The Debate over What Animals Know about Other Minds

Colin Allen in American Scientist:

Mind-reading-animalsDoes your dog know what you are thinking? Can a chimpanzee understand what another sees? In the three and a half decades since David Premack and Guy Woodruff first asked whether chimpanzees have a “theory of mind,” a considerable empirical and philosophical literature has sprung up around what has come to be called “mind reading” in animals. Theory of mind, as Premack and Woodruff defined it, is the ability to attribute perceptual and cognitive states to others. This is not about telepathy, but about whether any animals besides humans have the capacity to attribute such states to others. Numerous experimental tests and other observations have been offered in favor of animal mind reading, and although many scientists are skeptical, others assert that humans are not the only species capable of representing what others do and don’t perceive and know.

Robert Lurz, a philosopher at Brooklyn College, CUNY, surveys the experiments at the heart of the debate and finds that not one of them solves what he calls “the logical problem” in animal mind-reading research. The logical problem is that for any mind-reading hypothesis, it seems possible to construct a complementary “behavior-reading” hypothesis that makes exactly the same predictions but is assumed to be less cognitively demanding. The basic point is that whatever mind reading is, it is not magic, and thus depends on ordinary, perceivable cues—but these same cues are then available as a basis for expectations about actions that an animal might take without making any mental attribution. If you see me gazing at a piece of cake with a certain look on my face, you may infer that I’m thinking about eating it, or you might instead directly form some expectations about my cake-directed behavior without imagining what I might be thinking about it.

More here.