Minds, Others

Peter Godfrey-Smith, philosopher of science, recently published a book on consciousness and intelligence entitled Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. The work stands out to me, initially, because it is accessible to non-philosophers. I will not claim it reaches out to broad audiences of all stripes. Its initial chapters chronicle human understandings of the origins of life, decked out in biological and geological vernacular finery. If, say, you read the book in spurts and you forget how to verbalize cnidarians (after a lovely parenthetical guide to its pronunciation a few pages earlier), you might get stuck for a few seconds/minutes as you attempt to sound it out while seeming rather odd to anyone else in the room as you trip over a double consonant to begin the word.

I have, clearly, just laid bare my own shortcomings when it comes to knowledge of such periods as the Ediacaran, and Cambrian. Nevertheless, Godfrey-Smith’s text tempts me to continue reading because his subjects are so distinct from me and so fascinating: creatures of the sea like jellyfish, octopuses, and squid. Though I have no serious diving experience like Godfrey-Smith, I can easily imagine myself on the sea floor outside the hovel of an intrepid octopus as it (she, he?) extends a tentacle my way. The author adroitly ushers the reader under the waves with him. On these excursions, we encounter creatures with qualities at once foreign–tentacles with suckers–and familiar–curious as kittens.

Near the end of the second chapter, Godfrey-Smith casually announces: “From this point on, the mind evolved around other minds,” as if he were reminding a snorkeling novice that, once in the water, it’s wise to put on the mask to see. His claim does not refer to apes or land-based creatures–these are minds we might first imagine, yet the ones we imagine are hundreds of millions of years after this point. Instead, he refers to animals of the Cambrian period that dwell in the sea–where, we imagine, all life began on this planet. Up to this point in the text, our author has journeyed into the distant, distant past of our planet. He has hypothesized about the earliest ancestors of all life, and, crucially, attempted to delineate the rough origins of predation. Predators matter because, until their emergence, peaceful coexistence might likely have dominated. After their emergence, life had to adapt to other life in unprecedented ways.

Imagining a time when minds began being affected by other minds caused me to jump to thoughts our own era. All around us are machines and programs that adapt to humans and other animals. We have created artificial intelligence, and now we must learn to adapt to them. They, of course, are programmed (and are programming themselves, increasingly) to adapt to us, but we ignore the other half of the equation at our own peril. Not noticing how bots influence stock trading, which videos you watch in your feed, what stories are presented to you online (and, thus, what stories exist for you), and how you commute/travel might make you unable to adapt to them properly. We are in a feedback loop with them. They ‘know’ it: they track us, entice us to click on images/videos/stories, and generally seek to engage us. Do we know it? If so, what ought we do about it?

Importantly, we humans have no code for how to adapt properly to machines, bots, programs, and artificial intelligences. If Godfrey-Smith’s text goes as I think it might (only 3 chapters in as of today), I am hoping he comes back to a tantalizing line from chapter 1: octopuses might be the closest we ever come to alien intelligence. Because octopuses seem to exhibit the kind of intelligence a dog might have, they represent sources of unparalleled quality for imagining an extra-terrestrial creature might be (following Nagel’s notion that “there is something it is like to be an X”). If by alien Godfrey-Smith means exotic, or incongruous, then his thesis is both striking and timely.

We humans stand at a precipice (edges, geologically speaking, can last hundreds or thousands of years, so that hopefully deflates any hyperbolic tones of this sentence). On the other side is an existence thoroughly saturated with other minds, other intelligences. We ought to construct some malleable, tentative guidelines for how to engage these intelligences. If you have recently, or are currently, raising children in the U.S., you likely struggle with how to handle the content available to the kiddos, how to regulate their intake. Of course, they learn from watching us (so do our machines? octopuses?), so I hope we are also struggling with the exact same questions. No lasting rules will emerge anytime soon because the situation is fluid; nevertheless, without consciously considering how we want to be with these new intelligences, we will fall back on old habits and instincts that do not serve on the other side of that precipice.

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