Thursday, February 07, 2013

Eric Schwitzgebel - If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious

One of the papers featured in the Fifth Consciousness Online Conference comes from Eric Schwitzgebel, Professor of Philosophy at U.C. Riverside (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley, 1997).

For the Online Consciousness Conference, he submitted a paper arguing If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious. A brief explanation of materialism might help (from The Dictionary of the Philosophy of Mind):
There are two prominent construals of `material'. First, according to many philosophers, something is material if and only if it is spatial, extended in space. One might thus propose that what it means to say that something is material is that it is extended in space. This construal of `material' is inspired by Descartes's influential characterization of material bodies, in Meditation II. Given this construal, materialism is just the view that everything that exists is extended in space, that nothing nonspatial exists. This portrayal of materialism is attractively simple, but may be unilluminating. 
The problem is that the relevant notion of spatial extension may depend on the very notion of material in need of elucidation. If there is such dependence, conceptual circularity hampers the proposed characterization of materialism. The main worry here is that the notion of spatial extension is actually the notion of something's being extended in physical space, or the notion of something's being physically extended. It seems conceivable that something (perhaps a purely spiritual being) has temporal extension, in virtue of extending over time, even though that thing lacks extension in physical space. It does not seem self-contradictory, in other words, to hold that something is temporal (or, temporally extended) but is not a body. If this is so, the proposed characterization of materialism should be qualified to talk of physical space or physical extension. In that case, however, the threat of conceptual circularity is transparent. Even if there is no strict circularity here, the pertinent notion of spatial extension may be too closely related to the notion of material to offer genuine clarification. At a minimum, we need a precise explanation of spatial extension, if talk of such extension aims to elucidate talk of what is material. Perhaps a notion of spatial extension is crucial to an elucidation of materialism, but further explanation, without conceptual circularity, will then be needed. (Cf. Chomsky 1988.)
In this article, Schwitzgebel argues that if they (meaning materialists) accept that if other non-human life forms have consciousness, then by extension, the collected conscious entities that comprise the United States could be seen as a life form of its own, possessing consciousness.
If you’re a materialist, you probably also think that conscious experience would be present in a wide range of alien beings behaviorally very similar to us even if they are physiologically very different.  And you ought to think that.  After all, to deny it seems insupportable Earthly chauvinism; the vast universe presumably contains many entities that a neutral observer would recognize to be as complex, linguistic, intelligent, and self-aware as we are.  It would be odd if among them only we with our neurons had subjective experience or (as we philosophers call it) phenomenal consciousness.  But, I will argue, a materialist who accepts the possibility of consciousness in oddly-formed aliens ought to accept the possibility of consciousness in spatially distributed group entities.  If she then also accepts rabbit consciousness, she ought to accept the possibility of consciousness even in rather dumb group entities.  Finally, the United States would seem to be a rather dumb group entity of the relevant sort.  (Or maybe, even, it’s rather smart, but that’s more than I need for my argument.)  If we set aside our morphological prejudices against spatially distributed group entities, we can see that the United States has all the types of properties that materialists tend to regard as characteristic of conscious beings.
Here is another section that may inspire you to read the whole article:
4. A Telescopic View of the United States.

A planet-sized alien who squints might see the United States as a single diffuse entity consuming bananas and automobiles, wiring up communications systems, touching the moon, and regulating its smoggy exhalations – an entity that can be evaluated for the presence or absence of consciousness.

You might say: The United States is not a biological organism.  It doesn’t have a life cycle.  It doesn’t reproduce.  It’s not biologically integrated and homeostatic.  Therefore, even accepting the relatively liberal views so far advocated regarding the types of structures that can house consciousness, there are good grounds for resisting the thought that the United States might be conscious.  A further step is necessary.

To this thought, I have two replies.

First, why should consciousness require being an organism in the biological sense?  Properly-designed androids, brains in vats, gods – these may not be organisms in the biological sense and yet are sometimes regarded by materialists as possible loci of conscious.  Having distinctive modes of reproduction is often thought to be a central, defining feature of organisms (e.g., J. Wilson 1999; R.A. Wilson 2005), but it’s unclear why reproductive mode should matter to consciousness.

Second, it’s not clear that nations aren’t biological organisms.  The United States is (after all) composed of cells and organs that share genetic material, to the extent it is composed of people who are composed of cells and organs and who share genetic material.  The United States also maintains homeostasis.  Farmers grow crops to feed non-farmers, and these nutritional resources are distributed with the help of other people via a network of roads.  Groups of people organized as import companies bring food in from the outside environment.  Medical specialists help maintain the health of their compatriots.  Soldiers defend their compatriots against potential threats.  Teachers educate future generations.  Home builders, textile manufacturers, telephone companies, mail carriers, rubbish haulers, bankers, police, all contribute to the stable well-being of the organism.  Politicians and bureaucrats work top-down to ensure that certain actions are coordinated, while other types of coordination emerge spontaneously without top-down control, just as in ordinary animals.  Viewed telescopically, the United States is a pretty awesome animal.

Nations also reproduce – not sexually but by fission.  The United States and several other countries are fission products of Great Britain.  In the 1860’s, the United States almost fissioned again.  And fissioning nations retain traits of the parent that affect the fitness of future fission products – intergenerationally stable developmental resources, if you will.

On Earth, at all levels, from the molecular to the neural to the societal, there’s a vast array of competitive and cooperative pressures; at all levels, there’s a wide range of actual and possible modes of reproduction, direct and indirect; and all levels show manifold forms of symbiosis, parasitism, partial integration, agonism, and antagonism.  There isn’t as radical a difference in kind as people are inclined to think between our favorite level of organization and higher and lower levels.

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