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Why Dretske should think that the United States is conscious

by Eric Schwitzgebel Story Source February 24, 2012

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.

But would this behaving, representing system have conscious experience, on Dretske's view? Dretske says that in order to have conscious sensory experience, a system must possess representations that are (a.) natural, (b.) systemic, and (c.) enable the construction of new representations that can be calibrated to regulate behavior serving the system's needs and desires. Let's consider these criteria one at a time, b, c, and then a.

Does the U.S. have "systemic" representations? Systemic representations, per Dretske, are representations that are part of the very design of the system or subsystem, rather than representations acquired later. It seems clear that the United States has these, if it has representations at all. It's among the systemic functions of the Census Bureau that it tally up the residents. It's among the systemic functions of the Supreme Court that it represent laws as Constitutional or un-Constitutional. The systemic representations of these subsystems deliver behavior-guiding information to the system as a whole, as the systemic representations of an animal's sensory subsystems do.

Can the United States construct new representations derived from these systemic representations to further regulate its behavior? It seems clear it can. The United States, or a subsystem within the United States, could represent its rate of population growth among newly-defined demographic groups and adjust immigration policy in response. Does it do so in accord with its needs and desires? Well, needs and desires, on Dretske's account, don't require a lot of apparatus. A desire for some result R, per Dretske, is an internal state that (a.) helps cause movement that helps to yield R, (b.) was selected for because of that tendency to help yield R, and (c.) can be further modified conditionally upon its effectiveness in producing R, in a somewhat sophisticated way. Though these conditions rule out the inflexible inherited drives of many insects, this is still pretty simple stuff, as Dretske intends. The Census Bureau, the CIA, and the United States as a whole would seem to have desires by Dretske's criteria.

Finally, does the United States have "natural" representations that play the necessary roles? This might seem to be a sticking point. Dretske defines conventional representations as those arising when "a thing's informational functions are derived from the intentions and purposes of its designers, builders, and users" -- that is, "us" -- and he defines natural representations as just those that are not conventional (1995, p. 7-8). Now clearly the informational functions of the United States depend on us. They wouldn't exist without us. Does that mean, then, that Dretske can dodge the conclusion that the U.S. is conscious?

I don't think so. After all, your own informational functions depend on you, wouldn't exist without you, and you're conscious. The motivation for Dretske's requirement seems to be that to give rise to consciousness a system's representational functions should be intrinsic to it, rather than assigned from outside. When you slap a label on a column of mercury and call it a thermometer, you don't thereby make the thermometer conscious (even if it were complex enough to meet the other criteria). But the case of the thermometer and the U.S. are not at all analogous. U.S. citizens aren't external label-slappers. We are parts of the United States. We constitute it. We are internal to it. Although Dretske implicitly assumes that if a system's representational capacities depend on human beings then those capacities are not natural to the system, it's clear that in saying this he has ordinary physical artifacts in mind, not cases where human users themselves constitute (part of) the system.

The core idea of Dretske's metaphysics of mind is that minds are information-manipulating systems, where information is construed in terms of simple causes and probabilities, and where mentality and consciousness arise when a system's environmental responsiveness and its tracking of the world are intrinsically sophisticated and flexible. If we can set aside our natural prejudice against large, spatially distributed systems, it seems clear that the United States amply satisfies Dretskean criteria for conscious mentality.