drupal statistics module

Machines Like Us

Why Dretske should think that the United States is conscious

Friday, 24 February 2012
by Eric Schwitzgebel

Last week, I argued that Daniel Dennett should think that the United States is conscious. That is, I argued that Dennett should think that the United States has a stream of experience in the same sense that you and I have streams of experience, or in other words that "there's something it's like" to be the United States. Today, I'll say the same about Fred Dretske. As I mentioned in discussing Dennett, these reflections aren't intended as refutations of their views. I think we should seriously consider the possibility that the United States is literally conscious.

Dretske presents what is perhaps the leading philosophical account of the nature of representation, and he also offers one of the leading representationalist theories of consciousness. Dretske and Dennett offer perhaps the two most prominent top-to-bottom materialistic philosophical accounts of the metaphysics of consciousness, which is why I have chosen them for this exercise.

Let's start with representation. On Dretske's view, a system represents that x is F just in case that system has a subsystem with the function of entering state A only if x is F and that subsystem is in state A. Dretske's examples of systems with indicator functions include both artificial systems like fuel gauges and natural biological systems.

So we need to think a little bit about what a "system" is. Intuitive application of the label "system" wouldn't seem to exclude the United States. We can think of a traffic system or a social system or the military-industrial complex as a system. Systems, I'd be inclined to think, can be spatially distributed, as long as there is some sort of regular, predictable interaction among their parts. There seems to be no reason, on Dretske's view, not to treat the United States as a system. Dretske does not appear to employ restrictive criteria, such as a requirement of spatial contiguity, on what qualifies as a system. In fact, it would strain against the general spirit of Dretske's view to employ something like spatial contiguity as a criterion of systemhood: Something like a fuel gauge could easily operate via radio communication among its parts and that would make no difference to Dretske's basic analysis. What matters for Dretske are things like information and causation, not adjacency of parts.

If the United States is a system, then it can presumably at least be evaluated for the presence or absence of representations. And once it is evaluated in this way it seems clear that, by Dretske's criteria, the United States does in fact possess representations. The United States has subsystems with indicator functions. The Census Bureau is part of the United States and one of its functions is to tally up the residents. The CIA is part of the United States and one of its functions is to track the location of enemies.

Dretske is very liberal in granting "behavior" to systems: Even plants behave, on his view (e.g., by growing), and in some sense even stones (e.g., by sinking when thrown in a pond). So it seems clear if we grant that the United States is a system with representations, it also exhibits behavior that is influenced by those representations. Dretske's metaphysics, straightforwardly applied, would seem to imply that the United States is a behaving, self-representing system.