046. The theory of mind

A discussion on what we think others think.

Questions to ponder

  1. How do you determine the presence of minds in others?
  2. How comfortable are you with the notion that there exist people fully as capable of thoughtful reflection on the world as you (perhaps some even better) and yet come to completely different conclusions? How do you negotiate disagreement with others?
  3. If you could be transported instantaneously to a world where other people’s thoughts in your local vicinity were revealed to you but yours were as also revealed to them, would you want to go there? Do you think those who were born into such a world would wish to come to ours where thoughts are kept quietly within skulls?
  4. Can one lie in their sleep?
  5. Why do you think people believe “weird” things? What “weird” things do you believe?
  6. For human beings does “life” “end” with the end of “the mind”. Does it begin there as well? Is this the same criteria we ought to apply to those things we believe have minds?
  7. Is there a baseline level of respect owe to the integrity for things which do (not) have minds?
  8. “Think about it,” David Foster Wallace bids us, “there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.” Is this the “default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth” for all mind-having-beings or is it the conditioned response of a single subset of a single species of primate?

Readings to consider


‘Theory of Mind’ refers to the cognitive capacity to attribute mental states to self and others. Other names for the same capacity include “commonsense psychology,” “naïve psychology,” “folk psychology,” “mindreading” and “mentalizing.” Mental attributions are commonly made in both verbal and non-verbal forms. Virtually all language communities, it seems, have words or phrases to describe mental states, including perceptions, bodily feelings, emotional states, and propositional attitudes (beliefs, desires, hopes, and intentions). People engaged in social life have many thoughts and beliefs about others’ (and their own) mental states, even when they don’t verbalize them. –Alvin I. Goldman

The label ‘theory of mind’ caught on quickly, in part because it was a catchy phrase. But also for some of us, the phrase aptly fit an emerging theory theory: the theoretical claim that children’s conceptual development constitutes naïve theory development (Gopnik & Wellman, 1992, 1994, 2012; Wellman, 1990). –Henry M. Wellman

‘Theory of mind’ refers to the everyday ability to attribute independent mental states to self and others in order to predict and explain behavior (Premack & Woodruff, 1978). This ability appears to be a prerequisite for normal social interaction: In everyday life we make sense of each other’s behavior by appeal to a belief-desire psychology. For instance, it is trivially easy to explain why John will carry his umbrella with him: It is because he believes it will rain and he wants to stay dry. Attribution of mental states is vital for everyday social interact (e.g., cooperation, lying, keeping secrets). –Francesca Happé