Minds of their own

Contagious curiosity about the way consciousness works

Nigel Warburton

Philosophers of mind, with some notable exceptions, still investigate consciousness from the comfort of their armchairs, occasionally venturing into a neuroscience laboratory. Not so Peter Godfrey-Smith. He does his philosophy in a wet suit. A keen scuba diver and snorkeler, with a passion for marine biology and a deep knowledge of evolutionary theory, this Australian philosopher does much of his thinking underwater on the reefs and open water a few hours’ drive from Sydney.

In his previous book Other Minds, he gave us a glimpse of the world of octopuses—short-lived, highly intelligent, soft creatures, that can shapeshift and colour change in an instant, and which display evidence of a very different way of being from ours. Godfrey-Smith believes they have minds, perhaps more than one per animal, perhaps a mind per tentacle, plus a central one. In Metazoa, his aim is far more ambitious, though octupuses get a long chapter here too. He wants to provide a philosophical analysis of the evolution of consciousness, one firmly grounded in close observation of the biology and behaviour of a wide range of different sorts of animals, primarily marine animals, explained through an examination of key phases in the evolution of subjective experience. His is a special and rare kind of attention: informed by scientific research, yet sensitive to what he is seeing, the particularity of the creature in front of him, and what it might imply, always to the fore.

What makes this book so absorbing, apart from this attention and his superb descriptive skills and clarity, is Godfrey-Smith’s enthusiasm for what he observes. We accompany him on many dives down to reefs where banded shrimp wave their claws, octopuses build dens from discarded scallop shells,  and fish try to pull their prey from crevices. Whether he is describing a sponge, a worm, or a whale, his fascination and curiosity are contagious. He wants to do more than simply enjoy this underwater show—he is constantly reflecting on the physiology and behaviour of every animal he observes. He wants to know if these animals have something that we could fairly describe as a point of view, a way of experiencing the world, or whether they are more like little robots reacting to stimuli. In the book we explore hypotheses with him, witness his speculative and yet sceptical mind at work. As he points out, sentience comes by degrees in different species, and is intimately connected with the development of nervous systems. But he wants to attribute it to a far wider range of animals than has typically been done. Insects and crabs have sentience of a kind, he believes, and he wants to convince you this is so.

For some years, philosophers have used analogies with computers to try and make sense of consciousness. Some think of the mind as a very complex programme that could in principle be instantiated in something other than a human brain and body. It could, some think, be uploaded into a very powerful computer. The computer’s hardware would take the place of the body, and the thinking part would be this programme. If done well enough the upload would result in a mind within the computer, a mind with memories and patterns of thought, a continuation of the consciousness of the person whose mind had been uploaded. This is such a popular trope in movies, that there is even a Wikipedia page devoted to it, with Transcendence, CHAPPIE, and Self/less amongst the examples. Godfrey-Smith rejects this model of the experiencing mind as far-fetched and not adequately grounded in reality. The whole book is his argument. The
evolution of subjectivity is, he believes, intimately linked with particular sorts of physiology, developed over millions of years as these creatures sensed and acted within environments of threat and opportunity, and of patterns of chemical and electrical process in the resulting nervous systems and bodies of these animals. These include dynamic patterns of electrical activity across large parts of brains. He is convinced that our subjectivity is based in specific biological processes, and not something that could be transferred into any sort of existing computer. To understand subjectivity, and its degrees (it’s not all or nothing but a matter of more or less), we should be looking at animals and how they have evolved. That means scrutinising how a range of non-conscious chemical processes combined to produce creatures with increasing awareness of the world.

Some philosophers may feel that Godfrey-Smith’s detailed descriptions of invertebrate behaviour, and asides about, for example, how to sex an octopus, have left relatively little room for discussion of key philosophical ideas, that philosophy of mind has had to make room for extended passages about his encounters with marine life on the reef. But I see these careful descriptions as essential to his argument. Without them, attributing some degree of sentience to animals traditionally seen as without a point of view, would have seemed far-fetched. We need to get a sense of what each animal does, how its physiology allows it to sense and act within its environment, if we are to make the imaginative leap required to think of it as sentient. These descriptions are also a delight to read.   


Metazoa: Animal Minds and the Birth of Consciousness
By Peter Godfrey-Smith
William Collins, 288pp, £20

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