Is the United States conscious?

AVHRR satellite image of the 48 contiguous sta...

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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.

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11 Responses to Is the United States conscious?

  1. Ignostic Atheist says:

    I’ve always (ok, not always) thought that aliens might show up one day and see earth as an emerging consciousness. We form into groups that function as wholes, and as communication between the parts improves, so does the speed of group thought. Language, after all, is just a way of externalizing our consciousness. When someone hear or reads you, you’ve put a part of your consciousness into them.

    Feel violated?


    • Insightful observations.

      One thing that occurred to me about the internet and consciousness is that it might be causing new spans of consciousness by it’s ability to allow disparate groups to form, and by speeding up communications, as you mention.

      One objection that occurred to me this morning is that the speed of thought in a US consciousness might be too slow in relation to its evolving and changing parts to count as a coherent conscious entity. Again though, it’s in the eye of the beholder.


      • Ignostic Atheist says:

        I would definitely say that social communication is evolving much faster than we the individual parts. I think it’s evolved without our noticing it, and there are a few people who basically control it via media and propaganda. On the bright side, nothing is really happening at the moment because the two political halves are basically having a social epileptic seizure. But on the down side, nothing that needs to get done is really happening either.

        We need an educated populace that can recognize when they’re being coerced, so that instead of the body of the populace being controlled by a few powerful groups, humanity can be the collective brain of the outfit, and technology the body and limbs.

        Fuck, I sound like a crazy person.


        • James Pailly says:

          That doesn’t sound crazy to me. Thinking of ourselves as the brain cells of our country or our planet, at least as a metaphor if not as a literal fact, might get people to change their attitudes toward voting and participating in civil society. It might also get people to think less about themselves and more about the community.


  2. James Pailly says:

    I wonder what kind of “person” the United States is. Is s/he horribly selfish or extremely charitable? A big bully or charismatic leader? Or is s/he just terribly indicisive all the time?


  3. synthverity says:

    Your idea is one that holds a certain kind of glimmer to it, in that large amounts of political and social discourse can be viewed as if it is made of a single entity. Unfortunately, this model is too ambiguous and arbitrary to say that it works. For example, you set the collective consciousness as the people who fit within the border of the United States. What changes when we include one human from Canada? What about all of Quebec? What if the collective consciousness is not the United States, but North America? Or both of the Americas?

    The idea of a collective consciousness is a horrible abstraction that distracts from the underlying threads within the society that is being grouped. In the end, this does more damage to the perception of the system, and is what forms the basis for much discrimination that is called out by the US public. All portions should be taken at a case by case basis, in order to make sure that the correct answer is applied to each position. This can be difficult, but worthwhile.


    • Good point. That had occurred to me, and it probably applies to just about any group mind concept. Of course, we’re looking at it using us as the measuring stick and I like Ignostic Atheist’s viewpoint of how a sufficiently alien intelligence might see the situation.

      A horrible abstraction? I’m prepared to admit that this might be metaphysical tail chasing, but I can’t really see the perniciousness in it you do.


    • agrudzinsky says:

      I think, the same concerns apply to the consciousness of an individual. Considering that our brain consists of trillions of neurons, with different areas affected by different things and pulling us in different directions, it’s not always possible to speak of the same person as one “entity” in different situations. Consciousness, in general, seems to be a “horrible abstraction”.


      • synthverity says:

        This does sound like a valid point, as cells are a living organism in their own right. However, we come upon the problem of conscious vs unconscious. Humans can be objectively said to have consciousness, as well as other animals to some degree. However, there has been no evidence to lend support to the idea that the individual cells that constitute the body have consciousness. In fact, it is still being researched how a grouping of unconscious cells can form human, and animal, consciousness. The other problem is that what was implied by the article is that conscious beings in conjunction with each other, create a new conscious that can be measured in its own right. There has been no backing to this idea, and what we understand about consciousness points to this as being a false statement. We might not fully understand the root of consciousness, but we certainly know you can’t form one just by being next to another conscious being.


        • agrudzinsky says:

          Perhaps, you are familiar with John Conway’s game of life which deals with cells on a 2-dimensional plane with 2 states: “on” and “off” which follow 4 simple rules. This video shows the immensely complex patterns which can be created by these simple cells following 4 simple rules.

          What seems astonishing to me is that although we fully understand the basic rules of how each cell behaves, these rules do not explain how to form a “crawler” or a “shooter” or a huge “spaceship” that would move in some direction. Conversely, if we try to explain how these “crawlers” and “shooters” work without knowing the basic rules of the game, we may, eventually, discover these basic rules. But do these rules explain the patterns that we see? I think, Stephen Hawkins uses this analogy between Conway’s game of life and consciousness.

          Consider a modern computer. We can understand the design and operation of a single transistor in detail. But understanding how a processor works requires knowledge and ideas of much higher order.

          I think, these are illustrations why reductionism fails to explain many things and how new properties emerge at larger scales of magnitude. This is why I’m skeptical that neuroscience will fully explain consciousness and this is why the idea that interactions between billions of live organisms can yield a consciousness of a higher order is not so outlandish to me.


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