posit that the US has a hair color or an anxiety attack or is collectively solving Vladimir Nabokov's chess problems or is starved for cheddar cheese popcorn or likes Victorian novels?

howard b said...

I mean you can't even say the US has the same weather at the same time. It is sunny in LA and snowing in the Midwest. Why would consciousness be any different? Plus, is quantum weirdness involved in your conjecture?

Anonymous said...

When discussing group consciousness, one has to be careful not to conflate the individual conscious experience of a discrete system with the individual conscious experience of another discrete system. The statue is a discrete system and all of the individual molecules and atoms that collectively make up that statue are all themselves discrete system too.

Now, if it is presumed that consciousness is the linear, continuous system, (ie the hardware) that the discrete systems of appearance run on, (ie the software), then one can say with certainty: That as a discrete system, the United States would have a conscious experience, an experience that is separate from the individual parts that make up that discrete system. This avoids the paradox of conflation. This interpretation would also assert the general thesis of panpsychism. So maybe what is needed is a vanilla, strawberry and chunky monkey with extra nuts shake...

Luke Roelofs said...

Can I stake a claim for a flavour… maybe I’ll call it ‘hazelnut’ (a popular flavour here in Germany), because it’s still pretty nutty by most people’s standards? The position I defend is close to Chunky Monkey but denies the discreteness claim. If groups have streams of consciousness, they aren’t ‘over and above’ those of their members, but constituted out of them.

Of course, as Eric points out, there seems to be potentially a big disconnect between the character of members’ experiences and the character of group experiences (if there are any). I think that’s compatible with haselnut flavour group consciousness, if we accept that phenomenal consciousness can have fine structure that exceeds cognitive access.

We might then say: a given group experience (big E) is constituted out of several individual experiences (e1, e2, e3, e4) in certain relations. But, on the one hand, the group is not introspectively aware that its experience is thus constituted, because its capacity for access to the fine details of its experiences is limited, and on the other hand, no individual is introspectively aware of the character of big E, because each individual is only aware of one of its constituents, not all of them.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Howard: No need for quantum weirdness, and no need to attribute mental states that aren't somehow enacted at the group level -- like protecting its borders, invading Iraq, importing oil, and monitoring for threatening asteroids.

Lee: Yes, something like that seems right. Once you have Chunky Monkey with extra nuts, you get vanilla and strawberry almost for free!

Luke: Interesting. To me that sounds like it's still in the strawberry zone, though. If the group's E really is just composed of e1-e4 in a certain relation, like a statue is composed of molecules in a certain relation, then I'm not sure we're yet into hazelnut territory. I haven't yet read your whole book Combining Minds (it's sitting here in my stack to read), but from the segments I've read, I'm pretty sure there are aspects of your view that are, as I'd think of it, in the hazelnut to Chunky Monkey range. The way you express it here, though, doesn't maybe capture all of the weirdness?

Anonymous said...

you should check out the work of stephen turner including Brains/Practices/Relativism: Social Theory after Cognitive Science, this bit from his wiki is a good representation of his thinking:
In The Social Theory of Practices as well as in other writings Turner argues against collective concepts like culture: what we call culture (and similar concepts), he argues, needs to be understood in terms of the means of its transmission. There is no collective server by which it is simply downloaded and "shared". What we take as "collective" is really produced through experiences of interaction which are different and produce different results for different individuals but which also produce a rough uniformity through mechanisms of feedback rather than "sharing". He has extended this argument in various places, most recently in relation to the philosophical idea of "normativity" which he argues is an explanation of "facts" which are the product of an unnecessary and mystery-producing redescription motivated by an attempt to take back ground from social science explanation.

Anonymous said...

I've read your essay Eric. Metaphysically, you are on the right path. Where consciousness theorists like Chalmers get tripped up is by falling prey to the repressive model of subject/object metaphysics (SOM). The postulate of a subject becomes the stumbling block for micro-panpsychism when it comes to the emergence of a new "subject". The fact is, there is no such thing as a subject in that context. There is only a discrete system that is having the experience, and that discrete system is an object. So fundamentally, a discrete system is not having a subjective experience, it is having an objective experience that just happens to be indeterminate.

Nevertheless, in order for this model to work, it needs a grounding architecture, and that architecture is Transcendental Idealism, Revision 1.0 where the "thing-in-itself" is clearly identified. Once the "thing-in-itself" is isolated and subsequently recognized, the model grows quickly and exponentially into a theory of everything. Keep in mind, I am not talking about assigning a metaphor or an analogy to the "thing-in-itself", but a literal state, and I wouldn't even call it a state of being...


SelfAwarePatterns said...

I think the answer we come up with for something like this depends on which definition of "consciousness" we're operating under. Even citing phenomenal consciousness in a theoretically innocent fashion seems problematic without identifying which aspects of phenomenal experience are necessary and sufficient to label a system "conscious".

For example, which of these are necessary and sufficient?
affects or emotions,
a unified sense of self,
self reflection

All of these can be referenced from a purely phenomenological perspective without reference to how they come about. And any subset of them may be considered "conscious" by different observers.

All that said, I do think we can interpret group dynamics as sometimes achieving the Strawberry and even Chunky Monkey versions. However, in a small group, this achievement seems like it would be brief and fleeting. It might be more durable for an entire long lived society.

Ultimately, consciousness is in the eye of the beholder, in what we want to consider a system of moral worth. With that in mind, it's striking that many people often bemoan the erosion of particular cultures and languages. There's a feeling that something is being lost, that these things have an existence and value beyond the individuals.

Whenever we start to think of these things in these ways, is it really that hard to imagine them as conscious in some sense of the word?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Lee: Thanks for the kind remark and thoughtful comment. I think I am more of a skeptic than you (and than most others) about the metaphysics of consciousness. And yet I agree that transcendental idealism is an interesting approach and currently insufficiently appreciated. I articulate one version of transcendental idealism in my forthcoming essay "Kant Meets Cyberpunk".

SelfAware: I disagree that "consciousness is in the eye of the beholder"! I agree that definitional issues can be tricky -- and yet I think they aren't *really* so tricky except that philosophers tend to make them so by being overly theoretical in an attempt to be clearer than our current understanding permits. I favor a relatively naive definition by example approach, as I articulate in "Phenomenal Consciousness, Defined and Defended as Innocently as I Can Manage" -- and I think that "consciousness" in that relatively naive sense is what most people in fact do mean or think by "conscious experience" or "consciousness" or "phenomenal consciousness" in our subculture. Consciousness in this sense, understood in the normal, naive, and preferred way, is then not in the eye of the beholder, but either present or absent in a system as a matter of fact (or somewhere between present and absent, if in-between consciousness makes sense, which it might not).

Luke Roelofs said...

“Luke: Interesting. To me that sounds like it's still in the strawberry zone, though. If the group's E really is just composed of e1-e4 in a certain relation, like a statue is composed of molecules in a certain relation, then I'm not sure we're yet into hazelnut territory.”

Hmm, interesting. So, the claim isn’t just that when e1-e4 stand in the right relations, we can call them an experience (big E), but that the composite thing is literally a conscious state, undergone by a subject. It’s meant to be somewhat analogous to the claim that when certain neural events stand in the right relations, they form an experience.

(Maybe the ‘over and above’ language here is getting in the way. I want to deny metaphysical ‘over and aboveness’: the group experience is grounded in the individual experiences just as fully as everyone intuitively accepts the statue is grounded in the molecules. But I don’t mean to say that whether we call that composite thing an experience or not is an inconsequential disagreement, analogous to whether to accept the existence of statues or to insist that ‘there’s really just the clay, which we call a statue for convenience when it’s shape the right way.’ I do want the claim of group consciousness to be a claim that goes beyond what people already accept, when they accept organised individual experiences. In that dialectical sense it is ‘over and above’ individual experiences.)

SelfAwarePatterns said...

I remember that paper, although I didn't realize until now that you and the author were the same person! It was one of the views that somewhat altered my own stance.

To be clear, I think the illusionists are right, but like Nicholas Humphrey, I think using the word "illusion" is bad politics. And arguments like yours, which I take to be a developed version of the point that if phenomenal consciousness is an illusion, then the illusion *is* the experience, provide a bridge of sorts.

My view, which I think is compatible with the one you lay out in the paper, is that consciousness only exists subjectively. That is, subjective experience exists for the reasons you lay out. But the machinery that constructs subjective experience is equivalent to the machinery envisaged by the illusionists, the deflated stuff more equivalent to Chalmers' easy problems.

Anonymous said...


I read your original essay "Kant Meets Cyberpunk", the one published in 2017. I look forward to you next installment if that is what you are referring to. Hopefully you will concentrate on the section you touched upon in the following quote:

“…Whatever we know about external things, apart from what is knowable a priori or transcendentally, appears to depend on how those external things affect our senses. But things with very different underlying properties, call them A-type properties versus B-type properties, could conceivably affect our senses in identical ways. If so, we might have no good reason to suppose that they do have A-type properties rather than B-type properties. Maybe if A-type properties are much simpler than B-type properties, and if we have reason to suppose that the underlying reality is relatively simple, then we can infer A-type rather than B-type properties. Or maybe A-type properties are closer to common sense and we ought to stick with common sense unless there is compelling reason to reject it.”

You are on the right path here, because those A-type properties would indeed be noumenal properties and B-type properties would be phenomenal ones. The difficulty in discerning the difference is problematic for us because those A-type properties and so intrincislly close to who and what we are that we just don't see them.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Luke: Oh, if it's closer to the relation of neurons to the conscious experience that arises from them, then maybe we're hazelnut after all, or even into Chunky Monkey! "Over and above" is maybe too metaphorical. But I think that if the group conscious experience can be radically different in content than any of the individual-level experiences, we're headed toward the more radical side, yes?

SelfAware: Yes, that seems to me like a fairly plausible view.

Lee: Thanks, I'm glad you found that passage congenial! I hope to return to these issues and expand on them, at least a little bit, in my next book -- which I'll hopefully start drafting in 2020.

Luke said...

"if the group conscious experience can be radically different in content than any of the individual-level experiences, we're headed toward the more radical side, yes?"
Right. I think of something like Block's nation-brain as the limiting case here, where the functional structure realised by the many individual humans is perfectly human-like and pretty much completely unrelated to their own psychologies, and so the group experience can completely diverge from the individual experiences - but I think a claim of constitution can still be defended there. If any real-world cases qualify as group consciousness, the group's functional structure is probably both less human-like and less independent of the psychologies of members, so its experiences will diverge more from individual experiences in structure, but possibly match them more closely in content. But the nation-brain shows that there's no necessary link.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Right! I think we're not so far apart. What I was imagining as Chunky Monkey with Extra Nuts wasn't committed to some radical emergence claim on the metaphysics side -- just something like consciousness arising from groups in a way that's not ontologically radically different from how, on materialist views, it arises from neurons.

Michael Schmitz said...

Interesting discussion! There is another dimension on which more flavor can be added. Is all consciousness irreducible to I-consciousness (Bratman, Ludwig), or is there irreducible we- or role-consciousness? I believe there are irreducible forms of consciousness in which we are conscious of the world as group members, or role holders, as co-subjects (as I put it in my own contribution to the special issue Pettit’s paper is published in: and experience and represent ourselves as such. We can then think of group consciousness as consisting of the attitudes that co-subjects take in we-mode or role-mode. On this view, there could not be a group attitude which is not held by any member, though in the sort of cases you describe, there could be a group attitude which no group member holds as a private person. And the representation of the group’s attitude is a task shared among the group members, who jointly create and maintain a new logical subject, but not a new subject of experience over and above the group members. I think that something like this is also a plausible interpretation of what Pettit has in mind. Compare e.g. on p. 23: "The individuals severally realize their own personal minds but by virtue of incorporating as a group agent—by virtue of constituting a suitable network—they collectively realize the distinct group mind. And by virtue of incorporating in that way—specifically, by virtue of instantiating the reasoning that group agency requires—they collectively realize at the same time the propositional coawareness that such reasoning presupposes. The propositional coawareness is a networked form of coawareness, not something realized in any one of them alone.”
This may still be vanilla along the dimension you are most interested in, Eric, but do we really need something more adventurous there? Even if there were a consciousness that emerges from individual minds along the lines suggested by you (and perhaps also by Luke), what would make it a group consciousness rather than an additional individual consciousness? It seems to me that experiencing oneself as one subject among others that one relates to is essential to group consciousness. Groups essentially have minds, not one mind, and their unity is different from the unity of individual minds.

Anonymous said...

My advice professor?? Don't undersell yourself Eric, because as a targeted point of inquiry you are spot on. If you ever "stumble" across those A-type properties like I did, which are clearly and definitively the qualitative properties of the "thing-in-itself", you will be dumb founded and stunned. If you are ever interested in collaborating with me, I'm sure you have my google gmail account address somewhere in your system, you can contact me directly through that account.

Thanks, and good luck

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Michael: Yes, what you say there seems pretty close to my interpretation of Pettit as well -- a kind of strawberry-verging-on-vanilla form of group consciousness. Maybe we don't need more than that to account for group coordination. However, it *might* also be the case that if one is committed to a general theory of consciousness on which X is sufficient for consciousness, some groups might possess X in such a way as to plausibly involve a subjective center of consciousness of a flavor that's closer to Chunky Monkey (as in my USA consciousness paper).

Lee: I might be too much of a skeptic to ever feel like I will have that sort of an insight!