I saw this interesting post by Eric Schwitzgebel on whether or not regarding the US as a conscious entity is compatible with materialism. In the post, he examines an objection by David Chalmers, which is interesting, but not something that particularly resonates with me, seeming like a just so rational to a pre-intuited conclusion. Eric also links to a paper he wrote on this, but that I haven’t read yet.
But his post reminded me that, ever since I read Michael Graziano’s book, ‘Consciousness and the Social Brain‘, where Graziano discusses his attention schema theory of consciousness, it’s occurred to me that a nation like the United States might be conscious.
A quick reminder. The attention schema theory is that consciousness, awareness, is a data model, in the brain, of attention. And attention is the messy emergent process of various coalitions of signals in the brain competing for resources, with some coalitions winning temporarily, until the next coalition unseats them. In other words, consciousness is a model of some aspects of the information processes going on in the brain. It’s a feedback mechanism of the brain to some of its own processing.
Does the US have this? I think the answer is yes. We have pollsters constantly gauging American opinions on various topics. We have sociologists, historians, journalists, and many other types of information aggregators constantly researching trends in American thought, and publishing their findings, making them available to all of us, to the whole system.
In other words, we have a model of what’s going on in the minds of the nation, a model of its attentional state. This is often referred to, with metaphorical intention, as our “collective consciousness”. But this line of reasoning makes me wonder how metaphorical it really is.
Like the attention schema idea of awareness, this model doesn’t have direct control over what happens in the country, but its information is available to those who do. And it affects and modifies what collective decisions we make in markets, elections, and other decision mechanisms.
But does this count as consciousness? Well, as I’ve written before, ultimately consciousness is in the eye of the beholder. And I could see an objection being made that we can’t communicate with the US as a whole, only with it’s constituents. But this feels a bit like a cluster of neurons complaining that it can’t communicate with the whole brain.
I don’t know whether the US counts as a conscious entity, but I think it has a much better claim to it than the internet, or other things people sometimes contemplate being conscious.