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March 7, 2021

What Is It like to Be an Octopus?

A reading list on all things mind, brain, and consciousness.

In a 1974 paper on consciousness, the philosopher Thomas Nagel famously asked: What is it like to be a bat?

Nagel’s argument—that we are unable to explain consciousness in purely physical terms—has intrigued philosophers for decades, including many Boston Review contributors. In 2006, MIT philosophy professor Alex Byrne looked into this “consciousness conundrum” in-depth, considering Nagel’s position on the mind-body problem and additional responses from across the field—including David Chalmers’s dualistic “zombie” theory. “Consciousness has had philosophers hot and bothered ever since Nagel’s question,” Byrne writes. “But perhaps it’s easier to understand than we thought.”

Evolutionarily speaking, however, bats are our not so distant cousins. If we want to think about truly alien forms of being, then we will have to look further afield. Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith does just that in a noted Boston Review essay from 2013. “What is it like to be an octopus?” he asks. “As we explore the relations between mind, body, evolution, and experience, nothing stretches our thinking the way an octopus does.” In the spirit of Nagel, he chips away at the materialist opposition to questions about “what it’s like” to have a particular kind of mind, instead arguing that asking such questions is “part of the attempt to strike a balance between treating our minds as too mysterious to make scientific sense of at all, and treating them as less mysterious than they really are.”

Elsewhere in today’s reading list, we turn to other topics in the realm of the brain, mind, and consciousness. In an archival essay, cognitive scientist Gary Marcus claims that we’ve misunderstood the nature-nurture debate; Alex Byrne visits questions of self-knowledge and of color perception; philosopher Christian List argues that the science shows that the jury is still out on free will; and two essays get into the sticky world of intelligence as perpetuated by The Bell Curve. And while brain scans are ubiquitous and compelling, biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling argues that the “science is not.” She cautions us against making any behavioral inferences from them—especially when it comes to questions of justice and human potential.

Peter Godfrey-Smith

Nothing stretches our thinking about the mind the way an octopus does.

Alex Byrne
Understanding consciousness may be easier than we thought.
Michael E. Staub

Twenty-five years after The Bell Curve, debates about racial inequality continue to appeal to biology—on both sides.

Alex Byrne
Rebecca Saxe
How our brains help us understand other people.
Ned Block

Critics of The Bell Curve have attacked every point in the book—except the most important one.

Claude S. Fischer

The decades-long rise in IQs suggests that intelligence is not biologically fixed.

Anne Fausto-Sterling

Brain images are ubiquitous and compelling, but the science behind them is not.

Gary Marcus

Why we've misunderstood the nature-nurture debate.

Alex Byrne
Why some philosophers say we can’t.
Christian List
A growing chorus says that science has shown free will to be an illusion. But it actually has offered arguments in its favor.

Our weekly themed Reading Lists compile the best of Boston Review’s archive. Sign up for our newsletters to get them straight to your inbox before they appear online.

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