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More Observations on Mind

I have written elsewhere that the attribute that most distinguishes human beings from other animals is their consciousness – not only can they think but they are aware of their thinking. This allows the development of what is called the “concept of mind” such that we can imagine others have the same capacity.

Biologists and psychologists have often been tempted to attribute this capability to other animals but without much success. Mostly the attempts at such attribution have centred on other primates. Often such attempts seem to be coloured by a natural inclination to anthropomorphize animals that are close to us. It would be fair to say however that the average two year old human displays more capability in this regard than any non-human animal ever has.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many zoological studies in recent decades have tried to show how human-like animals sometimes seem. As a result we have down played how special humans are. Jesse Bering, the Director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queens University Belfast and expert in evolutionary psychology writes:

“There’s indeed no clear evidence that any primate species but our own possesses anything remotely resembling a theory of mind. And although the jury is still out on whether we’re entirely unique in being able to conceptualise unobservable mental states – chimps may well have some degree of theory of mind that eludes all but the most sensitive experiments – there’s absolutely no question that we’re uniquely good at it in the whole animal kingdom. We are exquisitely attuned to the unseen psychological world. Theory of mind is as much a trademark of our species as is walking upright on two legs, learning a language, and raising our offspring into their teens.”

Now one of the attendant problems this concept of mind brings is the concept of intentionality.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett describes what he calls the “intentional stance”.

“The intentional stance is the strategy of interpreting the behaviour of an entity (person, animal, artefact, whatever) by treating it as if it were a rational agent who governed its ‘choice’ of ‘action’ by a consideration of its ‘beliefs’ and ‘desires’ ……… the basic strategy of the intentional stance is to treat the entity in question as an agent, in order to predict – and thereby explain in one sense – its actions or moves.”

However we have previously seen that human behaviour is largely driven by biological history and social conditioning and could hardly ever be described as a logical and conscious choice of an individual. We have also seen how this assumption about intent is a severe impediment to productive human relationships.

Human beings are however, very prone to extend our theory of mind to inappropriate applications. Among the agents we tend to imbue with intentionality are animals, machines, Nature and our various deities. We can’t help but see intentions, desires and beliefs not only in other human beings but in other things that haven’t a smidgeon of a neural system to generate the psychological states we mistakenly perceive. (My wife used to regale me with stories of her father who used to kick the car when it wouldn’t start. The car was obviously being cantankerous and needed punishment for its obstinacy!)

Bering also reports of research by developmental psychologists which indicates that babies but a few months old mistakenly imply intentions to inanimate objects. We seem therefore to be genetically disposed to this particular error.

Bering writes:

“So it would appear that having a theory of mind was so useful for our ancestors in explaining and predicting other people’s behaviours that it has completely flooded our evolved social brains. As a result we overshoot our mental-state attributions to things that are, in reality, completely mindless.”

There is also another fallacy that results from our concept of mind. I won’t have the opportunity in this short essay to elaborate or to provide the requisite supporting evidence but this fallacy has been recognised by both psychologists and physical scientists. The fallacy is a pervasive belief that the universe is essentially purposeful such that the phenomena we observe all have underlying causes. We seem to extrapolate our notion of intentional behaviour to a more general assumption about causation.

One of the reasons that psychologists suggest that Darwinian evolution struggles to assert itself against creationism is because of this pervasive belief. The process of evolution is not in any sense “directed”. Random mutations either aid survival and then get embedded in genetics or they don’t. Giraffes weren’t ordained to have long necks. Their ancestors with longer necks were able to access food supplies (leaves of higher trees) not available to their competitors which favoured the further reproduction of animals with such a characteristic.

But of course the French palaeontologist, philosopher and Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard De Chardin thought otherwise. He believed that evolution was purposeful and indeed headed somewhere. Evolution, he believed, was drawing us inexorably closer to the “Omega Point”, at which point the universe would have the maximum complexity and the highest level of consciousness. Few scientists today would agree with his thesis.

Teilhard’s French compatriot, the philosopher and existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre was deeply opposed to such notions of causality and purpose. He was adamant that it was an erroneous premise that God creates the individual person with a specific purpose in mind. He believed his position was a liberating one such that it allowed the individual to choose their own particular purpose.

In other essays I have argued that humankind has a number of innate needs. These are our, physical needs, our social need, our intellectual needs and our spiritual needs.

In our little book, The Myth of Nine to Five, the good Dr Phil and I wrote:

“Fulfilment of our spiritual needs is necessary to a sense of personal worth. We must find meaning and purpose in our lives if we are to experience our full humanity. The meeting of these needs provides a sense of well-being that transcends the conditions of our immediate social and physical circumstances and thereby allows us to be better adjusted in our attitude towards such circumstances.”


It is therefore important for our enduring welfare that we humans have some sense of meaning and purpose in our lives.

The Creationists would have us believe, contrary to the insurmountable evidence of Darwinian evolution,  that each individual is created by God who has determined a purpose for us. Traditionally that has been termed a “calling”. But implicit in this belief, and commonly believed by such fundamentalists is that every other “created” thing, whether it be horse, goat, eucalypt, starfish or amoeba, also has its own divinely determined purpose.


Sartre’s own belief in this regard was that “l’existence precede l’essence,” (existence precedes essence). That is that purpose is generated after creation rather than being a preordained characteristic.

Hence, those who do not believe in a creating deity are liberated to be able to determine their own life purpose. The Austrian neurologist and psychologist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl convincingly demonstrated in his book Man’s Search for Meaning how important such a purpose is.

Thus, even though our consciousness is a particularly important part of our humanity and bestows its own distinct advantages it also results in cognitive errors that we must be aware of. Consciousness adds immeasurably to the richness of our lives. The behaviours associated with the various fallacies that we are prone to as a result of consciousness are so ubiquitous in humankind Bering and others believe they have likely been embedded as human instincts.

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