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Machines Like Us

Why Humphrey should think that the United States is conscious

Friday, 09 March 2012
by Eric Schwitzgebel

In February, I argued that Daniel Dennett and Fred Dretske should, given their other views, hold that the United States is a spatially distributed group entity with a stream of experience of its own (a stream of experience over and above the experiences of the individual citizens and residents of the United States). Today I'm going to the suggest the same about psychologist Nicholas Humphrey.

My general project is to argue that that if materialism is true, the United States is probably conscious. I've advanced some general considerations in favor of that claim. But I also want to examine some particular materialist theories in more detail. I've chosen Dennett, Dretske, Humphrey, and (coming up) Guilio Tononi because their theories are prominent, aim to explain consciousness in any possible organism (not just human beings), and cover the metaphysics top to bottom.

Humphrey is a particularly interesting case because, awkwardly for my view, he explicitly denies that collective entities made of separate bounded individuals, such as swarms of bees, can have conscious experience (1992, p. 194). I will now argue that Humphrey, by the light of his own theory, should recant such remarks.

Humphrey argues that a creature has conscious experience when it has high-fidelity recurrent feedback loops in its sensory system (1992, 2011). A "sensory system", per Humphrey, is a system that represents what is going on inside the creature and directs behavior accordingly. No fancy minds are required for "sensation" in Humphrey's sense; such systems can be as simple as the reactivity of an amoeba to chemicals or light. (Humphrey also contrasts sensation with "perception", which provides information not about states of the body but rather about the outside world.) For consciousness, the only thing necessary besides a sensory system, on Humphrey's (1992) view, is that there be high-fidelity, momentarily self-sustaining feedback loops within that system -- loops between input and output, tuned and integrated across subjective time.

At first glance, you might think this theory would imply a superabundance of consciousness in the natural world, since sensory systems (by Humphrey's liberal definition) are cheap and feedback loops are cheap. But near the end of his 1992 book, Humphrey proves conservative. He rules out, for example, worms and fleas, saying that their sensory feedback loops "are too long and noisy to sustain reverberant activity" (1992, p. 195). Maybe even consciousness is limited only to "higher vertebrates such as mammals and birds, although not necessarily all of these" (ibid.).