“ If we can make contact with cephalopods (Octopus/Cuttlefish in this instance) 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.”
I like aliens. I love the Fermi Paradox, I love a good UFO siting, I follow SETI, and I think Contact is one of the best movies ever made (Sidebar: Contact has aged exceptionally well. It tries to portray our world a it would actually react to something like an alien landing and IMO does a fantastic job. Go watch this movie). More than anything though, I love how aliens provide super mind-melting thought experiments for philosophers. In particular, I think aliens tend to lend themselves well to thought experiments about Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy of Language.
The best example I can think to demonstrate this is the book/movie, Arrival and how they portray the visitors. The aliens in Arrival have their own written language system, and they have a super cool method through which they express that language to each other, but that is all relatively standard in the sci-fi universe. For me, the thing Arrival does so incredibly well is how it portrays the aliens conception of the world. For them, instead of perceiving on a linear timeline, time is flat. Any moment is can be understood and communicated in terms of the past, present, and future simultaneously. I love this concept and could go on for a bit, but for the purposes of this post that will suffice.
Besides encouraging you all to see/read Arrival, I think this example does a great job showing one of the most fascinating parts of philosophy; The Problem Of Other Minds. This is basically the idea that at any given time we have absolutely no clue how anyone else is experiencing the world. You may know someone better than anyone else, but you can never directly understand their existence. The classic being the color red. If you lived your whole life in a world without the color, I could explain all the properties of red, but until you actually saw it, you would never truly “grok” it (to grok is basically to understand fully and comes from another god tier sci-fi book called, Stranger in a Strange Land, also add to your lists). Same thing goes for grokking other people. Same thing goes 10x for aliens, you have no idea if they even exist on a linear timeline (Arrival), are capable of independent thought, have a concept of other beings etc.. We have no clue how they might perceive the world because they evolved (probably) in a completely different way from ourselves.
Ok, now back to the octopus.
The quote at the top of the post is the hype quote in a bunch of previews/reviews for a book called, “Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness,” written by philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith. Besides having an excellent cover, I am a pretty big fan anything that sits at the intersection of philosophy and cool under-water shchtuff so I was pretty jazzed to read this one. While the book ends up focused less on philosophy and more on cephalopods and the evolution of intelligence, it is muy muy interesante.
The idea is basically that we used to think of our mammal and bird friends as being the intelligent ones, while mollusks were more at the insect tier. We now know that this is not true, that cephalopods are actually extremely intelligent and complex creatures with individual personalities, self-awareness, and complex behaviors. They are consistently described as curious and are innovative problem solvers. They are playful and tend to be hard to keep in captivity thanks to their penchant for creative escape. They approach novel tasks (like breaking open a shell ) with different (and often complex) solutions, a signal many researchers use as a proxy for self-awareness. Finally, octopus, and to an even greater extent cuttlefish, have a camouflage system that is result of tens of thousands of pigmented cells and a crazy mirroring system. Think of your skin being an HDTV that is directly controlled by your nervous system. All of this is to say that certain cephalopods are considered exceptionally intelligent. This is great, but not unique to cephalopods in the animal kingdom.
The thing that makes these animals so interesting is that they basically developed on a completely separate evolutionary branch from all mammals and birds. Our common ancestor is thought to be a worm-like creature in the Cambrian period 600 million years ago.. For contrast our common ancestor with monkeys is thought to be about 5-7 million years ago. This is why Godfrey-Smith thinks Octopus and co are the closest thing to aliens we might ever interact with. If they are indeed conscious, then they are almost certainly conscious in a way that is fundamentally different than us. COOL! That is not guaranteed, for example the octopus eye is shockingly similar to ours (though thought to be colorblind which is wild given the HDTV skin), so independent evolutionary processes can end up producing similar features (even underwater), but from my (admittedly basic) understanding of cephalopods, their minds are very much unique. Based on a whole host of environmental factors which you can read about in the book if you want, octopi developed insanely complex nervous systems. They have about 500 million neurons, or about 30 thousands times as many as the mollusk, and about as many as some monkeys. Still less than our 80+ billion neurons, but significant. Even crazier, some neurons are partly concentrated in a “brain” like area, but the rest are spread all through the body. So when a curious octopus friend touches you with his tentacle, he is actually tasting and feeling you in a strangely intimate way. If an octopus loses a tentacle, that tentacle still has the ability to independently react to external stimuli.
So this all leads to the grand question of consciousness. In philosophy world this question usually gets broke up into two parts:
A. The Consciousness Question: Are other minds (in this case animals and specifically cephalopods) conscious?
B. The Phenomenological Question: Can we actually understand that experience?
Question A is tough because humanity has not even agreed upon a universal framework for understanding our own consciousness, so trying to define that clearly and then apply it to others is nearly impossible. In humans the understanding is that we first developed an internal coordination system to coordinate actions between our own organs. Over the course of million years, this internal coordination system evolved to include some sense of cause and effect. This ability to understand cause and effect out of subjective experience is what would eventually build the foundation for our consciousness. Interesting side bar, it is assumed that a big jump for us was the development of complex language. Our own internal monologue is generally funneled through language, so we understand consciousness and language to be closely linked (philosophy of language is super fun and worth reading about). That said, one proxy we typically use for consciousness in others is whether an organism is aware of actions they are engaging in, and the purpose of said actions. Many of the consciousness tests run on animals are testing for this. While I am not familiar enough with the research to say conclusively where cephalopods land on these tests, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s preponderance of evidence seems to imply that the answer to question A is yes so I am going to default to him on this one.
Question B is a lot tougher, and a lot more interesting. In some ways, question A might be irrelevant. Their completely separate evolution path might mean that the subjective experience of an octopus is so fundamentally foreign (a la Arrival) from our own that trying to ascribe our own understanding of consciousness is not even worthwhile. Question B becomes even more relevant in that situation. Essentially we are saying that even if our definitions of consciousness don’t apply, we still want to understand the conscious experience of an octopus. This is where the language question becomes relevant. Humans rely on language to interface with our own consciousness, and we have no indication that cephalopods have language as we conceive of it. They can signal with their body positioning and possibly their skin coloring, but so far we only know they interact with physical actions like jabbing or playing. None of this is indicative of an internal monologue. Second, as far as we know, the individual tentacles, while generally being part of a central coordinated system, still have some autonomy. Can we conceive of a semi-autonomous limb? I personally have a tough time imagining my food acting independently, but obviously plenty of actions (like breathing) happen subconsciously so who knows.
I could go on for a while. I really like this stuff. However, it is pretty clear that we end with more questions than answers, so Ill end with one of my favorite quotes ever ever from Virginia Woolf, “Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”
Rough translation being the idea that all of the most beautiful/powerful aspects of the human experience are just sensations that are fed into our consciousness. Pretty cool stuff.
Postscript: Another cool thread in this book is about how some chimps have only four sounds and yet they are able to have and understand immensely complex and rich social relations. On the flip side, cuttlefish could feasibly communicate in ways more rich than most humans, yet live exceptionally anti-social lives. Weird.. Oh and also most (not all) octopi live only a few years and die after a single reproductive cycle despite their “expensive” nervous systems. Contrasting this with a tree is headache inducing. Aging is crazy and might end up being a whole new post down the road.