Consider The Octopus

Andrew Sullivan —  Jun 11 2013 @ 8:36pm

What’s it like to be an octopus? Peter Godfrey-Smith explores the question in pursuit of a philosophy of mind:

Action by an octopus … would mix elements that are usually distinct in animals like us. When we act, the border between self and environment is usually fairly clear. When we move an arm, the arm can be controlled both in its general path and in the details. You can then watch your arm move, but what you are watching are the consequences of choices, or perhaps of habits that are the remnants of earlier choices. Various other things in the environment are not under your direct control at all, though they can be moved indirectly by manipulating them with your limbs. Uncontrolled movement by an object around you is usually a sign that it is not part of you at all (with partial exceptions for knee-jerk reflexes and the like). If you were an octopus, these distinctions would be blurred. Your arms would move in a way that is a mix of the centrally and peripherally controlled. To some extent you would guide them, and to some extent you would just watch them go.

Godfrey-Smith on the worthiness of “what it’s like to be X” thought experiments:

Some philosophers working within a broadly materialist framework are opposed to asking questions about “what it’s like” to have a particular kind of mind. They regard this way of setting up the issues as misguided. I think these questions are good ones, as long as they are asked in a way that does not doom them to unanswerability from the start. The divide between first-person and third-person points of view is real regardless of what minds are made of. Knowing how an animal’s body and brain are put together does not put you into a state that is similar to what is going on inside that animal, so in that sense no description can tell you “what it’s like to be” that animal. Getting a sense of what it feels like to be another animal—bat, octopus, or next-door neighbor—must involve the use of memory and imagination to produce what we think might be faint analogues of that other animal’s experiences. This project can be guided by knowledge of how the animal is put together and how it lives its life. When the animal is as different from us as an octopus, the task is certainly difficult, but it is one worth undertaking.

See also Thomas Nagel’s 1974 essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” here (and a recent takedown of Nagel here). Recent Dish on “what it’s like” thought experiments here.

(Video: Moving Octopus Vulgaris, Wikimedia Commons)