Is the United States Conscious?

The sentientism worldview is neutral about which types of entities are sentient. It just says that we should follow the science (evidence and reason) to form our assessments then grant moral consideration to beings that we think are sentient.

Being committed to evidence and reason means we need to be open to thinking through bizarre possibilities, well beyond those humans originally evolved to contemplate. Relativity, quantum physics and cosmology already stretch our intuitions. They need to be stretched.

The same applies to the nature of sentience and consciousness and which entities might be conscious: Human animals, non-human animals, aliens, computers or robots, even protons, neutrons and photons (see panpsychism)? How about the United States?

This fascinating, beautifully written 2014 paper by Sentientism group member Eric Schwitzgebel examines that possibility and challenges many of the objections. Thanks to David Pearce for sharing this when we welcomed Eric to the group a while back. Why not come and join us? All are welcome:

(!Amateur philosopher warning!)
I see many of those challenges as well-founded. Conscious things could be spacially spread out, could be composed of smaller conscious entities, or could be alien or non-biological.

I also agree that the USA shares many characteristics with entities that are conscious. It processes information at massive scale, interacts with its environment in complex ways and self-monitors.

Despite all that, I still doubt that the USA is conscious.

For me, consciousness is a specific class of information processing. It’s not about the architecture of the thing doing the information processing (which could be alien, non-biological or distributed…) – but the nature of the information processing it does.

Sheer scale or amount of processing isn’t sufficient. You need the right sort of information processing to be going on for consciousness or sentience and I’m not confident the USA is doing it.

As an example, most of the processing in the human brain (including much of the environment interaction and self-monitoring) isn’t conscious either, despite its enormous richness and complexity. Even if the US has parallels with a human brain it might well just be like the unconscious parts.

If consciousness (and sentience) are classes of advanced information processing they require a suitably advanced information processing architecture to run on. As an aside, for me that rules out panpsychism.  The USA might well be sufficiently advanced, given many of its “components” certainly are. Yet such a suitably advanced architecture isn’t necessarily “running” consciousness, just as my laptop isn’t necessarily running Powerpoint. Even when my laptop is running Powerpoint, connecting 257 million of them together into a richly interacting network doesn’t mean there’s a new meta-Powerpoint running either.

Would love to hear what you think!

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