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The Hair of the Dog:
And Other Scientific Surprises
AS I sit here writing these words I feel sure that I have a mind. You probably feel that you do too as you read them. But ever since 1637, when philosopher Rene Descartes wrote 'I think, therefore I am', certainty about one's own mind has to be tempered with uncertainty about every other potential mind.
From your viewpoint, I might be no more than an unfeeling zombie – or vice versa. Then there is my neighbour's dog who seems to me to have a mind, and my laptop which I know doesn’t but even so I beg to recover from a crash, as though it did.
Big moral issues surround minds: how are we to treat animals, embryos, and people in persistent vegetative states when we are unclear about their minds? Reading The Mind Club will take your thoughts about minds to places you never imagined. It is the work of psychologist Daniel Wegner at Harvard University, renowned for his offbeat ideas, and his protege Kurt Gray, now at the University of North Carolina, who completed the book after Wegner died in 2013.
Between them they have created a true page-turner: witty, quirky and insightful. Moreover, it is nearly two books in one. The first nine chapters look at how we perceive mind in potential members of the 'club'. Babies, grown-ups and animals are conventional applicants, but there are also many unfamiliar 'cryptominds' knocking at the door, including robots, enemies, groups, the dead and even God. Then there is a tenth chapter, which turns to our minds. It is a brilliant short guide to thinking like a truly modern post-Cartesian person, with the concepts of mind, self, free will, and good and evil deeply suspect.
As you can guess from the list of mind-club applicants, this book wanders far and wide in addressing our notion of mind. Stories and eclectic anecdotes follow at speed. One chapter begins tantalisingly: 'A man is sleeping soundly in bed when someone creeps in and cuts off his penis.' Then we learn about dehumanisation, communication with people whose minds are 'locked in', when we blame victims, and why it is wrong for a man to make love with a goat.
Elsewhere I'm astonished to discover that after his daughter died, Descartes had a mechanical copy of her made 'complete with arm and head motions' and took her on a sea voyage. Unhappily, the crew threw her overboard, showing that worries about robot minds are nothing new.
The Mind Club grew out of a collection of phenomena in need of explanation, used in a course on mind perception by Wegner. Although it resembles a vast cabinet of curiosities, important theoretical insights provide a framework. The key idea is that people see other minds as a mix of two factors the authors call 'agency' and 'experience'. Agency captures thinking, planning and doing; experience covers feelings, pain and pleasure.
Using these dimensions, the way we see other minds makes sense. Robots are high in agency but low in feeling, babies are high in feeling but lack agency, God has infinite agency but isn’t much of a feeler, never getting hungry. We see mind in big corporations too, but they are all agency and no feeling, which may explain why we can easily end up hating them.
We ordinary folk are a mix of 'thinking doer' and 'vulnerable feeler', but the authors warn of our weakness for 'typecasting', pushing people towards one or the other. In hospital you risk being typecast as a vulnerable 'patient'; if you try to recast yourself as an agent by actively trying to get healthy, your doctor may turn deaf. And if men or women wear clothes exposing a lot of skin, people will also typecast you into the 'feeling' category, with your ability as an active agent underestimated.
Clever lawyers understand typecasting well. If you are in trouble but can persuade judge and jury to shift focus from your crimes as an agent to you as a vulnerable feeler, you might get off. The number of celebrities caught behaving badly who suddenly blubber about histories of abuse is a tribute to our two-dimensional thinking.
It is also a split long recognised in literature. As the authors note, Shakespeare praised man for his agency: 'How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty'. But for George Orwell the essence of humanity was experience, 'that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals.'
Another consequence of our split thinking is that when we feel wronged, but can't see an obvious cause, we have a compulsion for what Wegner and Gray call 'dyadic completion'. Our woes demand we find an agent: a 'somebody' who is to blame, a 'government', or even a secret conspiracy.
Feeling, too, is associated with the body, and people are seen to have less of it if their bodies are less visible, when they are in a group or at a distance. Thus the logic of movie villain Harry Lime, (played by Orson Welles) in a famous scene from The Third Man. Lime is on a fairground big wheel, and as the people far below become 'dots', he no longer sees their humanity. 'Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?' he asks.
Normally, we tend to see mind everywhere. Even the mind of God, the last of the potential candidates for Mind Club membership, is coloured by our perception. 'The religious may see the will of God on a daily basis while the atheist sees nothing but randomness,' the authors write.
After God comes the last chapter, and a shift in tone as we go deep inside ourselves. If you have read Wegner's earlier books, especially The Illusion of Conscious Will, you will know you are about to encounter a wicked demolition of the misconceptions we have about ourselves.
A very large majority of us consider ourselves above average in everything from IQ to driving skills to friendliness. We mistake how long a task will take (by about half), don’t know what will bring us future happiness, obey orders to torture others, and invent reasons for what we do and think.
And experiments on change blindness show how we stick with ludicrous explanations. With a little experimental trickery, people will justify decisions they never made and explain preferences for things they never chose. As the authors conclude, 'what is most striking about our lack of self-insight is not necessarily that we make up explanations but our total confidence in their correctness.'
Whatever happened to the idea that we have conscious control over our behaviour? Playing catch-up, according to the authors’ reading of the classic experiments which show how neural activity registering our decisions appears well before we are aware we have made them. Perhaps there is wisdom in the saying: 'How do I know what I think before I hear what I say?'
That should not worry us, say Wegner and Gray. We should forget Descartes, who thought more or less the opposite, and accept that “every movement and decision you make arises not from some independent source of free will but from the roiling, preconscious electrical activity of the brain”.
So next time you sing along to Sinatra's 'My Way', you might want to ask yourself some hard questions. What is this 'I' which can claim such egregious credit? Should you be humble and heed the 16th-century cleric John Bradford's saying 'There but for the grace of God go I' to describe the fates which blow some people one way and others another?
In Bradford’s case, his kindly Protestant views led him to the stake. The religious view that individuals freely choose between good and evil, and might deserve dreadful punishments, is not shared by the authors. They write: 'Neuroscientists - who see first-hand how brains cause behaviour - suggest there is no such thing as just deserts.... The lack of free will suggests that heaven and hell are populated not by sinful souls but by people whose souls happened to have bad brains.'
So does neuroscience lead to a compassionate view of others? The authors continue in that direction when they dissect the sense of self. Your perception of your memories, thoughts, desires and feelings underlies your particular standpoint. That presents them with a paradox: 'Being one mind prevents you from truly appreciating the minds of others.' Can an understanding of how minds are constructed help us transcend that, they ask?
That question sounds familiar and, indeed, the authors end their book with an enigmatic quote from the Buddha. But I won't spoil things by telling you what it is.
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