Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey Smith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), £9.99/$27
Review by Jean Kazez
Peter Godfrey Smith’s new book on cephalopods would be lovable for its metaphilosophy and beautiful writing if it said nothing interesting about the octopus. “Philosophy is among the least corporeal of callings”, he writes. “It is, or can be, a purely mental sort of life. It has no equipment that needs managing, no sites of field stations.” Yet his project, he says, had a “bodily side”. He started studying cephalopods while spending time with them underwater, primarily at a site that he calls “Octopolis” on the east coast of Australia. His book is full of boats and diving, as well as biology and neuroscience, so is it really philosophy? Sure! “Doing philosophy is largely a matter of trying to put things together, trying to get the pieces of very large puzzles to make sense. Good philosophy is opportunistic; it uses whatever information and whatever tools look useful.”
In fact, the book does say all sorts of interesting things about the octopus. It covers their evolution, way of evading predators, lifespan, habitat, odd mating rituals, and incredibly cool colour-changing skin, but it’s especially about octopus minds (hence, the title). Do they really have minds? Is there something it’s like to be an octopus? Smith divides the issue in two: wondering whether the octopus has mere sentience, and then wondering about more sophisticated, fullblown consciousness.
The first thing he says about the sentience question is that philosophers tend to think of sensation as driving action, and think too little about action driving sensation. You don’t just receive sensations from this page; you turned the page a minute ago in order to acquire new sensations. Apparently the fact that you’re the actor can make a difference to the resulting sensations, as he demonstrates with a fascinating example involving tactile vision substitution systems for the blind. The device converts camera images into skin vibrations, so that when a blind person uses the device, a dog in their environment is experienced as a pattern of skin sensations. What’s interesting is that when they actively seek sensations, having control over the camera, the dog is experienced as “out there”. Acting, instead of just