Short works

Books : reviews

Peter Godfrey-Smith.
Theory and Reality: an introduction to the philosophy of science.
University of Chicago Press. 2003

How does science work? Does it tell us what the world is “really” like? What makes it different from other ways of understanding the universe? In Theory and Reality, Peter Godfrey-Smith addresses these questions by taking the reader on a grand tour of one hundred years of debate about science. The result is a completely accessible introduction to the main themes of the philosophy of science.

Intended for undergraduates and general readers with no prior background in philosophy, Theory and Reality covers logical positivism; the problems of induction and confirmation; Karl Popper's theory of science; Thomas Kuhn and “scientific revolutions”; the views of Imre Lakatos, Larry Laudan, and Paul Feyerabend; and challenges to the field from sociology of science, feminism, and science studies. The book then looks in more detail at some specific problems and theories, including scientific realism, the theory-ladenness of observation, scientific explanation, and Bayesianism. Finally, Godfrey-Smith defends a form of philosophical naturalism as the best way to solve the main problems in the field.

Throughout the text he points out connections between philosophical debates and wider discussions about science in recent decades, such as the infamous “science wars.” Examples and asides engage the beginning student; a glossary of terms explains key concepts; and suggestions for further reading are included at the end of each chapter. However, this is a textbook that doesn’t feel like a textbook because it captures the historical drama of changes in how science has been conceived over the last one hundred years.

Like no other text in this field, Theory and Reality combines a survey of recent history of the philosophy of science with current key debates in language that any beginning scholar or critical reader can follow.

Peter Godfrey-Smith.
Other Minds: the octopus and the evolution of intelligent life.
William Collins. 2016

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 5 August 2023

What if intelligent life on Earth evolved not once, but twice? The octopus is the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien. What can we learn from the encounter?

Otber Minds tells a bold new story of how nature became aware of itself – a story that largely occurs in the ocean, where animals first appeared. Tracking the mind’s fitful development from unruly clumps of seaborne cells to the first evolved nervous systems in ancient relatives of jellyfish, it explores the incredible evolutionary journey of the cephalopods. But what kind of intelligence do they possess? How did the octopus, a solitary creature with little social life, become so smart? What is it like to have eight tentacles that are so packed with neurons that they virtually ‘think for themselves’?

By tracing the question of inner life back to its roots and comparing human beings with our most remarkable animal relatives, Godfrey-Smith casts crucial new light on the oct0pus mind and on our own.

Godfrey-Smith tells of the evolution of the cephalopods, creatures very alien to us, but also amazingly intelligent. The octopus and cuttlefish are two of this group, with a range of bizarre behaviours.

Apart from its beak, the octopus has essentially no hard body parts, so there are very few constraints on its movements, and it can squeeze through tiny gaps. Each of its eight arms has an array of sensors, and a nervous system so complex it is like a secondary brain. Indeed, there is more brain power in its arms combined than in its head, and the arms seem to have a lot of independent behaviour: if your brain is “you”, then an octopus has a very distributed “self”. They are tragically short-lived, but seem to be more social than previously thought.

The cuttlefish is famous for its ability to signal complex patterns with colours on its skin, yet it is colour-blind. However, it is not as simple as that: cuttlefish can also “see” with the layers of chromatophores in their skin; making particular colours with higher level chromatophores changes the response of ones in deeper layers. This may be why cuttlefish flare patterns of different colours over their skin when not specifically signalling: they may be using the response to this changing skin colour to actively “see” different colours in their environment.

Godfrey-Smith weaves all these fascinating facts about these strange creatures with discussions of consciousness and intelligence in general, emphasising the importance of the sensori-motor loop in animal behaviours. He also describes his life among the octopus, scuba diving to observe and get to know a small colony. A fascinating look into a very different intelligence.

Peter Godfrey-Smith.
Metazoa: animal minds and the birth of consciousness.
William Collins. 2020

The scuba-diving philosopher and bestselling author of Other Minds is back, exploring the origins of animal consciousness.

Dip below the ocean’s surface with Peter Godfrey-Smith and marvel at the appearance of the first animal body form over half a billion years ago – a profound innovation that set life upon a new path. Then follow the ways that evolutionary developments – eyes that track, bodies that move through and manipulate the environment – shaped all animal life. Exploring the evolutionary paths of a glass sponge, soft coral, banded shrimp, octopus and fish, then moving onto land and the world of insects, birds and primates like ourselves, Metazoa gathers these stories together to bridge the gap between matter and mind and address one of the most important philosophical questions: what is the origin of consciousness?