Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Theory of Mind

There is a theory about gulls.
When they dance on the grass, their
footfalls patter like rain drops,
and the worms come out.*

On this basis, the art of worm
charming—the expert simulation
of precipitation—has been developed.
There are competitions. In England.

With elaborate apparati, the charmers
endeavor to conjure an image of rain.
The theory says it is a trick, of course.
But are the gulls illusionists?

Do the worms think it is raining? And what
do the clouds make of all this foolishness?

*There is another theory that is worth noting. The worms may not be attracted to the surface but driven from the ground by vibrations that really sound like an approaching mole. This should not make a difference to the line of argument this poem proposes. But somehow it does, at least intuitively. To run away from a sound seems immediately less "theoretical" than to be attracted to it.

The question, in any case, is simply: What "thought" is it reasonable to attribute to the gulls? Do they think even that worms will be attracted by their dancing (or do they have "no idea" why they tap their feet when they are hungry)? Is it like the so-called rain dances of so-called primitives? That is, do they think their gods will favor them if they dance earnestly enough? Or do they know that what they are doing sounds like rain, and that worms appear when it rains? (And, if the alternative theory is right, are they, like the worm charmers, wrong about this in theory, despite their demonstrable success in practice?) Do the gulls go so far as to think they are fooling the worms? Do they take pride in this victory over the stupidity of their prey?

A "psychology" is rooted in a theory of mind. What does our psychology of birds tell us about the psychology we use to understand ourselves? And does our corresponding, if implicit, psychology of worms constitute a reductio ad absurdum of psychology as such? Is a theory of mind always, finally, a belief in magic?


Presskorn said...

"And what do the clouds make of all this foolishness?" really drove that poem home for me. I'll try to remember that phrase.

PS: My wittgensteinian intuitions tell me there is no *theory* of mind. The poem, however, could be read as a contribution to a poetics of mind.

Thomas said...

Yes, the poem serves as a kind of perspicuous presentation of the concept of mind. What it reveals may well be that a theory of mind is nonsense.

Of course, it won't necessary reveal the same thing to everyone. Some will say, "Aha! To attribute thoughts to my friend is as foolish as attributing thoughts to worms or clouds." Others won't get it. They will stick with the intuition that the charmers think they are simulating rain, and that worms are "instinctively" attracted to it, i.e., without thinking a thought. They may have paused for a moment to consider what's on the gull's mind, but quickly treated this as an evolved instinct too. The idea that the contents of our own minds might just be an evolved instinct, or even a process as natural as rain itself, might not occur to them. But the poem does try to occasion that idea.