Other Minds, Other Stars

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I recently finished the book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith and would highly recommend it.  Through the focal point of the octopus, Other Minds provides an extremely realistic way of understanding animal intelligence and behavior.  It not only looks at what sets the octopi apart from other creatures, but how their unique path on the evolutionary tree helped shape their biology.  Their nomadic lives created an increased intelligence which seems to have close parallels to human evolution.

[Octopi] are smart in the sense of being curious and flexible; they are adventurous, opportunistic . . . Cephalopods, with the partial exception of squid, acquired a non-social form of intelligence.  The octopus, most of all, would follow a path of lone idiosyncratic complexity. [64-65]

One of the things I most enjoyed was how Other Minds approached evolution and analyzing how intelligence is shaped by evolutionary circumstances.  Part of the book examined how complex nervous systems evolved, including our own.  According to Godfrey-Smith, tracing the roots of consciousness lies at the beginning of life on earth, and minds later evolved in relation to other creatures.

Nervous systems evolved before the bilaterian body plan, but this body plan created vast new possibilities for their use.  During the Cambrian the relations between one animal and another became a more important factor in the lives of each . . . This entanglement of one life and another, and its evolutionary consequences, is due to behavior and the mechanisms controlling it.  From this point on, the mind evolved in response to other minds.  [36]

Later on, Godfrey-Smith takes apart several important evolutionary factors comprising human minds.  One of the most important of these is  inner speech, which Godfrey-Smith describes as how your brain creates a loop.

Inner speech can feel a bit like reafference – like the result of an action that affects your senses – but inner speech is confined inside, hence not really heard (at least when things are working as they should).  If inner speech is a kind of broadcasting of information in the brain, it resembles the loop of reafference seen when you talk aloud to yourself or write notes to yourself.  But this time the loop is tighter and more confined, invisible rather than public, a field for free and silent experiment.

When we see the human mind as the locus of countless loops of this kind, it gives us a different perspective on our own lives and those of other animals.  This includes the cephalopods discussed in this book . . . The human case – an extreme case – suggests that the opportunities associated with reafference help to drive the evolution of a more complicated mind.  Cephalopods are on a different road. [156-157]

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In coming to terms with our own minds, it is important to realize how those minds absorb, filter, and create their own unique perspectives in light of natural selection.  Thinking in this way, and how experiences of other animals differ based on their evolution, is an important tool for broadening our perceptions.  Godfrey-Smith touches on this in his book, and wonders about the differences and commonalities between octopus experience and our own.  This is important for how we view ourselves, planetary evolution, and the shifts that seem to be happening everywhere.  In order to bring this out a bit more concretely, lets conduct a thought experiment in that vein.

Begin to ponder the similarities and differences in how an octopus perceives relative to human experience.  How an octopus feels each tentacle thinking and moving on their own, idiosyncratic habits of perception, their own private yearnings and daily pains. Wonder if there is communion found in the gnawing hunger that disappears as quickly as it rose.

By extension, then, how does this kind of diverse experience of everything else mesh with our own?  What are the minds of trees, rocks, and soil over the vast, alien scales of geologic time?  These diverse views all hint at an infinite intelligence that rises out, expressing itself depending on different conditions.  These evolutions lead to all kinds of what we consider intelligent and adaptive behavior and have given birth to the various kinds of life we share this reality with.

This opens the door for all kinds of evolutionary paths for other planets to take.  We may not have heard from alien species since our kind of intelligence is not the only kind, and not the only way to measure evolution.  Since we have not yet discovered life on other planets that we perceive as intelligent, it may simply be that other species have developed many different kinds of intelligence, communication, and behavior that reflect their planetary conditions.  We may not have heard from them since they have not yet communicated in a way that humans find meaningful.

As we become more skilled at manipulating our environment for our own purposes, perhaps we are in the throes of leaving this planet for another.  This has led us to a time of intense anxiety, where we increasingly face an incomprehensible future.  The effects and predictions of global warming seems to be upsetting many of our traditional models.

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On this note, I bought the book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World.  The book so far has outlined what author Timothy Morton describes as hyperobjects, which are highly distributed, and cut across numerous particulars.  Hyperobjects dissolve what we tend to think of  conventional objects in terms of locality and boundedness.  Global warming, according to Morton, is a good example of this, and like the iceberg on the cover, indicates something giant beneath a seemingly placid and substantive surface.

In The Ecological Thought I coined the term hyperobjects to refer to things that are massively distributed in in time and space relative to humans . . . Hyperobjects have numerous properties in common.  They are viscous, which means that they ‘stick’ to beings that are involved with them.  They are nonlocal; in other words, any ‘local manifestation’ of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject.  They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to.  In particular, some very large hyperobjects, such as planets, have genuinely Gaussian temporality; they generate spacetime vortices, due to general relativity.  Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time.  And they exhibit these effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects.  The hyperobject is not a function of our knowledge: it’s a hyper relative to worms, lemons, and ultraviolet rays, as well as humans. [1-2]

Unlike many philosophers, Morton is an excellent writer.  His writing does a great job of evoking what he is describing.  He freely ranges across topics in a way that anchors his central thesis, tying together many different histories and perspectives like the hyperobjects he describes.

This sense of reality is one in which many of our cherished ways of understanding are collapsing under the weight of global human advancement.  It ties into one of the most important developments happening at the moment – the development of machine intelligence.  Many of us have come to rely on technologies such as smartphones that manage our lives through effective manipulation of our data.  A distinct possibility exists that we will only merge further with our machines, and create something which supersedes us in the process.

I’ve heard this growing machinic presence referred to as a “Cambrian explosion,” and which seems to be currently happening within many different domains of human life.  Perhaps machines are emerging as the dominant form of life and are simply a natural reflection of this diverse universal intelligence – and yet another path to take down the rabbit hole.

Like the octopus, have we opened a door into a rich and unique form of evolution?  Are there evolutionary forces at work now pushing us towards other minds, other worlds, and increasing intelligence?  And is this evolutionary door a crucible for humanity – the challenge that determines whether we can actually control this planet on such a scale that we make a form of life never seen before?

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