Saturday, January 21, 2012

Of Octopuses and Nirvana

Australian radio program The Philosopher's Zone is one of my two favorite podcasts, and recently they ran a show called How Do Octopuses Think that provides a fascinating discussion of animal cognition and consciousness.

Guest Peter Godfrey-Smith on octopi:
It's probably the closest we'll get to meeting an intelligent alien. So as you said a few minutes ago, if we think about the animals that we normally interact with, that we think of as reasonably intelligent and perhaps having a kind of inner life, for animals like cats and dogs, chimps, dolphins also, these are all our cousins really, in evolutionary terms. So they're all - if we look at the common ancestor that we share with those animals, we're going back a fair way, and if we include birds we're going back quite a way to about 300 million years.

But if we then ask about our relatedness to the only intelligent invertebrates, the cephalopods, we're going back much, much further, perhaps 600 million years, really to the dawn of complex animal life. And since that time, our evolutionary paths have been quite independent. If you go back to that point and look in the sea at an animal that is both an ancestor of us and an ancestor of octopuses, it'll be a tiny little grub, swimming in the ocean with a very simple nervous system, nothing like the sort of complex behaviours of familiar intelligent animals.

So you have a sort of forking of the evolutionary path, you have a forking of the ways and down one path you get to us with one track of nervous system evolution, and down a wholly independent path you get this sort of outpost, or this island of intelligence among the invertebrates, which is the cephalopods.
The show goes on to discuss how the centrality of a nervous system influences cognition in animals, access versus phenomenal consciousness, and current thoughts on whether animals possess a feeling or self-awareness of being.

I'm a complete dilettante in discussions of science or spirituality, so any of my pet theories like the one I'm about to describe should be looked upon with the kindly condescension that you afford to the greeter offering you a shopping cart at WalMart.

Yet I've always been interested in the notion of reincarnation as an upwardly mobile activity where the consciousness or spirit is achieving higher and higher states of spiritual being or cognition. And it always seemed to me, in whatever I've seen or read about intelligent sea life, especially the cephalopods, that they represent the higher castes of spiritual being aspired to by the holy folks in those traditions.

If there was a fork in the road in the evolution of spiritual cognition as well as animal biology, I think a story can be spun that the common ancestors you and I share were driven towards a materially motivated consciousness. Whereas the thread that stayed in the oceans evolved their higher intelligence and cognition in a way that resembles the state of intelligent being that is not concerned with material needs. Are the oceans nirvana, or as close as we come in the physical world? Who knows, but I sure get a sense of spiritual awe whenever I see footage of those translucent floating brains living deep, deep under the ocean, or of angry squids attacking an overly inquisitive science documentary submarine for disturbing its reality.

Anyway, this podcast isn't about that, but it inspires thought on the philosophical nature of animal consciousness and how we fit into that spectrum that can open a door to this kind of spiritual speculation if you want it to. It also is fun science if you're not into any of this hippy mystic shit. Either way - good listening.

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