Could mindshaping be the bedrock of human social cognition?

The uniformity that unites us in communication and belief is a uniformity of resultant patterns overlying a chaotic subjective diversity of connections between words and experience. Uniformity comes where it matters socially… Different persons growing up in the same language are like different bushes trimmed and trained to take the shape of identical elephants. The anatomical details of twigs and branches will fill the elephantine form differently from bush to bush, but the overall outward results are alike. (Quine, 1960, p. 8)
The outward uniformity is imposed by society, in inculcating language and pressing for smooth communication. (Quine, 1990, p. 44)

Mindshaping is a relatively recent lexical item in the philosophy of social cognition. It was coined by the philosopher Matteo Mameli in a (2001) paper before being broadcast by the philosopher Tad Zawidzki in his (2013) book, as the “linchpin of the human socio-cognitive syndrome.” What is mindshaping? There is a slight but relevant difference of emphasis in how Mameli and Zawidzki propose to use this term.

On the one hand, Mameli introduced the term ‘mindshaping’ within a broad evolutionary framework as one of the many tools relevant to the study of niche construction in many different animal species — including the various ways an animal’s mind may be non-intentionally shaped by the output of a conspecific’s action. On the other hand, among the phenomena Mameli meant to highlight were the reciprocal interactions between human mindshaping and human mindreading, including the mindshaping effects of human mindreading, i.e. the evolutionary effects of human mindreading on the rest of human social cognition.

Zawidzki’s (2013) own use of the same term departs from Mameli’s in one significant respect: Zawidzki expects mindshaping to replace mindreading as the bedrock of human social cognition. As Zawidzki uses the word, it refers to various social cognitive mechanisms (e.g. imitation and pedagogy) selected by evolution, whose function is to enable a model’s action to cause an agent to match the model’s act in some relevant respects. Mindshaping mechanisms are supposed to enhance human behavioral predictions by making the behaviors of members of a human population match one another’s expectations. Some mindshaping mechanisms are shared by humans and non-human animals; others, which are “intrinsically motivated,” are distinctively human.

As the linchpin of the human socio-cognitive syndrome, mindshaping is required to meet three conditions. First, as the label suggests, it ought to shape an agent’s mind, not merely her behavior. Secondly, it ought to be independent from mindreading. Thirdly, it ought to make mindreading possible or, as Zawidzki likes to put it, to make it “computationally tractable.”  

On Zawidzki’s picture, mindshaping is the linchpin of the human socio-cognitive syndrome because it is expected to homogenize the minds of members of human social groups that would otherwise arbitrarily diverge from one another in indefinitely many ways. What Zawidzki calls mindshaping is closely related to the philosopher Victoria McGeer’s (2007, 2015) normative and regulatory picture of folk psychology “as an inter-personal norm-governed enterprise wherein we come to form and regulate our mental states and dispositions in socially recognizable ways.”

The idea of mindshaping can also be usefully seen as part of Quine’s sophisticated behaviorist legacy, as his (1960, 1990) “parable of the trimmed bushes, alike in outward form but wildly unlike in their inward twigs and branches” suggests. Given that Quine himself was inclined to construe an individual’s propositional attitudes as behavioral dispositions, it is a genuine challenge whether mindshaping in Zawidzki’s sense could really shape people’s minds, if minds are not mere behavioral dispositions, while being independent from mindreading.  

Broadly speaking, what Zawidzki (2013, 2018) rejects is the “received” view that mindreading (or mental state attribution) is the key phylogenetic innovation on which “the rest of the distinctively human socio-cognitive syndrome depends.” In other words, Zawidzki rejects the view that everyday human social cognitive interactions directly rest on the mindreading capacity to map an agent’s observable behavior onto her beliefs, desires and other propositional attitudes, and to conversely predict an agent’s observable behavior from her propositional attitudes. Zawidzki’s own thesis instead is that the key phylogenetic innovation is mindshaping, without which the accurate and timely attribution of beliefs, desires and propositional attitudes, i.e. “timely enough to make a difference to behavioral predictions in dynamic, quotidian contexts,” would simply be intractable (Zawidzki, 2013, p. 65).  

In short, Zawidzki’s mindshaping-first approach to human social cognition raises two related issues. (1) Could mindshaping shape an agent’s mind and be independent from mindreading? (2) To what extent is mindreading computationally intractable in real time? If mindreading turns out not to be intractable in the sense highlighted by Zawidzki, then the question whether mindshaping could shape people’s minds and be independent from mindreading will turn out to be otiose. In what follows, I will focus on the second question about the alleged intractability of mindreading, at the expense of the first question.

Zawidzki points to two related features of what he calls “sophisticated” or “full-blown” mindreading, which, he argues, are likely to make it computationally intractable in real time. First, full-blown (or sophisticated) mindreading requires understanding the aspectuality of beliefs (and other propositional attitudes) or equivalently the intensionality (or non-extensionality) of belief-reports. Secondly, belief-attribution is holistic in the sense that any finite sequence of an agent’s observable behavior is compatible with indefinitely many pairs of the agent’s beliefs and desires.

To see what is involved in understanding jointly the aspectuality of beliefs and the intensionality of belief reports, suppose that Anne knows that ‘Cicero’ and ‘Tully’ refer to the same individual. If Anne believes that Cicero was tall, then she also believes that Tully was tall. Suppose now that Sally too believes that Cicero was tall, but she fails to know that ‘Cicero’ and ‘Tully’ refer to the same individual. If so, then she is likely to fail to believe that Tully was tall. Anne understands the aspectuality of beliefs only if she understands that Sally may believe that Cicero was tall while failing to believe that Tully was. Anne correspondingly understands the intensionality of belief-reports only if she understands that an utterance of ‘Sally believes that Cicero was tall’ is true, while an utterance of ‘Sally believes that Tully was tall’ is false. Zawidzki claims that understanding both the aspectuality of belief and the intensionality of belief-reports is a necessary condition for having full-blown (or sophisticated) mindreading. This is a strong stipulation, but widely shared among philosophers and psychologists (cf. Butterfill & Apperly, 2014).   

Zawidzki further claims that belief-attribution is holistic in the sense highlighted by the famous Duhem-Quine thesis about the confirmation of scientific hypotheses. The Duhem-Quine thesis says that scientific hypotheses face the tribunal of evidence only as a “corporate body,” not individually (cf. Quine, 1950). In order to test a scientific hypothesis, one needs to derive a prediction. But one can only derive a prediction from some relevant hypothesis if it is combined with appropriate idealizations, auxiliary hypotheses and the laws of logic. The fact that a scientific prediction turns out to be false does not logically entail the falsity of the scientific hypothesis under test. Any among the many assumptions (including the laws of logic, according to Quine) involved in deriving the prediction from the scientific hypothesis may be rejected if the prediction is refuted. Conversely, a scientific hypothesis may be experimentally corroborated by unexpected evidence if scientific investigation surprisingly shows the latter to be logically entailed by the hypothesis.  

The Duhem-Quine thesis was later famously extended by Jerry Fodor (1983, 1987) from the confirmation of scientific hypotheses to the fixation of everyday ordinary non-scientific beliefs by so-called “central thought processes.” What Zawidzki plausibly argues is that if the fixation of ordinary non-scientific beliefs turns out to be holistic, then so does the fixation of higher-order beliefs about others’ non-scientific beliefs.

In a nutshell, the intractability of mindreading can plausibly be seen as the converging point of two of Zawidzki’s commitments: first, that understanding the aspectuality of belief is a necessary condition for having full-blown mindreading; secondly that the aspectuality of belief makes the fixation of higher-order beliefs about others’ beliefs inextricably holistic. To recap: “as long as appropriate adjustments are made to the interpretive target’s other propositional attitudes,” any finite sequence of an agent’s observed behavior is logically compatible with indefinitely many pairs of the agent’s beliefs and desires. Conversely, any pair of the agent’s beliefs and desires is logically compatible with indefinitely many distinct finite sequences of the agent’s observable behavior (Zawidzki, 2013, p. 75).

What Zawidizki plausibly takes to be cognitively intractable is the elimination of all competing relevant alternatives. How could every relevant alternative pair of an agent’s beliefs and desires compatible with the agent’s finite sequence of observed behavior be ruled out? How could every relevant finite sequence of the agent’s observable behavior compatible with her belief and desire be ruled out?

Granting most, if not all, of Zawidzki’s assumptions about mindreading, some of which are not uncontroversial (e.g. that understanding the aspectuality of belief is necessary for mindreading), the question still arises: should we count a higher-order belief about another’s everyday non-scientific belief as unwarranted unless all alternative higher-order beliefs have been ruled out? Zawidzki’s claim about the intractability of belief attribution commits him to a positive answer to this question, as his discussion of the standard verbal false-belief task about an object’s location clearly shows (cf. Zawidzki, 2013, pp. 178-185).

In one classical version of this false-belief scenario (cf. Wimmer & Perner, 1983; Baron-Cohen et al., 1985), Sally (a puppet) first places her marble in the basket and leaves. While she is away, Anne (another puppet) moves Sally’s marble from the basket into the neighboring box. Sally returns and young children are asked by the experimenter to predict where Sally will look for her marble. All the experimental studies based on this task have been conducted on the assumption that the correct answer to the prediction question is: Sally will look into the empty basket where she falsely believes her marble to be, not in the box where it actually is. But as Zawidzki points out, there are myriads of possibilities. Someone might have told Sally when she was away that Anne moved her marble from the basket to the box. If so, then the correct answer would be that Sally will look into the box, not the basket. Participants might also refuse to answer the question on the joint grounds that puppets do not move of their own and that they lack beliefs and desires. Zawidzki (2013, p. 179) himself imagines that even if Sally knows that Anne moved her marble from the basket to the box, she might look for her marble in the basket because she also knows that “she is part of an experiment testing whether a child can pass the false-belief task and so pretends that she does not believe this” ­— in clear violation of the assumption that Sally is a puppet.   

Nobody will disagree with Zawidzki that the attribution to Sally of the false belief that her marble is in the basket might be challenged in myriads of different ways. Does it follow that Zawidzki (Ibid.) is right to further claim that “an appropriate test for the mastery of the belief concept would require children to show some hesitation when attributing beliefs based on limited evidence, and perhaps attempts to find more evidence to rule out competing interpretations”? I think not.

Suppose we grant the identification between mastery of the concept BELIEF and the mindreading capacity to attribute beliefs to self and others. I wish to suggest that a higher-order belief about another’s belief should not count as unwarranted unless every alternative belief attribution has been ruled out. Nor should the mastery of the concept BELIEF be taken to require the capacity to rule out every competing alternative to some intuitive belief attribution.  

As Burge (1993, 2003) has argued, there are at least two different kinds of warrant for one’s beliefs: one can have reasons or justifications and one can be entitled. For example, the reliability of an individual’s visual system is sufficient to warrant her perceptual belief: the individual may thus be entitled to her perceptual belief even if she is not aware of the reliability of her visual system and lacks reasons or justifications.

From the fact that the holistic Duhem-Quine thesis applies to the confirmation and the disconfirmation of scientific hypotheses, it follows that a scientific hypothesis is warranted so long as most (if not all) proposed relevant alternative or competing scientific hypotheses have been ruled out by the evidence. But it does not follow that a scientific hypothesis would be unwarranted unless philosophical skepticism were ruled out. Philosophical skepticism is relevant to epistemology, but it is not a relevant alternative to a scientific hypothesis.

Arguably, only if an individual has the mindreading capacity to attribute beliefs to self and others could she form a higher-order belief about another’s belief. But an individual might have the capacity to form higher-order beliefs about others’ beliefs — irrespective of whether her higher-order beliefs are being challenged by others, let alone of whether she is able to face the challenge. Only if an individual has the further capacity to engage in verbal ostensive communicative interactions could she highlight and try to rule out some relevant competing belief or hypothesis, whether scientific or not (cf. Mercier & Sperber, 2017). Unlike a scientific hypothesis, I suggest that an everyday non-scientific higher-order belief about another’s belief should not be taken to be unwarranted until every competing higher-order belief has not been ruled out by the evidence.

Arguably, Premack and Woodruff (1978) did not assume that chimpanzees have the capacity for verbal ostensive communicative interactions when they asked the question whether chimpanzees can attribute mental states to self and others. Most philosophers and psychologists took it that their question was not meaningless. If so, then the sensible question arises whether non-human primates and preverbal human infants are able to attribute mental states to self and others. I suggest that if they are, then, in Burge’s terms, they might be entitled to their higher-order beliefs about others’ mental states even if they are unable to consider competing alternative higher-order beliefs, let alone to rule them out.

A participant in a verbal false-belief task is entitled to her higher-order belief that Sally falsely believes that her marble is in the empty basket, whether or not she fails to entertain, let alone to rule out, the possibility that Sally was told that Anne moved her marble from the basket to the box. If so, then mindreading might not be intractable in Zawidzki’s sense: belief attribution might be warranted even if not all relevant alternatives have been ruled out.            

My own conditional conclusion is that if mindreading is not intractable in the relevant sense, then the question whether mindshaping could shape minds and be independent from mindreading is likely to turn out to be otiose. [1]


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Zawidzki, T. (2018). Mindshaping. In Newen, A., De Bruin, L. & Gallagher, S. (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of 4E Cognition, pp. 735-754.

[1] I am grateful to Dan Sperber for comments.

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