80,000 Hours Podcast

#190 – Eric Schwitzgebel on whether the US is conscious

80,000 Hours Podcast

"One of the most amazing things about planet Earth is that there are complex bags of mostly water — you and me – and we can look up at the stars, and look into our brains, and try to grapple with the most complex, difficult questions that there are. And even if we can’t make great progress on them and don’t come to completely satisfying solutions, just the fact of trying to grapple with these things is kind of the universe looking at itself and trying to understand itself. So we’re kind of this bright spot of reflectiveness in the cosmos, and I think we should celebrate that fact for its own intrinsic value and interestingness." —Eric Schwitzgebel

In today’s episode, host Luisa Rodriguez speaks to Eric Schwitzgebel — professor of philosophy at UC Riverside — about some of the most bizarre and unintuitive claims from his recent book, The Weirdness of the World.

Links to learn more, highlights, and full transcript.

They cover:

  • Why our intuitions seem so unreliable for answering fundamental questions about reality.
  • What the materialist view of consciousness is, and how it might imply some very weird things — like that the United States could be a conscious entity.
  • Thought experiments that challenge our intuitions — like supersquids that think and act through detachable tentacles, and intelligent species whose brains are made up of a million bugs.
  • Eric’s claim that consciousness and cosmology are universally bizarre and dubious.
  • How to think about borderline states of consciousness, and whether consciousness is more like a spectrum or more like a light flicking on.
  • The nontrivial possibility that we could be dreaming right now, and the ethical implications if that’s true.
  • Why it’s worth it to grapple with the universe’s most complex questions, even if we can’t find completely satisfying solutions.
  • And much more.


  • Cold open (00:00:00)
  • Luisa’s intro (00:01:10)
  • Bizarre and dubious philosophical theories (00:03:13)
  • The materialist view of consciousness (00:13:55)
  • What would it mean for the US to be conscious? (00:19:46)
  • Supersquids and antheads thought experiments (00:22:37)
  • Alternatives to the materialist perspective (00:35:19)
  • Are our intuitions useless for thinking about these things? (00:42:55)
  • Key ingredients for consciousness (00:46:46)
  • Reasons to think the US isn’t conscious (01:01:15)
  • Overlapping consciousnesses [01:09:32]
  • Borderline cases of consciousness (01:13:22)
  • Are we dreaming right now? (01:40:29)
  • Will we ever have answers to these dubious and bizarre questions? (01:56:16)

Producer and editor: Keiran Harris
Audio engineering lead: Ben Cordell
Technical editing: Simon Monsour, Milo McGuire, and Dominic Armstrong
Additional content editing: Katy Moore and Luisa Rodriguez
Transcriptions: Katy Moore

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