Book Review – Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

In this post:

  • A true-false test about octopuses
  • What is it like to be an octopus?
  • An exercise in updating on surprising facts
  • Experiments related to animal suffering and consciousness
  • The evolution of aging
  • Should you read Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness?

I. Introduction

Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: the Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness is a phenomenal mishmash of octopus- and consciousness-related topics. It deals with everything from the evolution of octopuses, to their social life, to animal consciousness (including octopus consciousness), to evolutionary theories of aging, and more. All of this is tied together by a palpable fascination with octopuses, which manifests itself in rich descriptions of Godfrey-Smith’s own experiences scuba-diving off the coast of Australia to observe them.

The book attempts to fit discussion of an impressive amount of interesting topics all into one slim volume. On the one hand, this is great, as each topic is fascinating in its own right, and several are relevant to EA/rationality. On the other hand, fitting in so many topics is a difficult task which the book only halfway pulls off. There wasn’t enough room to discuss each topic in as much depth as they deserved, and the breadth of topics meant that the book felt somewhat unorganized and disunified. The book as a whole didn’t seem to have any central claim; it was simply a collection of interesting facts, observations, musings, and theories that somehow relate to either octopuses, consciousness, or both, plus a bunch of fascinating first-hand descriptions of octopus behavior.

Do I recommend the book? Yes and no. For general interest, definitely–it’s an interesting, enjoyable read; but for rationalists and EAs, there are probably better things to read on each topic the book discusses that would go into more depth, so it may not be the most effective investment of time for learning about, say, theories of animal consciousness. So in the rest of this review I’ve tried to 80/20 the book a bit, pulling out the insights that I found most interesting and relevant to EA/rationalism (as well as adding my own musings here and there). Because of this, the review is both quite long, and unavoidably reflects a bit of the disjointedness of the book itself–the sections can largely be read independently of each other.

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Are There Really Two Kinds of Skepticism?

I’m taking a course on epistemology this semester, and I thought I would post here a paper I wrote for the course (with minor modifications based on instructor feedback). I’ve been wanting to post some “real” philosophy on here, so to speak (actually, I’ve been wanting to get something, anything, posted here), so I thought this would be a good opportunity to do so. Expect more content here related to epistemology, ethics, and their intersection in the future. Without further ado, I’ll tackle the question: are there really two kinds of skepticism?

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This Way and That Way: Fairness

A major debate we as a society have been having in one form or another for the past 200 years is whether or not we ought to redistribute some wealth from the rich to the poor. At the risk of caricature, the left argues that it’s unfair for the rich to have as much money as they do while there are people dying of starvation in the streets, while the right argues that it’s unfair to take the rich’s hard-earned money to give to some lazy bums who’ve never worked a day in their lives. A key thing to notice is that both sides frame their arguments in terms of fairness, but are they really talking about the same thing when they say “fairness”? I don’t think they are, and this is the key to understanding their disagreement. In this essay, I will not try to defend any particular conception of fairness, but rather try to make clear the core motives each side has for seeking fairness, how that leads them to their conception of it, and why each side has some valuable insights on this debate.  Continue reading

What do you mean “Lose the debate?”

It’s really hard to see the other side of a debate most of the time. We all know that feeling of righteous rage we get when we see something on Facebook that disagrees with our politics. And it’s a fun feeling. We see a post and we think, “How could anyone possibly think that? ” And we conclude that those who do must be Evil Evildoers who are Evil; the only way someone could possibly believe that is if they were trying to destroy the world.

The problem with that is that evil people are an exceedingly rare breed; the Moriartys, the Jokers of the world are few and far between. Most people want what’s good for the world. They simply disagree on what that is, and how to get there. Pure good and pure evil don’t exist in reality.  As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn points out in The Gulag Archipelago, “the line separating good and evil passes … right through every human heart.” But that’s a hard thing to admit when it’s so much easier to simply pretend our opponents are either evil, insane, or insincere (or just stupid). And once we do that, our opponents transform from potential allies in the struggle to improve the world into enemies bent on destroying it.

But just as no one tries actively to do evil, no one has access to the whole truth about the good. As moral psychologist  Jonathan Haidt puts it in The Righteous Mind, “morality binds and blinds”: everyone intuitively “sees” certain moral truths and is blind to others. The reason people disagree about things like politics is because they genuinely have different ideas about what’s good for the world. And here’s the key: each side is right.* But when we paint the other side as our enemy, it’s hard to imagine even that they believe what they’re saying, let alone that they might actually have a point!

This blog is my attempt to help address this problem. The title “Lose the Debate” comes from a Medium article I once read by Sean Blanda entitled “The ‘Other Side’ is Not Dumb,” which contains a challenge for readers: “A dare for the next time you’re in discussion with someone you disagree with: Don’t try to ‘win.’ Don’t try to ‘convince’ anyone of your viewpoint. Don’t score points by mocking them to your peers. Instead try to ‘lose.’ Hear them out. Ask them to convince you and mean it.”

Haidt argues that our moral and political stances are in large part determined by our subconscious intuitions, rather than by our conscious reasoning. Our reasoning serves, instead, as a kind of lawyer or press secretary, employed by our subconscious to come up with arguments supporting its views. This implies that reasoning works better in groups with differing opinions. Since we’re better at coming up with arguments that support our own side, when multiple people who are biased in different directions come together, they’ll be able to critique each other’s arguments to more effectively come at the truth. However, this only works when we can first disarm our “countervailing intuitions.” That is, when we are already predisposed to reject a conclusion, no amount of reasoning will be able to get us to accept it until our intuitions have been shifted. Furthermore, we’re more predisposed to accept arguments from those we like, or from those within our own “tribe.

Therefore, this blog is devoted to fostering understanding of opposing arguments, both in myself and in my readers. As John Stuart Mill said in On Liberty, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no grounds for preferring either opinion.”

Though this blog will likely evolve over time, I have a couple formats planned to start off with.

  1. “This way and that way” posts, where I take an issue and look at it from each side. In this series I will likely write about issues where I can personally sympathize with both sides at least partially. This idea was inspired by the German YouTube channel SOundSOgesehen, which does exactly this format in video form.
  2. “Walk a Mile in Their Brain” posts, in which I take an issue on which I have a strong opinion, and argue the side with which I disagree. And not just halfhearted disagreement. If an issue doesn’t give me a disgusted shudder down my spine to even think about arguing the other side of it, I won’t be doing it for this column, at least as long as I have enough topics. I anticipate a lot of failure in this format, but that’s the point. This was inspired by a passage in Haidt’s book, which says that researchers have tried very hard to train people to look for arguments that oppose their views, and have found it to be nearly impossible. I take that as a challenge, so I’m going to attempt to use this series to train myself to look for arguments that oppose my views.

Apart from these, I will also be writing articles from my own political perspective; however, I hope that these, insofar as my views deviate from the “mainstream” both on the left and on the right, can also serve as a way for my readers to intellectually challenge themselves to consider opposing views (and for me to receive challenges to my views in the comments). The Mill quote above continues as follows: “Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations.” As someone who leans left (although the left is probably not, properly speaking, my in-group), I will often make arguments for comparatively conservative positions that I accept and address them to my fellow liberals, both because I will be better able to put these arguments in terms that will be intuitive to liberals than a conservative would, and because liberals will be more likely to accept these arguments from someone relatively like them.

A word about what exactly those views are, which is to say, a word about my biases:

By temperament, I’m relatively liberal (and even have some libertarian tendencies at times), which is to say I most easily see the intuitive appeal of liberal positions and policies. I tend towards the idealistic and the utopian. However, under the influence of Jonathan Haidt’s work, especially his book The Righteous Mind, I’ve grown to see the merit of the conservative frame of mind (even if I still disagree with many concrete conservative policy proposals). Haidt’s work informs much of what I will write here on this blog. I may sometimes write about it directly, and will often reference it in articles. It is the main source of the ultimate philosophy of this blog: that perhaps the most important activity in politics, as well as in moral and political philosophy, is to listen to and engage with one’s opponents.