The Books We Reviewed

Lately I've been seeing "best books of 2017" lists online, including five best philosophy books.  I can't see making this sort of list, since my reading habits are way too idiosyncratic.  However, I can tell you what we reviewed in The Philosophers' Magazine this year.  I'll also tell you the philosophy book I most enjoyed reading this year.

Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Enlightenment
Jason Brennan, Against Democracy
Tommie Shelby, Dark Ghettos
Steven Patterson, Square One
Emrys Westacott, The Wisdom of Frugality
David Benatar, The Human Predicament
Peter Godfrey Smith, Other Minds
Einav Katan-Schid, Embodied Philosophy in Dance
Russell Blackford & Damien Broderick, Philosophy's Future
Massimo Pigliucci, How to Be a Stoic
Nick Riggle, On Being Awesome 

So the philosophy book I most enjoyed reading.... (drumroll) .... is Peter Godfrey Smith's Other MindsHere's the review I wrote for Issue 78:

Peter Godfrey Smith’s new book on cephalopods would be lovable for its metaphilosophy and beautiful writing if it said nothing interesting about the octopus.  “Philosophy is among the least corporeal of callings”, he writes.  “It is, or can be, a purely mental sort of life.  It has no equipment that needs managing, no sites of field stations.” Yet his project, he says, had a “bodily side”. He started studying cephalopods while spending time with them underwater, primarily at a site that he calls “Octopolis” on the east coast of Australia. His book is full of boats and diving, as well as biology and neuroscience, so is it really philosophy?  Sure!  “Doing philosophy is largely a matter of trying to put things together, trying to get the pieces of very large puzzles to make sense. Good philosophy is opportunistic; it uses whatever information and whatever tools look useful.”
            In fact, the book does say all sorts of interesting things about the octopus.  It covers their evolution, way of evading predators, lifespan, habitat, odd mating rituals, and incredibly cool colour-changing skin, but it’s especially about octopus minds (hence, the title).  Do they really have minds? Is there something it’s like to be an octopus? Smith divides the issue in two: wondering whether the octopus has mere sentience, and then wondering about more sophisticated, full-blown consciousness.
The first thing he says about the sentience question is that philosophers tend to think of sensation as driving action, and think too little about action driving sensation.  You don’t just receive sensations from this page; you turned the page a minute ago in order to acquire new sensations.  Apparently the fact that you’re the actor can make a difference to the resulting sensations, as he demonstrates with a fascinating example involving tactile vision substitution systems for the blind. The device converts camera images into skin vibrations, so that when a blind person uses the device, a dog in their environment is experienced as a pattern of skin sensations. What’s interesting is that when they actively seek sensations, having control over the camera, the dog is experienced as “out there”.  Acting, instead of just passively receiving, makes a difference.
 This emphasis on activity rather than passivity is also in play in several discussions of perceptual constancy.  For a cube to seem like it’s the same size, as you get closer to it, you’ve got to not just be a passive receiver of sense data, but process inputs with an awareness that you are an agent, getting closer.  Ingenious experiments show that the octopus also gets the cube size right. When researchers reward octopuses for discriminating between big and small cubes, the octopus doesn’t make the mistake of treating cubes as bigger just because they’re closer.  Could the active life of an octopus make the difference between insentience and sentience?  The suggestion is that this may be so, though Smith really does just suggest, not insist, and he also explores other possible harbingers of sentience, such as integration of multiple senses and coping with novelty.
            The most fascinating chapter of the book is about the coloration of the octopus and cuttlefish. One layer of their skin is composed of chromataphores, which contain cells filled with colored chemicals.  They are surrounded by muscles that are controlled by the animal’s brain.  Stretching the cell makes the color visible and relaxing it makes the color invisible. The chromataphores are controlled by a cephalopod’s brain, giving rise to the intriguing possibility that when the animal’s skin changes color or exhibits patterns, something about the octopus’s mental state is revealed.  But what?
            An intriguing possibility is that the octopus is “chattering” as they move around, constantly changing colors and patterns.  Could that be a sign of octopus consciousness?  Smith tells a long story about human consciousness that connects it to human speech.  When we speak, the brain has to treat the incoming sound as “just me”, not confusing self-produced sounds with sounds coming from “out there”.  It’s the same theme as before – brains have to keep track of their own agency, to appreciate whether a change is inside or outside.  But if there are internal “just me” memos being sent and received, there’s an inner, silent correlate of speech. Maybe that’s central to our capacity for sophisticated consciousness.  And so could octopus color chatter be a sign of consciousness too? Smith rejects the inference for a very a very simple reason.  We hear our own speech, so have to distinguish it from sounds coming from outside ourselves.  But the octopus doesn’t see its own skin color!  Smith speculates that humans have “a more complicated mind” and “Cephalopods are on a different road.”
But wait, we don’t see our cheeks when we blush, but blushing does reveal inner emotional changes.  It’s a possibility too delicious to give up quickly. It might feel like something to be an octopus making as if to be a rock, or trying to scare predators with a psychedelic skin pattern, or changing from gold to red.  It might be incredibly trippy to be an octopus.

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