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One of the major focuses of modern philosophy is the idea of Theory of Mind.

Theory of mind refers to the mental ability to think that other living things have a
mind different than your own. This is an epistemological debate brought on by the
examination of ideas like the knowledge problem and the problem of other minds.
Basically stated, theory of mind is what allows humans to empathize, communicate
non-verbally (known as mind-reading), and to understand the benefit of the
knowledge of others. An exemplary experiment of theory of mind is the false belief
test, in which a subject is expected to logically empathize with a fictional character
in order to demonstrate their grasp or lack of theory of mind. From these studies it
has been determined that most healthy humans above the age of 4 can pass the
false belief test and therefore have theory of mind. But you already knew that. It is
obvious from the way we interact with each other that it is a normal, perhaps
necessary function of the human mind. The more interesting question, however, is
whether or not animals have a theory of mind similar to that possessed by humans.
This is a difficult debate to answer because of the fact that humans and animals
cannot perform complex communication between them, so a test like the false
belief is invalid with animal subjects. Because animals cannot tell us what they
think, we have no way of learning how they think. In order to come to a conclusion
for this problem the idea of animal theory of mind must be established.
The first step is to acknowledge that animals seem to have minds; they
appear to react to sensations and perceptions, and even seem to have emotions
and desires in some cases. So it seems that at least some animals are intelligent,
but now the question is whether or not they are conscious. There are several
definitions of consciousness as described by philosophy, but in this case I will be
considering the Armstrong definition that conscious experience requires a higher
order awareness of thoughts and desires. By this definition of consciousness, many
would say that animals may have minds, but they are unconscious minds, asleep at
the wheel, simply reacting to perceptions without awareness. Others might say that
animals have minds, but not beliefs, meaning that they have no higher order
system of desires or beliefs; they can have desires, but no beliefs or desires for
desires associated with said thought. In order to effectively examine the evidence
animal mind function, a model must be applied to ensure that the fewest number of
assumptions as is possible are being made. The common model is Lloyd Morgans
canon, in which he states In no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms
of higher psychological processes if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes
which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development. This
basically means that if an animal behavior can be adequately explained in simple
functional terms, such as a wolf hunting because it is hungry, then it should not be
explained in any more complex psychological terms, for instance, the wolf hunting
because it has a desire to do so. This consideration prevents us from over
anthropomorphizing animal behavior and requires higher order function to be
identified as a necessity for behavior, helping to create a more rigorous proof of
Now that the rules have been established for this debate, let us examine
some common evidence of animal theory of mind. One common example is that
domesticated cats and dogs beg to their owners and seem to express a desire to be
fed. This seems to show that they have a concept of their owners minds. By
begging to be fed, it seems that the animal understands that they are trying to
influence our behavior by acting in a way to make their owner think that they are
hungry. Explained in this way, it certainly seems that animals have a theory of mind;

if they are trying to make you realize something or feel a certain way, it follows that
they believe you have a mind of your own and a set of desires and perceptions not
unlike their own. However, when observed using Lloyd Morgans canon, we see the
flaws in this belief. It is not unreasonable to believe that the animal is simply acting
as a result of conditioning, and has no concept of your thoughts or beliefs. For
instance, when your dog runs up to you and whimpers and puts his head in your
lap, you know it is hungry and wants to eat, so you feed it. Although most of us are
disposed to relate to the dog and believe that it is trying to tell us that it is hungry,
it is more reasonable to say that the dog is simply performing actions that have
been proven to result in being fed in the past. Although it is debatable whether
animals are conscious agents, it is certain that they have functional memory, and
this functional memory is the driving force behind explaining learned behavior. Your
dog may be trying to communicate with you, but it is more logical to say that the
dog has become conditioned to associate you with positive experiences of being
fed, therefore when the dog is hungry, it is simply seeking what it knows to be the
source of its food. It cannot be proven in this way whether the animal is actually
conscious of your thoughts or is just manipulating you as part of its environment to
fulfill its base desires. Similarly, it is often observed that pets treat their owners
differently when the owners are sad, angry, etc. If your pet can realize that you are
sad and react in a way to comfort you, it seems that they are aware that you are
able to have emotions. But this evidence falls into the same trap as the begging
example; although we see our pets behavior as them trying to comfort us, it is
more logically correct to believe that they are simply perceiving a difference in your
behavior and adjusting their behavior as a result. Both of these seemingly complex
behaviors can be explained in terms of simple first order perception and desires,
therefore they are not sufficient evidence that animals hold a theory of mind at
least for humans.
Perhaps a behavioral understanding is asking too much of the animal mind.
But surely theory of mind can be observed in another way. For instance, when you
point to a spot in your yard, your dog excitedly turns to face the direction you are
pointing and seems to look for whatever it was that you were pointing at. This
seems to imply that the dog has an understanding that you are having a visual
experience independent of its own, that you might be seeing something that it is
not. It may also be said that the dogs reaction to you alerting it may be evidence
that it understands that you have knowledge separate than its own. The dog
appears to understand that you are trying to make it aware of something, and if the
dog understands this, then it understands that you can see and know things that it
does not. Therefore, the dog acknowledges that your mind is independent from its
own and can be said to have a theory of mind. However, this is still not satisfying to
Morgans canon, as the dogs behavior can be described simply as a result of the
conditioning process; the dog is simply reacting in the way that it has been
accustomed to, there is no necessity for it to acknowledge your mind.
It seems as though we require some more compelling evidence before we can
make a move on the idea of animal theory of mind. Lets start from the basics. We,
so far, cannot prove that animals have any concept or theory of mind, that they
have an understanding of the beliefs, knowledge, and desires of others. But do they
have a concept of self? It would seem that in order for an animal to believe in the
minds of others, it must have some concept of its own mind and body before it can
ascribe these abilities to other beings. There is a major debate over the idea of
animal self-concept and its implications, headed majorly by evolutionary

psychologist Gordon Gallup and philosopher Daniel Povinelli. These two theorists
concern themselves with the idea of whether animals can have a self-concept and
subsequently, theory of mind. The most common test of animal self-awareness is
known as the mirror test. In the mirror test an animal, already having been
associated with mirrors in their environment, is marked somewhere on its body
while unconscious or unaware, then placed in front of a mirror to see if it recognizes
the mark on its body. Many animals are capable of passing this test, such as chimps,
orangutans, and even magpie birds. Animals that pass the test react by locating the
mark on its body using the mirror image. For instance, if a chimp looks in the mirror
then raises its hand to its own head to try to remove the mark, it recognizes that
the mirror image is a representation of its own body. Gallup believes that this is
proof that such animals have self-concept in that they are able to think of the
concept of my body. In other words, they are able to recognize themselves. Gallup
continues to say that this means that these animals can be aware of trying to do
things with their bodies, which means that they are able to think about their actions
and consciously choose them. Gallup then concludes that this proves that these
animals can also be aware of others trying to do things with their bodies, and
therefore have a theory of mind. Povinelli agrees with Gallup that animals that pass
the mirror test do indeed have some sense of self-awareness. However, Povinelli
does not believe that animals have a concept of my body. According to him, when
looking in the mirror and observing movements, the animal is not thinking that this
is an image of my body., rather the animal is thinking when I move this body part,
the image in the mirror moves too. This identification acknowledges that animals
can be self-aware, but not that they have a self-concept. The most important part of
Povinellis movement is the exclusion of the term my from the examination of the
mirror phenomenon. This is necessary because the experiment is trying to prove
self-concept in animals, but if an animal is said to identify with their own body, they
already have a self-concept. But this is a semantics argument, the main idea is that
Gallup believes in a psychological self-concept, where Povinelli supports a physical
description of self-concept. Although they disagree about the implication, Gallup
and Povinelli agree that the best explanation for an animal passing the mirror test is
that it has self-concept. Once again this debate has come to an impasse with no
clear answer because we cannot know what or even that animals are consciously
thinking, much less communicate these ideas with them.
Self-concept has been identified in some animals, but now the challenge is to
observe whether or not these animals can also have a concept of others. Gallup
thinks that self-recognition in his explanation of the mirror test is enough to justify
the belief that animals can have theory of mind, but Povinelli is a bit harder to
convince. Because of his physical description of self-concept, it cannot be assumed
that the animal has a similar concept for others, therefore Povinelli needed some
more concrete evidence before concluding his argument. This is where his famous
begging experiment comes into play. Povinellis begging experiments were
performed with domesticated chimpanzees interacting with their familiar
caretakers. Caretakers would be given food to hold out to the chimps, as if offering,
and the reactions of the animals recorded in relation to the appearance or condition
of the trainer. Trainers that were used as the control held food, and looked at the
chimps, to which most of the chimps reacted by begging for food from the trainer.
Other trainers offered food in different orientations to see if the chimps reacted in a
different way to what they believed the trainer could see; looking away, looking
over the shoulder, back turned, blindfolded. One would expect the chimps to no

longer beg for food from blinded or unaware givers, and perhaps still beg from or try
to trick the trainers with diverted attention. However, it was found that the chimps
randomly begged and stole food from all the trainers, which seems to imply that
they were not considering the sight of the trainer in their behavior.
Another experiment that Povinelli uses to support his theory is the video
experiment performed with young children. In this experiment, a small child is
placed in front of a screen showing a real time recording of themselves and their
behaviors/interactions with the image are noted. This experiment concluded with
interesting results. As expected, children who were able to pass the mirror test, also
were able to recognize themselves in the video and behaved in a similar way to
when presented with the mirror. However, when the video was delayed by a few
seconds, many of the children subjects stopped recognizing the connection between
the image and their own bodies. This evidence seems to support Povinellis
identification of the self-concept as physical in animals with lower functioning
minds, because the relationship is lost as soon as the visual confirmation of equal
movement is removed, it seems to be that basic self-concept may be dependent on
physical attributes.
Although this is a hard question to answer and one we may not be able to for
many years to come, it seems as though Povinelli is on the right track. Behavior
between animals certainly isnt enough to prove theory of mind, so it is logical to
examine the self-concept first to determine if it is even possible for many animals.
But a physically associated sense of self is not enough to imply concept of the self
of others, therefore there needs to be more evidence. Using visually associated
experiments Povinelli looks to be on the way to disproving the animal theory of
mind, animals thought to have a self-concept seemed to fail to apply the same
concepts to others, implying that they do not have or need a theory of mind. I
cannot say whether or not animals have or can have theory of mind, but I agree
that they are able to have a self-concept. Concerning the physicality of this concept,
I agree with Povinelli that it seems to be a physical concept that is lost once visual
confirmation of motion is lost. Although there is no way of knowing, Povinelli
certainly has more evidence for his view than Gallup, who I feel makes far too many
assumptions about how animals think. I agree with Povinelli, for the reason that he
has put forth the most convincing evidence, that animals likely do not have or need
the ability to have theory of mind.