Interviewed by Thomas Spiteri
Photo by Dan Boud
~ 30 minute read
NB: This interview has been transcribed and abridged from an audio version
Peter, thanks for sitting down with me today. To start, perhaps you could introduce yourself, your interests, and what you work on?
I’m Peter Godfrey-Smith, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at University of Sydney. I work mostly in the philosophy of science, very broadly understood, and also in the philosophy of mind. I think philosophers shouldn’t specialise too much, so I try to have — well, I just naturally tend to have— other interests as well. I have a long standing interest in pragmatism, some parts of metaphysics and epistemology. And I’m currently beginning to think systematically about some questions around environmental ethics and policy topics in that area. The reason for that is that I’m working on the third of a series of books: the first book, Other Minds, was mostly about cephalopods as important animals, and as telling us something about the evolution of the mind. The second book, Metazoa, was a broader treatment of animals in general – the animal kingdom looked at philosophically. The third book in that series is going to be a book about our place on Earth as a whole, not just animal life. That is going to involve thinking about policy questions, as well as other kinds of questions. So, I’m currently exploring some things around farming, animal welfare, the future of human animal interactions, and environmental topics.
That’s what I’m doing at the moment. It’s been a long journey to get to that point. I started off studying at the University of Sydney, so I’ve now come back to where I was an undergraduate. I turned up in 1983, not sure what I was going to do, but interested in philosophy to some extent, and was very struck by the intellectual atmosphere, in particular in the Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy, one of the two departments that were spawned by a split in Sydney philosophy that occurred in the 1970s. I ended up doing sequences in both departments, in the Traditional and Modern Philosophy (“T&M”) department and in the General Philosophy department, which was the politically more left wing and more continentally oriented department. But T & M, the department headed by [David] Armstrong, was the place I really found an intellectual home. It had an amazing intellectual atmosphere, with people like Kim Sterelny, Michael Devitt, and others.
When I was there I was doing philosophy of mind, primarily; naturalistic philosophy of mind. My honours thesis and my PhD dissertation were both in that area. I then broadened out into philosophy of science, worked in the US for most of my career, and I’ve now come back. As I was saying, I have now a quite broad project going on, with this trio of books around animal life, the mind-body problem, and the place of humans on Earth.
If we can go back and consider your impressions as a student, what was the philosophical culture like in Sydney at that time? Was there a tension or were there different expectations between these two philosophy departments?
When I turned up in 1983, the two departments were completely split, completely separate, and there wasn’t much traffic at all between them. You come out of high school, you know you want to do philosophy, but before you’ve done any philosophy, you have to decide which of the two first year courses you’re going to do; which of the two departments you’ll do first year in. Most students went for the department of General Philosophy, which was the department that had been spawned by anti Vietnam war activism, by the rise of feminism in philosophy, by the influence of new continental, especially French, themes in philosophy – Foucault, Derrida, etc. Most students went that way, it had its own very interesting culture. I went for the other one, Traditional and Modern. This was partly because during orientation day – literally the first day of my university experience – Kim Sterelny, now professor at ANU, was the guy who was on the desk for the T & M philosophy department. We pretty much became instant friends, and stayed friends ever since. He was my tutor for the first part of my time in T & M. Now, I knew I had some interest in that style of philosophy. I’d read some Bertrand Russell in high school, I’d read Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach as well, and I could tell that those were the sorts of things I’d be continuing with by going into the Traditional and Modern side of the split. But it really was a weird experience to turn up out of high school having done no philosophy, and have to make a choice between two things that were called philosophy departments, but that in a somewhat deliberate way had next to no contact with each other. There were almost no bridging people at that time, between the two. The Department of Traditional and Modern philosophy was smaller, as I say – there were many more students in General Philosophy. But Traditional and Modern philosophy had a very strong staff : David Armstrong, I mentioned Michael Devitt, Keith Campbell, David Stove, Kim Sterenly, though he left after a couple of years, and a number of others, people who aren’t remembered as much, but were very good philosophers, people like Michael McDermott. There were a couple of things that made it a great place to do philosophy. One, which several of the people I’ve mentioned – Armstrong, and Devitt, and Sterelny – were particularly good at is —and it sounds a little crazy in retrospect, but it was absolutely the case— they gave you the sense that we right now are doing philosophy that might matter a lot. The stuff that we’re doing right now in this undergraduate class, is pushing at these problems in a way that might turn out to be consequential. We’re there in the front lines, and there’s nothing stopping us from solving this problem if we think about it hard enough. This, of course, is an incredibly attractive intellectual atmosphere to have around oneself – the sense of the reality and importance of what was going on. That was very good.
It also had a tremendously good social life. I do miss the kinds of social lives that existed around the Australian departments back then. They’ve obviously been degraded by COVID, enormously, but even before that, they had changed quite a lot. Back then there used to be morning teas once a week; there were quite frequent parties that were fairly raucous affairs going very late into the evening; the Russellian Society had talks, often quite important talks— people like David Lewis were quite often the speakers at these things – and then it would become a party. That social side blended thoroughly with intellectual work. It stayed philosophical, but had a freewheeling, very appealing character to it. So there was the sheer quality of the department – it was a very strong group of philosophers. There was the fact that a number of them gave the impression that we could, if we just work hard enough for the next couple of hours, actually solve things— which was great for students. And then the social life around it. There were also a lot of very good students who went through around the same time. People like Rae Langton (she was a year or so ahead of me), Fiona Cowie, the Stoljars — Natalie and Daniel Stoljar — and other people of that calibre coming through. I also took a fairly full sequence of courses in the other department, General Philosophy. So I learned some continental philosophy from people like Paul Crittenden and Elizabeth Grosz, as well as doing what I was doing in Traditional and Modern. But my primary focus and my allegiance was to the T&M side of the split.
So if we can think of the experience of you sort of “falling for” philosophy – wanting to do philosophy – could you locate that “switch moment”? Or was it a kind of gradual unfolding?
I had done a bit in high school, as I said, and also in the months between high school and university I’d read more. I vaguely suspected, though, that I might do English literature, more than philosophy. I had a strong literary interest in high school, I had amazing English teachers and I found that very inspiring. Also, I was officially an Arts-Law student— there was a pretty good chance that I would just do the Arts stuff for a while and then become a lawyer. I’m from a family of lawyers. They didn’t put any pressure on me at all, but it was a natural looking pathway. So I turned up with an expectation. Probably halfway through the first year, though, it was starting to look like philosophy was going to be my main interest and possibly a future. T&M back then also had a lot of very good American visitors. Bill Lycan came out in my first year and Stephen Stich a year or so after that, and they were very encouraging — Stich in particular. It’s one thing to like doing philosophy; it’s a different thing to think that you might actually make a living at it eventually. And Sydney seemed somewhat further from the world centres back then than it did now. But the Americans, as well as the Australians, were quite encouraging. They said, “there’s no reason why you couldn’t go on”. So it wasn’t really that gradual, but not really a jump, either. By the end of my first year, I was pretty sure that I would do philosophy.
Right, okay. So you come to the end of your undergraduate studies: do you feel this pressure to study abroad? I think today, at least from my perspective, a lot of students in Australasia feel that pressure. If you want to go on to sort of be a competitor in the field, in terms of finding a job, there seems to be some idea that it would help with that.
I wouldn’t call it pressure, it just looked like an appealing thing to do. It looked like a natural next step. There were some people who stayed around more locally, but I was interested in the contemporary American style of philosophy of mind —the cognitive science influenced style. Without experiencing it as pressure, it just seemed like an appealing thing to do a PhD in the US. I went to UCSD, a very naturalistic, very cog-sci oriented department, rather than one of the sort of more standard departments like Princeton or Harvard, partly because I did want to pursue those particular sorts of questions. I ended up working with Philip Kitcher, who was an excellent advisor.
And have you had any formal scientific training?
Not very much. What I have is a backwards education; I did tons of philosophy as an undergraduate. One of the quirks of that system, where you had two philosophy departments, was that they counted as totally separate subjects. I could do both of them and that would fulfil various distribution requirements— it was as if I was doing chemistry, or history, rather than another kind of philosophy. Because I was so interested in philosophy, I did tons of both kinds of philosophy. I finished my undergraduate degree not knowing much science at all, not knowing much of what a lot of people who’ve done a well rounded university degree know. So when I went to the US, I did quite a bit of coursework in biology at UCSD. Quite a few evolution courses, animal behaviour courses, and some neuroscience courses. I sat in on mathematics classes: didn’t take them officially, but tried to get a bit of mathematics under my belt that way. I was doing some of this in reverse; I was going to undergraduate classes that many people would have done as a matter of routine as undergraduates, and I was going to them while I was doing my PhD.
That’s really interesting. So then, at the end of all these classes, both undergraduate and graduate studies, does a favourite or highlight class come to mind?
During the last year of my PhD, I went to spend a year in Richard Lewontin’s lab at Harvard. Lewontin, who died a few years ago, was one of the big evolutionary theorists and geneticists of the latter part of the 20th century, a very important biologist. For decades he had philosophers come and spend time in his lab, just to hang out. He liked talking to philosophers, he liked the idea of philosophers of science picking up what was going on around labs like his. I did that in 1990 to ‘91 – Philip Kitcher set it up for me – and that whole year was amazing. The lab was another incredible environment. And although this will sound a little unusual, some classes that I remember well were the introductory statistics classes that Lewontin taught at 8:30 in the morning, one of the terms I was there. I would trudge through the snow to get to a cold lecture hall at 8:30 am to hear these introductory statistics classes. The reason they were so amazing is the fact that Lewontin would simultaneously introduce the basic, familiar statistical tests, and cover them in philosophy and history – in reflection on epistemology, basically. “Here we are observing small fragments of the world, in our samples and the results of our tests; how can we hope to draw conclusions about the unobserved part of the world?” It was like a giant Humean adventure, doing statistics with Richard Lewontin. I do remember those classes extremely vividly.
But, it’s a hard question to answer because I had so many excellent philosophy teachers, people like Michael Devitt and Kim Sterelny and David Armstrong. I would not want to downplay their pedagogical prowess by mentioning a statistics class as my great memory of those years. But it really did stay with me. Lewontin was a practical scientist; he wanted to get things done. But he had an intense philosophical interest. He was always wondering what we can know, and what sort of reliability we can aspire to in our reasoning. To see that combination of the practical and the more abstract philosophical side of things unfold in the course of a term, with this giant of biology delivering lectures, really was unforgettable.
Okay, you come to the end of your studies, you defend your thesis, what’s next?
Well, I thought I would come back to Australia. I applied for and did not get a job in Australia. I applied for some jobs in America, and got a job at Stanford, as my first job, and that was a wonderful thing to happen. All through this time, I thought I would stay in America for some small number of years – three years perhaps, then three more years and a few more years. I ended up staying for about 28 years, with lots of excursions back, so quite a bit longer than had been planned. I went to Stanford as my first job and spent 12 years in that department.
Maybe you can walk us through the evolution of your thinking over that 28 year period, and up until now. How, for you, have some of the subjects you work changed over this period? For example, the concept of consciousness.
My honours thesis at Sydney and my PhD were both in philosophy of mind. Not primarily about consciousness and things like that, but the intentionality side, and broader questions about what kind of role minds have in the world. The work of Dretske and Millikan – especially Millikan – got me thinking in evolutionary terms, in biological ways. Millikan was probably the philosopher who I devoted most time and effort to in this early period. I was fairly obsessed with her 1984 book, and spent a lot of time thinking about the picture in that book. That’s an evolutionary picture, so I got interested in evolution through the philosophy of mind. But when I got to Stanford, partly because of the nature of the job that I was hired to do, partly because of the year I’d spent with Lewontin at Harvard and also the time I’d spent with Philip Kitcher, I began to do a lot more philosophy of biology, thinking about evolutionary theory in its own terms, not so much as a tool to help with questions in the philosophy of mind. I began a collaboration with Ben Kerr, a biologist, who’s now at University of Washington. He was a grad student at Stanford when I was there, and he’s the most extraordinarily brilliant man. We wrote a bunch of papers together about evolution, which I found a great opportunity. There’s a whole side of my professional work that was developed initially at Stanford, largely focused on the nature of evolutionary theory, natural selection, the way that natural selection figures in explanations of various kinds —that sort of thing.
I always did a little bit of philosophy of mind on the side, but I didn’t have that much to say about it. Well, I had stuff to say about some things. I wrote a bit about the intentionality side – the nature of content, the possibility of giving a naturalistic theory of mental content, I did some of that and a few other things. But with respect to the classic mind-body problem, and what people now refer to as a problem of consciousness in the broad sense, I didn’t have a lot to say about it for a long time. It was on the back burner, not really a focus of my thinking. Then I got interested in some particular animals — octopuses and other cephalopods— as a consequence of doing a lot of scuba diving. That led to the book Other Minds, the octopus book. That was a transformative thing in its own right. I enjoyed working on that book enormously. It did well, and it gave me opportunities to think about different things and speak to different sorts of audiences. The way it went was that I encountered these animals in the sea, began thinking about their complexity and their peculiar behaviour, and questions that led back to the mind-body problem, in classic form, just became inescapable. What is going on inside this animal? How could I know what was going on inside this animal? Is it possible to be a dualist If you think that lots of non-human animals have various simple forms – or glimmers, or shades – of conscious experience? How is the mind-body problem transformed by close attention to animals very far from us? And by close attention to the evolutionary process that must have led to what we see around us in animals now. That led back to classic mind-body problem considerations. The second book in that series, the book Metazoa, is largely about the mind-body problem and its relationship to animal life.
So, you’re having these interactions with these intelligent, conscious creatures, and it’s informing the way you think about philosophical issues. Could you possibly unpack the epistemological experience you’re having with these animals and your process of understanding. Is going into or returning to the water philosophically driven? Are you going away from these interactions sort of meditating on the making-sense process of all this, i.e., taking a kind of meta perspective on the back and forth of spending time in the water with individual animals, and then going back to the larger mind-body related questions?
Maybe not, actually. Maybe not. The way it worked was I began coming back to Australia a bit more often than I had been, and bought a tiny unit in Manly, near the water in Sydney. I began spending lots of time in the water. There’s a marine reserve right there — this was a matter of luck; it was only fairly recently, around 2003, that this marine reserve was established. This is Cabbage Tree Bay Aquatic Reserve. It’s an amazing place. There’s incredible life there now that never used to be when I was a kid – it had been fished out completely. Now it’s a spectacular reserve. I happened to have bought a vacation place near it, and began spending a lot of time in one particular patch of water. Firstly, snorkelling, and then scuba diving. If you spend a lot of time in one bit of water, you start to get to know who’s there; you get to know the different kinds of animals, and in some cases, get to know individual animals. There was a period when I was visiting individual giant cuttlefish week after week, and trying to work out who was who, trying to understand their behaviour. That process was not philosophically driven; it was just interesting. It was very interesting to have a much more intense contact with a particular group of animals than I ever had before — even though I’d been doing philosophy, biology, and philosophy of mind, to some extent, for years and years. So the experiences just drove it, and then it’s inevitable to reflect a little and think: right, these animals – the octopuses and that giant cuttlefish that I’m interacting with – these are mollusks. Their relatives are oysters and clams. They’re nothing like a human – not much even like a fish. They’re very, very different sorts of beings from the familiar animals that we might interact with and feel that we know. Then the evolutionary picture presents itself: you have the tree of life, you have these ancient divergence events that link us and ants, dogs, and octopuses by various kinds of relationships of common ancestry. The shape of the tree is very interesting, once you start to think about it. An octopus is a pretty smart, complicated animal, and the common ancestor, the most recent common ancestor that we share with his animal, lived a long time ago in the history of animal life, something like 570 or 600 million years ago. I was taking a lot of photos, and the book Other Minds I initially thought of as largely a photo book, rather than a prose book with some philosophy in it. But the interest of the topic just took over. That’s how it went. I didn’t actually do much meta-theoretic reflection of the kind that you were asking about – where one might think: what is the relationship between familiar kinds of philosophical work and this encounter-based process, these encounters with animals? I didn’t think that much about that. After the fact, I think I’ve learned some things from it. One thing I think about a bit at the moment is: if you study zoology, if you learn about animals just from books and papers, and read the reports of what’s going on with animal behaviour and animal cognition, you get a certain picture of what’s going on. If you spend lots of time with particular animals, my impression has been that everything is much more of a mess than it looks in the literature. Everything is more chaotic; there’s just a lot more noise, there’s more going on. There’s a kind of cleaning-up process that the scientific literature inevitably engages in. I think it’s in some ways a bit inevitable that you do that when you write scientific work. It is true that when I write about octopuses, in the empirical things that I’ve written, I try not to do too much clean-up. I try to let the messiness of the situation remain on the page. But I’ve come to be aware of the difference between wild nature itself and wild nature as presented in articles and books, which has to do with this distinction between the chaotic nature of what’s going on, and the somewhat cleaned-up, organised picture that we’re presented with. That’s a kind of post hoc reflection on the relationship between the two. But I think the right answer to your question is I didn’t think that much about the “meta” question that you’re asking about.
Let’s pick back up on consciousness if that’s okay. First could you start with defining consciousness and how you’re thinking about it?
I think the word “consciousness” has changed its meaning in philosophy and in related areas of science over the last 30 odd years, in a way I think of as a little bit unhelpful. When I was a student at Sydney, people talked about three big problems in philosophy of mind: qualia, consciousness and intentionality, they were three things that you might choose to work on. Nowadays, consciousness and qualia are often treated together, under the term “phenomenal consciousness.” You are phenomenally conscious if your experiences have qualia, or something like that – there’s a very tight relationship between them. I don’t much like the broadening of the term. But it’s not that big a deal. A standard way of gesturing towards the problem we get from Thomas Nagel, the idea that you’re conscious if there’s something it’s like, or something it feels like, to be you. I think that’s a good gesture. I don’t think one wants to lean too hard on it, but it’s a good gesture at the problem. So in one sense of the word “conscious,” you’re conscious if there’s something that it feels like to be you. That would have been described 30 or 40 years ago, in terms of the presence of qualia, rather than consciousness – consciousness was taken to be something more sophisticated – maybe a vague term, encompassing a bunch of things, but centrally, something that might, for example, be understood in terms of higher-order perception or higher-order thought. The higher-order theories of consciousness are most naturally understood as theories of consciousness in the older sense, I think — and some people occasionally remark on this. But there’s been a kind of shift, where the word “consciousness” is now used in a very broad way, so that you’re conscious if there’s something it feels like to be you, and that’s equivalent to qualia being present. People still offer higher order theories of that thing, as well, but I think I think of that as a less plausible way of developing those theories. Anyway, I think the Nagel formula is fine, as a first way of getting into the problem. And then what we have to work out is which systems on Earth are such that there’s something it’s like to be them? Is it just their physical nature that is responsible for this? Is there something more than the physical involved? Is there a dependence on a particular kind of hardware, so that you have to be made of cells or have to be alive? Or could a computer or other artificial system be conscious in that sense? That orientation to the problem is guided quite a bit by that Nagel formula. It’s not perfect, but it’s a natural way in.
I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on how best to make epistemic progress on addressing these questions today. For instance, today, science is very much informed by computation, modelling, data collection, and simulation— in silico science. For example, when applied to consciousness and the brain, a position held by some cognitive scientists might say something like: “if we squeeze out all the complexity from the system, one eventually reaches its essence. And then and only then we can understand the brain” . So, if we extract all the data we can from the brain — track the neurons, the glial cells, everything— we can better make predictions, simulate, model, and we can therefore best understand consciousness. What are your views on an approach like this?
There are two roles (at least) for computers and those in silico systems. Some of the time, they are just scientific tools. You are using a computer as a scientific tool, along with data of various kinds, and theoretical ideas, and so on. As a naturalistic philosopher, I am certainly fine with that. Computers are great tools for modeling, for asking how a complex system of a certain kind might behave. Then you have a side where the computer is supposed to have another role, when the in silico system is supposed to be an alternative realization of what might be going on within, for example, a brain. That is a big extra step, and in some ways I am a bit skeptical about those projects, at least in their present forms. I am more wary of some “strong AI” projects than a lot of other philosophers are. This is because, although I am of course an amateur observer of neuroscience, and should not be too confident, I do have a take on what seems to be happening there. I think that features of nervous systems other than the familiar relay-like operation of neurons – this neuron’s firing makes this other neuron fire, and so on – seem to be becoming more important than people had expected. There’s a steadily increasing role for the “other” parts of the brain and the other activities that go on there. There are physical peculiarities of nervous systems that are different from the sorts of things usually included in computational models. In some circumstances, that does not matter at all. You can model part of what is going on, and this can be very informative. But the distinction between simulating a system and providing a kind of realisation – an alternative, physical realisation of what’s going on within it – is, I think, an important distinction that computational people sometimes don’t worry about as much as they should. You can have a high quality computer simulation of the weather, but it’s not weather; it’s a set of computational processes that you can use to answer various questions about what would happen in a weather system – if these conditions were in place, here’s what would occur. Now on the broader epistemological question, I think that with the mind-body problem, and its relationship to empirical discoveries, I don’t think there’s any sort of quasi-algorithmic summary of how to get to a true picture. I think it’s going to be a process where we just build gradually, from many directions at once. We learn more about how brains work, we learn more about the psychological or cognitive role of consciousness or experience itself, and we find a way to get past philosophical roadblocks and misconceptions by sort of pressing on those in the way that philosophers do. I’m quite optimistic about the whole situation. I don’t think it’s likely that we’ll never know, that we’ll never get an answer to these questions. I think we will. But I think we’ll get the answers through a kind of building from several directions towards a picture that makes sense of all the different kinds of evidence and considerations that are relevant here.
Okay, so perhaps some closing questions which we ask all the interviewees. Maybe you could tell us about a book or paper that had a particularly profound effect on your intellectual development, and that can be in any stage.
Let me describe an anecdote that is a kind of an answer, but in some ways is not an answer. If you ask most philosophers what work they most admire that’s been written in the last 80 years or something like that, Naming and Necessity would be a lot of people’s answer – Saul Kripke’s book. A lot of philosophers I know and admire think of Naming and Necessity as an extraordinary decisive move that unlocked so much, did so much. In my philosophical work, Naming and Necessity has just about no influence at all. I think of it mostly as something that has led to wrong turns. The over-factual treatment of modality, some views about language, stuff on the mind-body problem – I think of most of this as totally off-base. The book has almost no role, consciously at least, in my work. But when I was an undergraduate, in my second year, as I was becoming very interested in philosophy, Michael Devitt said, “Look, you should read Naming and Necessity”. I had some kind of really bad flu around that time, with a nasty fever, and I was in bed for a couple of days— some tropical-seeming feverish malady. I began reading Naming and Necessity, and I read the whole thing all the way through, amazed at how fantastic it was. Got to the end of it, went back to page one and read the whole thing again. It was the only time in my life I’ve done that with a philosophy book, or any other book. It’s only about 150 pages, but it’s still hard going in places. It’s a complicated book. I read the whole thing twice in this feverish state because I was so impressed — I was so impressed with the genius of the guy, the achievement and the clarity, that crystalline way that the book is written, the extraordinary communicative skills Kripke has on the page. Now, that was it for me and Naming and Necessity; I think the book is full of wrong turns, red herrings, all those sorts of things. But in terms of impact at the moment of reading, nothing has touched it.
Okay, the last question: Peter Godfrey-Smith, what’s your most controversial philosophical stance?
The ones that come to mind are kind of medium-sized, they’re not super-controversial. In a sense, I’m an inductive sceptic. I think that simple induction of the kind that philosophers have tried to isolate and describe and then show to be justified, is not justified. I think there are things in the vicinity of induction that are justified, but if you ask whether observing regularities gives you reason to believe that they’ll continue, or something like that, I say no. I think that, despite its disruptive character, a kind of inductive scepticism is roughly true. In a related vein, I do not believe in Occam’s Razor, at least in many versions that others accept. We might prefer simple theories over more complex ones for various reasons, but I don’t think that simplicity is, in a general way, any guide to truth. Some qualifications of this claim are discussed in the new edition of Theory and Reality; I do think simplicity is important in various ways in science. Simplicity preferences in philosophy I find especially problematic, though – for example, the idea that simpler metaphysical views are more likely, because of their simplicity, to be true.
Thank you, Peter. That was a great chat.
I really enjoyed the conversation.
You can see more of Peter’s work here