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Why Humphrey should think that the United States is conscious

by Eric Schwitzgebel Story Source March 9, 2012

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.).

Humphrey argues against conscious experience in spatially discontinuous entities as follows: Collective entities, he says, don't have bodies, and thus they lack a boundary between the me and the not-me (1992, p. 193-194). Since sensation (unlike perception) is necessarily directed at one's own bodily states, collective organisms necessarily lack sensory systems. Thus, they're not even candidates for consciousness. The argument is quick. Its subpoints are undefended, and it occupies less than a paragraph.

One plausible candidate for the boundary of a collective organism is the boundary of the discontinuous region occupied by all its members' bodies. The individual bees are each part of the colony; the flowers and birds and enemy bees are not part of the colony. That could be the me and the not-me -- at least as much me/not-me as an amoeba has! The colony reacts to disturbances of this body so as to preserve as much of it as possible from threats, and it deploys parts of its body (individual bees) toward collective ends, for example via communicative bee dances in a tangled informational loop at the center of the colony.

Humphrey makes no mention of spatial contiguity in developing his account of sensation, representation, responsiveness, and feedback loops. Nor would a requirement of contiguity appear to be motivated within the general spirit of his account. A sensory signal travels inward along a nerve from the bodily surface to the central tangle. Perhaps a species could evolve that sends its nerve signals by lightwave instead, along hollow reflective capillaries, saving precious milliseconds of response time. Perhaps this adaptation then allows a further adaptation in which peripheral parts can temporarily detach from the central body while still sending their light signals to targeted receptors. You can see how this adaptation could be useful for ambushing prey or reaching into long, narrow spaces. Viola, discontinuous organisms! Nothing in Humphrey's account seems to motivate ruling such possibilities out. Humphrey should allow that beings with discontinuous bodies can, at least in principle, have spatially distributed sensory surfaces that communicate their disturbances to the center of the organism and whose behavior is in turn governed by signals outbound from the center. He should allow the possibility of sensation, body, and the me/not-me distinction in spatially distributed organisms. And then for consciousness there remains only the question of whether there are sustained, high-fidelity feedback loops within those sensory systems.

So much for in-principle possibility. How about actual consciousness in actually existing distributed organisms? Since Humphrey sets a high bar for "high fidelity", bee colonies still won't qualify as conscious organisms by his standards; their feedback loops won't be high fidelity enough. But how about the United States? I think it will qualify. It will be helpful, however, to consider a cleaner case first: an army division.

An army division has clear boundaries. There are people who are in it and there are people who are outside of it. There's the division on the one hand and the terrain on the other. The division will act to preserve its parts, for example under enemy attack. Disturbances on the periphery (e.g., on the retinas of scouts) will be communicated to the center, and commands from the center will govern behavior at the periphery. If we can set aside prejudice against discontiguous entities and our commonsensical distaste at conceiving of human beings as mere parts of a larger organism, it seems that an army division has a body by Humphrey's general standards.

Does the division also have a sensory system? Again, it seems it should, by Humphrey's standards: Conditions on the periphery are represented by the center, which then governs the behavior of the periphery in response. That's all it takes for the amoeba, and if Humphrey is to be consistent that's all it should take for the division.

Now finally for the condition that Humphrey uses to exclude earthworms and fleas: Does the army division have high-fidelity, temporally extended feedback loops from the sensory periphery to the center? (Alternatively it might have, as in the human case per Humphrey, a more truncated loop from output signals, which needn't actually make it to the periphery, back to the center.) It seems so, at least sometimes. The commander can watch in real time on high-fidelity video as her orders are carried out. She can even stream live satellite video back and forth with her scouts and platoon leaders. Video feeds from the scouts' positions can come high-fidelity in a sustained stream to her eyes. Auditory feeds can return to her ears -- including auditory feeds containing the sound of her own voice issuing commands. For a modern army, there's plenty of opportunity for sustained high-fidelity feedback loops between center and periphery. With good technology, the feedback can be much higher fidelity, higher bandwidth, and more sustained than in the proprioceptive feedback loops I get when I close my eyes and wiggle my finger.

(In his 2011 book, Humphrey gestures toward further complexities of information flow that feedback loops enable (p. 57-59). However, as he suggests, such emergent complexities arise quite naturally once feedback loops are sustained and high-quality, and the same will presumably be true for some such feedback loops in an army division. In any case, since such remarks are gestural rather than fully developed, I focus primarily on the account in Humphrey's 1992 book.)

If I can convince you that a Humphrey-like view implies that army divisions have conscious experience, that's enough for my overall purposes. But to bring it back specifically to the United States: The U.S. has a boundary of me/not-me and a spatially distributed body, in roughly the same way an army division does. In Washington, D.C., it has a center of control of its official actions, which governs behaviors like declaring war, raising tariffs, and sending explorers to the moon. Signals from the periphery (and from the interior too, as in the human case) provide information to the center, and signals from the center command the periphery. And with modern technology, the feedback loops can be high fidelity, high bandwidth, temporally sustained, and almost arbitrarily complex. Humphrey's criteria are all met. Humphrey should abandon his apparent bias against discontinuous organisms and accept that the United States is literally conscious.