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My Theory of the Theory of the Mind is Inadequate

February 29, 2016

I have a fascination with how people think and enjoy exploring the different ways people do so. There are several topics that I enjoy exploring such as retrospective vs. prospective reasoning and object oriented vs. process oriented thinking. I have looked for advanced and accessible discussion on the theory of the mind and came up short. I am piecing together what little I know to try and make sense of the concept.

I was aware of the awareness experiment in children talked about in this post before the post existed. I was probably introduced to the concept of the theory of mind at that point but as a limited concept: the difference between stage 1 and 2 as defined bellow. I was unaware of any broader implications.

That post by Dr. Alexander did make me aware that the theory of the mind goes beyond the transition from 1 to 2 and that not all adults have mastered the same theory of mind… or have the same theory of mind I should say. It also confronted me with the terrifying and profound reality: my theory of mind is inadequate. That is to say, it is imposable for me to correctly and fully understand how I and others think. Also there exists some mind that is capable of conceiving reality on a fundamentally more correct way then I am capable of conceiving it. I already knew these things in the abstract but contrasting my theory of the mind with less advanced theories and then taking that analogy the other direction opened my eyes to realizing how ignorant I am.

In this essay, I’m talking about minds and not brains. In animals (as opposed to computers or other things that may be capable of thinking), the mind is a creation of the brain but it is its own thing. How the brain works can determine how the mind works but when I talk about the mind I am talking about the cognation that occurs. The theory of the mind is individual to each person (though I suppose it is posable for two people to have exactly the same theory) and is how that person thinks the mind works.

Each species (or thing that can think) has a stage where its most advanced theories of minds reside. Members of that species are physiologically incapable of conceiving of a more advanced theory of mind. Furthermore each person has a stage where they are incapable (either physiologically or otherwise) of considering a higher stage. If someone is limited to say stage 4 then they cannot conceive of a stage 5 theory of mind and they will view any stage 5 reasoning in a context they can conceive of. Examples of how to do this might be the person to view such reasoning as dishonest or incorrect though either ignorance or overthinking. It infact requires a stage 5 mind to realize that there can be stages above what one is capable of conceiving of.

Also just because one is capable of using a theory of a mind at a particular stage, one does not always use the theory of the mind at that stage. There are plenty of people capable of considering a stage 5 theory of the mind that never the less in certain contexts use a stage 3 theory of the mind. In general, people really use the highest stage they are intellectually aware of in practice (For example, how many people are aware that an honest difference of opinion is possible but still, at-least on occasion, act as though it isn’t?). If one is to make a statement about what level of theory of the mind one has, one should put that level at the highest level they are capable of having.

The stages are levels at which one is aware of a particular aspect of how people think. For each level there are different ideas of how people think that are consistent with the aspects of that level. Each different idea is a different theory of the mind. The stages are categories of theories of the mind and each category has several different theories compatible with it.

People use different theories in different situations. The choice of what theory one uses and the optimal theory to use are both complicated subjects. I don’t talk about individual theories save for illustrative examples. Also the transition from having one stage as an individual celling to another stage is a gradual process: one does not suddenly obtain a higher stage theory and then have all sorts of insights but rather one increases the sophistication of the theories one already has and slowly learns new theories that increase one’s ability to understand how people think.

Also, not all theories at one stage are created equal. This essay posits a useful classification for these theories and places them in a straightforward hierarchy. A theory at a particular stage has all of the requirements for the lower stages. I also don’t talk about specific theories and only the stages. For example, I talk about there being different ways to reason without talking about how one should select a particular way to reason. I often use first person and talk about how I would behave if I were using a theory at a particular stage and sometimes use third person to do the same but the concepts are intended to be general to all things capable of thinking.

Not finding really any accessible information online for a broad presentation of this concept, I am forced to understand this as best I can with the limited tools I have. I do not follow any relevant scientific literature and am figuring out this concept myself. This essay and these classifications are thus an attempt at philosophy more than anything else.

Stage 0: ______

I suspect that this is the ceiling that certain species of turtles have, for example. They have minds that take in information, process it, and come to decisions and also have motivations and desires to inform the decisions. This may be something such as, “I want to be warmer,” “I need to move under that light source to do so,” “I will move under that light source.” The turtle has some sapience and sentience but certainly not the same amount of either when compared with a healthy adult human. There may be negative stages for creatures that fully lack sapience and/or sentience but I start here because I find it plausible that a typical healthy newborn starts life at this stage or higher but would find it hard to believe that it starts life at a lower stage.

At this stage, the turtle, or potentially the newborn, is unaware that it is thinking. I can realize the turtle’s thinking but the turtle cannot. The turtle may have some self-awareness but not enough to know that it is thinking thoughts. It can know how warm it is and how pleasant or unpleasant that feels, and aware of where its body is in relation to its surroundings and how it affects it’s temperature without realizing that it is thinking these things. There is nothing in its brain capable of thinking, “and that’s what I think of things,” or “I have used a rational process to come to conclusions,” or “I have information, opinions, and/or facts.”

Stage 1: I think

At this stage, people realize that there is a thought process going through their minds. They can take a look at why they are taking the actions they are taking. They still think along the lines of “I am hungry, I should shove food into my mouth,” but they are also aware of this thought process. If they are hungry, they can conceive of being in a state in which they are sated and vice-versa. They can also tell that they are reasoning. For example when they arrive at solutions to their problems. They can understand that there is something called a mind (whatever term they have for it) and that they possess information with it.

I believe that this is also the stage that unlocks the ability for abstract reasoning. I don’t know if abstract reasoning is required at this stage but stage 0 creatures (or people if they exist) seem to be incapable of it. I suspect that separating one’s mind from the rest of the world does not occur at this stage. One approaches one’s mind as one approaches one’s clothes or the cause and effect of eating and relieving hunger. It is just another set of rules of how the world works that one must figure out.

Stage 2: Other people think

At this stage, people realize that other people think too. Thinking isn’t something that only I do but it is also something that other people do. It is likely that during this stage, thinking becomes something internal. One’s mind is somehow contained in oneself and other people’s mind are also somehow contained in themselves. At this stage, people fail to realize that other people could possibly have different thoughts then they do.

I remember when I was a wee child wondering if other people are thinking the same things that I am thinking at the same time that I am thinking them. This concern took up some amount of my time. I knew that other people were not thinking the exact same thoughts I was but that answer felt wrong. This also suggests that at an earlier stage, I thought others were actually thinking the exact same things I was thinking at all times. The above mentioned experiment also suggests that at a certain stage in human development, children think all people have the same thoughts as them.

Everybody thinks and other people are separate entities just as I am a separate entity from them. Names not only refer to different objects but they can also refer to different thinking entities. But I can only understand the mind of others by using my own mind as the mind of others. Other people have the same knowledge and thought processes that I do and they must come to the same conclusions.

Stage 3: People think different thoughts

At this stage people gain the ability to realize that what happens in one person’s mind is not necessarily what is happening in another’s. People demonstrate different behavior and the only conclusion is that they have different thoughts. I have some ability to track which information other people have and to use reasoning to figure out the conclusions that they would come to.

At this point, I still think people have the same preferences that I do. I think red is a better color than green so it is obviously the better color. Somebody who claims that green is better must have one of the following: they have less information then I do and this additional information will bring them around to the correct answer, they are deficient in some way (such as having something wrong with their eyes causing them to see color incorrectly) and this leads them to a wrong conclusion, or they are lying about their true preferences for some nefarious purpose. An example of such a purpose would be by saying they like the color green more then they like the color red they will look better to the more popular person who has voiced the same thing for one of these reasons.

I have come across numerous claims that someone who thinks something different then the speaker has to either be ignorant or lying. At this point I cannot conceive that two people can have the same evidence and yet come to different conclusions without something defective (such as reasoning ability) or some nefarious purpose to deliberately claim a false conclusion. If my theory of mind is capped at stage 4, I am literally incapable of conceiving of the possibility that my reasoning is flawed and thus, if I am wrong, it is only because I lack the necessary information to be correct. If my facts are right then my conclusion is assuredly the only honest conclusion.

I can realize why people do, say, and think different things. I analyze the actions of others by asking the question, “What would I be thinking if I were to take such an action?” I tend to be firm in the conclusions I reach because I am not capable using this theory of mind of conceiving of the possibility that there exists a different legitimate conclusion.

Stage 4: Other people have different preferences.

At this stage people realize that different values can lead to different conclusions given the same facts and reasoning. If I like red and you like green then that’s great: we just have different tastes. I can let you decorate your home to emphasize green and I have no problem with that at this stage. I can still claim your preferences are wrong (for example on preferences that are or inform moral judgements) but I can understand how you act based on these wrong preferences. I can also understand how you act based on different preferences that are more innocuous such as having different tastes then I do.

Other people still think the way I do, however. Just as in stage three, I can use different set of initial facts to see how someone would come to a different conclusion but now I can also use a different set of facts and preferences to see how someone would come to a different conclusion. I also, now, have the ability to see how someone can come to a different conclusion then I do and still have neither one of us be wrong.

In understanding the actions of others the question has changed to, “What would I be thinking if I were to take such an action and had different preferences?” I am still analyzing what other people do and say though my own thought processes. If there is a flaw in someone else’s reasoning it’s not because they think differently than I do it’s because they think worse. For example, they can only see 4 moves ahead where I can see 6, or their lack of ability to multiply numbers together leads to a wrong conclusion. I cannot yet conceive that I could be similarly limited as I think my abilities are the human ceiling. I also think that any claim to a different reasoning path is done for some nefarious purpose (because the correct reasoning path would lead to my result which the other person has some reason for avoiding).

Stage 5: Other people think differently

The ways in which people make decisions and come to conclusions aren’t the same. You can have the same facts that I do, have the same preferences that I do, and still legitimately come to a different conclusion then I do not because you are deficient in your ability to reason but because you are reasoning differently then me. If you have reached a different conclusion it is not necessarily because you are ignorant or you have some nefarious purpose; disagreements between people can be legitimate with everyone being honest (broad definition), informed, and intelligent.

There are now several possibilities for why someone would come to a different conclusion then I do: 1) we are working from different set of facts, 2) we have different preferences, 3) the other person’s reasoning is somehow wrong, 4) my reasoning is somehow wrong, 5) both our reasoning is correct but the different approaches lead to different conclusions, or 6) some combination.

With stage 3 reasoning, I can acknowledge that I can be wrong if I don’t have all the facts and at stage 4 reasoning, I can see how different preferences will lead to differing conclusions without anybody being wrong (assuming one’s preferences are a matter of taste and not a wrong preference). At stage 5 reasoning I can now see the possibility that I am wrong because my analysis was incorrect. If I come to a different conclusion then someone else then the best course of action to take (assuming the other person is acting in good faith and also is using a stage 5 theory or above) is to explore the issue from all 6 above possibilities until we are comfortable with having the disagreement. This can be immediate or it might take some communication to achieve and might result in one or both of us adjusting our conclusions.

In analyzing the actions of others my question is now, ““What would the other person be thinking if the other person were to take such an action?” I have the ability to use different reasoning choices and abilities as well as a different set of facts and preferences to figure out the actions of others and when using a theory of mind at this stage I use the reasoning they are likely to use and not the reasoning I would have used in their situation.

I have also gained some ability to explore different possibilities consistent with my knowledge of reality. Before this stage, I could conceive of there being only one way reality worked, something could operate, for there to be a best solution to a problem, and other things. Now, I can realize that my analysis of reality might be fundamentally flawed and allow for unknown possibilities.

This is also the lowest level in which one can conceive of there being the possibility of theories of mind that occupy higher levels than the highest level one has reached.

Stage 6: Perception of reality is inconstant between people

I should note that at this stage, I am talking on things that I have merely touched. I think I’ve mastered (reasonably speaking) stage 5 thinking but have just dabbled with stage 6. Moreso then elsewhere on this blog, I am talking in things that I am unqualified to talk about and much of what I have to say about stage 6 is necessarily speculative.

I know how I think and I am comfortable with it. I know other people think differently and can have different values and goals then I do and this can lead to different behaviors and beliefs while still being rational. Furthermore, I know that different reasoning exists to the reasoning I use and some of these reasonings are valid and some make my reasoning invalid. At this stage, I also realize that people view the world in fundamentally different ways that I cannot conceive of.

It doesn’t require stage 6 reasoning for one to realize that the information one gets from one’s senses and from communication is filtered by the mind to create a conception of reality that is potently flawed. Someone only capable of stage 1 reasoning won’t likely be able to do this but how one constructs reality from the information one has about reality is a different topic from one’s conception of how minds work. At this stage, one realizes that someone can construct a fundamentally different conception of reality from the same information about reality and filter their thinking through this different conception.

This realization can explain some differences in thinking that aren’t explained by stage 5 reasoning. Not only can different facts, preferences, and reasonings, effect someone’s conclusions, actions, and beliefs but a different construction of reality can also effect these things. Afterall how one views the world has a direct impact on how one interacts with it. A key insight at this stage is realizing that it may be imposable to actually view reality the same way someone else views reality. It may be possible to do so with a more advanced stage 6 theory of the mind or maybe there are no theories of the mind at any stage where this is possible. I don’t know.

Such a difference could create a fundamental difference in how people think. At stage 5, I can recognize this difference but I try to make sense of it in the context in how I view reality i.e. the other person is reasoning differently than I am. At stage 6, I either cannot analyze how someone else thinks in light of how they view reality or I need to go further in adjusting how someone else thinks than was possible using a stage 5 theory of the mind. If I encounter someone who has come to a different conclusion, in addition to the stage 5 explanations, I can now consider the possibility that we are not even talking about the same things even if we communicate perfectly.

In an optical illusion, people see something that a mind working in a fundamentally different way would not see. There are plenty of optical illusions that constantly produce the same sights in most people and thus it seems that the minds of our species tend to deal with visual information the same way in terms of the reality it constructs but some people cannot make a particular optical illusion work not matter how much they try. It takes a level 6 understanding of the theory of the mind to fully appreciate how the other person’s mind works differently. Realizing that an optical illusion is producing an illusionary sight is one thing, accepting that others don’t see the same thing is another, and realizing that others’ visual processors work in a fundamentally different way is another.

Stage 7: ????

There are undoubtedly higher stages than stage 6. 6 is the highest stage that I can recall that I have any conscious experience with. Considering that someone whose theory of mind is capped at a particular level can never realize what a higher stage actually means, no one can ever claim to have achieved the highest possible theory of mind. It also would seem to me highly improbably that Homo sapiens, with our limited machinery, can perfectly understand reality. This leads to the conclusion that there exist higher theories of mind then the ceiling for our species just like the fact that the turtle is stuck on stage 0 does not prevent stage 2 from existing. I am also willing to guess that there are other people who have achieved higher stages then I am capable of conceiving of. I don’t know how to find higher stages then I have personally experienced much less talk about them.

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