Theory of Mind

Last week had nine new men in the group — thrilled and surprised that our PR efforts have paid off, mainly because of the support of DEP __ who now casually agreed to allow  us to have posted full poster sized posters of the poster we’d  worked up last spring (but that had so far been restricted to the nearly invisible 8″/11″ size). He also agreed to distribute the book group summaries I’d put together from our crew as a mater of course to all new incoming inmates. And no doubt the reservations some of us had expressed about doing the trek come winter if interest was so low that we could count on no more than two or three men showing up at any given time. Who knows what combo led to the uptick, but since the numbers are only now at about what they used to be regularly I am confident we can keep this level going.

One result of having many new members was that we had to backtrack quite a bit on the book’s rationale, and in particular on the sections on moral reasoning — It’s not just your opinion! Really? — and the supplemental reading assigned for two meetings ago, Catherine Elgin’s superb “The Relativity of Fact and the Objectivity of Value.” As always I like to begin with some concrete, familiar examples, in this case the story of a newly acquired rescue dog who several weeks in has bitten the house cleaner. Such an event brings out the moralist in just about everyone, and the strong views about what one must do in such a case are adamant, preached from the moral high ground, and run the full gamut from HAVE HIM EUTHANIZED IMMEDIATELY! to OF COURSE, THAT’S WHAT DOGS ARE SUPPOSED TO DO!, TO MOVE HEAVEN AND EARTH (AND BIG $$$)  TO TRAIN HIM, SOCIALIZE HIM, ETC., AND IN THE MEANTIME KEEP HIM UNDER YOUR CONSTANT PERSONAL SURVEILLANCE! We then talked about strategies for actually understanding the underpinning assumptions of the various positions (including, of course, or own), principles and reasons for and against each, all available for public, if you will, scrutiny. In the course of this lively conversation many asked excellent questions about the dog, the situation, his history, his daily life and so on. In answer to one of the questions I confess that I got the best laugh of the night when I mentioned that when the doorbell rings and the dog sees new people in the hall he shows no interest, and can’t even muster a bark. I then noted “Oh, this is probably not the crowd I should be sharing that bit of information with.”

But the really interesting moment in this early part of the conversation came when one of the new men observed that the dog must be very intelligent to have understood the first week or so, starting in the shelter, what kind of behavior would make me more likely to adopt him; that he was not just strategizing when he acted very Other Dog Friendly, but doing so in a way that would enhance his chances with me, signaling that he’d figured out something about what I’d want. This keen observation led to a discussion of the various ways scientists have tried over the centuries to draw a bright line around humans (language, culture, etc.) and the rest of animal creation, and the fairly recent discovery that even the Theory of Mind (that is, the capacity of an animal to figure out what other animals must believe or think) also falls as a candidate of something uniquely human, in fact not by a long shot, since there’s evidence that even crows — birds! — might have a theory of mind.

It was a fine, lively, discussion, with the examples and points building on one another, feeding a palpable hunger for examples, theories, ideas, concepts, research, and more.

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