Animal Understanding of Animal Understanding

Colin Allen (in American Scientist) reviews a book by Robert Lurz which takes what I am inclined to call a typical philosopher's miss-take on the issue.

Apparently Lurz notes that an animal's responses to another animal's looking at food through a chink in the fence could, in principle, be just an instinctive response to the looking behaviour rather than being based on having some mental model of the mental state of the competitor.  He calls this the "logical problem" and claims that economy of thought favours the version with no mental modelling. But what I see there is an illogical appeal to false economy.

The possibility of alternative explanations is not of itself a problem. Every set of results admits a variety of "logically" possible explanations, and it is only by something like the principle of economy that we can make a choice. But in making this choice, economy of thought, like entropy, has to be considered globally rather than just locally.

Lurz's "logical problem" applies also to my attribution of thought to fellow humans. Logically they could all be just mindless robots, but having learned to recognize myself (which elephants and chimps among others can also do) and seeing that other people do in fact look like me, it would be reasonable (and economical) to assume that when their behaviour matches mine it does so for similar internal reasons. Without access to my own thoughts and my own apparent similarity to my peers, their consciousnesses might seem like an unnecessary extra assumption, but in the extended observational context which includes myself, their minds become necessary in order to avoid the unnecessary distinction between minded people and the mindless others. Since my own experienced existence does render the mind-concept necessary it would be wasteful not to use it also to help explain the behaviour of others - even though, in my absence it may not have been necessary and so might have properly been ruled out.

More importantly, a theory of mind enhances my ability to predict the behaviour of my peers in a wider variety of circumstances than merely reacting to certain sepecific behaviours would. What evolution favours in me it also favours in my chimpish cousin - and has been doing for thousands of generations.  So again economy of thought suggests that if it looks like a chimp thinking of a thinking chimp and acts like a chimp thinking of a thinking chimp then it may well be a chimp thinking of a thinking chimp even if it can't quite talk like a chimp thinking of a thinking chimp.

If a chimp could think of a chimp-thinking chimp with his eye on a chink what might he think that the chimp-thinking chimp with his eye on the chink would think?


One Response to “Animal Understanding of Animal Understanding”

  1. alan Says:

    .. and here's a related story from a few days later

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