You all are conscious, I hope. You have a stream of experience, including imagery, thoughts, perceptual experiences, emotions. There’s something it’s like to be you, while there’s nothing it’s like, we ordinarily think, to be the chairs you’re sitting in or the shoes on your feet.
Now consider: What is it about you that makes you special in that way? One possibility is this: You have an immaterial soul, and your shoes don’t. There is something nonphysical – a spirit – that’s in some way attached to your physical body. And really, it’s that spirit, not your body, that is conscious. Maybe that spirit could continue to exist even after your body dies, so your consciousness can continue into some sort of afterlife.
This view, called mind-body dualism, is pretty appealing. But one issue that immediately arises is this: Is your dog conscious? Does she have a stream of emotions and perceptual experiences? Is there something it’s like to be a dog? It seems natural to say yes, that dogs, too, are different from chairs and shoes in that way. So dogs, too, must have immaterial souls on this view. Right? If dogs are conscious, then presumably mice are too. They’re not radically different kinds of animal. So mice must have immaterial souls. And if mice, then sharks and pigeons? And if sharks and pigeons, then salmon? And if salmon, then grasshoppers? And if grasshoppers, then earthworms? And if earthworms, then smaller worms, and smaller, down to microorganisms? Do bacteria have immaterial souls? Viruses? Strings of DNA? Carbon chains in petroleum? Who exactly is in, and who is out of, the immaterial soul club?
Here are four options. Option 1: Only human beings have immaterial souls. Only we have afterlives; only we have religious salvation. There’s a religious cleanliness to the idea. But if the soul is the locus of conscious experience, then this view has the weird result that dogs are mere machines, with no consciousness, no pains, no sense experiences; there’s nothing it’s like to be a dog, any more than there’s something it’s like to be a toy robot. That seems hard to accept. Option 2: Everybody and everything is in: humans, dogs, frogs, worms, viruses, carbon chains, lone hydrogen ions in outer space – we’re all conscious! That view seems a little weird too. Option 3: There a line in the sand. There’s a sharp demarcation somewhere between beings with conscious experiences and those with no conscious experiences. But that seems weird, too: Across the spectrum of animals there’s a smooth gradation of psychological capacities. Given this smooth gradation, how could there be a sharp line between the ensouled and unensouled creatures? What, toads in, frogs out? Grasshoppers in, crickets out? If the immaterial soul is the locus of conscious experience, it ought to do some work; there ought to be big psychological differences between creatures with and without souls. But the only remotely plausible place it seems, to draw a sharp line is between human beings and all the rest – and that puts us back at Option 1. Option 4: Maybe we don’t have to draw a sharp line. Maybe having a soul is not an on-or-off thing. Maybe there’s a smooth gradation of ensoulment, so that some animals – frogs? – kind-of-have immaterial souls. But that’s weird too. What would it mean, to kind of have or halfway have an immaterial soul? Isn’t an immaterial soul the kind of thing you either have or don’t have? Immateriality doesn’t seem like one of these vague properties, like being red or being tall, of which there are gradations and in-between cases.
I’m not saying that there aren’t immaterial souls. But if there are, and if immaterial souls are the locus of conscious experience, then something bizarre must be true about non-human animals.
So maybe materialism is tempting: Nobody has an immaterial soul. There’s no such thing. We’re all just evolved animals, wholly physical in nature. Maybe then consciousness can evolve gradually, so there’s no need for the sudden pop-in of an immaterial soul. Scientists often like this option. But materialism is weird too.
According to materialism, what’s special about us is our brains. Brains are what make us conscious. But what is so wonderful about brains, so that they give rise to consciousness while a similar mix of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, etc., in chicken soup is not conscious? Well surely it’s something about how brains are organized, something about how much information brains can process – information that they can use to guide behavior in a somewhat intelligent way in response to environmental inputs. Somehow conscious experience comes along with information processing and environmental responsiveness once they are sophisticated enough.
So now consider this. Is the United States conscious? I mean: In addition to the individual streams of experience of every citizen and resident, is there also some further stream of experience, distinct from those, that’s the experience of the group organism composed of all those citizens and residents? It seems bizarre to think so. And yet it’s hard to see why the U.S. wouldn’t be conscious, on materialist theory.
There’s certainly a lot of information transfer going on within the United States. You have about a hundred billion neurons in your head trading information, and the United States has only about 300 million people, but those people trade a lot of information: You all, right now, for example, are getting information not only from the content of my words but high bandwidth auditory and visual information, substantially in excess of what you would receive from high speed streaming video. Not much of this information will get into your long term memory of course; but the same is true of information transfer between neurons. If sophisticated information transfer within a system is sufficient to make that system conscious, the U.S. could seem to qualify.
But mere information transfer alone probably isn’t enough for consciousness. There probably needs to be some sort of organization of that information in the service of coordinated, goal-directed responsiveness; and perhaps, too, there needs to be some sort of ability of the system to monitor itself or represent itself. But the United States has these things too. The United States responds, intelligently or semi-intelligently to opportunities and threats – not less intelligently, I think, than many conscious mammals. Al Qaeda strikes New York, and the United States mounts a response. The United States invades Iraq. This is a coordinated group action. And it involves some kind of perceptual responsiveness to inputs: The army moves around the mountain, doesn’t crash into it. The spy networks of the CIA detect the location of Saddam Hussein. Is there less information, less coordination, less intelligence than in a small mammal? The Pentagon monitors the actions of the Army, and its own actions. It evaluates its members and the success of its operations. The Census Bureau counts us. The State Department announces what the U.S. position is on foreign affairs. The Congress passes a resolution declaring that we hate tyranny and love apple pie. This is self-representation. Show me a materialist theory on which it isn’t. We seem to have all of the elements required for consciousness, according to materialist theories that aim to explain what’s so special about the brain in virtue of which brains are conscious. If brains are conscious, and you accept one of the leading materialist explanations of why that’s the case, you probably ought also to accept that the United States is conscious.
The United States is a spatially distributed entity, composed of individually conscious human beings. But why should that matter? Consider spatial distribution. Why should sheer size make consciousness disappear, as long as there’s intelligent, or intelligent-seeming, responsiveness? We can imagine planet-sized aliens. Would such beings necessarily have no conscious experience? We can imagine beings with brains split in half or in quarters where the parts communicate by radio signal. Under certain evolutionary conditions, maybe large or spatially discontinuous organisms would naturally evolve, and be as intelligent as we are, as conscious as we are, write philosophical essays as sophisticated as ours. It seems mere morphological prejudice to insist that conscious entities be spatially compact.
Does it matter that the United States is composed of organisms – that is, people – who are themselves individually conscious? I don’t see why. Consider a far-fetched example: Tomorrow, space aliens come. They learn English, chat with us about our movies, trade technology and precious metals, and maybe even intermarry. They say they’re conscious, they act like they are, they write philosophical treatises about consciousness. They write medical treatises about their pains, psychological treatises about imagery experiences and about the phenomenology of emotion. It would be bizarre to think they had no stream of experience. You can imagine the outraged cries of speciesism at the suggestion. But when we look inside their heads, here’s what we find: Lots and lots of tiny little bugs swarming around in intricate networks. These aliens are much-evolved descendants of bee colonies. It could be that the individual bees in their heads have animal-like conscious experience, while the organism as a whole has human-like consciousness and intelligence. These bees might not know that they are part of a larger conscious organism, might even find the idea ridiculous if they could understand it. Although the example is far-fetched, it illuminates the naturalness of the idea that if you’re going to be a materialist, what should matter is the functional organization of the material of which you’re composed, not whether some of the information processing happens to be implemented by conscious organisms. Maybe we’re like those bees and the United States is the larger organism.
A planet-sized alien who squints might see the United States as a single diffuse organism consuming bananas and automobiles, invading Iraq, exuding waste. If, across billions of galaxies, patterns of intelligent responsiveness can evolve in myriad strange and diverse ways – as it seems they could – it would be oddly chauvinistic to insist that only our way of being intelligently responsive involves genuine conscious experience.
Common sense hasn’t proven a great guide to fundamental physics and cosmology. Think about all the weirdness of quantum mechanics, all the weirdness of relativity theory. The more we learn about the basic structure of the universe, the stranger things seem to get, and the more we are forced to leave common sense behind. This might also be true of the metaphysics of mind.
Let’s say a claim is bizarre if it is contrary to common sense. And let’s say, further, that a claim is crazy if it’s contrary to common sense and there’s no compelling reason to believe it. Panpsychism is crazy. That’s the view that everything everywhere is conscious. Belief in the consciousness of the United States also seems crazy. But something crazy might be true. In fact, I think careful inspection reveals that on certain issues something crazy must be true. Interpretations of quantum theory are a plausible example. They’re all bizarre; we don’t know which one to choose. We’re not compelled to believe any of them, but one of those crazy possibilities, or something equally weird, must be true. Let’s call the view that something crazy must be true about X crazyism about X. I’m a crazyist about the metaphysics of mind. There are lots of options, all bizarre, all weirdly contrary to common sense once you examine the details. It’s very hard to find firm grounds for choice among them. And yet one of the options, crazy as it might be to believe, must be true.