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257 pages, Hardcover
First published December 6, 2016
I keep coming back to that metaphor [of consciousness as white noise] when I'm trying to get my head around this topic. It is a metaphor--very much so. It's a metaphot of sound applied to organisms that, at least in most cases, probably could not hear at all. I'm not sure why the image stays so consistently with me. Somehow it seems to point in the right direction, with its evocation of a crackle of the metabolic electricity, and the shape of the story suggested. That shape is one in which experience starts in an inchoate buzz, and becomes more organized.
In our own case, looking inside, we find that subjective experience has a close association with perception and control -- with using what we sense to work out what we do. Why should this be? Why shouldn't subjective experience be associated with other things? Why isn't it brimful of basic bodily rhythms, the division of cells, life itself? Some people say it is full of those things-- more than we realize anyway. I don't think so, and suspect there's a clue here. Subjective experience does not arise from the mere running of the system, but from the modulation of its state, from registering things that matter. These need not be external events; they might arise internally. But they are tracked because they matter and require a response. Sentience has some point to it. It's not just a bathing in living activity.
"[Cephalopods and baboons] are both partial cases, unfinished, in a sense, though one should not think of evolution as goal-directed."I should think not. There was some other strange stuff about a gentleman who became aphasic occasionally but still had to express himself, which he did by pointing. Godfrey-Smith thought the man's aphasia 'proved' the man no longer had the capacity for language...despite the man being mentally aware and was pointing to things. Just seems a notion the author is floating that doesn't really bear scrutiny.
If we want to understand other minds, the minds of cephalopods are the most other of all.
Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.
In an octopus, the nervous system as a whole is a more relevant object than the brain: it's not clear where the brain itself begins and ends, and the nervous system runs all through the body. The octopus is suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain or the nervous system...the body itself is protean, all possibility; it has none of the costs and gains of a constraining and action-guiding body. The octopus lives outside the usual body/brain divide.