Tag Archives: theory of mind

Can we understand other minds? Novels and stories say: no

by Kanta Dihal

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Cassandra woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through the slats on her blinds, cascading over her naked chest. She stretched, her breasts lifting with her arms as she greeted the sun. She rolled out of bed and put on a shirt, her nipples prominently showing through the thin fabric. She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downwards.

This particular hyperbolic gem has been doing the rounds on Tumblr for a while. It resurfaced in April 2018, in response to a viral Twitter challenge posed by the US podcaster Whitney Reynolds: women, describe yourself the way a male writer would.

The dare hit a sweet spot. Many could summon up passages from books containing terrible, sexualised descriptions of women. Some of us recalled Haruki Murakami, whose every novel can be summarised as: ‘Protagonist is an ordinary man, except lots of really beautiful women want to sleep with him.’ Others remembered J M Coetzee, and his variations on the plot: ‘Tenured male professor in English literature sleeps with beautiful female undergraduate.’ It was a way for us to joke about the fact that so much great literature was written by men who could express perfectly detailed visual descriptions of the female body, and yet possessed such an impoverished understanding of the female mind.

This is why the philosophical project of trying to map the contours of other minds needs a reality check. If other humans are beyond our comprehension, what hope is there for understanding the experience of animals, artificial intelligence or aliens?

I am a literature scholar. Over thousands of years of literary history, authors have tried and failed to convey an understanding of Others (with a capital ‘O’). Writing fiction is an exercise that stretches an author’s imagination to its limits. And fiction shows us, again and again, that our capacity to imagine other minds is extremely limited.

It took feminism and postcolonialism to point out that writers were systematically misrepresenting characters who weren’t like them. Male authors, it seems, still struggle to present convincing female characters a lot of the time. The same problem surfaces again when writers try to introduce a figure with a different ethnicity to their own, and fail spectacularly.

I mean, ‘coffee-coloured skin’? Do I really need to find out how much milk you take in the morning to know the ethnicity you have in mind? Writers who keep banging on with food metaphors to describe darker pigmentation show that they don’t appreciate what it’s like to inhabit such skin, nor to have such metaphors applied to it.

Conversely, we recently learnt that some publishers rejected the Korean-American author Leonard Chang’s novel The Lockpicker (2017) – for failing to cater to white readers’ lack of understanding of Korean-Americans. Chang gave ‘none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us’, one publisher’s letter said. ‘For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes …’ Any failure to understand a nonwhite character, it seems, was the fault of the nonwhite author.

Fiction shows us that nonhuman minds are equally beyond our grasp. Science fiction provides a massive range of the most fanciful depictions of interstellar space travel and communication – but anthropomorphism is rife. Extraterrestrial intelligent life is imagined as Little Green Men (or Little Yellow or Red Men when the author wants to make a particularly crude point about 20th-century geopolitics). Thus alien minds have been subject to the same projections and assumptions that authors have applied to human characters, when they fundamentally differ from the authors themselves.

For instance, let’s look at a meeting of human minds and alien minds. The Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin is best known for his trilogy starting with The Three-Body Problem (2008). It appeared in English in 2014 and, in that edition, each book has footnotes – because there are some concepts that are simply not translatable from Chinese into English, and English readers need these footnotes to understand what motivates the characters. But there are also aliens in this trilogy. From a different solar system. Yet their motivations don’t need footnoting in translation.

Splendid as the trilogy is, I find that very curious. There is a linguistic-cultural barrier that prevents an understanding of the novel itself, on this planet. Imagine how many footnotes we’d need to really grapple with the motivations of extraterrestrial minds.

Our imaginings of artificial intelligence are similarly dominated by anthropomorphic fantasies. The most common depiction of AI conflates it with robots. AIs are metal men. And it doesn’t matter whether the press is reporting on swarm robots invented in Bristol or a report produced by the House of Lords: the press shall plaster their coverage with Terminator imagery. Unless the men imagining these intelligent robots want to have sex with them, in which case they’re metal women with boobily breasting metal cleavage – a trend spanning the filmic arts from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the contemporary TV series Westworld (2016-). The way that we imagine nonhumans in fiction reflects how little we, as humans, really get each other.

All this supports the idea that embodiment is central to the way we understand one another. The ridiculous situations in which authors miss the mark stem from the difference between the author’s own body and that of the character. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be someone else if we can’t feel it. So, much as I enjoyed seeing a woman in high heels outrun a T-Rex in Jurassic World (2015), I knew that the person who came up with that scene clearly has no conception of what it’s like to inhabit a female body, be it human or Tyrannosaurus.

Because stories can teach compassion and empathy, some people argue that we should let AIs read fiction in order to help them understand humans. But I disagree with the idea that compassion and empathy are based on a deep insight into other minds. Sure, some fiction attempts to get us to understand one another. But we don’t need any more than a glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else in order to empathise with them – and, hopefully, to not want to kill and destroy them.

As the US philosopher Thomas Nagel claimed in 1974, a human can’t know what it is like to be a bat, because they are fundamentally alien creatures: their sensory apparatus and their movements are utterly different from ours. But we can imagine ‘segments’, as Nagel wrote. This means that, despite our lack of understanding of bat minds, we can find ways to keep a bat from harm, or even nurse and raise an orphaned baby bat, as cute videos on the internet will show you.

The problem is that sometimes we don’t realise this segment of just a glimpse of something bigger. We don’t realise until a woman, a person of colour, or a dinosaur finds a way to point out the limits of our imagination, and the limits of our understanding. As long as other human minds are beyond our understanding, nonhuman ones certainly are, too.Aeon counter – do not remove

Kanta Dihal is a postdoctoral research assistant and the research project coordinator of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Why did consciousness evolve?

From David Barash, evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at University of Washington.

“Brief explanatory excursion: it is a useful exercise to ask what brains are for. From an evolutionary perspective, brains evolved not simply to give us a more accurate view of the world, or merely to orchestrate our internal organs or coordinate our movements, or even our thoughts. Rather, brains exist because they maximise the reproductive success of the genes that helped create them and of the bodies in which they reside. To be adaptive, consciousness must be like that. Insofar as it has evolved via natural selection, consciousness must exist because brains that produced consciousness were evolutionarily favoured over those that did not. But why? One possibility is that consciousness gave its possessors the capacity to overrule the tyranny of pleasure and pain.”

“Even more intriguing than its use as a facilitator of impulse control is the possibility that consciousness evolved in the context of our social lives. Human societies privilege a kind of Machiavellian intelligence whereby success in competition and co-operation depends on our evolved ability to imagine another’s situation no less than our own. That isn’t so much out of intended benevolence (although this, too, could be the case) but because such leaps of the imagination allow us to maximise our own interests in the very complex landscape of human societies. Thus, consciousness is not only an unfolding story that we tell ourselves, moment by moment, about what we are doing, feeling and thinking. It also includes our efforts to interpret what other individuals are doing, feeling and thinking, as well as how those others are likely to perceive us in return.[…] The more conscious our ancestors were, according to this argument, the more able they were to modify — to their own benefit — others’ impressions of them and, hence, their evolutionary success.”

“It therefore appears at present that human beings, although probably not unique in possessing Theory of Mind, are nonetheless unusual in the degree of its sophistication, specifically in the extent to which they can accurately model the minds of others. It seems highly likely that those who possessed an accurate Theory of Mind enjoyed an advantage when it came to modelling the intentions of others, an advantage that continues to this day, and was an active ingredient in the evolution of human consciousness. And it is at least possible that the more conscious you are, the more accurate is your Theory of Mind, since cognitive modellers should be more effective if they know, cognitively and self-consciously, not only what they are modelling, but that they are doing so.”

Elephant neural variation suggests a contemplative mind

An article in The Conversation explores the variety of neuron structures in the elephant brain.

Taken together, these morphological characteristics suggest that neurons in the elephant cortex may synthesize a wider variety of input than the cortical neurons in other mammals.

In terms of cognition, my colleagues and I believe that the integrative cortical circuitry in the elephant supports the idea that they are essentially contemplative animals. Primate brains, by comparison, seem specialized for rapid decision-making and quick reactions to environmental stimuli.

Wild systems theory (WST) – context and relationships make reality meaningful

Edward has posted some great thoughts and resources on embodied cognition (EC). I stumbled on some interesting information on a line of thinking within the EC literature. I find contextualist, connectivist approaches compelling in their ability to address complex-systems such as life and (possibly) consciousness. Wild systems theory (WST) “conceptualizes organisms as multi-scale self-sustaining embodiments of the phylogenetic, cultural, social, and developmental contexts in which they emerged and in which they sustain themselves. Such self-sustaining embodiments of context are naturally and necessarily about the multi-scale contexts they embody. As a result, meaning (i.e., content) is constitutive of what they are. This approach to content overcomes the computationalist need for representation while simultaneously satisfying the ecological penchant for multi-scale contingent interactions.”While I find WST fascinating, I’m unclear on whether it has been or can be assessed empirically. What do you think? Is WST shackled to philosophy?

Can one person know another’s mental state? Physicalists focus on how each of us develops a theory of mind (TOM) about each of the other people we observe. TOM is a theory because it is based on assumptions we make about others’ mental states by observing their behaviors. It is not based on any direct reading or measurement of internal processes. In its extreme, the physicalist view asserts that subjective experience and consciousness itself are merely emergent epiphenomena and not fundamentally real.

EC theorists often describe emergent or epiphenomenal subjective properties such as emotions and conscious experiences as “in terms of complex, multi-scale, causal dynamics among objective phenomena such as neurons, brains, bodies, and worlds.” Emotions, experiences, and meanings are seen to emerge from, be caused by or identical with, or be informational aspects of objective phenomena. Further, many EC proponents regards subjective properties as “logically unnecessary to the scientific description.” Some EC theorists conceive of the non-epiphenomenal reality of experience in a complex systems framework and define experience in terms of relational properties. In Gibson’s (1966) concept of affordances, organisms perceive behavioral possibilities in other organisms and in their environment. An affordance is a perceived relationship (often in terms of utility), such a how an organism might use something–say a potential mate, prey/food, or a tool. Meaning arises from “bi-directional aboutness” between an organism and what it perceives or interacts with. Meaning is about relationship.

(A very good, easy read on meaning arising from relationships is the book Learning How to Learn, by Novak and Gowin. In short, it’s the connecting/relating words such as is, contains, produces, consumes, etc., that enable meaningful concepts to be created in minds via language that clarifies context.)

Affordances and relationality at one level of organization and analysis carve out a non-epiphenomenal beachhead but do not banish epiphenomena from that or other levels. There’s a consideration of intrinsic, non-relational properties (perhaps mass) versus relational properties (such as weight). But again, level/scale of analysis matters (“mass emerges from a particle’s interaction with the Higgs field” and is thus relational after all) and some take this line of thinking to a logical end where there is no fundamental reality.

In WST, “all properties are constituted of and by their relations with context. As a result, all properties are inherently meaningful because they are naturally and necessarily about the contexts within which they persist. From this perspective, meaning is ubiquitous. In short, reality is inherently meaningful.”

2. Jordan, J. S., Cialdella, V. T., Dayer, A., Langley, M. D., & Stillman, Z. (2017). Wild Bodies Don’t Need to Perceive, Detect, Capture, or Create Meaning: They ARE Meaning. Frontiers in psychology8, 1149. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01149/full [accessed Nov 09 2017]

BMAI members repository copy (PDF): https://albuquirky.net/download/277/embodied-grounded-cognition/449/wild-systems-theory_bodies-are-meaning.pdf