Does the Atheist have a Theory of Mind?

theory of mindby Thomas Coleman III

Introduction

Planet earth appears to be filled with unseen forces that control the behavior of its inhabitants. No, this isn’t the beginning to a cheesy B-movie science fiction film script. This is reality and even the staunchest of skeptics act as if they believe in these invisible forces. That is, we live in a material world ruled by minds with no physical locality and it is here that we think beliefs, desires, intentions, and other mental states are both responsible for, and explain our behavior [1]. There is nothing particularly magical or surprising about this fact, at least not until we consider particular theories in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) that, for example, suggest atheists may be “socially disabled” [2], have a “malfunction” in their ability to reason about these mental states, or perhaps that there is no such thing as atheism at the level of cognition [3]. Thus, and I ask jokingly, does the atheist have a theory of mind? But, more on this in a moment.

Attributing mental states is something we do to others and ourselves on a daily basis, such that it appears to be commonsense — and it is! In fact, this ability has even been called “commonsense psychology,” among various others terms: social cognition, folk psychology, mind reading, and mentalizing [4]. Our folk psychology may not deliver adequate scientific causal descriptions, but we are nonetheless bound to it in everyday reasoning. While some of these terms have very specific technical meanings within a given discipline or theory, for the purposes of the present essay I will primarily use the term theory of mind (ToM). This essay will present a brief overview of ToM, its relationship to autism spectrum disorders, how this relationship is utilized in CSR, and critically evaluate the suggested links between poor ToM skills and atheism.

Theory of Mind and the Autism Spectrum

Some thirty years ago, Premack and Woodruff [5] shoved the topic of ToM under the empirical eye of the sciences in their paper titled “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?.” Granted that human mental states are unobservable, they were interested in the possibility that chimpanzees might make goal oriented mental state inferences in a similar fashion (e.g., Does Sally the chimp know that the kids at the zoo want to see her and that they become amused when she swings from a branch?). Interestingly, these types of questions focused on animal cognition actually prompted much more research into how humans come to attribute beliefs and desires. That is, all-day everyday, we use our ToM to navigate our world by making sense of past actions and generating predictions for the future (e.g., I became overweight in the past 5 years because I enjoyed junk food, but I am on a diet now so keep those Butterfinger bars away from me). In essence, the use of our ToM is so pervasive in our social life that the sciences had largely taken for granted how humans navigate an intentionless world up until that point.

Later, research progressed on ToM and in humans specifically. In the 1980’s, Baron-Cohen and colleagues [6] asked, “Does the autistic child have a theory of mind?” and provided evidence suggesting that the central explanation for the crippling effects of autism disorders may lay in the inability to properly attribute and understand others mental states. In short, if an individual is unable to understand that a particular piece of information is intended for them (e.g., Ralph this is how you tie your shoe laces) then they may be unable to cognitively register directions as anything other than a random action in one’s environment (e.g., Ralph only hears speech and sees someone moving). With a severe impediment to learning in place, these individuals typically have well below average IQ’s and despite this rather negative term, are considered “low functioning.” Important to note, however, is that while all theories of autism generally acknowledge some degree of trouble in reading the intentions and emotional states of others, they vary on the exact reason for this.

Nonetheless, not every person with autism is incapable of functioning within the rules of folk psychology and many possess a ToM that not only allows him or her to perform simple tasks, but to navigate the wider social world on their own. However, this is not to say that engaging in social situations comes as easily as it would for someone not on the autism spectrum. Reading intentions and picking up on subtle social cues can still be difficult and even exhausting (e.g., If they happen to be at a social gathering, they may not easily read the host hinting that it’s time to leave). These individuals are commonly referred to as “high functioning” and often have accelerated abilities in domains that do not involve heavy reasoning about mental states. Instead, they may maneuver through the social arena by systemizing, analyzing, and constructing rule-based schemata that serve as guides to understanding the world. They may have special interests, for example, in mathematics and the sciences and are perhaps far better at these subjects than most. Furthermore, they usually have average or even above average IQ’s [7].

As research on autism progressed, it became clear that it resisted any strict clinical criterion for diagnoses and its cluster of associated traits became known as the “autism spectrum disorder” (ASD). Interestingly, these traits, such as variations in ToM proficiency and systemizing tendencies, were also found present in the wider public, within populations that did not meet the clinical criterion for diagnoses of ASD. Researchers now use the term broader autism phenotype (BAP) to understand individual differences in ToM and systematizing present in neurotypicals. Now what does all of this have to do with belief and nonbelief in gods?

Cognitive Sciences of Religion

The prevailing view from the cognitive science of religion conceives of “religion” as centered on belief in and behavior stemming from a minimally counter intuitive agent (definition to come). Religious beliefs both stem from and are processed by our average, run of the mill, “garden variety” cognitive capabilities [8]. In this view, rather than religion having supernatural or sui generis explanations, quite natural ones exist and religion is considered a by-product of the mind. While some argue for the possible adaptive benefits of religion, its conceptualization as a by-product is a prerequisite for this view and will not be discussed further here.

Counter Intuitive Agent Representations

Religion, as a by-product, simply plays on our evolved intuitions about physical objects, biological expectations, and psychological capabilities [9]. From an early age, for example, young children possess enough knowledge in these domains to infer that two objects cannot occupy the same space and that unsupported objects will fall: physics domain. They know that crocodiles do not give birth to baby chickens: biological domain. They know that where there is movement, there is an intentional cause responsible: psychological domain.

These domains constitute core knowledge that is shared across our species and religious representations, such as a god or ghost, are considered “counter-intuitive” for violating the properties of these recurring categories. Representations can either “breach” one of these domains (e.g., “a man who walks through walls” is a breach of our intuitive physics by expectations informing things a human can do), or they “transfer” the properties of one domain to that of another (e.g., “a statue that listens to your prayers” transfers psychological information onto our expectations of physical objects) [10]. Representations of this nature are considered “minimally counter-intuitive” (MCI), in that there are just enough violations (one or two at most) to be flagged as unusual and henceforth catchy, yet not so many as to be mentally taxing and non-transmittable (for example, think of how much trouble a game of “Chinese whispers” would be using a long sentence with 30 people). In virtue of how the human mind develops, CI representations stem from our ordinary cognitive faculties and are a universal occurrence. However, many CI representations have nothing to do with a god or ghosts (e.g., the cartoon series Veggie Tales that has talking tomatoes and asparagus, or even Super Man).

Theory of Mind System in CSR

ToM is perhaps the most critical ability to underlie religious beliefs, but it is also a system that facilitates our understanding of the world in general (no ToM, no social interaction whatsoever). ToM is the evolved propensity for systematically treating agents in the environment as capable of self-generated autonomous actions that are caused by mental states in humans [11]. Such mental states (beliefs, desires, wants, emotions), of course, are not observable — we do not have direct access to the contents of another’s mind. However, upon observing a given behavior, the mind automatically begins inferring the mental state (or states) that the individual thinks best explains said behavior (e.g., upon seeing Sally attend church each Sunday, I might infer that she wants to be there because she believes in God).

However, ToM is not necessarily a bearer of epistemic truth in the sense that it relays accurate information about the way the world really works or what another’s mental state really is. Our beliefs are always at risk of being wrong and often are (e.g., I asked Sally why she attends church each Sunday and she said that even as an atheist, she just enjoys the music and company). Importantly, ToM can handle increasingly complex metarepresentations — that is, beliefs about beliefs about beliefs…(e.g., I know that Sally believes that her Pastor thinks she is a believer in God).

When ToM is applied to thinking about CI agents, it does this as effortlessly as it would thinking about Sally’s particular situation or any other, even though a CI agent isn’t a person per se [8]. For example, although a CI agent, such as the angel Gabriel, can pass through walls, it is still characterized as having more or less the same belief-desire reasoning that humans have. The angel can speak, it may have a message to relay, things it wants you to know and so on and so forth. Now, here is where the ToM system links up with god beliefs, as Boyer and Bergstrom [9] suggest:

“…people’s concepts of gods or ancestors may recruit or exploit any of the diverse psychological systems that govern social relations, simply by virtue of the gods’ representations as social agents.”

Although gods and other CI agents (e.g., Santa Claus, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) can be represented in our ToM system, this system is not a “religious specific system” [8], let alone one specifically meant for handling the mental states of a well-fed charitable man in a red suit, anthropomorphic crime fighting turtles, or the editor of this magazine, for that matter.

Beliefs, desires, and wants are how humans in general make sense of the world around us. They are regularly overextended as a heuristic to objects that clearly do not have minds [12] or applied to reason about situations outside its evolutionary selected foci (e.g., our minds did not evolve to perform calculus, although some of us can do so). Perceiving the world in terms of a “mind like ours” makes it easier for a “mind like ours” to operate in an environment ruled by opaque physical causes void of the very intentionality we are presumed to possess [3, 13]. Once a cultural representation of any social agent appears it will be handled by our ToM system with no regard for the truthiness of a particular representation.

Atheism, Autism, and the Deficiency Hypothesis in CSR

Over the course of history, atheists have often gotten a bad rap. Locke famously asserted that common contracts, such as oaths or promises, had no binding effect on atheists and that they were not to be trusted, as they believed in no god with which to enforce these obligations. For a recent empirical example, in one study by Gervais [1] his participants intuited that a man having sexual relations with the carcass of a deceased chicken and subsequently preparing and eating it for dinner (yes the man in the Gervais’s story cleaned the chicken first and even used a condom…) was behavior indicative only of atheists, not any other ethnic minority. But setting the joys of Shake’ N Bake chicken aside for a moment, psychological explanations for atheism began almost a century ago with “the defective father hypothesis” (now discredited). In this view, atheism was the result of a cold and harsh father, or having no father at all. However, attempting to explain atheism as a deficiency continues in some CSR literature today.

As the previous sections detailed, since religious belief is so “easy,” in that it is parasitic to our normal cognitive faculties, then these deficiency arguments typically go something like this: someone who does not do something as easy as religious belief, must have something wrong with them. To this point, Barrett [2] even suggests that not believing in any gods may be comparable to being handicapped — unable to walk he says! Further, if ToM is used to represent the desires, wishes, and beliefs of unseen supernatural agents, then those humans disinterested in communicating with the gods must have a “malfunction” in their ToM system. Or so the story goes.

Now, let us say that an atheist happens to have a normal ToM. Surely they can’t be considered deficient. However, they are often suggested to be “implicitly religious” [2,3]. In Barrett’s [2] argument, he suggests that even if an atheist were to appeal to explaining the occurrence of any particular event, as happening just by “chance,” that this is a “pseudoagent,” which is merely a placeholder for what in another day and age would have been a god explanation (e.g., running into an old friend from high school 30 years later in unusual circumstances and saying “hey, what are the chances?” versus “God brought us together”). On Barrett’s account, it would seem that in lieu of giving a protracted casual-mechanistic explanation for any event (I won’t even attempt to develop one for the chance meeting of an old friend example, as it would be potentially massive) that there is literally nothing one could say except “God.” This argument can be rejected flat out. Just because humans use shortcuts in their reasoning during casual conversations (i.e., “it was chance”) in place of a dry scientific explanation is no reason to believe that they are implicitly appealing to a quasi god.

Bering’s account, however similar to Barrett’s, is situated on a slightly different conceptualization of ToM. Here, Bering [3] suggests that humans have evolved what he terms an “existential theory of mind” (EToM). This EToM causes us to see purpose and intentionality where in fact, there is none. Under this view, in order to deal with the overwhelming burden a meaningless existence might be to humans, we simply project meaning onto the world. For example, say a teenage atheist boy gets into a car wreck and then thinks to himself, if only for a second, “perhaps this happened so I could learn to slow down.” From a scientific point of view there exists no guiding life force (i.e., God) and hence the reason behind this particular car crash is simply a useful illusion. Bering suggests that God will never go away, because the purposeful intentional force that God is so often conceived to be is simply a part of our EToM system. While I am strongly sympathetic to this view, the EToM isn’t just behind religious reasoning, but also philosophical reasoning, as Bering minimally notes [13]. Meaning and purpose can be created and not always God given, as a recent study by Banerjee and Bloom [14], which found these tendencies rooted in more secular propensities, has suggested. However, Bering has chosen not to further develop the EToM in the spirit of philosophical reasoning, only religious reasoning.

While Bering’s and Barrett’s accounts of ToM differ, they are united by the fact that both scientists posit that ToM can be impaired by deficits associated with autism spectrum disorders. This is, at least on its surface, uncontroversial. Few would argue that a person with low functioning autism is going to be communicating with the gods if they are unable to adequately communicate with their caregivers or inferring that their car accident occurred to teach them a life lesson (at any rate, it’s unlikely they would be driving). However, individuals considered high functioning on the autism spectrum are quite another story. Indeed, studies show that significantly lower levels of belief are associated with clinically diagnosed high functioning ASD  [15,16].

Considering that the traits (typically only measured by self-report) that characterize ASD (systemizing and variations in ToM ability) can be found in the wider population, some explanations in CSR have suggested that atheists are unable, or at least find it very difficult to, believe in gods. However, this is allegedly not because they have found God unnecessary, are disinterested in religion, or found God to be implausible, but rather in virtue of their decreased ability to reason about the mental states of others, they cannot reason about God. This, combined with an increase in systemizing (think of a mechanistic view of the world) tips the scale in favor of atheism, or at least very low levels of religiosity.

While this view is certainly tempting, I currently know of no published study that has directly compared atheists with theists. Typically, these conclusions are supported by studies that, while informative, only compare high vs. low religiosity. We wouldn’t use a study looking at frequent vs. infrequent meat eaters to generalize to Vegans, thus studies comparing high vs. low belief doesn’t necessarily speak to individuals with no belief. Perhaps rather ironically, it may prove to be that weak believers in God are the ones with lower ToM abilities and not atheists!

Most unfortunately, some scholars often make the mistake of conflating low belief with no belief, and this confusion bleeds over into citations in published articles and book chapters further reinforcing false assumptions about the psychology of atheists. Similar problems have been noted by psychologist Luke Galen [17] in the domain of research on health, wellbeing, and religion.

Nonetheless, even if studies were conducted to properly test what I will term as the “deficient atheist hypothesis,” methodological rigor would be critically important. For, as any undergraduate psychology student should be able to tell you, correlation does not equal causation. For example, just because the murder rates rise in the summer along with ice cream sales, this doesn’t mean that Ben and Jerry’s causes murder. Furthermore, preliminary results from an ongoing study with my colleagues and mentors, Catherine Caldwell-Harris, Ralph W. Hood Jr. and Robert B. Arrowood have been unable to find differences between atheists and theists in an advanced measure of ToM or in attributing intentionality in social situations.

Perhaps most interestingly, where it is found that the less religious score slightly higher on the broader autism phenotype than stronger theists, the variance explained is almost nil [18,19]. In other words, just as the difference between a football player who weighs 260 pounds and another who weighs 260.1 pounds is very clear — the two weights are absolutely different — it seems comical to say that this is a difference that makes a difference. Where does this leave us in answering the question of whether or not the atheist has a ToM? Or, perhaps more appropriate at this point, a diminished ToM?

Conclusion

The same processes that underlie religious belief underlie atheism [20]. Religious belief can’t claim primacy to our cognitive faculties anymore than religious nonbelief can. Moreover, as the human species carries on into the future, some, but not all, will find little use in the label of “atheist.” Just as the chemists or astronomers of today do not identify as “a-alchemists” or “a-astrologers,” individuals will find little utility in identifying as “a-theists.” Instead, and perhaps only when required to do so, today’s atheists will become tomorrow’s nonbelievers and be identified only secondarily as at some distance from theism [21].

While ToM is certainly necessary to believe in gods, the average human being — religious or otherwise — isn’t using it to communicate with unseen supernatural forces. Instead, our ToM is busy figuring out much more mundane aspects of our earthly existence, such as “why did he or she do this or that?” In the end, ToM underlies the totality of our mental life and applying it to reason about supernatural agency only constitutes a small portion of this. Does the atheist have a theory mind? Of course, just as much or as less as any theist.

_____

Thomas Coleman III is a graduate student in Psychology at the University of Tennessee—Chattanooga. He is interested in exploring multiple methodologies in the domains of qualitative and quantitative research, focusing in the psychology and cognitive science of religion and atheism/nonbelief. Recently, Coleman co-edited a special issue of the journal Science, Religion & Culture titled “Atheism, Secularity, and Science” with John R. Shook and Ralph W. Hood Jr.”

[1] Gervais, W. (2013). Perceiving Minds and Gods: How Mind Perception Enables, Constrains, and Is Triggered by Belief in Gods. Perspectives On Psychological Science, 8(4), 380-394. doi:10.1177/1745691613489836.

[2] Barrett, J. (2012). Born believers. New York: Free Press.

[3] Bering, J. (2002). The existential theory of mind. Review Of General Psychology, 6(1), 3-24. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.6.1.3.

[4] Goldman, A. I. (2012). Theory of mind. In E. Margolis, R. Samuels, & S. Stich (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of philosophy of cognitive science, (pp. 402-424). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[5] Premack, D., & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?. Behavioral And Brain Sciences, 1(04), 515. doi:10.1017/s0140525x00076512.

[6] Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind” ?. Cognition, 21(1), 37-46. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(85)90022-8.

[7] Baron-Cohen, S. (2009). Autism: The Empathizing-Systemizing (E-S) Theory. Annals Of The New York Academy Of Sciences, 1156(1), 68-80. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04467.x.

[8] McCauley, R. (2011). Why religion is natural and science is not. New York: Oxford University Press.

[9] Boyer, P., & Bergstrom, B. (2008). Evolutionary Perspectives on Religion. Annual Review of Anthropology, 37(1), 111-130. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.37.081407.085201.

[10] Purzycki, B., & Willard, A. (2015). MCI theory: a critical discussion. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1-42. doi:10.1080/2153599x.2015.1024915.

[11] Zimmer, C. (2003). Cognition: How the Mind Reads Other Minds. Science, 300(5622), 1079-1080. doi:10.1126/science.300.5622.1079.

[12] Heider, F., & Simmel, M. (1944). An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior. The American Journal Of Psychology, 57(2), 243. doi:10.2307/1416950.

[13] Coleman, T. J. III, & Hood, R. W. Jr., (2015). Reconsidering everything: From folk categories to existential theory of mind. [Peer commentary on the paper “From Weird Experiences to Revelatory Events” by A. Taves]. Religion and Society: Advances in Research, 6(1), 18–22.

[14] Banerjee, K., & Bloom, P. (2014). Why did this happen to me? Religious believers’ and non-believers’ teleological reasoning about life events. Cognition, 133(1), 277-303. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2014.06.017.

[15] Caldwell-Harris, C., Murphy, C. F., Velazquez, T., & McNamara, P. (2011). Religious belief systems of persons with high functioning autism. In Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, Boston, MA.

[16] Norenzayan, A., Gervais, W., & Trzesniewski, K. (2012). Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God. Plos ONE, 7(5), e36880. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036880.

[17] Galen, L. (2012). Does religious belief promote prosociality? A critical examination. Psychological Bulletin, 138(5), 876-906. doi:10.1037/a0028251.

[18] Lindeman, M., Svedholm-Häkkinen, A., & Lipsanen, J. (2015). Ontological confusions but not mentalizing abilities predict religious belief, paranormal belief, and belief in supernatural purpose. Cognition, 134, 63-76. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2014.09.008.

[19] Van Eyghen, H. (2015) Workshop: ‘What is religious belief?’ report. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project.

[20] Geertz, A. (2013). Origins of religion, cognition and culture. Durham: Acumen.

[21] Silver, C., Coleman, T., Hood, R., & Holcombe, J. (2014). The six types of nonbelief: a qualitative and quantitative study of type and narrative. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 17(10), 990-1001. doi:10.1080/13674676.2014.987743.

Gervais, W. (2014). Everything Is Permitted? People Intuitively Judge Immorality as Representative of Atheists. Plos ONE, 9(4), e92302. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0092302

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53 thoughts on “Does the Atheist have a Theory of Mind?

  1. Attributing mental states is something we do to others and ourselves on a daily basis, such that it appears to be commonsense — and it is!

    I don’t attribute mental states. I never have. In fact it seems rude to ascribe a particular belief to a person.

    Sure, I try to predict how people will react, but I don’t use “folk psychology” to do that. Instead, I try to put myself in the other person’s shoes and then see how I would react.

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  2. There’s one easily way to see whether this theory is true. Do people with autism spectrum disorder have significantly different religious beliefs from the neurotypical?

    Answer: No. Therefore the whole theory falls apart.

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  3. Wow, that’s… a lot of words to rebut a stance that is so close to presuppositional apologetics as to make barely a difference. (Where the latter holds that to reason is to assume god, the former appears to argue that to make the slightest misattribution of agency is to believe in god.)

    Really the idea that atheists have some kind of mental defect never gets off the ground. First it seems a bit odd to pathologise those who get the answer to a question right; usually it works the other way around. In fact this reminds me of what somebody said to me years ago when we were discussing belief in souls. He had just read about a study showing that when presented with visual noise, some people would believe to see patterns in it and others wouldn’t, and that the latter could be turned into the former by giving them some kind of drugs. My conversation partner thought that my disbelief in souls was comparable, and also that this means I was ‘lacking’ something desirable, apparently without realising how apt the comparison was: there really was no pattern in that noise the researchers used in the study, so if anything the pattern-believers were the ones who had a disfunctional perception while the a-patternists were functional.

    Second, and even more damningly, consider different times and regions. There are lots of atheists in Denmark, but 500 years ago nearly all Danes believed in the Christian god. Surely it is clear that this difference can’t be explained by either a developmental defect or some defective genes? Same for Denmark versus Pakistan today.

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  4. “I try to put myself in the other person’s shoes and then see how I would react.”

    Isn’t that folk psychology? You’re not relying on brain states and stimuli to try and predict a response, you’re using empathy and knowledge of type-stimuli-response patterns to predict other people’s reactions. When you wonder how a person will react to being lied to about something important, a response that included riding a pogo-stick to Lowe’s, rolling themselves in cold pitch repair, and making sad, sticky body art on a sheet of drywall in the lumber aisle doesn’t occur among the possibilities precisely because this is not the sort of reaction one could ever expect based on the way people commonly react to being lied to. Some people are much better at using this intuitive faculty than others, but even the best among us cannot predict novel outcomes because almost any reaction is a /possible/ outcome, but the list of /likely/ reactions is very short.

    The list of ways people “would” react in a given situation is short, and this list is given to us by a common sense account of the history of ways in which people react to given situations. It’s not scientific, and it’s not always right, but it is infuriatingly reliable. By and large we are very good at intuiting how people will react to situations. Some scientists and philosophers believe that once we figure out how everything in the brain works we’ll be able to predict human behavior with a high degree of accuracy. The reason folk psychology is infuriating, and it is really only infuriating to people who work on the brain and/or mind, is precisely because it remains reliable (especially in a practical, promotion of reproductive success/evolutionary way), despite the work in philosophy of mind and the brain sciences which suggests folk psychology should be disregarded.

    People on the street don’t look at you and think, “How are that person’s brain states governing their behavior at this moment?” We might observe a person standing next to their new car parked on the side of the street as they discover that someone has run a key through the paint job and think, “If I were that person, I’d be super pissed right now.” This seems like an accurate assessment, drawn not from brain states but what we know about how we and others feel about our cars. We would certainly be shocked and probably believe there is something about the situation we don’t know, if the person begins to laugh and dance around on the sidewalk. Folk psychology might map somehow onto brain states in ways not known, but it doesn’t seem likely that brain sciences will dissolve the usefulness of folk psychology.

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  5. I always thought it was more common to speak of someone being undeveloped in theory of the mind areas, or having poor theory of the mind skills, rather than to say, having no theory of the mind.

    In any case the whole thesis comes out of left field for me. I have to digest more.

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  6. Thank you all for the comments. Smeland’s assessment is spot on.

    To respond to Mark, however, there is growing evidence that the religious beliefs of ASD individuals is different from neurotypical’s. The debate remains as to the extent of this difference. The literature in this area usually finds that people who are believers, yet high on the AS, may view gods as less “intentional” and “personable.” That is, God is more likely to resemble a universal impersonal force (e.g., almost like gravity) as opposed to a god whom you’d have a close relationship with, and who wants to provide you with bits of advice throughout the day etc…

    Robert, good catch (and correct). However, the title is only a provocative play on various academic papers in the area of ToM, such as “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind” or “Does the autistic child have a theory of mind?” The explanation for atheism as a result of poor or weak ToM has been hypothesized by several scholars in the field of CSR, yet the studies in this area are few, but growing. To the best of my knowledge researchers have not approached the question of whether or not atheists may have poor ToM head-on, and in any studies.

    Cheers, -Tommy

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  7. It is precisely *because* I have a ToM that I reject the biblical God. A loving, just, and foresightful God would not have murdered all the firstborn of Egypt, let alone changed His mind about the creation of humankind and brought about Noah’s flood. I also apply ToM to those who wrote the Bible, thus explaining why the biblical God so strongly resembles a classical Middle Eastern despot.

    But I do suspect a highly deficient ToM among those who believe that as a result of these opinions, I am destined to an eternity of conscious torment, and serve me right.

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  8. Hmmm,
    some thoughts come to my mind. I have been first, for most of my life, an atheist and then I became a devout Catholic. Am I still the same person? I feel like the same person, but who knows?

    I dislike categorising groups in this way and think it can be harmful. Most of my friends are atheists and I think they are jolly nice people. It was a real shock to meet the unpleasant brand of atheism that one finds on the Internet(and sometimes in this forum). I think that can be explained by a strong self selection effect where the haters are naturally drawn together. They are nothing like the decent, tolerant, live-and-let-live atheists that I know. I am sure these decent people represent the great majority.

    As it happens, my daughter, a trained psychologist, teaches autistic children and theory of mind is a frequent topic of conversation. It can be quite disconcerting to interact with someone that really does lack ToM, say someone with Asperger’s Syndrome.

    Spare a moment for these people. By a cruel blow of fate they have been cognitively handicapped. This was not their fault, they do not deserve it but they do deserve our warm, supportive love and compassion. The tragedy of our society is that we do not want to look them in the eyes and recognise their suffering. When we behave like this it is we who lack Theory of Mind. We refuse to recognise their minds because we are afraid of shouldering our responsibilities for them. By looking away we can pretend that they never existed. This is the shameful tragedy of our society.

    It is doubly shameful because recognition could lead to early intervention. My daughter has shown again and again that early and intensive intervention can be transformative. She has a list of successes where seemingly hopeless cases have been integrated into the normal schooling system. She call it ‘mainstreaming them’. That this is even possible is startling. I think that the young brain is more plastic than commonly realised, allowing quite far reaching modelling.

    We should not be guilty of a selective Theory of Mind. Take a moment to look into the eyes of the unfortunate and see the person behind them.

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  9. To respond to Mark, however, there is growing evidence that the religious beliefs of ASD individuals is different from neurotypical’s. The debate remains as to the extent of this difference. The literature in this area usually finds that people who are believers, yet high on the AS, may view gods as less “intentional” and “personable.” That is, God is more likely to resemble a universal impersonal force (e.g., almost like gravity) as opposed to a god whom you’d have a close relationship with, and who wants to provide you with bits of advice throughout the day etc…

    As a person with Aspergers Syndrome myself, and as someone who has always been deeply spiritual, I would contest that. My knowledge of others on the spectrum also makes me doubt it. Obviously my personal experience may not be representative, since there is a huge amount of variation of the autism spectrum, and I would be prepared to accept the evidence of proper studies. But my feeling is that this is a mistake which is being made by researchers who are expecting a particular result, and massaging their data to fit it.

    Also, the Judeo-Christian concept of a personal God is certainly not the only possible way of viewing the divine. This is a mistake that most Westerners make when thinking about ‘religion’. The scope of the religious experience is very wide and very diverse, and it’s a big mistake to lump it all together and draw facile conclusions from a narrow and over-simplified concept of religion.

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  10. I didn’t close that blockquote properly. I wish there was some way to edit comments here, and also to have proper threaded comments.

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  11. Here is a simple exercise that will expand your theory of mind to include the less fortunate.

    The well known photographer, Thomas Hawk, pioneered this practice. See his flickr album – $2 Portraits – http://bit.ly/1NsWpl8
    He explains it this way (http://bit.ly/1N5Pn8M):

    Earlier this week I decided that I was going to start a new project. I’m calling the project $2 portraits and the project works like this. From this week going forward until the day that I die I am going to offer $2 to anyone who asks me for money in exchange for their portrait. While I’m taking their portrait I’m going to ask their name and try to learn a little bit about them. I plan on doing this for the rest of my life — assuming that I can afford to.

    To make things easier I’m putting $2 in reserve money in a special place in my wallet so that even if I don’t have change I will always have the $2 to hand over.

    In part I’m undertaking this project because I realize that I’ve been avoiding people asking me for money. My biggest motivation behind this project however is simply that I think human interaction is a good thing. I’m not doing this to exploit homeless people or show how hard and bad life can be. I’m doing this because I want to celebrate other human beings as human beings and I think that this commercial transaction gives us an opportunity to engage and interact on a more human level…

    I did this and found myself changed. From blame and disdain I went to concern and then love. This is not easy to do because so many of them are hurt, suspicious, resentful, uncooperative and often, superficially at least, unlikeable. I persevered and talked to them. Slowly I discovered the real people. I discovered that I had been selective with my theory of mind and I was ashamed of it.

    Have a look at Thomas Hawk’s photos and see what I mean – http://bit.ly/1NsWpl8

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  12. From what I’ve read, there’s going to be a lot of interesting results in ASD research over the coming decades, and it’s very much worth stating that the scientific and clinical understanding of all mental conditions is far, far from understood, let alone well-understood. Neuroscience is a nascent field (actually, infantile is probably a better word), and it will be a long time before they reach a serious, concrete model of how the human brain works and what happens when it doesn’t work (particularly if they continue to persist in the medical research model rather than the scientific research model, but that’s a different discussion).

    So it’s very difficult for me to take seriously any conclusions or theories from psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience; I take the results of their work seriously, I’m sure that they are diligent researchers and they are working to uncover deep insights into the human mind. I’m just not convinced that researchers on the human mind are in any epistemic position to claim that any theories on the human mind are proper scientific theories, like the theory of evolution, General Relativity, the atomic theory of matter, and similar theories that hold scientific consensus because of prodigious amounts of empirical evidence from robust, precise experimentation. This is neither a dismissal of these fields, the importance of them, nor of the usefulness of modern psychiatry, it’s just important to keep in perspective that when we discuss things as important as identity (whether atheism or even ASD), capabilities people with mental conditions, and so on, appealing to the academic literature is going to yield a very premature, incomplete theory and understanding of these issues. It’s worth remembering that this a collection of fields that only 40 years ago realized that homosexuality was not a mental disorder, and 100 years ago thought that women had hysteria and it needed to be cured with the judicious application of a vibrator. The fields are clearly important, and the research will continue, and enormous progress has and will continue to be made within our lifetimes. But we should be under no obligation to even agree with the “deficiency of the theory of mind” hypothesis of person with ASD, let alone some half-baked theory concocted by, as was previously pointed out, people who are clearly a gnat’s ass away from being transcendental Christian apologists.

    With that said, the hypothesis itself is amusingly a clear indication that the persons involved in this study are trying to rationalize their theism based upon science. Well, that’s my theory, and there’s as much empirical evidence for it as there is for their theory. =)

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  13. J. Smeland, replying to me, asked “Isn’t that folk psychology?”

    Well perhaps it is. But it isn’t text book folk psychology. I’m skeptical of belief theories of mind. And I’m skeptical of the idea that knowledge is justified true belief.

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  14. I think what we have here is that a certain class of people who tend to have weak ToM are more likely to be atheists, or maybe not. I’ve seen studies that strongly support the idea.

    On ToM, or mindreading:

    A good brief introduction to Baron-Cohen’s work is _The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (2011) — in particular, his distinction of empathetic and systematic thinking with somewhat detailed explanations in terms of brain structure of the former at least, and how those who test very low on empathetic thinking (or mind-reading — I won’t say ToM for reasons to follow) may be somewhere on the autism spectrum, or they may be psychopaths. I don’t think he addresses (very satisfactorily at least) why a person is one and not the other, but it’s been a long time since I read the book. By the way, he *is* related to that Borat guy – a cousin, and I can’t help wondering if Sasha(Borat) is somehow related to Simon’s career path.

    Alvin Goldman, cited once here, wrote Simulating Minds: The Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience of Mindreading (2006). His interest goes back to the discovery of mirror neurons (see wikipedia for fairly extensive article); he and Vittorio Gallese coauthored an article way back in 1998 with “Mirror neurons and the simulation theory”. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 2 (12): 493–501. Gallese was one of the original discoverers of mirror neurons. Goldman’s Simulating Minds set out to explain “mindreading”, his preferred term; he particularly focuses on two theories of mindreading. “Theory Theory” (TT) is a theory that the “mindreader” has theories about what goes on with other people, hence the name. “Simulation Theory” (ST) says humans have an inherent facility to simulate other minds.

    After intense initial interest in mirror neurons (as possible explanation for empathy or ToM — and motivation for calling ToM something else), I think it was concluded that, even if mirror neurons are related to empathy/ToM, extensive layers of explanation are needed to bridge the gap. One researcher, Michael Tomasello, has provided evidence for the highest layers, and used what he calls “shared intentionality” as a major explanans for the evolution of language, very likely without introducing Universal Grammar. He wrote an article for Horizon summarizing this argument: The Ultra-social Animal, a quick read, and an book, Origins of Human Communication (2008), supporting the idea with excellent argumentation and illustrations.

    One setback to the idea of innate mind reading in humans was that the ability to predict others’ false beliefs based on what we know they have or haven’t seen (e.g. a ball is moved from one box to another while they had stepped out of the rule) seemed to occur no earlier than at four years. However, Onishi, K. H., and Baillargeon, R. (2005). Do 15-month-old infants understand false beliefs? Science, 308 , 255–258, and other studies cited by Tomasello now support its occurrence earlier, but it takes longer to integrate it with linguistic thought.

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  15. Having spend most of my life working with racehorses, I do my best to avoid having a theory of mind, in the sense of attributing intention to others. This is because horses are prey animals and while they are extremely aware, have minimal need for analysis and complex intent, since it would only distract from their awareness of their environment and any potential dangers. In fact, racehorses are bred to enhance this flight tendency, rather than more passive natures being preferred.
    As such, I see the constant modeling of nature which humans engage in, as much a distraction, as a path to greater insight. When we are not careful we do get lost in our own little houses of mirrors, in which everything becomes a reflection of us.
    For instance, the theological model of a monotheistic God, as an “all-knowing absolute,” in the words of a recent Pope, is a logical fallacy and functions by anthropomorphizing the entire universe. Thus its appeal to more ego-centric theories of mind.
    The universal state of the absolute would reasonably be equilibrium, in that all the fluctuations, features, forces, positives, negatives, patterns, models, etc. would balance/cancel out. The “happy medium” would be a big flatline.
    While knowledge is necessarily the framing of particular aspects of the larger reality. The signal extracted from the noise. Thus multiplying signals can as easily cancel, as well as increase knowledge. As in too much information is white out, just as too little information is black out.
    So if we were to propose a cosmic source of our conscious awareness, it would be the raw essence from which increasingly complex manifestations arise and evolve, not some ideal form of knowledge and judgement from which they fell, or are imperfect copies, as in theology as a form of platonic idealism. In essence that raw awareness shining through all of life, not any complex pattern, form or modeling thereof that it might manifest.
    Knowledge then becomes the store of experience and lessons gleaned, by individuals and communities, which is constantly being recycled, remodeled and adapted. Not a platonic ideal of universal form and pattern, which would otherwise appear to be emergent expressions of dynamic processes.
    A theory of mind is just one more mapping device. Very useful if applied properly and judiciously, but misapplied and it will only lead to a hall of mirrors, where flaws and delusions are allowed to multiply, because they are not effectively tested.

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  16. I think before we go much further, a few points should be clarified.

    “Theory of mind” does not refer to a theory of mind (although it implicates one). It is technical term of art for a presumed function of the human brain. The function is that of ability to construct theoretical statements concerning the intentionality of other humans. This presumes a representational and a computational theory of consciousness and thinking. If there are difficulties in any of these presumptions (ToM, representationalism, computationalism), there will be similar problems found in the other two.

    It is conceivable that one can reject all three as inflationary reifications of human interaction (rather than the parsimonious reductionism they present themselves as). If so then the term ‘folk psychology’ would have to be rejected, since it was intended to be derogatory to begin with, and presumes that most of our ‘folk psychological’ intuitions are categorically false – this despite the fact that they prove overwhelmingly successful in practice.

    http://www.iep.utm.edu/theomind/

    Purveyors of ToM rely on a long and highly documented history of clinical testing. Outside of problems with clinical testing of behavior per se (always ignored, and a separate debate), the evidence is somewhat ambiguous as to how much of the data is ‘massaged’ as Mark Davidson put it. If a child, asked whether another child would assume that there were cereal in an unopened box, says that’s likely, does this necessarily demonstrate a ToM? I can readily imagine a half-dozen other hypotheses that could explain the phenomenon just as well, and could undoubtedly develop a series of clinical tests that would supply supporting data.

    One really good thing about this article is that it points out the profound problems with trying to use ‘science’ to determine the social-psychology of religious beliefs. For every study seeking to demonstrate we are born-to-believe, there’s another study demonstrating we aren’t. Truth is, to approach the issue of religious belief or non-belief as a neuropsychological ‘problem’ is a completely skewered and ultimately pointless endeavor.

    Yet we spend years of effort and countless dollars on such endeavors. Is it possible that all has been for naught?

    Unfortunately – it is. But we are committed. And sadly, the same can be said of many fields of endeavor. Humans have an enormous capacity for generating libraries full of texts describing, explaining, and prescribing whole worlds that we never actually live in.

    In the thread on the previous article, Mark English noted, “Why not just remain agnostic about those issues which remain contentious in mainstream scientific circles?” As I age and continue reading, I am growing so ‘agnostic’ about many purportedly scientific claims, that I wonder if the more extreme Pyrrhonists weren’t the closest to the mark on the (im)possibility of ‘knowing’ anything at all.

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  17. There are other domains that also mysterious to us: dark matter, dark energy, origin of life, … . We continue to update our languages and technologies to understand them. Why should the gunk in our sculls be any different? More complex languages are needed, perhaps, but it seems to take a lot of philosophical chutzpah to say the difference is a matter of kind and not degree.

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  18. ejwinner: In the thread on the previous article, Mark English noted, “Why not just remain agnostic about those issues which remain contentious in mainstream scientific circles?” As I age and continue reading, I am growing so ‘agnostic’ about many purportedly scientific claims, that I wonder if the more extreme Pyrrhonists weren’t the closest to the mark on the (im)possibility of ‘knowing’ anything at all.

    I think it’s pretty obvious that humans can’t “know” anything other than analytic propositions that amount to tautologies (e.g. pure math, formal logic). But that’s assuming that “knowledge” holds one-to-one correspondence with 100% verified, 100% true belief. But I’d say that if we define “warranted beliefs” to be beliefs that have been corroborated by evidence or experience, based on valid/cogent reasoning, then warranted beliefs are pretty damn useful, even if they present an incomplete picture or contains certain flaws. And we have a history of approximately true beliefs and folk wisdom of being very helpful to humans, and we have 500 years of modern science to demonstrate that when we actually try to hone and whittle down our warranted beliefs, then humans can do really amazing things.

    So while I sympathize with your point, I would personally emphasize the point that although many important disciplines, e.g. neuroscience, are very far from making theories that will stand up to data both accurately and robustly, it is also important to mention that they are making progress. It may have taken 23 centuries after Aristotle first wrote down his observations of Nature for his successors to develop the first scientific methodologies and procedures, to realize the importance of mathematical models, to develop experiments and gather facts about motion, to observe phenomenological laws in the data, to synthesize the phenomenological laws into scientific theories (e.g. Newtonian mechanics), to advance the experimental apparatuses, to advance the mathematical understanding of the theories, to generalize and extend the theories, to develop new technologies based on the theories, to make technologies based upon those technologies and then to apply the theories in a new contexts, until finally we ended up with the ability to land on the moon, build atomic weapons and power sources, build cars and public transportation, and eventually invent smart phones, computers, the internet, and so on. I would say that neuroscience is at the phase of developing and advancing their methodologies, gathering facts about the human mind, and are beginning to compile phenomenological laws. But there’s quite a way to go before they have a theory that unifies these phenomenological laws.

    People often forget the time scales involved in understanding Nature, but the reality is that understanding Nature is very, very difficult –but the profound results are worth the protracted timescales of discovery. It’s also a reminder that although absolute knowledge isn’t an attainable goal, it also may not be a necessary goal if we want to have a satisfactory understanding of the world and have warranted beliefs.

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  19. I wonder if it is an overdeveloped or poorly directed theory of mind which causes people to ascribe dispositional attitudes to inanimate objects, ie ascribe personalities to their cars.

    I can imagine that if whatever processes are behind theory of mind skills also lead people to ascribe, for example, anger to thunder, then maybe this would lead to theory of mind skills being correlated in some ways to religious belief.

    Is this at least part of the thesis here?

    =========================
    Hi Mark,

    How does one do block quotes? Are there any other formatting options for comment entries?

    Not sure if this is going to work but <blockquote>Put quote text here</blockquote>

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  20. Hi Neil,

    J. Smeland, replying to me, asked “Isn’t that folk psychology?”

    Well perhaps it is. But it isn’t text book folk psychology. I’m skeptical of belief theories of mind. And I’m skeptical of the idea that knowledge is justified true belief.

    But “theory of mind” is not something you decide to do, it is an abstraction of an innate brain function inferred from behaviour.

    When you say you don’t attribute mental states you appear to be talking as though this is something you have control over. But the fact of you putting yourself in someone else’s shoes shows that you do attribute a person with having the state that you would have in the same situation.

    But that is pretty much how the majority of people attribute mental states, by default.

    I was born with very poor theory of mind skills and when it is pointed out to me I can see it in my behaviour. But I can’t catch myself doing “theory of the mind” because I don’t know what it is like to have any other kind of mind.

    So I work on the behaviours without having any idea whether this will map to what other people are doing when they do it intuitively.

    Putting myself in someone else’s shoes would not work in my case (unless, maybe, if they were also autistic).

    So you have to develop other strategies. Asking, for example. And that turns out to be a good common sense strategy that often does not occur to non-autistic people, works better than putting yourself in their shoes.

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  21. I can equate the ancient practice of religion to society and the extended family. Disrespecting the male elders, especially in public was rare along with questioning religious leaders. Even the recent stories of priest abuse recount a child trying to tell his mother what a priest was doing to him and the child being punished for saying such things about a priest. Interestingly the biographies of many of the early scientific thinkers was of being orphans or sons who were not favored by parents because they acted differently (autism?) etc.

    The hacker instinct is based in the iconoclast personality. http://aeon.co/magazine/technology/how-yuppies-hacked-the-original-hacker-ethos/. One of my college room mates was a phone hacker and I actually met ‘Captain Crunch’ in the early 1970’s. My roommate did ‘reform’ and today works for Apple. In being friends with him I did discover my own hacker instinct which lead me on to an interest in psychology and religion along with engineering and philosophy. I remember reading my Dad’s old amateur radio handbook when I was about ten and being fascinated by how those old tube radios worked. Recall listening to Richard Feynman tell a similar story about being a kid and playing tricks at Los Alamos on the older physicists. Today at age 61 I can still read through pages of schematics and block diagrams. We all attain our savant nature working in tech fields.

    In today’s society major sports teams are ‘worshipped’ and sports stars deities and entertainers attain high recognition for political opinions. Sports fanaticism for winning and losing probably tied to human tribal and survival instinct, same as religious instinct.

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  22. ToM is just another way of saying that everyone tries to understand their fellows – being good at it can be extremely rewarding: money, friends, influence, power; especially love and appreciation. In my system of understanding, it is a component of everyone’s naive ToE. Underlying this is our individual personalities into which it seems, most of us has little insight. People with personality disorders have even less insight than others and could be very prone to have very distorted ToMs.

    In the normal course of events we respond to situations intuitively. We sometimes probably rationalize to ourselves afterward, and to others when asked, eg by a research assistant. To think that the answers provide accurate insights might be too optimistic.

    As already noted, it’s very complicated!

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  23. Hi Labnut,

    As your daughter will no doubt tell you, while such interventions are highly successful, there is no.expectation they are actually developing theory of the mind as such, just the skills.

    The skill that is most commonly needed is to look people in the eye. Simple, you might think.

    So you look people in the eye and they flinch or step back, or else they say ‘What? What is it? Is there something on my face?”

    Clearly not just any old look will do. So you experiment and eventually you cultivate a look which people will accept as indicating you are paying attention. And that is one of the easiest ones. It is difficult for a high functioning individual like me, how hard it must be for someone with any degree of intellectual disability I don’t know. But most manage it.

    But I could not say that I was doing the same thing as most people do when they engage in this interaction.

    There is a theory that it is people off the spectrum who need the interventions. For example John Elder Robison, author of “Look me in the Eye” rebels and says he won’t look people in the eye, people should accept him the way he is.

    I can sympathise with that, but still do look people in the eye. Apart from anything else it is a lot of work gone to waste if I don’t use the skill.

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  24. Hi Liam,

    ToM is just another way of saying that everyone tries to understand their fellows

    No, that is not it. It is at a deeper level, a level below consciousness and is to do with how people behave towards each other.

    Let me give you an example. At work we all learned, one day, that one of our team has died that morning in a motorcycle accident. Everybody is naturally shocked and grief stricken by this and we all talk together. After a while I notice that everyone is looking at me. “Well, we liked him anyway” someone says and they all look at each other and nod or say “yes”.

    So what was it that I did that led them to conclude that I did not care about him, that I did not like him? Everybody in that room managed to communicate with each other their feelings about what happened except me. I will never know what it is that I did wrong. And, of course, none of them knew what they did that was right.

    It was at a time when, while I knew there was something, I had not been diagnosed. Today I can explain and say that I have inappropriate expressions and reactions and that I really do care, and people, in general, will understand. But back then … well I didn’t last in that job long.

    This is my last comment and, although it is not the intent of the article, I would really like to have communicated something of what this means. But it is difficult because I am no psychologist and I don’t fully understand it and they are behaviours that most people probably don’t even notice they are doing.

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  25. W.r.t. religion, it seems clear to me that human minds didn’t evolve for grasping much that an epistemologist would recognize as “knowledge”. Pre-literate people had enough of a “theory of everything” to get by in their environment. I do think we have a drive to be able to explain things in some sense (even if it’s a “just so” story) and know the properties of things, plants, and animals, and how they work. In our formative time (w.r.t. evolution), I think that drive would remain very active, causing children to ask the sorts of questions that they do, until generally, the world as experienced has a certain quality of familiarity, and at that point, in most people it would grow less active (satiated).

    A popular modern device of explainers of religion is the “overactive agency detector”, whereby we look at things that change or move, and suppose it is due to some agency the object has. I’m not so sure this is even fairly called “overactive” — the preliterate person is using the only mental tool with which they have had any success in explaining highly changeable entities. It works on people, and probably pretty well on animals, why not those other things like weather, rivers that sometimes overflow their banks, and other times dry up, things that blight plants or cause disease in people.

    The fact (I propose) that we are satisfied only when we have a “theory of everything” (everything that one encounters, in a small environment that is, means that preliterate people tried to understand things that affect us, whatever they may be, and as there were many things (most things?) that people had no real ability to understand for millennia, we had quite a few arbitrary or indeed weird beliefs. What makes ultra-sociability work is a shared belief system with explanations for everything that bothers us; explanatory systems are generated per se, not just as a consequence of trying to function effectively in our environment. The minds of hunter-gatherer communities inhabit the same constructed reality (social construction of reality, such as it is, seems like a plain fact at that level of society — though I don’t think it need apply to moderns).

    Unification of the supernatural into one immense entity seems to be a late development, only occurring to literate peoples, so I expect the explanation for that lies in the dynamics of much more complex societies than those existing in our formative period.

    If indeed the high functioning autistic tend on average to relate less to the idea of deity this would make some sense – they have trouble recognizing/understanding the agency of other humans, so would seem to be less motivated to project it onto the universe as a whole.

    I only know from my experience dipping into the very active NYC Lesswrong.org community, “neurotypical” is close to a put-down, while “aspie” is a more friendly thing to call someone, and aggressive atheism also happens to reign.

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  26. My comments are:

    1. In regard to the statement “That is, we live in a material world ruled by minds with no physical locality and it is here that we think beliefs, desires, intentions, and other mental states are both responsible for, and explain our behavior [1].”

    it seems like an unfounded assumption to say that minds and their beliefs, desires, etc. have no physical locality. I think all these things are physically located in the brain inside the head of each person and take the form of neural circuits, ion gradients, etc. If someone can point out where else they’d be or provide evidence for another location, please let me know.

    2. I don’t see any connection between an ability “to reason about the mental states of others” and the belief in a God or not. If there were a God, I think atheists would be able to reason about her mental state as well as theists, but this has no relationship to whether or not there is a God and thus no relationship to whether or not the person is an atheist.

    3. The whole argument of the cognitive science of religion theists is based on the assumption that there is a God and that their view is the correct one (of course) and, therefore, that those who don’t agree that there is a God must have some defect. Theory of mind or whatever, to me, it just seems like condescending stereotyping and prejudice (by the CSR people) looking for fancy sounding words to try and cover it up.

    4. If atheism had come first in human history, we’d probably be having a discussion right now about whether or not theists are defective.

    5. It seems counterintuitive to me to assume the presence of an unseen being that can’t be explained as the reason the world is here. My intuition and theory of mind seems to suggest that that doesn’t make sense. But, as an agnostic, I can lean one way or another but can’t prove either way.

    Thank you.

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  27. I disagree with the way this subject is approached, and its stance “That is, we live in a material world ruled by minds with no physical locality and it is here that we think beliefs, desires, intentions, and other mental states are both responsible for, and explain our behavior [1]. There is nothing particularly magical or surprising about this fact, ” I do not think anything of the sort, and I don’t think its a “fact”.

    What drives human behaviour at a cognitive level, rather than “unknown forces” including “instincts”, is awareness of logic and facts. We experience oneself in a world as objects in a subjective representation, with thoughts and feelings about oneself as an object interfacing a world of objects in which we are completely immersed from a zygote.

    Cognition enables us to distinguish factual objects that have proximate continuity, and logical objects to reason objectively about those facts. Recognition and use of logic as an object in the subjective experience is as important as recognizing facts as objects. We develop consistent logic to define and reason objectively by logic about contiguous facts to make progress. Anyone can recognize a fact as existing or not, particularly if it is well defined by consistent logic, comprehensively and with practical value.

    These are not figments, hidden forces, mystical causes. There are the unknown drivers still being discovered in neurobiology and its connection to general biology to represent our full bodily interfaces with a world, but at the experienced level of cognition, everyone can have satisfactory control. The test is in the recognition of facts and logic and their objective combination into progressive improved ideas about nature and humans. At the level of cognition this is open to everyone, tested by practical results rather than worrying about “root as yet unknown drivers”. The beauty is that this is all instantly recognizable as a program by anyone for anyone, as we all use facts and logic, and their combination can be easily understood.

    Quite frankly, the simplicity of the task, and human reliability at the basic level of experiencing facts and logic together, mean that we do not actually need to know the root drivers to make progress. We might discover how the subjective experience arises from neurobiology & biology, But at the level of people exchanging views about what constitutes an observed factual object and consistent objective logic about, is within everyone’s grasp right now. Exchanges will lead to progress when better observations and analyses lead to practical answers to problems, tested at the level of rational or cognitive satisfaction without the need to know the root drivers. As a great man once said, “work from cognitive peak to peak, and let higher peaks be your guide”

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  28. fieldtheorist,

    Thank you for your balanced and thoughtful reply. While I think we will continue to disagree on important issues here, you make a persuasive case. Certainly it would be a mistake to toss out the sciences as a whole just because of some difficulties that show up in them.

    But I would say that the difficulty I was most interested in pointing out, is the danger of en-framing data to suite a particular theory. This happens all the time – sometimes harmlessly, sometimes even beneficially – but the practice carries risks. Someone finds a picture, declares it to be that of an old woman – but from a different perspective, it looks like a rabbit. If there is no artist known whose intent can be verified, audiences are certainly free to develop differing interpretations as best as can be argued for.

    Robin Herbert,

    Having suffered from a social-psychological dysfunction (never diagnosed), I sympathize with your experience. However, this doesn’t really speak to the issue of whether the brain has a natural “Theory of Mind” function somehow genetically embedded in it, since assuming this would also assume that our knowledge of the world depends on representations that are computed, translatable into theoretical sentences. This seems quite a stretch to me, and seems only intended to foreclose richer – but more difficult to elucidate – explanations of the same phenomena.

    (My preference, as I’ve noted before, is semiotics – a non-representational theory of sign-interpretation and response, biologically grounded but non-reductive.)

    However, any model that somehow helps us to negotiate the world is not to be dismissed; if ToM helps those with issues you describe, or that labnut describes, I won’t reject them out of hand. I simply caution that they are tentative, contingent, and likely to be supplanted as we read the accumulating data through different lenses. Re-frame the question, and the answer, though seemingly the same, reads completely differently.

    (One reason semantics – signification – is not reducible to syntax – signalling.)

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  29. Robin, you say that you were “born with very poor theory of mind skills”, but your example indicates the opposite. According to your story, you correctly understood your coworkers’ feelings about the motorcycle death, but they misunderstood your feelings. That means that they were the ones who were inaccurately drawing inferences based on them having a faulty theory of what was in your mind.

    At worst, you failed to explain your feelings in a way that your coworkers can understand. But that is still their ToM problem, not yours, since they were the ones to jump to the mistaken conclusion.

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  30. Understanding others, explicitly or intuitively, must include a process of understanding oneself. This process is automatic, not under conscious control. We start out as child scientists and rapidly develop theories on everything. Everything means everything: mind, self, consciousness, culture, ethics and virtue. Every penetrating mind must also address causality and meaning. A theory of creation is therefore also necessary. It cannot be avoided by simple hand-waiving.

    Thomas Coleman writes a very informative and thought provoking piece but there are a few categorical statements that deserve close scrutiny. They do remind me of hand-waiving:

    “… our minds did not evolve to perform calculus, ..”

    Really. Why did our minds evolve, if not to do calculus and a million other things? Honestly, we have no empirically supported theory of why we are here and why we do what we do. Our scintillating minds certainly did evolve to make calculations.

    “This argument can be rejected flat out. Just because humans use shortcuts in their reasoning during casual conversations (i.e., “it was chance”) in place of a dry scientific explanation is no reason to believe that they are implicitly appealing to a quasi god.”

    The referenced argument can only be treated with contempt if there is proof that there is no god in fact. We have no evidence, pro or con. The concept of god has many related cultural uses, one of which is to explain, even if erroneously, luck, fate and destiny.

    “From a scientific point of view there exists no guiding life force (i.e., God)…”

    There is ample evidence that there are life forces of all kinds: survival of the fittest would be one example. Our almost complete lack of rigorous understanding does not justify elimination of the fantastical idea that there is some purpose and that it may derive from god.

    Denying folk religions would be as grave an error as denying folk psychologies.

    Making pronouncements certain about theism seems extremely premature if one considers how little we know in the big scheme of things. Humility would be more appropriate.

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  31. It would seem that we’ve been offered a “sacrificial lamb” for this edition. In the end I found it a bit deflating that the proper answer was indeed reached (yes of course atheism does not suggest mental deficiency!). I’m not sure what it is that I was suppose to learn however? If there was anything to suggest that Cognitive Science of Religion is making progress, or perhaps something else, then I did miss it.

    Fieldtheorist, I’m very happy to know that you share my disdain for our modern mental/behavioral sciences. The apparent difference is that I’m also quite hopeful that a coming “Sir Isaac Newton” will bring an amazing revolution. I believe that a philosopher will essentially “solve ethics,” and that this specific premise will also become the foundation upon which future mental/behavioral sciences will rest. At that point I presume that some philosophers would choose to join the realm of science, given the exciting opportunities which their new understandings would bring, while others would choose not to. I do hope for competition regarding this quest of mine — the more of us racing for this non standard goal (or at least who acknowledge the magnitude of our problems today), the sooner that one of us (and thus all of us) should succeed.

    I certainly do love the theory of mind topic itself. I designate first order as personal thoughts, second order as what you think someone else is thinking, third order as what you think they think you’re thinking, and so on. Furthermore I would hope for us to not refer to our ideas regarding mind itself with the “ToM” term, since this might not only be confusing, but more importantly because the term “mind” shouldn’t require any theory at all. Just figure out how you want to define it, and then by definition this will be the definition that others will need to use in order to properly consider your ideas. (Last time Massimo told me that he has no noun mind definition (beyond “brain” I suppose), and simply focuses on what it does, or “minding.” I would hope for him and others to earnestly consider my own “information processor” definition for the noun, with the converse being “mechanical.”)

    Robin Herbert, let me assure you that I had no clue about any autism in you, or even theory of mind difficulties. I suppose it might be different if we met in person, but then isn’t it wonderful that no such problems exist here? Theory of mind has generally been problematic for me as well, though not enough for anyone to ask for a mental diagnosis. I suspect my issue to be given my inordinate concern with philosophical questions — with this focus I don’t seem to think about things quite as others do (and yes even right here). I think it’s somewhat of a “too much honesty” thing, whereas normal people are able to figure out what others want through their subsequently better ToM skills, and then preform their salesmanship on this basis. We all have our challenges to work on I suppose.

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  32. We all seem to have these wireless communication devices that those of us over ten years old know have been compounding in their rate of complexity in very short order. Essentially as living beings, we are all wireless communication devices of much greater complexity, using everything from language to body signals. While on the reception end we might interpret these signals far differently than they were intended, we are all points of reception in clouds of signals and the talent is to clarify and quantify as much information as necessary from the general static.
    Personally I find the ability to neutralize my own transmissions of signals to be a useful talent. To effectively blend into the background and “ground” myself out. Much as one might release static charge through varieties of connections that relate to my situation. Given I spend much of my time out doors, this it a fairly organic process.
    Then I can better sense others energies. Given that at their core, other people are motivated by that elemental sense of self, this can function as a form of magnetic attractor to my own sense of consciousness.
    The primary problem with this, is that very issue of staring others in the eye. You do interrupt their space and there tends to be an instinctive reaction that will be somewhere along the spectrum of attraction to repulsion. Not repulsion as in distaste, but in emotional competition, as to who is dominant. In crowds of people, most have a shell they will inhabit and dress and act to fit the category they want to fill. Yet if you ground out as part of the scenery, many of those signals will naturally express themselves.
    Probably the times this can be best experienced is driving, as people are naturally focused outward and on guard, but as a function of personal safety, not social comportment, so the signals can be blunt and obvious, but not with the sense of self awareness that is inhibiting in more personal encounters. As I usually drive a motorcycle, I’m very good at reading other drivers signals. Evidence being that at 55, I’m still alive and still driving a sport bike.

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  33. Almost all studies of theists/atheists make the mistake of treating them as homogenous groups when in fact they fall naturally into groups with very different properties. Failure to separate out the groups makes conclusions weak.

    Here is one useful classification scheme based on the observation that people naturally fall into one of the following groups. It is a reflection of my experiences in the Catholic community and seems to apply equally well to the atheist community.
    1) indifferent – behaviour is not modified by beliefs;
    2) motivated – behaviour is altered, to some degree, by beliefs;
    3) committed – beliefs become central to the person and strongly modifies their behaviour;
    4) activist – they become active in their community in accordance with their beliefs.

    1. Activist atheist
    Attacks the exercise of religion, trying to limit it, displace it or destroy it. Examples are preventing the display of religious symbols, public prayer, opposing the establishment of religious institutions, etc.

    2. Committed atheist
    Attacks the expression of religion in discussion, forums etc. Their atheist identity is central to their life.

    3. Motivated atheist
    Has strong opinions about religion but seldom acts on them. They self-identify as atheists but it is not a dominant consideration in their lives.

    4. Indifferent atheist
    Is a nominal atheist. Has no strong opinions and has an attitude of live-and-let-live. Could not care less and knows little to nothing about religion.
    ————————-
    5. Indifferent theist
    Is a nominal theist. Has no clear opinions about religion, knows little to nothing about the subject and seldom or perhaps never goes to church/mosque/temple.

    6. Motivated theist
    Is informed about their beliefs, tries to act accordingly and occasionally or perhaps frequently goes to church/mosque/temple.

    7. Committed theist
    Is well informed about their beliefs. These beliefs are central to their life and they try to act accordingly. They attend church/mosque/temple regularly.

    8. Activist theist
    Actively engages in outreach programmes such as soup kitchens, aid centres, medical clinics, etc. Priests, nuns, monks and lay brothers/sisters also fall into this category. I deliberately exclude the work of Christian fundamentalists who oppose the teaching of evolution, since, from a Catholic point of view, we consider that an aberrant form of religion.

    In my experience the great majority of the (Western)population are indifferent theists or indifferent atheists. I think there is hardly any difference between these two groups. The differences become stronger as you go up the spectrum from indifferent, through motivated and committed to activist where the strongest differences appear.

    Any study that fails to consider these different groupings will be swamped by the trivial differences between indifferent atheists/theists since they form the great majority of the population.

    I have found that this classification, indifferent/motivated/committed/activist applies equally well to most social/political activities where the indifferents are always the great majority. It is a feature of a stable society. A stressed society will see the balance changing dramatically.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. Ahh, dear labnut, where would we be without your regular commentaries on atheism?

    It was a real shock to meet the unpleasant brand of atheism that one finds on the Internet (and sometimes in this forum). … They are nothing like the decent, tolerant, live-and-let-live atheists that I know.

    It is just possible that a disinterested observer might consider that the degree of criticism aimed at atheists by such as yourself is at least equal to that offered by atheists.

    Almost all studies of theists/atheists make the mistake of treating them as homogenous groups …

    Your scheme omits one huge distinction. An identity such as “Catholic” is about beliefs that one does hold, and, for any but the most token believers, such beliefs have a large influence on other aspects of life.

    Atheism is not like that, the label is merely about beliefs one does not hold. It is no more central to other aspects of life than, say, being a non-smoker. Some non-smokers campaign against smoking, but most don’t. Similarly, some atheists campaign against religious influences, but most don’t. Either way, it is not the same as having an ethos or religion akin to Catholicism.

    Activist atheist: Attacks the exercise of religion, trying to limit it, displace it or destroy it. Examples are preventing the display of religious symbols, public prayer, ….

    Well now, let’s clarify. Many atheists do advocate for secular government. They want the government to be neutral and to side neither for nor against religion.

    Western atheists do not try to “prevent the display of religious symbols, public prayer …”, they try to prevent the government doing such things. See the distinction? Many religious people wilfully conflate those in an attempt to play the victim card, claiming that requiring the government to be neutral is somehow an attack on their personal beliefs and their right to pray in public.

    Secularism is thus the very model of live-and-let-live tolerance that you laud.

    But live-and-let-live tolerance is not compatible with religious believers thinking that they are privileged citizens who are entitled to have their beliefs promoted by government, with atheists being second-class citizens who are expected to know their place.

    As just one example of why atheists speak up, in my country the law allows taxpayer-funded schools to reject kids based on parental religion. Further, the law requires that pupils must worship the Christian god every school day. The kids have no right of opt-out.

    And yet, when atheists speak up and ask merely for equality they get denigrated as “militants”.

    Now, it is entirely true that quite a few Western atheists do seek to persuade society to be less religious. But note the difference between “prevent” and “persuade”. (Though it’s amazing how huffy some can get when atheists write popular-level books that sell well.) Advocating and persuading in the public domain is the entirely normal process of politics and the normal free exchange of ideas that underpins all of Western freedoms.

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  35. Labnut,

    1. Activist atheist
    Attacks the exercise of religion, trying to limit it, displace it or destroy it. Examples are preventing the display of religious symbols, public prayer, opposing the establishment of religious institutions, etc.

    There are atheist who actively oppose that. Maybe anti-theists is a better term for what you are describing.

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  36. I’ve found this article confusing, and respondents seem to have widely varying readings of what was said, yet the subject is extremely interesting and pertinent to me — it seems like the only way to reflect on it is with piecemeal responses to specific points.

    OP: Just as the chemists or astronomers of today do not identify as “a-alchemists” or “a-astrologers,” individuals will find little utility in identifying as “a-theists.” Instead, and perhaps only when required to do so, today’s atheists will become tomorrow’s nonbelievers and be identified only secondarily as at some distance from theism [21].

    I think chemists and astronomers don’t identify as “a-alchemists” or “a-astrologers” because it wouldn’t occur to anyone to call them alchemists/astrologers — it would just be totally outrageous to do so. Now nonbeliever seems simply synonymous with atheist so it hardly makes a difference, but to apply the analogy, will it be in the future totally outrageous to suggest that someone is a theist? Logically it definitely seems you’re saying that, but the tone suggests you’re saying something pretty bland. In fact the whole tone of the OP is breezy and certainly doesn’t that you’re proclaiming any “hard truths”.

    EJW: ““Theory of mind” does not refer to a theory of mind (although it implicates one)… The function is that of ability to construct theoretical statements concerning the intentionality of other humans. This presumes a representational and a computational theory of consciousness and thinking. If there are difficulties in any of these presumptions (ToM, representationalism, computationalism), there will be similar problems found in the other two.”

    You seem to me uncharacteristically turgid here. “does not refer ..[but] implicates. “ability to construct theoretical statements concerning the intentionality of other humans”. This puts it squarely in the arena of conscious thinking vs any barely-or-unconscious simulation theory. E.g. of a particularly clear-cut illustration of the difference is http://www.eva.mpg.de/psycho/staff/tomas/pdf/ButtelmannEtal_FalseBelief_2009.pdf – working with 18 month olds — the study is partly in response to some issues taken with studies of younger children. The gist is, one experimenter is looking for an object, and either (1) the child observed them observing where it is or (2) the child observed the object being moved when experimenter’s back was turned. Hence in case 2, an attentive adult would realize that experimenter had a false belief about where the object is, while in case 1, observer would assume they had a true belief. In case 2, the child usually intervenes to point out where the object really is; in case 1, the child usually doesn’t intervene — whatever it is the experimenter is making a fuss about, it *isn’t* that they have a wrong view of where the object is. Only reading the paper will show if I’ve done it justice, but this illustrates why some say “mindreading” instead of ToM, esp if ToM = “ability to construct theoretical statements concerning the intentionality of other humans”.

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  37. (An alternative version of Labnut’s classification.)

    1. Activist atheist
    Realizes the dangers of theistic thinking and is an outspoken activist warning society of its pitfalls.

    2. Committed atheist
    Is committed to anti-theism, but doesn’t get on a soapbox often.

    3. Motivated atheist
    Is mostly anti-theist, but is noncommittal.

    4. Indifferent atheist
    Doesn’t know. Doesn’t care. But no God, please.

    ————————-
    5. Indifferent theist
    Like 4, but there’s a God. Maybe.

    6. Motivated theist
    Knows enough theistic lingo to say the “right” words.

    7. Committed theist
    Goes to church, but it could be a liberal church, like the United Church of Christ, or a conservative church, like the Southern Baptist Convention. They believe in two different Gods (politically speaking).

    8. Activist theist
    Typically a right-wing activist who clothes their ideology in Christian theology.

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  38. Hi Philip.

    Busemayor and colleagues carefully avoid any idea that cognition is non-classical in its physics eg

    One perspective is that the brain does not instantiate any quantum computation at all. Rather,
    interference effects in the brain can occur if neuronal membrane potentials have wave-like properties…

    merely that non-classical probability may more nicely model how different beliefs interfere with one another in the irrational process of human decision making eg the conjunction fallacy (Linda the feminist bank teller), overextension of category conjunctions (“chess is a sport that is a game”),

    Liked by 1 person

  39. labnut,

    I am not really sure what relevance your listicle has for the question whether what might be called less eager agent-detection is at least partly responsible for atheism. It also seems as if you have forgotten, purely by accident of course, a few extra categories. To round out your list, here is the activist theist: Attacks the expression of disbelief, trying to limit it, displace it or destroy it. Examples are forcing people to participate in religious rituals, forcing everybody into religious institutions (e.g. the RCC buying up all the hospitals or running all the schools in a jurisdiction), trying to establish a state religion, forcing their sectarian religious morality onto the medical sector or enshrining it into laws in general, and mischaracterising activism for a secular, neutral public space as an attack on religion.

    You’re welcome.

    Liked by 3 people

  40. davidlduffy,

    It would interesting that (from what you point out) that there can be a quantum model at work at a higher cognitive or social level but not at the neuronal level. Kind of reverse of everything supervening on the quantum domain?

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  41. Interesting read but I found the essay hard to follow, maybe because I felt it made a lot of upfront or implied assumptions I disagree with.

    For example the section Criticism of Theories of Theory of Mind in the Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science, Cognitive Processes is a good start.

    In the paper Understanding Other Minds: A Criticism of Goldman’s Simulation Theory and Outline of the Person Model Theory the scetion 1.0 it touches on Interaction-Theory and the Narrative Practice Hypothesis which are the kind of starts I’m more partial too. I only skimmed the Person Model Theory itself and I guess it will appeal to more computational perspectives but I found statements like the following problematic and in need of more thought:

    We argue that there are two kinds of person models, nonconceptual person schemata and conceptual person images and both types of models can be developed for individuals as well as for groups.

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  42. There seems to be the entire middle category of agnostic being left out of the conversation. That it isn’t a lack of commitment when one understands the limits of knowledge about what might transcend normal experience.

    As a militant agnostic, I would also argue there are two categories; Those who realize the limits of knowledge and those who don’t.

    Liked by 1 person

  43. brodix,

    There are two related points to be considered about agnosticism. The first is that in practice there is pretty much zero difference between it and most (‘weak’) atheism.

    Atheist: I don’t see enough evidence for gods, and will thus live my life under the assumption that they don’t exist.

    Agnostic: I really, really want to stress that you can’t prove a negative! And I’m not one of those atheists, just be totally clear on that, right? But I don’t see enough evidence for gods, and will thus live my life under the assumption that they don’t exist.

    The second is that to me it boils down to intellectual consistency, as so often in these discussions. Yes, we cannot know with 100% certainty that there isn’t something that might fit some definition of god – maybe god actively hides from us to test our faith? But we also cannot know with 100% certainty that Nessie doesn’t exist – maybe she is just hiding whenever somebody goes looking? Indeed the same case can be made for every controversial existence claim, be it life on Mars or the qi force of reiki. Still we can always consider plausibility and arrive at a tentative conclusion while allowing for the possibility of more evidence to change our minds.

    So if somebody is happy to make a call on all other comparable issues using standard inductive reasoning (“nah, ghosts don’t exist”), what motivates them to special plead on one issue (“oh, gods are a tricky one”) and only that issue?

    Liked by 2 people

  44. Hi Philip – I think the point is just that the mathematical formalism may (or may not) be useful because of the presence of analogous entities and interactions.

    Hi Aravis – there is such as thing as computational linguistics, and I’ll just point to the level of sophistication in the discussion in just one paper:
    http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/full/10.1162/COLI_a_00124
    showing how statistical learning can be applied to interpretation of metaphor – a putative key feature of semantic understanding.

    Recall, turning kind of back to the current OP, that defects in interpretation of metaphor is one of the negative symptoms of schizophrenia, and delays in acquiring understanding of metaphor and irony are also typical of autism – that is, tied to intact brain structure. Again, Google Scholar throws up a great title “Neural basis of irony comprehension in children with autism: the role of prosody and context”. It is not surprising that some machines can exceed some humans at a particular task, but it is telling that that might include semantics and recognition of emotion or pain in a facial expression or an utterance.

    The concrete thinking of some atheistic viewpoints might be seen as akin to that, eg in the epithet Gradgrindian, or perhaps even Marxian, though I don’t think all utilitarians are necessarily atheists. But the problem of overascription of intentionality is just as bad. The arguments in the OP frame this in terms of monotheism, but this is a particular intellectualisation of magical thinking, another feature of schizophrenia and schizotypal personality. Which reminds me of the recent paper I have been dying to quote:

    http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v18/n7/full/nn.4040.html (behind the paywall, I’m afraid)

    We tested whether polygenic risk scores for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder would predict creativity. Higher scores were associated with artistic society membership or creative profession in both Icelandic (P = 5.2 × 10−6 and 3.8 × 10−6 for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder scores, respectively) and replication cohorts (P = 0.0021 and 0.00086). This could not be accounted for by increased relatedness between creative individuals and those with psychoses, indicating that creativity and psychosis share genetic roots.

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  45. Thanks for the reference Philip Thrift, but you may have missed the point of it:

    -BTW, for those interested in whether quantum phenomena could play a role in it:
    “New model describes cognitive decision making as the collapse of a quantum superstate”
    http://phys.org/news/2015-08-cognitive-decision-collapse-quantum-superstate.html

    The whole point of that paper is to reverse the stance in the essay, just as I have done in my post above. You can look into putative quantum mechanical bases for the experience of awareness or “mind”, but the point of the paper is to say that we use our higher cognitive capacities to settle our course. We do not need to ascribe motivations for “mind” based on “instincts” “predilections”, or “errors”. All we need to do is use the obvious universal capacity to recognize facts and logic and apply them progressively to guide behaviour.

    As I said, the essay has it the wrong way around entirely, leaving us prey to “project” our own ignorance onto others simply because we cannot live in the shoes of others to actually experience what they do. Everyone does that, and everyone also makes errors of factual observation and logical analysis about facts, but that is not how “mind” is applied. It is applied cognitively to shape our prejudices and projections onto others, to remove them and improve an objective view of existence shared by all. It is so obvious. Have a read of this free work Philip, if you want more analysis of the problem http://1drv.ms/1tnKM6f

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  46. Alex,

    Actually gnostic and theism are different words, with different meanings. My argument is that it is more complicated than a simple binary option.
    A god, be it of the poly, pan, or monotheistic variety, tends to be thought of as an idealized form. At the point it has been all distilled down to the monolithic version, it would seem to be little more than a GUT with a soul.
    Reasonably though, a spiritual absolute would be the essence, or raw source from which consciousness rises, not an ideal form of knowledge and judgement from which it fell. This form of gnosticism has generally been frowned on by the powers that be though, as it tends to be politically dissipative, not collective.
    My argument is that there are two great mysteries to life; What is the source and basis of biology and what is the source and basis of consciousness. So it would be a reasonable proposition to consider that, at some level, they might be the same mystery. That consciousness is to biology what gravity is to mass.
    Now we are naturally drawn to ideals, be it of science, ethics, wealth, etc, But ideal and source are not the same thing. For instance, we are taught to view good and bad as a cosmic dual between the forces of righteousness and evil, but they are the basic biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. What is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken. Even the most elemental of single celled organisms will sense the difference and it is a necessary condition of functioning societies to have a group code of good and bad.
    So we, as individuals, have deal with all the variations arising from conflicting needs and desires. Yet there is a strong herd instinct which seems to be very deeply embedded into our subconsciousness and causes us to go with the flow, so to speak. So is this element of consciousness bubbling up as an ordering and executive function of our subconscious, strictly distinct from all others, or are there networks operating at deeper levels, such that we are effectively joined at times?
    Which is to say that we really don’t know and those who engage in simple binary options are operating at a fairly elementary level. Which might be all well and good, but it doesn’t engage the complexities of the various issues.

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  47. Here’s just one more:

    “Mind Operational Semantics and Brain Operational Architectonics: A Putative Correspondence”
    The Open Neuroimaging Journal, 2010, 4, 53-69
    http://www.bm-science.com/team/art58.pdf

    The key word in all these ideas of interacting ‘levels’ seems to be ‘putative’.

    In then end, how would I approach this ToM thing? Leave the theoreticians alone and go into a “lab” and do more experimental hackery (in the good computing and engineering sense of that word).

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