Being the Octopus

Grabbing my attention because of an audio interview I did years ago with University of Louisville professor and evolutionary biologist Dr. Lee Dugatkin on Octopus cognition and perspective-taking (wait for the slider to load), the following paragraph describes why an understanding of the first-person experience is so easy to have and difficult to pin down.

On Being an Octopus

How do we approach questions about 'what it’s like' to be something or someone? One way of asking these questions makes them impossible to answer regardless of what minds might be made of. In this interpretation, to ask what it’s like to be a bat or an octopus is to ask for a description, given from a third-person point of view, that encapsulates the animal’s experience itself. But having an experience will always be different from having a description of it. This will be true if we are biochemical machines and true also if there is a soul-like extra ingredient in the world. A gap between a first-person and a third-person point of view arises either way.

Descriptions are not completely powerless, though, in helping us get a grip on what the experience of another might be like....

Getting a sense of what it feels like to be another animal—bat, octopus, or next-door neighbor—must involve the use of memory and imagination to produce what we think might be faint analogues of that other animal’s experiences.

What is being described is the "hard problem" of concioussness. It may be answerable to science, or it may not. But as I read the piece it occurred to me that the first-person experience, followed by a theory of mind - or the belief that other creatures like you are similarly endowed - would not only have required the imagination, but in some ancient and distant past virtually discovered it.

Stay curious.


Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by maureen lunn