Peter Godfrey-Smith

Peter Godfrey-Smith is distinguished professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, and professor of the history and philosophy of science at Sydney University.

Do squid feel pain?

Peter Godfrey-Smith, 4 February 2016

The problem​ of explaining consciousness is the joint property of philosophy, psychology and neurobiology, though there have been times when none of these fields much wanted it. In philosophy, the mood in the middle years of the 20th century was to deny or dissolve the problem: if we just talked about everything more clearly, Wittgenstein and Ryle believed, we’d see there was no...

The Ant and the Steam Engine: James Lovelock

Peter Godfrey-Smith, 19 February 2015

The Earth’s​ atmosphere contains about 21 per cent oxygen. What would happen if it contained half, or twice, as much? With half as much, animals like us would struggle to move around and stay alive. Twice as much oxygen, on the other hand, would be wonderful to breathe, but terrestrial life would be consumed by fire; in an atmosphere that rich, even damp wood burns well, fires could...

Not Sufficiently Reassuring: Anti-Materialism

Peter Godfrey-Smith, 24 January 2013

The universe has woken up. If the scientific picture we currently have is right, this was an accident, roughly speaking, and also something that happened very locally. At various places some highly organised physical systems – living organisms – have become aware of the world they are part of. In a few cases they have also become aware of their awareness. These living systems are...

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini rehash an old argument, beloved of creationists, that Darwinism is empty because a property of organisms that the Darwinian says has a causal relation to reproductive success is also defined in terms of reproductive success (Letters, 22 July). Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini think that the Darwinian is committed to there being a causal relation between a trait’s...

It Got Eaten: Fodor v. Darwin

Peter Godfrey-Smith, 8 July 2010

In 1959 the psychological doctrine known as ‘behaviourism’ was at the peak of its influence. Pioneered in the early 20th century by Edward Lee Thorndike, Clark Hull and J.B. Watson, behaviourism rejected explanations of action in terms of mysterious inner processes such as ‘thought’ and tried to explain behaviour purely in terms of the organism’s conditioning by experience. By the middle of the century, the behaviourist approach had been developed in a detailed and radical form by B.F. Skinner. Skinner explained learning in terms of reinforcement: organisms produce novel behaviours spontaneously, and those that are positively reinforced are more likely to occur in similar circumstances in the future. This view, developed in work on rats and pigeons, was extended to cover human language in Skinner’s 1957 book Verbal Behaviour. A young linguist, Noam Chomsky, published a review of Verbal Behaviour two years later. It was perhaps the most devastating book review ever written.

Octopuses frustrate the neat evolutionary division between clever vertebrates and simple-minded invertebrates. Their intelligence is like ours, and utterly unlike ours. Octopuses are the closest we can...

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