Mindreading in the animal kingdom

In Robert W. Lurz (ed.), The Philosophy of Animal Minds. Cambridge University Press (2009)
ven a cursory look at the extensive literature on mindreading in nonhuman animals reveals considerable variation both in what mindreading abilities are taken to be, and in what is taken as evidence for them. Claims that seem to contradict each other are often not inconsistent with each other when examined more closely. And sometimes theorists who seem to be on the same side are actually talking at cross-purposes. The first aim of this paper is to tackle some important framework questions about how exactly the mindreading hypothesis is to be stated. It emerges in sections 1 and 2 that there are three importantly different versions of the mindreading hypothesis that need to be distinguished. The first (which I call minimal mindreading) occurs when a creature’s behavior covaries with the psychological states of other participants in social exchanges. The presence of minimal mindreading is not in itself evidence for the presence of what I term substantive mindreading. Substantive mindreading involves attributions of mental states. There are different levels of substantive mindreading, varying according to the category of mental state attributions that they involve. Section 2 explores different types of substantive mindreading, according to the extent to which they involve explicitly representing the agent’s backgtround psychological profile. This gives us a principled way of distinguishing propositional attitude mindreading from perceptual mindreading. It is clear that much of the reasoning behind attributions of mindreading abilities to nonlinguistic creatures is analogical in nature. We see in section 3 that much of the discussion in this area proceeds on the basis of a double analogy between animal cognition and human cognition. Researchers assume both that animals solve many problems of social coordination that are analogous to problem solved by humans and that since humans solve those problems using mindreading strategies, so too do non-human animals. How we apply the second analogy, of course, depends upon our interpretation of the particular mindreading strategies that humans employ – in particular, it depends upon the centrality of propositional attitude psychology (or folk psychology) in human social understanding and social coordination. There are good reasons for thinking that the role of propositional attitude psychology in human social life is very much over-stated. This has repercussions for how we think about substantive mindreading in nonhuman animals. It very much weakens the analogical case for identifying propositional attitude mindreading in nonlinguistic creatures. Suspicion of claims of propositional attitude mindreading in non-human animals turns out to be well-founded. In section 4 I present a revised version of an argument I have given elsewhere (Bermúdez 2003) to show that the most sophisticated form of substantive mindreading (the type of mindreading that exploits the concepts of propositional attitude psychology) is only available to language-using creatures.
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