Ep. 2 – Peter Godfrey-Smith asks: What can the octopus teach us about consciousness?

For decades, radio astronomers have combed the skies for signals from alien life. But according to our guest, Dr. Peter Godfrey-Smith, we’ve overlooked a form of intelligence so remote from ours it might as well be alien. It’s our evolutionary cousin, the octopus, a sea-dwelling mollusk that made headlines in 2016 for escaping from a New Zealand aquarium through a drain pipe. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and ancient, says Godfrey-Smith, the octopus represents an independent experiment in the evolution of minds and complex behavior. It confronts us with a mind in many ways radically different from our own, with which humans have nonetheless managed to make contact. Diving with cephalopods has led him to wonder: what might these strange creatures have to teach us about consciousness?

“The whole picture that we inherit from earlier philosophical traditions of a body as something that is semi-distinct from the mind, something that is steered around by a central controller…is very much put into question by the octopus, which has such a different relationship between the control systems and the thing being controlled, the material body itself,” says Dr. Peter Godfrey-Smith. 

Dr. Godfrey-Smith is a world-renowned thinker in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of mind. He is professor at the University of Sydney in Australia, where he teaches in the School of History and Philosophy of Science. He is the author of five books, including Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of ScienceThe Philosophy of Biology and Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection. An experienced scuba diver, he has spent years studying and interacting with an octopus colony in Australia, taking photos and videos that have been published in National Geographic, The New York Times, and elsewhere. He reflects on some of these encounters in his most recent book, Other MindsThe Octopus, The Sea, and The Deep Origins of Consciousnessand on his blog, “Metazoan.”

Recommended books:

Animal Liberation by Peter Singer

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina

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