I’m still pondering this link between Theory of Mind and – and a lot of things: imagination, social cognition, lying, pretending. And via those things it links to even more things – empathy, story-telling, literature and art, religion, politics, manipulation, coalitions – really pretty much everything that has to do with humans as conscious intentional reflective social beings. It all starts with this ability to realize that Other Minds are other minds.
Social interaction requires the operation of complex mental systems: to represent not just other people’s beliefs and their intentions, but also the extent to which they can be trusted, the extent to which they find us trustworthy, how social exchange works, how to detect cheaters, how to build alliances, and so on…Now interaction with supernatural agents, through sacrifice, ritual, prayer, etc., is framed by those systems. Although the agents are said to be very special, the way people think about interaction with them is directly mapped from their interaction with actual people.
Boyer doesn’t use the term but he’s talking about Theory of Mind there. Very interesting notion. ‘What’s she thinking? What are they thinking? What are you thinking that I’m thinking about what you’re thinking?’ And all that applied also to supernatural beings – so there is no body language, no gestures, no facial expressions, no rocks flung or sticks brandished, no conversation, no shouts or swearing or name-calling. Nothing to go on, one would think – except maybe the weather and the odd earthquake.
One thing that interests me about the subject is that it means (surely) that some (maybe all?) basic virtues are really cognitive first. Maybe that seems self-evident? But I don’t think so – I think we think of virtue as rooted in love. That love comes first and creates sympathy. But if I understand all this correctly, surely it’s perfectly possible to ‘love’ others without understanding that they have their own minds, and therefore that they’re not feeling or thinking what we are. Surely we can’t even begin to have virtues like empathy, compassion, responsibility, generosity, kindness, fairness, until we understand that others have thoughts and feelings different from our own. This basic ability that other animals apart from chimps apparently don’t have (though Frans de Waal for one would disagree with that) is absolutely required for empathy to even exist. Theory of Mind is the same thing as empathy. And it’s not so much a virtue or an emotion as a mental ability.
Another thing that interests me is the way ToM connects with imagination, fantasy, pretending. Empathy is not the only thing that ToM makes possible; lying is another. Children learn that other people can have false beliefs, so the next step is to create them. Autistic children never do either, nor do they pretend.
They will not play with dolls, pretending they are people (when they know that they are not really alive); they will not pick up a telephone and hold a conversation with an imaginary person at the other end of the line; they never pretend to be asleep in order to play a joke on someone else. In short they live in a world that is absolutely real as it stands: they cannot conceive of the situation being other than exactly how it is. And that in turn means that they cannot lie. [Robin Dunbar: The Trouble With Science]
I suppose one reason that interests me so much is that I was a really dedicated pretender when I was a child. It was like a career, a calling. I never knew any other children as deeply into pretending as I was – and I always thought they were eccentric for not being. It seemed to me the only way to play. How do you play? You go outside (or the attic or the basement if it’s raining) and you pretend to be someone else – Jo March, Mary Lennox, Davy Crockett, whoever – for hours and hours. That’s how. What else would you do? I kindly taught friends to play the same way – but I don’t suppose they kept it up anywhere else. But why not? Why not? That’s what I never understood. It’s so much fun. You get to live in another century, in another place, doing unfamiliar things, living in a different story. I used to think children who don’t pretend must be slightly stunted, mentally. (Of course, I’m only two feet tall, so I shouldn’t talk.) I’m not sure I still think that, and yet I do think the ability to fantasize, to imagine things as other than they are, is one that ought to be fostered. At least as much as the ability to play soccer.