Misrepresenting Representation

“Many of the conceptual confusions fundamental to modern cognitivist theory had already been identified and widely recognised before the ‘cognitive revolution’ of the 1960s. Yet, whenever such confusions were pointed out, they are either fleetingly acknowledged, only to be quickly forgotten, or, more usually, emphatically denied. And, as I have found out to my own cost, cognitive psychologists become outraged if you suggest that they may be dualists.” (Costall, 2013, in Racine 2013, p. 312)


In several of these posts, I have critically examined the “theory of mind” theory (ToM). There is a growing number of scholars from anti-representationalist backgrounds who contest the assumption in psychology that mental states must be inferred, represented, or otherwise processed, before the world they ostensibly reproduce can be made sense of (De Jaegher, 2009; Froese and Leavens 2014; Barrett 2012). ToM operates according to the “unobservability principle” (UP): [T]he idea that minds are composed of exclusively intracranial phenomena, perceptually inaccessible and thus unobservable to everyone but their owner.” (p.149, Krueger, 2012). By contrast, the ‘direct perception’ (DP) account claims that mental states are directly and ordinarily perceptible (Reddy and Morris, 2004). Therefore, the ToM theory solves a question that didn’t need asking, due to its existing uncorrected assumptions based in the dualistic assumptions of cognitive psychology more generally (Costall and Leudar, 2007).

However, I can personally attest that when this alternative is raised among academics who feel more drawn to the ToM theory, the objection is that DP mischaracterises ToM. This counter-criticism may also be found in recent literature: Bohl and Gangopadhyay (2014), Bohl (2014), Spaulding (2015), or Gangopadhyay and Miyahara (2015). Bohl and Gangopadhyay (op. cit.) for example protest that:

  1. ToM theory does not necessarily commit one to the UP;
  2. That most authors working in the field are not committed to the UP;
  3. That most ToM theorists do not believe that UP is a condition of normal social interaction.

They claim that despite a few authors taking the “strong” position that mental states are unobservable, “attitudes concerning UA [UP] are much more diverse among the advocates of ToM than one would assume from the picture painted by the critics of ToM.” (p. 208). In support of this point, they quote Gordon, 2008, and Carruthers, 2013. To demonstrate Bohl and Gangopadhyay’s selective referencing, allow me to provide some alternative quotes:

“One of the most important powers of the human mind is to conceive of and think about itself and other minds. Because the mental states of others (and indeed ourselves) are completely hidden from the senses, they can only ever be inferred.” (Leslie, 2004, p. 164)

 “The goals and perceptions of others are not readily observable, and so require inferences.” (Tomasello, 2008, p. 176; emphasis added)

 “Generally, the observable behavior of individuals is never transparent either in respect to the background knowledge that governs their actions or in respect to the ultimate goal of the action (if it were transparent, cognitive psychology would not exist as a scientific discipline).” (Csibra and Gergely, 2006, p. 252, emphasis added).

“All of these data led [the authors] to the general conclusion that chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates do not understand the psychological states of others. That is, they can predict the actions of others in many situations based on past experience (and perhaps specialized cognitive adaptations), but they do not go beneath the surface to an understanding of the goals, perceptions, knowledge and beliefs that guide action (nor to an understanding of underlying physical forces either).” (Call and Tomasello, 2008, p. 187, emphasis added)

“Normal children give elaborate verbal descriptions of the unobservable psychological states of people, indicating that they relate observable actions to underlying mental states.” (Meltzoff, 1995, p. 838; emphasis added)

“Are humans alone in their ability to interpret behavior in terms of unobservablemental states—things like feelings, beliefs, desires, emotions, and intentions?Or, do we share the ability to reason about mental states (at least to some degree)with other species?” (Povinelli and Vonk, 2003, p. 1; emphasis added)

“A system of inferences of this kind [theory of mind] may properly be regarded as a theory because such [mental]states are not directly observable, and the system can be used to make predictions about the behavior of others.” (Premack and Woodruff, 1978, p. 515; emphasis added)

“The goal is to find evidence that provides insight into a hidden reality. Adopting this approach, we abandon the hopeless search for order in the world of direct experience, and regard what can be observed as a means to gain access to the inner mechanisms of mind. (Chomsky, 1997, p. 19; emphasis added)

“Lacking a theory of mind is in one sense akin to viewing the world as a behaviorist… We do not therefore intend to force an analogy between an impaired theory of mind and behaviorism, but instead to explore through a series of experiments what would be entailed if one genuinely lacked a theory of mind. To anticipate the experiments: if the “intentional stance,” as Dennett (1978, 1987) referred to a theory of mind, is not available to autistic children, are they forced into viewing the world only in terms of behavioral and physical events? (Baron-Cohen, 1989, p. 579; emphasis added)

“This ability [Theory of Mind] appears to be a prerequisite for normal social interaction: in everyday life we make sense of each other’s behaviour by appeal to a belief-desire psychology… Attribution of mental states is vital for everyday social interaction (e.g. cooperation, lying, keeping secrets).” (Frith and Happe, 1999, p. 2; emphasis added)

Daily social life depend on the ability to evaluate the behaviour of other people on the basis of their mental states, such as their goals, emotions, and beliefs. This is accomplished by dedicated cognitive systems, collectively referred to as theory of mind.” (Tager-Flusberg, 2007, p. 311; emphasis added)

“Normal humans everywhere not only “paint” their world with colour, they also “paint” beliefs, intentions, feelings, hopes, desires and pretenses onto agents in their social world. They do this despite the fact that no human has ever seen a thought, a belief or an intention.” (Tooby and Cosmides, 1995, in Baron-Cohen, 1995, p. 17; no emphasis necessary.)

“Our sensory experience of other people tells us about their movements in space but does not tell us directly about their mental states.” (Meltzoff, Gopnik, and Repacholi, 1999, p.17; no emphasis necessary.)

It is not a serious position, given the quotes above, to suggest that support for the UP among ToM theorists is a fringe belief, or that ToM adherents are not particularly strict about whether mental states can be visible, or that they believe theorising about mental states is not the primary (if not only) mode of social interaction. The authors quoted above are some of the most influential in psychology, linguistics, and philosophy. They are respected and prolific researchers, and all of them are quite clear, particularly concerning whether or not mental states can be observed. I appreciate that there is always the possibility of misrepresentation in small quotes: however, I implore the reader to peruse the articles listed if they are unsure, and they will find only further evidence.

For example, Tomasello, Carpenter, and Liszkowski (2007) claim that gestures index particular causal mental states. They classify the “declarative” or “informative” gesture thusly: “the communicator wants the recipient to know something that he thinks she will find useful or interesting” (p. 707). This gesture may be differentiated by a mere imperative point, which is used to obtain a desired object, and in Tomasello and author’s view, can all-too-easily be the product of mere training rather than a rich understanding of another’s intent (Tomasello and Carpenter, 2007; Tomasello, 2006). Therefore, in Tomasello et al.’s view, there are intentions that we do not measure, but are indicated by the differential responses that they produce afterwards. Intent and behaviour are separated: the latter is measured specifically because the former is not measurable directly. Though Tomasello and authors do not claim explicitly that mental states are unobservable, or that observable behaviour is subordinate to these invisible mental states, their discourse and the design of their experiments demonstrate these assumptions.

Can DP be integrated into ToM?

As a result of their narrow scholarship, Bohl and Gangopadhyay conclude that DP’s criticisms of ToM are unwarranted. ToM, in their view, does not maintain that mental states are unobservable, and therefore as a theory it is perfectly capable of integrating the evidence that DP theorists claim disproves it as a hypothesis:

“ToM accounts are able to accommodate the claim that knowing another’s mental
states sometimes feels perceptual: perceptual phenomenology does not rule out that mindreading is enabled by theorising and/or simulation. TT is just as capable as ST of accommodating the subjective experience of seeing the other’s mentality: even if X isobservable, it does not imply that there is no theorising involved in observing X.” (Bohl and Gangopadhyay, op. cit., p. 208)

Spaulding makes this point also:

“Of course, seeing involves unconscious computational processing: light reflects off the object, my visual system detects surfaces and edges and constructs a 3-D representation of the object. The claim that we directly perceive some objects does not deny that visual perception involves computational processing.” (Spaulding, op. cit., p. 2)

Both of these authors assert that despite phenomenological evidence suggesting we percieve mental states without inference, there is nonetheless a possibility that inference happens without our conscious awareness. This is wrong in two ways: Firstly, DP approaches do not merely claim that inference is an added extra to direct perception of mental states, but that inferential approaches actually lead to predictions that are counter to fact. For example, leading from the assumption in ToM that mental states are unobservable without additional cognitive effort, Froese and Leavens (op. cit.) evidence that it consequently leads to the prediction in imitation studies that emulation (copying the intended goal of another) should be less commonly observed in subjects without theory of mind then imitation (copying the precise actions of another), since emulation requires the ability to understand intentions, and imitation does not. This is the opposite of the results found by imitation studies- emulation is commonly found in apes and young children, imitation is rarely displayed- and something of an embarrassing finding for ToM theorists, who have been struggling to account for it since (Froese and Leavens, 2014).

Secondly, we may note that the way both pieces speak about theorising, inference, or other processing means the process under scrutiny is completely unobservable to science and the subject themselves. Regardless of phenomenal experience, they assert that processing occurs (or rather that one cannot prove that it doesn’t). This only emphasises my point that ToM conceives of intentions and mental states as unobservable, and therefore unfalsifiable. Observing the putative behavioural effects in order to determine the presence of the theoretical mental causes is scientific reasoning in reverse (Racine, Leavens, Susswein and Wereha, 2008)¹. And since ToM psychologists have not specified empirical mechanisms that link intention X to behaviour Y, (Povinelli & Vonk, 2004; Nichols and Stitch, 2003; Gopnik, 2008), a given behaviour can indicate any number of causative cognitions, with no way of identifying between them (Schlinger, 2004). This logical error is known as affirmation of the consequent: the reasoning is no more valid than claiming that, since falling off the Eiffel tower will kill you, the reason John is dead is because he fell off the Eiffel tower (Leavens, Bard and Hopkins, 2017). In essence, ToM theory is not capable of integrating phenomenological evidence: it sublimates it, because it is not a research programme that deals with falsifiable claims (Leavens, Hopkins, and Bard, 2008). Intentionality must be understood in a DP framework in order to be properly studied.

The first stage of grief

This post has demonstrated that ToM is an unfalsifiable and dualistic theoretical framework, that relies principally on the problematic assumption that other mental states are unavailable for scrutiny. How has the evidence I have cited above gone unnoticed by ToM theorists who seek to defend their theory?

Such authors, in my view, are struck by DP’s criticisms of ToM because it reveals and attacks assumptions they were unaware they held. The natural instinct is denial (Costall 2013), if such criticism cannot be avoided entirely.

However, the criticism of Gangopadhyay and others nevertheless sharpens the argument of DP. It forces DP theorists to clarify both their own position, to avoid misunderstandings from ToM theorists, and also to be clear in evidencing our claims against ToM. Since ToM theorists are unaware of their own premises, it falls on its critics to force them to confront it in order to avoid charges of attacking a straw man. “Shadow-boxing” will become more common and high-profile accusation if DP theory continues to grow in popularity.

Further, it shows that our own theories must be based not only on phenomenological understanding, but hard ecological reality in order to maintain a theory that is not integrated into ToM-lite positions. If ToM theorists are able to claim that their theory does not deny the UP, our goal must be not only to show that it does and it must, but also that DP theory does not and cannot.

Finally, this criticism shows that DP perspectives are beginning to pose a threat to the dominance of ToM.

¹ The conceptualisation of intentions as separated mental states, existing prior to action, which may be identified only ex-post-facto is not only identified by DP theorists, but by ToM theorists such as Alison Gopnik: “We first have psychological states, then we observe the behaviours and the experiences that they lead to in ourselves and others, then we construct a theory about the causes of those behaviours and experiences that postulate intentionality, and only then do we have an experience of the intentionality of those states.” (Gopnik, 1993, p. 12)

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