Thursday 27 November 2008

Do animals need a ‘theory of mind’?

At this fortnight’s Uclan Philosophy research seminar Ian Ground (pictured), from the University of Sunderland, gave a paper called ‘Do animals need a ‘theory of mind’? to be published as a book chapter. The paper seemed to me to fall into two parts. First he argued that much work in animal cognition work which is used to argue for a theory of mind presupposes a background Cartesianiam. One revealing quote was:

That a mirror-educated chimpanzee immediately rubs off a spot on his forehead when he sees it in a mirror is not… clear evidence for self-awareness, at least in its usual sense… Our conscious selves are not our bodies… we do not see our conscious selves in mirrors. Gallup’s chimpanzee has [merely] learnt a point to point relation between a mirror image and his body, wonderful as that is. [Jaynes, J. (1978) ‘In a manner of speaking’ BBS 1: 578-9]

Ian recalled the Wittgensteinian claim that such implicit Cartesianism also structured its apparent polar opposite: behaviourism. He didn’t say it quite like this but the idea was that the description of behaviour that behaviourism took as the basis of an analysis of mindedness (the mind just being the behaviour) was what was left over on the bodily side of a Cartesian distinction between mind and body. (Then again, given how clumsy that sentence was, maybe it’s a good thing he didn’t put it like that!) Against this background, theory theory looks to be a necessary route from observable behaviour to unobservable mental states.

But, there is another option. If one denies the Cartesian divide between observable behaviour to unobservable mental states one can see that in behaviour mind can be expressed. (In the human case, it is usual, following Strawson, to start talking of the central role of the person at about this point.) So, Ian suggested, there’s no need to deploy theory theory either to grant that animals might have minds or to underpin their own ability to detect other minds. We can all get by by seeing others’ minds in their behaviours, including, eg, my cat Brix.

It was a bit surprising that in this account, no mention was made of McDowell, who has famously discussed the connection between Cartesianism and an impoverished conception of behaviour, given that he was the target of the final section.

In this, Ian argued that a neo-Kantian view - championed by McDowell - of experience blocked a view of animal minds. The worry is that an agent’s expressive behaviour can only express a content that the agent can entertain, him- her- or itself. On a neo-Kantian approach, however, firstly, all such content must be conceptualised and secondly, only language can carry concepts. So given that animals lack language, they lack concepts, thus content and thus minds.

Ian’s response was to suggest that animals’ interactions with the world could deliver a sufficient degree of articulation for them to be able to experience or inhabit a world rather than a mere environment as McDowell says, following Gadamer.

I wasn’t sure, however, how this answer was supposed to deliver the right response. Firstly, whilst there might be fine grained behavioural discrimination, there’s surely no hope that this could underpin the inferential properties of linguistically structured concepts. Secondly, this distinction would surely mean that our ability to read animals’ expressive behaviour would need a translation between the normatively and inferentially structured concepts we use and animals’ proto-concepts before we could attribute mental states.

Ian agreed that there were problems with his view but suggested it was better than either denying animal minds (a non-starter for a plausible philosophy of mind) or, my other suggestion, starting with the linguistic mind as a prototype and abstracting away from it. This seemed to him to be equally unfair to animals.

(Sorry this is such an uncritical post; I will link back to it when I have something at least a little interesting to say about the matter myself.)