Theory of Mind 1

On reading further in The God Delusion (2006), Dawkins points out that we seem to have a tendency (or instinct) which favours teleology, “the assignment of purpose to everything”. has teleology as:

1. the doctrine that final causes exist.
2. the study of the evidences of design or purpose in nature.
3. such design or purpose.
4. the belief that purpose and design are a part of or are apparent in nature.
5. (in vitalist philosophy) the doctrine that phenomena are guided not only by mechanical forces but that they also move toward certain goals of self-realization.

Dawkins goes on to suggest that we carry this tendency forward (through the third of Daniel Dennett’s (1987) 3 ‘stances’ – the ‘intentional stance’) to where it forms the basis of our religions and I would add, our myths and legends. Thus we can ‘see’ or anticipate from our ‘god’ a presumed intention when we are faced with a dilemma or a gap in our understanding. I believe that by the same process the ego, while in protective mode, engages us in detecting another’s ‘intentional stance’ within social or adversarial interactions. We ‘see’ or anticipate another’s intention or more specifically, our ego ‘sees’ our corespondent’s intention and undertakes an analysis to determine vulnerability or danger (as in Dennett, 1981 above). We will do this not only pre-consciously but also instantaneously. We may or may not become aware of the process until later. This process has been given a classification – ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM) (see here for reference).

Many believe that ToM goes all the way back through our cognitive development, even further back than our chimp and bonobo cousins (see here for reference). By example, Robbins Burling (2005) suggests that a dog’s snarl has evolved into a sign the dog uses to display anger and that it is about to attack. The intended victim can ‘read’ the dog’s intention through ToM before any damaging action need be taken. Under the guidance of our egos we have developed ToM to ‘see’ the intentions of others, including our animal friends and enemies as well as our preferred ‘god’. ToM is a complex process. I believe it is entangled within and runs parallel to the evolutionary development of the ego.

If we can see that ToM allows us to read another’s intention or that through ToM our interlocutor reads our intention, we might see that ToM is an essential element in our psychological make-up. If we can see that the ego has developed over time as our guardian and protector, might we also see that the two are intertwined. Trouble is, how? The way I see it, the ego works hand-in-hand with our ‘inner self’. Imagine looking into a mirror with another mirror behind you. You will see two reflections- the one you are looking at as well as the reflection of your first reflection in the mirror behind you. This would be how we might ‘see’ our ego – an insubstantial reflection of self – there to look after us but having no substance of itself. If you try to confront someone with the intention of exposing them or their intentions, their ego-reaction will be to dodge your inquiry or contrive some diversion to deflect your inquiry. Ask a politician a straight question! The ego is the deceiver, the pretender, the clown, anything to avoid exposure of the ‘self’ it is protecting.

If we assign a job description to the ego it will be to act as our personal defence mechanism, with a basis in preconscious activity in the brain stem. We could also say that part of it’s artillery is ToM. ToM could even be its principle weapon. The ego is a master of deception, using deceit to avoid exposure of the self. With ToM in its armoury the ego acts as our scout, looking for possible social pitfalls or potential personal harm in our social and physical environments. From this we might see that sociopaths develop a distorted ToM causing incorrect readings of social intentions. Certainly varying degrees of ToM can be detected for different individuals. Experiments have shown that children growing up with siblings have a more developed ToM than sole children. From this we might extrapolate that a child growing up under difficult or dangerous conditions can develop a distorted ToM due to the constant threats against it’s person. Such a child may develop an incorrect register or calibration of the ToM of other people with whom it must interact, causing over-defensive reactions to what others might see as normal gestures. More soon.


About johnderonde

UK-based charity worker in Tanzania
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