How a Materialist Can Deny That the United States is Probably Conscious – Response to Schwitzgebel

Philosophia 43 (4):1047-1057 (2015)
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Abstract
In a recent paper, Eric Schwitzgebel argues that if materialism about consciousness is true, then the United States is likely to have its own stream of phenomenal consciousness, distinct from the streams of conscious experience of the people who compose it. Indeed, most plausible forms of materialism have to grant that a certain degree of functional and behavioral complexity constitutes a sufficient condition for the ascription of phenomenal consciousness – and Schwitzgebel makes a case to show that the United States as a whole fulfills this condition. One way to avoid this counter-intuitive consequence of materialism about consciousness is to adopt what Schwitzgebel calls an “anti-nesting principle”: a principle that states that there can be no nested forms of phenomenal consciousness and that therefore a conscious whole cannot have parts that are themselves conscious. However, Schwitzgebel then proceeds in his paper to draw up various objections, notably based on thought experiments, in order to dismiss these kinds of “anti-nesting” principles. My aim in this paper is to present a version of a sophisticated anti-nesting principle that avoids Schwitzgebel’s objections. This principle is reasonable, intuitive, and as non-arbitrary as possible. Moreover, it can resist the objections mounted by Schwitzgebel against simple anti-nesting principles. This principle helps materialists avoid the implication that the United States has its own stream of consciousness, while granting consciousness to some entities which, in many cases, are intuitive instantiators of phenomenal consciousness. This principle therefore constitutes a way out for a materialist who wants to deny that the United States is conscious.
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