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Not Sufficiently Reassuring

Peter Godfrey-Smith: Anti-Materialism, 24 January 2013

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False 
by Thomas Nagel.
Oxford, 130 pp., £15.99, November 2012, 978 0 19 991975 8
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... 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 ...

Do squid feel pain?

Peter Godfrey-Smith, 4 February 2016

Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts 
by Stanislas Dehaene.
Penguin, 336 pp., £11, December 2014, 978 0 14 312626 3
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... 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 issue ...

It Got Eaten

Peter Godfrey-Smith: Fodor v. Darwin, 8 July 2010

What Darwin Got Wrong 
by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini.
Profile, 262 pp., £20, February 2010, 978 1 84668 219 3
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... 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 ...

The Ant and the Steam Engine

Peter Godfrey-Smith: James Lovelock, 19 February 2015

A Rough Ride to the Future 
by James Lovelock.
Allen Lane, 184 pp., £16.99, April 2014, 978 0 241 00476 0
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... 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 be controlled, and the forests would disappear ...

The Sucker, the Sucker!

Amia Srinivasan: What’s it like to be an octopus?, 7 September 2017

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life 
by Peter Godfrey-Smith.
Collins, 255 pp., £20, March 2017, 978 0 00 822627 5
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The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness 
by Sy Montgomery.
Simon & Schuster, 272 pp., £8.99, April 2016, 978 1 4711 4675 6
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... closest we can come, on earth, to knowing what it might be like to encounter intelligent aliens. Peter Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher and diver who has been studying octopuses and other cephalopods in the wild, mostly off the coast of his native Sydney, for years. The alienness of octopuses, in his view, provides an opportunity to reflect on the nature ...

Thinking about Death

Michael Wood: Why does the world exist?, 21 March 2013

Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story 
by Jim Holt.
Profile, 307 pp., £12.99, June 2012, 978 1 84668 244 5
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... that ‘only’ mean? That was where they lived before. We need to put a little more pressure, as Peter Godfrey-Smith suggested recently in these pages (24 January), on our rather clunky ideas of what is ‘mental’ and what is ‘physical’. The question of our own being is related but different. ‘The astonishment I feel at my improbable ...

Our Cyborg Progeny

Meehan Crist: Gaia will save us. Sort of, 7 January 2021

Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence 
by James Lovelock.
Allen Lane, 160 pp., £9.99, July 2020, 978 0 14 199079 8
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... chemical nature of the planet, some may involve feedback that helps life itself to continue,’ Peter Godfrey-Smith wrote in the LRB of 19 February 2015. ‘If they come about, they do so as fortuitous by-products of the evolution of particular living things.’ Andrew Watson, the co-creator of Daisyworld, later distanced himself from Lovelock’s ...

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