Exploring a Fascinating Universe of Different Kinds of Minds
An eye-opening new book decenters humans from being at the top of minded beings.
Posted July 8, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
I recently read a most thought-provoking book by award-winning science writer Philip Ball called The Book of Minds: How to Understand Ourselves and Other Beings, from Animals to AI to Aliens. Packed with loads of information on the behavior of animals representing diverse species—ranging from various mammals, including optimistic pigs and aesthetic dogs, to tool-making birds, bees and “hive minds,” intelligent alien octopuses, plants, machines, and other entities—this wide-ranging book is a gem. It opens up the door to a pluralistic view of what is a mind, that there isn’t one kind of mind in a wide range of nonhumans and other entities, that we’re not on top of the list of minded beings, and that there’s no reason to compare different kinds of minds to ours.1
Here’s what Philip had to say about his new book, an honest appraisal of what we know and don’t know and a nice follow-up to a discussion with James Bridle about his book, Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence.
Why did you write The Book of Minds?
Some years back, I was commissioned to write an article on AI for an American science magazine about efforts to peer inside the “black box” of how today’s AI works. The research which motivated that commission left me wanting to explore more deeply how AI “thinks.” But I found it frustratingly hard to find any experts who seemed able and willing to talk about these deeper issues. So I never wrote the piece but sat on the broader idea, wondering what to do with it.
One extremely useful bit of feedback I did get during that search was from Murray Shanahan, an AI expert at Imperial College London. Among other things, Murray directed me towards a 1984 paper by the computer scientist Aaron Sloman called “The structure of the space of possible minds.” The paper mooted the notion of an abstract “space” in which all the minds that we know of—humans (of various ages) and animals, and perhaps AI too—exist somewhere. It’s a conceptual space, the dimensions or coordinates of which can be used to quantify the different distinct features of minds—whatever those might be! It was a compelling idea, and Murray said that Sloman’s paper had had a strong influence on him. I contacted Aaron, now an emeritus professor, and had some extensive and interesting discussions—but I still had no clear idea of what to do with this stuff.
It did not fall into place until the summer of 2019, when I was an academic visitor at Harvard Medical School. I picked up a book at the local library called The Biological Brain by neuroscientist Alan Jasanoff—and suddenly realized that what I needed to do was to write a book that attempted to place Aaron’s “space of possible minds” in the context of modern work on cognition in humans and animals (and other living organisms), as well as emerging ideas about AI present and future. Given current debates about the status of both AI and animal minds and about the nature of consciousness, there has never been a more timely moment to explore this topic.
Who is your intended audience?
Anyone who is curious about the world and our place within it and the other entities, both natural and artificial, with which we share it.
What are some of the topics you weave into your book, and what are some of your major messages?
I guess my account of the book’s genesis gives a large part of my answer to this. I spend some time outlining how the human mind works and exploring current theories of consciousness and free will. I compare these features with what we know about the minds of other animals: primates, birds, bees, octopuses, and others. I emphasize that we need to understand minds in an evolutionary context: they are nature’s way of imbuing organisms with versatile, flexible and improvisational modes of behavior in unpredictable environments.
But I also consider how far such behaviors can be observed too in other organisms: plants, fungi, and bacteria. I explore the suggestion that life itself is basically a cognitive process and that all living things might be considered to have some degree of “mindedness” 2 I look at what we can say about the mindedness of today’s AI (which is almost certainly insensate), and whether machine consciousness will ever be possible. And I use these insights to explore what we can infer about the nature of the minds of possible extraterrestrial beings.
That might seem like an impossible question to answer, but if (as some think) all life in the universe is likely to be shaped by Darwinian evolution, we might anticipate some shared aspects between life on Earth and life on other worlds. I see how far this notion of minds beyond our world can be pushed by considering what we can meaningfully say about the mind of God as He/She is conceived in the theological tradition. (The answer, in all honesty, is that it is hard to see how “mind” can apply to such a God at all.)
How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?
Many of the issues I touch on—the human mind and how it works, the nature of AI, the minds of animals, the nature of consciousness—have been explored, often brilliantly, in other books.
Where perhaps my book differs is, first, that I try to outline a conceptual framework that encompasses all these things, and second, that I have no particular theory to push. I don’t believe we have good answers to many of the questions in these areas, and I want to be honest and open-minded about that.
Are you hopeful that as people learn more about the amazing minds of other animals, they will treat them with more respect and dignity?
I absolutely do hope that. Writing this book has filled me with admiration for the cognitive capacities of other animals. We have tried for too long to present ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution, as creatures with superior mental powers and, therefore, with unique status and rights. Humans can do amazing things, and our cultures and languages are unique in the living world. But we share this world with creatures that are equally astonishing and deserving of respect.
In conversation with Philip Ball. Most of his books are concerned with science in some form or another: its history, its interactions with the arts and society, its achievements, delights and detours. He is a regular columnist for several magazines and an occasional radio presenter and broadcaster. He was an editor of Nature for many years, and long ago, a chemist and physicist of sorts.
1) An excellent summary of this book also can be seen in an essay called "Animal magic: why intelligence isn’t just for humans: Meet the footballing bees, optimistic pigs and alien-like octopuses that are shaking up how we think about minds" in which we read snippets including: "If other animals behave like us, that’s no basis to assume that they do so for the same reasons and with the same experiences and mental representations of the world"; "The challenge, then, becomes finding a way of thinking about animal minds that doesn’t simply view them as like the human mind with the dials turned down: less intelligent, less conscious, more or less distant from the pinnacle of mentation we represent. We must recognize that mind is not a single thing that beings have more or less of. There are many dimensions of mind: the “space of possible minds"; Conceiving of a universe of possible minds can discourage human hubris, and advises erring on the side of generosity in considering the rights and dignity of other beings."
2) To what extent they have “sentience” is a difficult question, which we don’t yet really have the tools—experimental or conceptual—to answer.
Allen, Colin and Marc bekoff. Species of Mind: The Philosophy and Biology of Cognitive Ethology. MIT Press, 1997.
Dannett, Daniel C. Kinds Of Minds: Toward An Understanding Of Consciousness. Basic Books, 1997.