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Theories of Theories of Mind

Theories of Theories of Mind, ed. by Peter Carruthers and Peter K. Smith, Cambridge University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-521-55916-2.

Cognitive studies is a lively area of study these days. This book is a very good book to read if you want to get a handle on what is going on. Be warned, however, that it is obnoxiously tedious in places.

The book is the product of an interdisciplinary workshop at the Heng Seng Centre for Cognitive Studies at the University of Sheffield. (Hang Seng Centre? Yes. It is funded by the Hang Seng Bank of Hong Kong.) The workshop brought together a group of philosophers and psychologists to confer on the subject of Theory of Minds. Most of the contributors are from departments in Academies in either philosophy or psychology. There are some outliers. Child studies and primate studies are represented. And then there is the cryptic David Klein is simply listed as “Wall Street, New York”. The conspiracy theorists might suspect that the financial powers that be (who dictate the content of science to their advantage) had a representative there.

The ordinary conference proceedings is a grab bag of papers which have almost no relationship to each other, other than being bound in the same book. This is not the case here – at the work shop the contributors talked to each and critiqued each others papers. The result is that this collection of papers has much more coherence than is the norm for conference proceedings.

“Theory of Mind” is a specific bit of jargon. You might think that it means a general theory of how minds are structured. It does not. It refers to people (and sentient beings generally) having the notion that other people have minds much like one’s own. Thus a being equipped with a theory of mind can understand that other beings have desires and beliefs and perceptions. Beings with a theory of mind have an understanding of how other beings think. Some people believe that humans are such beings. (These people do not read usenet postings.)

There seem to be four horses in the running. They are simulation, theory-theory, modules, and enculturation. The root idea of simulation is that we that we simulate other people. The root idea of theory-theory is that we have a theory about the psychology of other people. The root idea of modules is that we have a hard-wired module, i.e., our knowledge of other minds is predefined in the brain structure. Finally enculturation says that the theory is taught and depends on language.

All of these root ideas are old, rather obvious, and appear in pre-scientific literature. There is quite a bit of difference, though, between literary representations and the scientific approach with its emphasis on “the particulars” and verification by evidence.

And what kinds of evidence might that be? The adult human being is a formidable beast to study. Human beings routinely have a subtle understanding of their fellows and exist in a universe of incredible linguistic complexity. Not easy. Easier game are people who are acquiring a theory of mind (small children) and people who have a specific mental defect (autism and William’s syndrome). Also to be considered are our fellow primates.

There are a lot of subtleties to sort out – group attention, gaze following, imitation, desire theory, belief theory, false belief theory, pretense theory, pretense play, et cetera. A lot of the pyschological experiments focus on establishing on what capabilities are present when or, in the case of various forms of brain damage, what capabilities are lost together.

Here is an example of a basic “theory of mind” experiment. Two children see an experimenter put a doll in a box. One child leaves. The experimenter moves the doll to another box. The remaining child is then asked where the child who left thinks the doll is. Before a certain age the child being quizzed will say that the other child will think that the doll is in the box it is actually in, i.e., the box she knows it is in. Above the threshold age she realizes that the other child will believe it is in the original box.

Interpreting these experiments and designing them is not a simple matter and some of the papers in the book point out the problems of experimental design. This is particularly true in studies of other primates. It remains an open question whether chimpanzees are simply clever behaviourists or actually have a primitive theory of mind or even, more subtly, have a potential that can be developed and is not in the wild.

The book is divided into four major parts which are entitled “What is acquired – theory-theory versus simulation-theory”, “Modes of acquisition – theorising, learning, and modularity”, “Failures of acquisition – explaining autism”, and “Wider perspectives – evolution and theory of mind”. There is an impressive list of references and an excellent index.

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