Searching for the roots of consciousness: An interview with Peter Godfrey-Smith

Johannes Stenlund

#II. inside animals / animals inside

i. humans and nonhumans

spring, 2022

untitled, Mark Peckmezian

Some years ago, philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith started to scuba-dive regularly in the ocean off the south-east coast of his native Australia. The creatures that he met there – cephalopods, such as giant cuttlefish and octopuses, displaying strange but unmistakable forms of intelligence – made him devote more time to the questions of how vastly different animals came to be conscious and what that tells us about consciousness today. Since then, he has laid out his views in two books, with a third on the way.

Godfrey-Smith is in no doubt that consciousness is real and that humans – and probably many other animals – are capable of having rich qualitative experiences. As a materialist, however, he does not think that mental experiences are constituted by any special properties, such as an immaterial soul. This means he faces an explanatory gap – that between our best physicalist theories of how brains work and what it actually feels to be something. While many approaches to bridge the gap set out from those rich qualitative experiences – of being overwhelmed by the intense colour of a painting, say – Godfrey-Smith tries to approach it from a different direction.

Experiences of qualia, he says, are real – when you let the redness of a Rothko painting wash over you, you are experiencing a state of what it can be like to be a conscious being. But it is not the paradigm example of being conscious. Instead of bridging the explanatory gap from the starting point of qualia, we should start with subjectivity – why animals have a point of view at all. That, Godfrey-Smith says, is a byproduct of agency, a much less contentious evolutionary concept. That animals had to do things brought subjectivity with it, which was the first step towards the complex mental experiences that are part of our lives today.

In Godfrey-Smith’s evolutionary framework, consciousness is not a switch that was suddenly turned on at a certain point in history, but a genuinely gradual process that passed through intermediate stages of partially experiential animals. Even today, Godfrey-Smith claims, we can expect to find borderline cases of animals that we cannot categorise as either conscious or nonconscious. That idea has met resistance from philosophers for several reasons. First, the idea of a partial experience seems to go against intuitions of consciousness as a binary state. Even when we feel our consciousness altered or impacted, there is a sharp cut-off point between being conscious and not being conscious. In a partially experiential subject, the question of what it is like to be something would need a very different kind of answer. Second, it raises ethical questions. Ascribing moral status to subjects based on their level of consciousness is harder in a case where experiencing is partial. Are there borderline cases of experiencing subjects where there is no answer of how we ought to behave towards these animals?

Taking a closer look at the varieties of consciousness in animals as different as octopuses and humans and many animals in between, Godfrey-Smith’s evolutionary view also brings up the question of what base is needed for certain mental experiences to arise. Can the same mental state be realised in different physical kinds or do mental experiences only exist as part of their specific make-up? Peter Godfrey-Smith holds that these challenges should not cause us to abandon the view of partially experiencing subjects, but to get used to thinking about a world of genuine gradualness, even if it means developing new concepts that go against our current intuitions. He has laid out these views in Other Minds (2016), a book about his field-work with octopuses, and Metazoa (2020), which takes a broader look at the history of animals. He is currently writing a third book in the series, focusing on the ethical implications of his view. He is also the 2022 Jean Nicod Laureate and will hold the lectures in Paris in June this year.

What made you start with this project of looking at octopuses and the origins of animal consciousness?

Other Minds began as a consequence of spending time with those animals in the sea when I was back in Australia while I was teaching in the US. I first thought of it as a fairly minor side-project, but once the book got going I invested quite a lot in it. The book is organised around the common ancestry that links humans with cephalopods – that the common ancestor was such a long time ago and still there are these similarities between us and a sense that we can make contact with the animals. So Other Minds was about one group of animals and one part of the tree of life.

With Metazoa, I thought I would apply the same kind of framework but much more broadly – looking at the whole history of animals, including non-bilaterian animals and land animals. That meant looking at common ancestry and relationships to some extent, but also using the history of animal life as a way to cast light on philosophical questions about minds and bodies. That was the transition from Other Minds to Metazoa.

Now I’m writing a third book, which is going to broaden out even further and look at the place of life within the history of the earth. It will include fairly detailed discussions of policy questions, questions about farming, the use of animals in scientific experiments, climate change, habitat destruction – standard pressing moral questions. So in the very last part of the third I’ll be trying to ask what we should do in light of the picture that is being put together across the three books.

As you have shown, octopuses are fascinating animals that raise philosophical questions. Did you also have a theoretical interest that guided you towards studying them?

No, that came afterwards. Before meeting octopuses, I met giant cuttlefish and they are just such astounding animals. I took a lot of photos of them and began to think about them. That led to these themes about the tree of life in Other Minds.

Then octopuses as other cephalopods are relatives and there just happens to be lots of octopuses in the Sydney area. I think most people don’t realise that because they are so camouflaged, but once you start looking there are lots and lots. So the theoretical interest came after the contact with the animals.

Was there a particular moment when you realised that your spending time with octopuses was relevant to your philosophical interests?

It was when I began to think about the fact that these animals are molluscs and that means that they have this very deep evolutionary relationship. It is such a complicated animal, with some of them interested in me, but their relatives are oysters and clams and snails. That really was a bit of a revelation and I thought “okay, that is amazing”.

Also, when I began reading about them, I read Cephalopod Behaviour [by Roger Hanlon and John Messenger], which was the standard scientific summary at the time. They alerted me to the fact that their nervous system is such a different one in architecture from ours. They talked about how the nervous system in the arms of an octopus are “curiously divorced from the central brain”. That was the phrase that they used. It wasn’t trying to make the animals exciting, it was just what it looked like. That also made me think that this is philosophically quite important and something to follow up.

Octopuses have always had a kind of cameo role in philosophy of mind. Hilary Putnam occasionally used them in his early discussion about multiple realisability. To use the semi-caricature, if you have a simple identity about the mental where pain is the firing of C-fibers, that suggests that if you don’t have C-fibers, you can’t have pain, and that presses towards multiple realisability. Putnam realised that very early on.

But your conclusions are quite different from Putnam’s when it comes to multiple realisability.

I think that nervous systems are special in the area of explaining how experience is possible. Bearing in mind that everything we say on this topic has to be fairly cautious, the view in Metazoa of how experience came to exist and what it’s like – how there can be something it’s like to be us and so on – is a view that gives a certain role to physical peculiarities of nervous systems.

That makes it somewhat antagonistic to the strongest forms of traditional multiple realisability, the Putnam, [Jerry] Fodor sorts of views. But not to all forms. It’s a guiding idea in my work that you don’t have to have a vertebrate architecture to have consciousness, or C-fibres to have pain, or the particular kind of nervous system that we have to have experience.

So the octopus as a guide to multiple realisability as pioneered by Putnam stays on the table, but not the kind of very abstract “every physical substrate will do” position that they developed. Then one has to work out how to fill that idea out.

Years ago, I co-authored a paper with Rosa Cao from Stanford where we tried to redo the whole question of multiple realisability in a way we referred to as ‘grain-sensitive materialism’. Here’s one way to get into the idea. When functionalists talk about functional profiles or properties of nervous systems, they say that any system that has the same functional properties as a human brain has to have the same mental state.

Well, that phrase ‘the same’ there is really quite misleading. If the functional properties of the system are what the system does, then there are both very fine-grained and very coarse-grained specifications of what the system does. Suppose you lift your arm on two occasions. There will be micro-differences between the two events. It’s not really ‘the same’ action in the strictest possible sense of the word ‘same’ – there are small differences.

Do those differences matter? In a coarse-grained view, they don’t. And functionalists are used to thinking about things that have a very stereotypical output, like Coke machines, or a computer program that is designed to have a stereotypical output, where if you type on the keyboard the key H you get an H every time you type. But brains are not like that, and organisms are not like that. Everything they do is a little bit different on different occasions, so there are very fine-grained and very coarse-grained functional profiles.

The whole idea of functional identity as something that could be seen across systems that have very different physical make-ups I think is really a little bit of a myth. If they’re made up differently, they will do things differently. The what-they-do side will be different as a consequence of the what-they’re-made-of side. Maybe only in fine-grained ways, but then the question is which of those fine-grained differences matter and which ones don’t matter.

This I’m going to have to work through carefully. Not for the third book in this series because it’s too technical – but I’m going to give the Jean Nicod lectures in Paris next year, and one of the aims of those lectures will be to do some of the things that were done in a fairly low-key way in the book in a lot more philosophical detail. And multiple realisability is one of those things.

Most people would accept an evolutionary picture of life and yet there seems to be a lot of resistance to the idea that our mental experiences also started this way. I understand your book as a way of untying some knots in thinking about this. What’s the first tool you would give people to set people on the right track?

There seems to be at least one thing that people do seem reluctant to accept about this. That is the idea that the history could be truly gradual, in the sense where there is a time when experience does not exist and there is a time when it does exist – that there is an evolutionary process that gets us from here to there, and on some of the in-between stages there is no fact of the matter. Experience is sort of present, sort of not present. There is something there that is quasi-experiential or partially experiential, but if you ask “is there something it’s like to be this guy in the middle?”, the answer is “well, sort of”. A lot of people really don’t like that feature.

A view that a lot of people are okay with is a view where there’s a discreet step that gets you from no to yes, and that yes is a simple but a hundred percent genuine form of experience. Then you have a gradual process that makes it more complicated, more elaborate, richer, and so on, but there’s got to be that discreet step from no to yes. I think of it as an escalator – there’s a single step you take onto the escalator, and then the rest is gradual, but there has to be a step onto the escalator.

I think it’s true that it’s more convenient to think in terms of a discrete step of no to yes and then a great gradual process. But that’s just our habits of thought and the concepts that we presently have. There’s no way that that could constrain the evolutionary story. We just might have to revise our thinking in this area and get used to the idea of true gradedness. The only conclusion that I can see that makes sense is that our concepts might be poorly adapted to the facts in this area and we’ll just have to revise our concepts. That gradedness about experience might be real is something that we just have to get used to.

This will have consequences for the distribution of experience in animals around us. If someone asks us whether earthworms have experiences, or very small arthropods like mites, I think there is quite a good chance that the answer will be “not really yes and not really no”. They’re in the middle.

I think this is the locus at the moment of real resistance to an evolutionary story about experience. Most philosophers are not so resistant to a gradualist story about belief or the information-processing side of things, but they are resistant to the gradualist view about experience.

For example, Michael Tye has a new book out [Vagueness and the Evolution of Consciousness] that is unusual because he embraces a kind of panpsychism. Tye has never been even close to radical ideas like that before, but in his book he goes all the way to a partially panpsychist view, and does so because he thinks that the presence of consciousness, in one sense of that term, has to be a binary thing, it can’t be a matter of degree. To me, that’s quite extraordinary: it’s such a constraint on the story for it to be gradual that if that means we have to be panpsychists, then that’s okay. This is what Tye argues in his book.

When it comes to approaching the gradualist question, a pair of concepts that I found quite helpful were subjectivity and agency. How do those concepts help in thinking about this?

Agency and subjectivity are not concepts that solve the problem, but they have this useful framing role when thinking about it. Animals are specialised in action, and they do things on a multicellular scale. They’re large objects, several trillion cells in our case, that can act as wholes. Evolutionists are interested in agency because it’s a big thing from an evolutionary point of view, and agency brings with it subjectivity.

Agency and subjectivity are somewhat complementary concepts, because a coherent agent has to not just be able to act but act in certain circumstances: do this in circumstances X, do something else in circumstances Y. And this will be a matter of how things seem to the agent.

Now, once we talk about how things seem, subjectivity is beginning to get into the picture. Thomas Nagel, especially in some of the books like Mind and Cosmos and The View from Nowhere, says that understanding how subjectivity is possible is the big problem for philosophy. I still think that’s a good way of looking at the problem, but once you say it this way, it’s not so bad. Subjectivity is complementary to agency, it comes along with it, and agency is something that has a very deft evolutionary rationale. Animals live by means of agency, we may say.

Those are the two steps: the evolutionary perspective on agency and the fact that subjectivity comes along with agency. It’s not that you could be a coherent agent and not a subject at all. In order to act in a way that is not just internally coordinated but coordinated with environmental events, you have to sense. You will do better as an agent if you have a coherent perspective on the world, a point of view. And the more elaborate and refined aspects of subjectivity, such having a world model with you as a part of the world – here I’m drawing on the work of Björn Merker, a Swede – the more you get the link to agency that makes them evolutionary natural or explicable.

untitled, Mark Peckmezian

Some philosophers do not like the fact that there could be cases where we neither determinately do nor determinately do not have moral obligations towards certain animals. In a review of Metazoa, Jonathan Birch contrasted your gradualist picture with a dualist’s, saying “the dualist’s ontology may be more complicated, but their moral view is simpler”. How do you see the ethical implications of your view?

This is one of the main things that I’m trying to think through at the moment. The way I’m approaching it is via revisiting, rereading and in some cases just reading a lot of stuff in meta-ethics trying to work out what kind of thing we can take ourselves to be doing when we engage in moral discourse and moral judgement.

I wrote a review of Christine Korsgaard’s book Fellow Creatures earlier this year. That’s a good book, for a lot of reasons. One is that it tries to give a very naturalistically based version of a Kantian argument for why we have to have a certain kind of concern for the well-being of other animals. I don’t think there’s a ‘have to’ to be gotten in this area. I don’t think the kind of compulsion that the neo-Kantian project is looking for can work. I’m more of a constructivist about values, quite influenced by Simon Blackburn’s work in the book Ruling Passions, but I’m going to have to build it all and I don’t think I’ve done that yet.

Earlier I was talking about discussions of gradualism where there is the more difficult version of genuinely indeterminate cases of consciousness, and the easy version where there’s a kind of step onto the escalator and then you’re in the yes category and then after that it can be gradual. Birch put on a conference where we talked about this in quite a lot of detail, and the view that Birch finds so difficult to accept ethically is this truly gradualist picture – it’s not that he thinks that that shows that the non-gradualist view is true, but I think he very much hopes it’s true because he thinks the ethical implications of a fully gradualist view would be very awkward. I agree with that, I think they are awkward, but again it’s something that we may have to deal with and accept.

[That the moral world is simpler] is true even if you’re not a dualist but if you have this very discreet treatment of presence versus absence of experience. If you’re a non-gradualist materialist, there’s the same kind of simplicity.

In another review, David Papineau wrote that your approach could help to invigorate the field of philosophy of mind, which in his view has gone stale with predictable battle lines. Would you agree with that?

I certainly appreciated the Papineau review, but I wouldn’t want to advertise or talk about what I think of as good or better [about the book]. A thing that feels distinctive in the development of my view is the idea that the evolutionary history – not a kind of made-up one but an empirically informed one, one which takes seriously the transition from radial to bilaterian animals and the theories of where nervous systems arose – is important. And those deep evolutionary considerations are not just a constraint. It’s not just that philosophy of mind has to fit in with them, but that thinking about the early stages, the origin of nervous systems and of action, provide a lot of interestingly surprising resources for trying to bridge the explanatory gap and make sense of the mind-body problem. If there’s something that feels distinctive from my point of view, it’s that use of those rather ancient features of the evolutionary story.

Also, I obviously try to guide my story with the actual facts about animals around us now, but I don’t think that’s particularly novel, a lot of good philosophers are paying attention to what animals around us are like.

In the documentary My Octopus Teacher [where the film-maker Craig Foster spends a year bonding with an octopus on the coast of South Africa], the viewer gets a glimpse of the emotional connection that can be formed by socialising with octopuses. You have also spent a lot of time in the sea with these creatures. Do you think being physically close to octopuses can help in thinking philosophically about them?

I’ve not had experiences with individual octopuses that are anything like Craig Foster’s, that particular kind of on-going relationship. I have had experiences with giant cuttlefish, the animals that I started with, that were a bit like that but briefer, where there’s this strong sense of engagement on both sides. That made me realise that there’s a lot more sentience around than I thought. There’s just a lot more experience in the world than I thought. Once you have that gestalt-switch, it’s quite powerful.

I think it’s good to spend time with animals that are far from one’s own species. It gives you the sense that they defy these simpler descriptions that people have attempted to give them – there’s just more there, and a lot of it is very chaotic and inexplicable. It’s a good experience to be confronted with the fact that there is a kind of noisy complexity in animals that are far from us. We’re already used to that in some ways with domestic animals, but the idea that also invertebrate animals can have more happening I think is a valuable thing.