Peering into other minds

Philip Ball breaks our narcissistic assumption that the world is ours first
September 8, 2022
The Book of Minds: How to Understand Ourselves and Other Beings, from Animals to Aliens
Philip Ball (RRP: £20)
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That even plants might have a degree of consciousness is one aspect of mind considered in Philip Ball’s wide-ranging new book. Some evidence: anaesthetics that work on animals also freeze the insect-consuming behaviour of plants such as the Venus Flytrap. Plants have messenger molecules very similar to those in the nervous systems of animals and are hence affected in the same way.

Peering into other putative minds—animal, plant, AI, alien—Ball breaks the narcissistic trap of our sapiocentrism, our default assumption that the world is ours first, and only later should we condescend to find a little space for the rest of creation.

Ball comes to common-sense conclusions on some of the most contentious issues. He defends free will against a barrage of assaults and rebuts the reliability of the Turing Test for computer intelligence. He argues that the ways that AI and the human mind work are totally different: humans are the product of four billion years of biological evolution and several hundred thousand years of cultural evolution. A disembodied brain cannot possess the symbolic resources of a mind. The notion of uploading the mind into digital storage is dismissed as a category error.

Ball deals equally coolly with the possibility of communicating with other minds in the cosmos—having recently learnt to message the universe after billions of years, why would we expect another life form suddenly to respond?

Ball is the laureate of curiosity and a one-stop source of wisdom. This book will teach you a lot about minds; but it will also make you marvel at the capacious and sagacious one possessed by its author.