Mentalism and Mechanism
the twin modes of human cognition
by Christopher Badcock PhD.,
Reader in Sociology, University of London
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The following article, commissioned as a chapter to appear in
Human Nature and Social Values: Implications of Evolutionary Psychology for
edited by Charles Crawford & Catherine Salmon (Erlbaum, 2003), sets out a
new paradigm for
thinking about many fundamental controversies in human thought - especially the
science/humanities, nature/nurture and mind/brain ones.
Much of the difficulty that people have had in the past with
evolutionary approaches to human psychology and behaviour arose from the tendency
of twentieth-century evolutionists to ignore the mind and concentrate wholly on
genes and/or behaviour. According to George Williams, one of the most important
of twentieth-century Darwinists:
only confusion can arise from the use of an animal-mind
concept in any explanatory role in biological studies of behaviour. ...
Mind may be self evident to most people, but I see only a remote possibility
of its being made logically or empirically evident. ... I feel intuitively that
my daughter's horse has a mind. I am even more
convinced that my daughter has. Neither conclusion is supported by reason or
evidence. Only if it violates physical laws would mind be a factor that biologists
would have to deal with. ... There is no
such evidence for mind as an entity that interferes with physical processes, and
therefore there can be no physical or biological science of mind. ... no kind of material
reductionism can approach any mental phenomenon.
Williams concludes that the 'solution to the non-objectivity
of mind' is 'to exclude mind from all biological discussion'. Elsewhere Williams
castigates what he calls 'lubricious slides into discussions of pleasure and
anxiety and other concepts proper to the mental domain' as nothing other than
'flights of unreason' on the part of authors who 'claim to have provided a
physical explanation of mental phenomena' (Williams, 1985; Williams, 1996).
Anti-mentalism was typical of most twentieth-century
Darwinists and students of animal behaviour. Similar comments to those of
Williams quoted just now can be found in the work of the ethologists,
Niko Tinbergen (1907-88) and Konrad Lorenz (1903-89). These writers
concentrated on observed behaviour and mistrusted mental terms, which were often
dismissed as 'anthropomorphic' (that is, committing the error of attributing
human thoughts and feelings to animals). Such views have been perpetuated and
popularized by their pupils, such as Dawkins (Dawkins, 1995).
To this extent, evolutionary anti-mentalism resembled that of
the behaviourist movement, which dominated mid-twentieth century academic
psychology. Behaviourism derived its name from its dogmatic assertion that the
mind was a 'black box' that could not be opened and whose internal workings
science could not speculate about. All that could be studied objectively was
what went into it in the form of stimuli and what came out of it as observed
behaviour. Nothing else could be said. Behaviourism was the study of behaviour,
not of the mind - mindless psychology, if ever there was.
The result of such views was what you might call
evolutionary, genetic or ethological behaviourism: 'explanations' of behaviour
that went directly from the evolutionary, genetic, or ethological factors
proposed to the observed behavioural result. Such an approach neglected the
mental level of explanation altogether, and at times left you wondering why
organisms that have them have minds at all - so irrelevant did they seem to
behaviour. Where human beings were concerned, evolutionary, genetic or
ethological behaviourism prompted understandable protests that such an approach
was 'reductionistic' and diminished people to the status of mindless robots,
controlled by their genes or evolutionary programming to act in ways essentially
no different from the way in which an ant or an amoeba might behave.
Theory of mind
According to Premack and Woodruff, who originated the
term, theory of mind describes the ability to infer that other people
experience mental states like our own. They claim that such a capacity may
properly be viewed as a theory because mental states are not directly
observable, and can be used to make predictions about the behaviours of others
(Premack & Woodruff, 1978).
Conversely, the inability to attribute such states to others
that is seen in autism has been graphically described as 'mindblindness'.
People with autism tend to be insensitive to other people's feelings, are poor
at interpreting others' intentions, beliefs and knowledge, and often fail to
anticipate the reactions that other people will have to their behaviour. They
have difficulty dealing with misunderstandings, and are often unable to
practice, detect, or understand deception. The result is that their behaviour
often seems bizarre, callous, or childish to others (Baron-Cohen & Howlin,
Experiments suggest that normal children acquire a theory of
mind between the ages of three and five, but that autistic children are notably
lacking in this respect. Studies show that autistic children do not differ from
others in their ability to understand the functions of an internal organ like
the heart. Nor are they deficient in their knowledge about the location of
organs such as liver or brain. However, whereas other children are able to
understand that the brain has purely mental functions, autistic children tend to
associate it only with behavioural functions, so that it appears that
specifically mental, unobservable events are beyond their comprehension. As
Simon Baron-Cohen puts it, 'Lacking a theory of mind is in one sense akin to
viewing the world as a behaviorist' (Baron-Cohen, 1989).
Today a great deal of evidence of many kinds has accumulated
in support of the view that theory of mind deficits characterize autism (Baron-
Cohen, Tager-Flusberg, & Cohen, 2000). Indeed, research has even begun to
reveal the brain structures that might be involved. In a recent experiment using
brain-imaging, ten autistic and ten normal subjects viewed animations of two
moving triangles on a screen in three different conditions: moving randomly,
moving in a goal-directed fashion (chasing, fighting), and moving interactively
with implied intentions (coaxing, tricking). The last condition frequently
elicited descriptions in terms of mental states that viewers attributed to the
triangles. The autism group gave fewer and less accurate descriptions of these
latter animations, but equally accurate descriptions of the other animations
compared with the controls. While viewing animations that elicited mentalizing,
in contrast to randomly moving shapes, the normal group showed increased
activation in parts of the brain previously identified with theory of mind
functions. The autism group showed less activation than the normal group in all
these regions (Castelli, Frith, Happ, & Frith, 2002).
Direction of gaze
From an evolutionary point of view, a plausible origin for
theory of mind might be found in direction of gaze. Primates are typified
by forward-rotated eyes, often to the extent that the visual axes of the eyes
are practically parallel (as in the human case). The benefit of this is
excellent stereoscopic vision, which would have served their ancestors well in
the arboreal habitat in which primates almost certainly first evolved. However,
the cost is a notable reduction in field of vision, particularly when compared
with the almost panoramic view enjoyed by most mammals whose visual fields
normally only overlap to a limited amount at the front, leaving only a small
blind area behind the head. The result is that primates have become more social
(and more vocal) so as to gain the advantage of many different pairs of eyes
Primates have also compensated by becoming sensitive to the
direction of gaze of others. This is particularly important because, not only
can it tell you where the others in the group are looking, it can also give
useful clues about what they are seeing, their state of mind, and intentions.
(Indeed, an analogy now exists in military technology: radars function essential
like eyes, and like them can be directed. Rules of engagement in some recent
conflicts have allowed pilots to interpret a lock-on to their aircraft by an
enemy radar as hostile, and to react immediately rather than wait for the
missile-launch or gun-attack that might be expected to follow.)
In other words, not only may direction of gaze have an
important social dimension in primates like human beings, it also may have
evolved as a critical and fundamental factor in primate sociality from the
beginning. What might at first have seemed an after-effect of social behaviour,
or a trivial detail in it, now begins to take on the appearance of a central,
strategic social adaptation.
There is now good evidence that autistics are notably lacking
in awareness of direction of gaze, and are poor at interpreting its
psychological significance. If there is indeed a mental module specialized for
gaze-monitoring as some have speculated, it appears to be defective in their
case. However, there are also reasons for thinking that it could be over-active,
or at least that some people may over-interpret its output. Here the best
example is the delusion of being watched or spied-on that is so typical of
The most famous paranoiac in the psychiatric literature was
Daniel Paul Schreber (1842-1911), a German high-court judge who published an
autobiographical account of his illness that was later the subject of a paper by
Sigmund Freud (Freud, 1911; Schreber, 1903). Schreber included in it a section
entitled 'Direction of Gaze' long before the subject had been introduced into
discussions of theory of mind (chapter XVIII). According to Schreber the sun
was a living being who spoke to him in human language, or was the organ of a
higher being lying behind it (Schreber, 1903:47). Although impossible before his
illness, in the course of it Schreber believed he could look at the sun without
blinking - indeed, the sun's rays visibly paled before him when he did so
(quoted by Freud, 1911: 53-4).
Schreber also often railed at the sun, which at times he saw
as God's eye, and paranoiacs are often morbidly sensitive to other people's
direction of gaze to the extent of interpreting it as hostile and/or intrusive.
Indeed, they sometimes feel that they are being watched even when no one is
there. Nowadays they often extend this naturally-evolved sensitivity about
direction of gaze to modern technological surrogates for it, and become
similarly pathologically pre-occupied with cameras, closed-circuit TV and ray-
or radiation-producing mechanisms of many different kinds. Such delusions might
fit nicely under another of Schreber's headings: 'Egocentricity of the rays
regarding my person' (Schreber, 1903, chapter XX). Indeed, Harry Stack Sullivan
(1892-1949), a psychiatrist famed for treating schizophrenics, advised his
colleagues to sit at the side of such a patient rather than facing them, never
to look them in the eyes (which he found created suspicion), and to address them
in the third person (personal communication from Dr Andy Thompson, quoted with
thanks by kind permission).
Another deficit found in autism is an ability to judge and
interpret others' intentions towards oneself: what Baron-Cohen calls
intentionality detection. Autistic people often fail to pick up cues
directed at them in otherwise obvious and unmistakable ways, and are poor at
interpreting body-language or judging the implications of others' statements and
behaviour. Indeed, autistic children notably make pronoun-reversal errors,
referring to themselves as 'you' and their mothers as 'I' or 'me'. However,
language-impaired controls, such as sufferers from Down syndrome, do not make
comparable errors, despite their poor speech competence (Baron-Cohen, 1989).
If autistics are deficient in this respect, then paranoiacs
are notable in detecting intentions far too readily, and in over-interpreting
their significance for themselves. Furthermore, this over-sensitivity to
intention can take two forms, depending on whether the intention is positive or
negative. Positive over-interpretation of other's intentions underlies
erotomania. In this case, the subject delusionally believes that others
are attracted to, or are in love with them. However, negative over-valuation of
intention is much more common and seen in the delusions of persecution which are
found in so many paranoiacs. Here, as usual, Schreber was no exception:
a conspiracy against me was brought to a head ... its object
was to contrive that ... I should be handed over to a certain person in a
particular manner ... my soul was to be delivered up to him, but my body ... was
to be transformed into a female body, and as such surrendered to the person in
question with a view to sexual abuse ... (Freud, 1911:19)
Indeed, Schreber's delusional system centred on a universal
struggle of good against evil in which Schreber himself played a central Christ-
like role as the persecuted saviour of the human race.
Another autistic deficit is found in what Baron-Cohen calls
shared attention mechanism. Autistic people typically do not become
involved in group conversations or activities because they usually fail to
understand the element of collective psychological activity that is inevitably
involved. Once again, paranoiacs are characteristically at the opposite extreme
and are given to imagining concerted group activity often expressed as
conspiracies against them, as the last quotation above illustrates. To take
another example, Schreber noticed that, every time he need to go himself,
some other person in my vicinity was sent (by having his
nerves stimulated for that purpose) to the lavatory, in order to prevent me
evacuating. This is a phenomenon which I have observed for years and upon such
countless occasions - thousands of them - and with such regularity, as to
exclude any possibility of its being attributable to chance. (Freud,
Finally, as we have already seen, autistic people are
deficient in theory of mind: they fail to attribute mental states to others and
to react to them accordingly. Here again, paranoia shows the opposite tendency.
In Schreber's case this was a readiness to attribute minds - or what he actually
called 'bemiracled residues of former human souls' - to birds and trees and
generally to mentalize - he would have called it to 'spiritualize' - the whole
world (Freud, 1911:17). Hence the Sun's rays were by turns the 'nerves of God'
or 'God's spermatozoa'. The entire universe became the stage for a spiritual
drama centering on Schreber and his eventual redemption of the world through his
transformation into a woman who would give birth to a new race of men (Schreber,
Adopting the modular view of the mind that has become popular
with evolutionary psychology, Baron-Cohen sums up his approach by suggesting
that autistics may have deficits in four particular modules (Baron-Cohen, 1995).
We might summarize the argument above to add that, if autistics are
characterized by deficits in the mental modules listed by Baron-Cohen,
paranoiacs might be regarded as characterized by their expression in excess:
• Eye Direction Detection (delusions of being watched)
• Intentionality Detection (delusions of
• Shared Attention Mechanism (delusions of conspiracy)
• Theory of Mind Mechanism (religious/mystical delusions)
Although currently fashionable with many evolutionary
psychologists, modular thinking has it critics (even including one of its
founders (Fodor, 2000). One limitation of the modular approach to the factors
listed immediately above is that it suggests that each is a separate, discreet,
all-or-nothing functioning sub-unit of the mind, with little overlap or
possibility of variation. Nevertheless, this is not the only way to see it.
Making the same point in different terms to Baron-Cohen's mental modules, you
could say that whereas autism was characteristically hypo-mentalistic
(too little mentalistic thinking), paranoia was hyper-mentalistic (too
much). This in turn would suggest that mentalism - the ability to
attribute minds to others, and to interpret and understand mental states - was
not an all-or-nothing phenomenon of human psychology, but covered a continuum
stretching from the extremes of hypo-mentalism in severe autism to hyper-
mentalism in cases of paranoia like Schreber's.
Mentalism, then, is the language that human beings use to
talk about their own behaviour. It uses verbs like think, feel, intend, believe,
foresee, wish, know and understand; adjectives like good, bad, moral, immoral,
right, wrong, true, false, evil, criminal, human and divine; nouns like mind,
soul, spirit, motive, aim, desire, love, hate, justice and desert. Mentalism
invokes conditions like consciousness, righteousness, redemption, knowledge,
ignorance, obligation and culpability, and enables its practitioners a unique
ability to travel mentally through time in both directions: imaginatively into
the future and retrospectively into the past (Suddendorf & Corballis,
To put it another way, you could say that mentalism is
characteristically human in that it allows us to name, blame and shame (or
alternatively to except, exonerate and extol). Indeed, this almost certainly
explains much of the evolution of mentalism: not just a useful grammar of mental
agency, but an effective psychological tool with which to manipulate and
influence the behaviour of others. How else could people be motivated to act in
the name of purely abstract - that is, mentalistic - concepts like justice,
truth or equality? And what else would we regard as characteristically,
definitively and quintessentially human than action motivated by such
Although not one of Baron-Cohen's defective modules, language
is yet another mentalistic phenomenon that fits the hypo-/hyper-mentalistic
pattern found in autism and paranoia. Words and the concepts they represent are
clearly mentalistic - particularly when the concept is a purely abstract one,
like mentalism itself. And even when a word represents an object which we might
rightly see as part of the physical world, the fact remains that the word
representing it is an arbitrary mental construct imposed by linguistic tradition
and mentalistic to that extent. Indeed, paranoiacs like Schreber are often given
to coining neologisms, and his book is embellished with many elaborate pieces of
inventive phraseology and word-elision whose precise meaning is wholly
Hearing voices is another classic symptom epitomized by
Schreber, whose verbal mentalistic sensitivity was such that he could discern
that souls in general and God in particular spoke the 'basic language', a
vigorous if somewhat antiquated German, characterized by its great wealth of
euphemisms (Freud, 1911:23). Autism, by contrast, is hypo-mentalistic in this
respect also because a linguistic deficit is typical of the disorder, and verbal
communication skills are usually severely impaired.
Sex, autism and engineering
If there is indeed a continuum of mentalism, ranging from
the hypo-mentalistic extreme represented by autism to the hyper-mentalistic one
represented by paranoia, then recent research suggests that sex differences may
also relate to it. Here the critical finding is that autism and the milder, less
severe, Asperger's Syndrome which seems to share many of the same mentalistic
deficits, are much more prevalent in males than females.
Although those who are diagnosed with autism and Asperger's
Syndrome have deficits in language development, social ability and what I am
calling mentalism, they are notably better than average at spatial tasks. This
finding is important, not only because it suggests that there may be pluses as
well as minuses associated with hypo-mentalism, but because it ties in with what
is already known about normal differences between the sexes where issues like
language, social skills and spatial ability are concerned.
Here, studies suggest average female superiority in language
skills; social judgement; empathy and co-operation; perceptual speed (finding
matching items); fine-motor co-ordination; pretend play in childhood; and
mathematical calculation. Male superiority is normally found in mathematical
reasoning (especially geometry, logic: at the highest level male mathematicians
outnumber female 13:1); embedded figure tasks; some (but not all) spatial
skills; target-directed motor skills (irrespective of practice); navigation; and
geography (boys always win the National Geography Bee, which tests children in
grades four to eight on their knowledge of places around the world, and male
college students can locate almost twice as many countries on an unlabelled map
of the world as females can) (Baron-Cohen, 2002; Dabbs & Dabbs, 2000;
From birth girls attend more to social stimuli, such as faces
and voices than do boys, who have a preference to attend more to non-social,
spatial stimuli, such as mobiles or traffic. Most girls develop language earlier
than most boys, and normally girls develop social skills sooner than boys.
However, babies with autism lack the innate preference for looking at faces
rather than objects found normally in both sexes and shown, for example, in the
readiness of older babies to return a smile. Here it may be significant that
autistics process visual information about faces in the same part of the brain
normally used for objects alone, rather than in the specialized face-recognition
and reaction region found in normal people (Pierce, Muller, Ambrose, Allen,
& Courchesne, 2001).
Asperger's Syndrome is sometimes called 'the engineer's
disorder' and authorities in the field comment that
it is hard to find a clinical account of autism that does not
involve the child being obsessed by some machine or another. Typical examples
include extreme fascinations with electricity pylons, burglar alarms, vacuum
cleaners, washing machines, video players, trains, planes and clocks. ...
Showing an apparently precocious mechanical understanding, whilst being
relatively oblivious to their listener's level of interest, suggests that their
folk physics might be outstripping their folk psychology in development. (Baron-
According to a recent survey of 919 families of children with
autism or Asperger's Syndrome which listed occupations of parents, fathers of
children with autism or Asperger's were twice as often employed in engineering
as were fathers in any of four control groups of children with Tourette's or
Down Syndrome. Another study of a mathematician, a physicist and a computer
scientist all diagnosed with Asperger's tested them against controls on folk
physics and folk psychology (Reading Eyes Test). Although all three equalled
control subjects' performance on sex judgements on the eye test, all scored more
than one standard deviation below controls on folk psychology and more than one
standard deviation above on folk physics (which is comparable to 85 per cent of
Asperger's subjects, who also score at or above this level). As the researchers
comment, 'These results strongly suggest that theory of mind (folk psychology)
is independent of IQ, executive function and reasoning about the physical world
... and may therefore have its own unique evolutionary history.' They
There thus seems to be a small but statistically significant
link between autism and engineering. ... The current result might also help to
explain why a condition like autism persists in the gene pool: the very same
genes that lead an individual to have a child with autism can lead to superior
functioning in the domain of folk physics. Engineering and related folk physics
skills have transformed the way in which our species lives, without question for
the better. Indeed, without such skills, Homo sapiens would still be pre-
industrial. (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Stone, & Rutherford, 1999:475-83)
Astonishing evidence of the link between autism and
engineering can be found in Silicon Valley (Santa Clara County, California). In
1993 there were 4,911 diagnosed cases of classic autism in Santa Clara County.
In 1999 the figure passed 10,000, and in 2001 there were 15,441 cases, with new
ones added at 7 per day, 85 per cent of them children. Given that employment in
Silicon Valley is primarily in electronic engineering and computing, and that
equal opportunity employment means that many children born there will have both
parents in these industries, so-called assortative mating has been
suggested as the most likely explanation. This is the idea that likes attract,
and that people tend to marry partners who have much in common with themselves.
In other words, it looks as if mentalistic deficits in people with engineering
skills are being compounded in their children by inheritance of these deficits
from both parents. There is certainly strong evidence that autism and Asperger's
Syndrome are heritable disorders. For example, there is a 90 per cent chance an
identical twin of a sufferer will also be diagnosed autistic. The risk of second
child being autistic if one is already rises from 1-in-500 to 1-in-20, while the
risk for a third being autistic after two children already are diagnosed is 1-
in-3 (Silberman, 2001).
If gaze-monitoring and the attendant social sensitivities
usually found most developed in females suggest an evolutionary origin for what
I am calling mentalism, then the throwing, tool-using and fabricating skills
associated with hunting suggest a parallel one for what we might call
mechanism. In other words, if mentalism is a noun equivalent for 'theory
of mind' or 'folk psychology', so mechanism as understood here would be an
equivalent for 'theory of bodies' or 'folk physics' (Baron-Cohen, 1999).
The contrast between the false belief and false photo test is
a telling illustration. Here the finding is that an autistic who sees an object
moved without the knowledge of another person does not usually appreciate that
other's ignorance of its new position - a clear Mentalistic deficit (indeed, one
that has been called the acid test of theory of mind (Wimmer & Perner,
1983). However, an autistic who sees an object moved after they have
photographed it usually predicts where it will appear in the resulting
photograph correctly. This can be seen as a compensating mechanistic competence
to the extent that it involves a correct understanding of the optics of
photography (Baron-Cohen, 2000).
An additional virtue of looking at things this way is that it
avoids stigmatizing autistics as simply deficient and instead balances their
mentalistic deficits against compensating cognitive skills, suggesting that
their apparent mental retardation in one dimension might open up precocious
development in another. Ten per cent of autistics, but only one per cent with
other developmental deficits, show so-called savant skills: in other
words, outstanding cognitive and memory ability found among more prevalent
disability. Such talents are usually limited to music, art, maths and calendar
calculation, mechanical and spatial skills, often featuring astonishing
memorization feats, while the combination of blindness, autism and musical
genius is unusually frequent (Treffert, 2001). For example, a pair of identical
twin savants described by Sacks possessed calendar-calculating skills over an
80,000 year range; could not do simple arithmetic, but would calculate lengthy
primes for fun; could instantly count the number of matches that fell out of a
box; and could remember the weather and the important political events on every
day of their adult lives while having little or no memory of more personal
events (Sacks, 1995).
W. D. Hamilton (1936-2000, the originator of modern, 'selfish
gene' Darwinism) described himself as 'almost idiot savant' (Hamilton,
2001:xxvii) and rated himself 'fairly good at woodwork as at other handicrafts'
to the extent of having carpentry as a 'reserve life plan' in case his theory
proved unpublishable (Hamilton, 1996:26). Hamilton also conformed to the typical
family of someone with autistic tendencies suggested above: his father was a
well-known engineer (designer of the Callender-Hamilton bridge), and a
geriatrician sister had engineering skills to the extent that she developed an
improved pressure mattress for the treatment of bed sores (Bliss, 2001).
Hamilton describes himself as possessing
notably a trait approaching to autism about what most regard
as the higher attributes of our species ... a person who ... believes he
understands the human species in many ways better than anyone and yet who
manifestly doesn't understand in any practical way how the human world works -
neither how he himself fits in and nor, it seems, the conventions.
It is known now how autists, for all that they cannot do in
the way of human relationships, detect better out of confusing minimal sketches
on paper the true, physical 3-D objects an artist worked from, than do ordinary
un-handicapped socialites ... so may some kinds of autists, unaffected by all
the propaganda they have failed to hear, see further into the true shapes that
underlie social phenomena. (Hamilton, 2001:xxvii-xxxi)
The significance of these comments is that Hamilton's
insights were almost exclusively into the fundamental mechanisms of
evolution: natural and sexual selection, population genetics, and Mendelian
inheritance. Furthermore, it is these very mechanisms which arouse most
resistance in the general public when they are invoked as explanations, causes
or foundations of human behaviour. Such invocations typically attract
denunciation as 'reductionistic', 'deterministic', 'sexist', 'racist', and so
on. But what most of such reactions share in common is their mentalistic bias:
they are offended by the claims of evolutionary and genetic explanation because
they appear to impugn mentalistic agency - the belief that, not only do we have
minds, but that our minds and not our genes or evolved psychology determine our
Scientific insights also appear to question mentalistic
states - especially consciousness, the quintessence of mentalism - because here,
as elsewhere with mentalistic subjectivity, the facts now strongly suggest that
consciousness is very much the last part of the mind to become aware of what we
are doing (Libet, 1985). And it is now an irrefutable fact that the vast
majority of what goes on in our brains does so in total ignorance of our
consciousness as such (LeDoux, 1996). This in turn casts doubt on the true
nature of mental contents such as beliefs, emotions, and intentions, and
generally makes mentalistic subjectivity seem worryingly different from
objective, scientific knowledge of the mechanisms of the brain and mind.
According to the distinction I am suggesting here,
biological science describes the evolved genetic, neurophysiological and
psychological mechanisms underlying human thought, feeling and behaviour, while
social and environmental factors determine the mentalistic subjectivity of human
actors. What we may term mental - or non-material - culture can be seen to be
both mentalistic in content and as arbitrary - or individually- or socially-
determined - in nature. Indeed, we could list the mentalistic aspects of
culture as follows:
• Etiquette, Social Conventions and Language
Although language has been rightly described as an instinct
from the mechanistic, evolved point of view (Pinker, 1994), here language is
understood merely as a collection of arbitrary signs determined by cultural
convention. And the same goes for etiquette: shaking hands or bowing, and eating
with a fork rather than chop-sticks, are clearly also arbitrary, culturally-
determined conventions (what sociologists like Émile Durkheim would have
called 'social facts' (Durkheim, 1982) and later structuralist social scientists
applying the linguistic analogy would regard as signifiers (Lévi-
• Abstract and Conceptual art, Literature and Aesthetics
Recent research on the abstract art of Piet Mondrian (1872-
1944) who claimed that elements of his compositions were critically placed for
aesthetic effect suggest that, on the contrary, subjects (experts included) are
unable to pick real Mondrians from others randomly generated by computer
(Taylor, 2002). Much so-called 'conceptual art' appears to rely similarly on the
mental attitude of the spectator more than it does on the intrinsic qualities of
the object in question, and this is the reason I suggest that all such non-
representational, non-realist art be regarded as essentially mentalistic.
The appreciation of literature relies fundamentally on
mentalistic skills, and particularly on theory of mind to represent reality by
purely representational and figurative means. Aesthetic values in general are
highly subjective. Beauty notoriously lies in the eye - or perhaps we should say
mind - of the beholder, and what one person regards as 'artistic' or
aesthetically pleasing may just as easily seem ugly or prosaic to another. (For
example, painted depictions of nudes are usually regarded as 'art', whereas
photographic depictions of the same models could just as easily be seen as
examples of erotica - or even pornography.)
• Religion, Superstition and Ethics
As I mentioned above, Schreber interpreted his delusions as
religious and mystical insights into reality, and to the extent that all
theological thinking presupposes the existence of supernatural beings and a
'psychic' or 'spiritual' dimension to the human mind, you could see it as
similarly hyper-mentalistic. Indeed, such an approach readily suggests an
intriguing new evolutionary insight into religion. According to this way of
looking at it, theory of mind originally evolved to facilitate purely
psychological inter-personal interactions in primeval societies. However, in the
absence of the more mechanistic, scientific understanding of the physical world
that was not to evolve until recently, existing mentalistic adaptations were
applied to the universe as a whole, transferring concepts like agency,
intention, culpability and prescience to deities, demons and supernatural
entities of all kinds. As a result, reality as a whole - and not just social
reality - became peopled with mental agents who could be influenced in ways
analogous to those in which ordinary humans could be: through supplication
(prayer), generosity (sacrifice), or contrition (penance). In this way, personal
needs, failings and frustrations beyond the remedy of mere mortals could be
redressed, and a mentalistic pre-adaptation set the scene for the evolution of
religion, magic and superstition as independent cognitive systems.
Historically and socially, morality and religion are closely
associated, and our routine tendency to name, blame and shame leaves little
doubt that an ability to make and manipulate moral concepts such as justice,
virtue and culpability are of enormous importance in our attempts to influence
the behaviour of others by purely mental means (witness the frequency with which
purely intellectual disagreements can lead to accusations of the 'wickedness' or
'immorality' of the view being criticized: (McKie & Thorpe, 2002).
• Law, Politics and Ideology
There is also a close affinity between ethics and law,
particularly when the latter has a religious or scriptural basis as it does for
example in Judaism or Islam. But all legal codes are mentalistic to the extent
that they can - and typically do - lead to legal argument and contestation, for
example in the conduct of trials. But you only have to compare this situation
with that of laws as they are understood in natural science to see how different
legal principles are from scientific ones. You could not, for example, advocate
the repeal of the second law of thermodynamics in the way you might that of any
human law, or dispute Mendelian inheritance in the same way that someone might
challenge a will.
As for politics - at least in Western-style democracies - the
adversarial nature of law finds an exact parallel in the similarly adversarial
organization of political parties and legislatures into government and
opposition, left as opposed to right wings of the political spectrum,
conservatives versus progressives, and so on. Where ideology is concerned, no
one will I think need to be convinced that the appeal of political ideologies
lies in the arguments used to justify them, the emotions which they arouse, and
in other mentalistic factors on which they rely, such as the personalities of
political leaders or the beliefs of their followers. Indeed, and in so far as
they are non-violent alternatives to more war-like social conflicts, you could
see law, politics and ideology as the supreme cultural expression of mentalism
as an evolved means of influencing others by psychological, rather than physical
By contrast to mental culture, what might be termed
material culture (the kinds of things studied by cultural anthropologists),
reflects what I have called mechanistic cognition, rather than mentalism:
• Mathematics and Calendar Calculation
Even though systems of mathematical notation, and the base
number for counting systems may vary culturally, mathematical principles, like
Pythagoras's theorem, or numbers like pi, remain true irrespective of culture
or circumstance. And mathematical logic and numerical expression remain
fundamental to mechanistic thinking wherever it is systematically applied in the
sciences, technology or engineering.
Calendrical calculation is a particularly notable application
in many cultures, and can often be embodied in objects characteristic of
material culture such as written records, buildings, or religious artifacts. And
as we have already seen, calendrical calculation is also a prime expertise of
savants, many of whom are autistic.
• Representational and Utilitarian Art and Architecture
Savant syndrome can also be expressed in outstanding artistic
talent, but here the output, be it drawing, painting, sculpture or modelling, is
characteristically realistic, rather than abstract or conceptual. Indeed, this
is often how savant's artistic skills are first recognized: even as children
they show technical competence in representing things in their art that goes far
beyond that normal for their age. To the extent that realistic art relies on
objectivity rather than subjectivity it may be seen as mechanistic in the sense
intended here rather than mentalistic.
In utilitarian art such as ceramics, joinery or glass-
blowing, the link with technology and mechanical skill is self-evident, and in
architecture the mechanistic basis is more evident still. Buildings are, after
all, ultimately a question of engineering in whatever materials may be used, and
although glass, wood, stone, brick and concrete remain the most common, today
materials employed in more conventional engineering such as metal, plastics or
composites are also increasingly used in architecture along with the engineering
principles they make possible, such as cantilevers, pivots, tensioning and
• Science, Technology and Engineering
Having already made the point about science, technology and
engineering being the epitome of mechanistic as opposed to mentalistic
cognition, I will not repeat it here except to add that, as applied to human
behaviour, the result of such thinking is not simply hypo-mentalistic, but
actually anti-mentalistic, as I suggested at the beginning. Its effect is to
reduce human beings to the status of unthinking, biologically-determined robots
without the many mentalistic attributes listed above which humans rightly think
make them exceptional: etiquette, social conventions and language; abstract and
conceptual art, literature and aesthetics; religion, superstition and ethics,
law, politics and ideology.
Conclusion: the naturalistic and moralistic fallacies
It is common to contrast the naturalistic fallacy
- what exists is what ought to be, or facts should dictate values - with the
moralistic fallacy - what ought to be is what exists, or values should
dictate facts. However, the argument set out above suggests an intriguing new
way of resolving the issue, and of doing justice to both sides of the argument
about fact and value.
According to this way of looking at it, what is fallacious
about both is their common over-stepping of the boundaries between what I have
termed mentalistic and mechanistic cognition. The moralistic fallacy mentalizes
facts by confusing a purely psychological factor - moral evaluation, wholly
justifiable in its proper, human context - with objective realities outside and
beyond human subjectivity. It uses the mentalistic verb 'ought' in a context to
which it does not apply. The naturalistic fallacy, conversely, objectifies
mental, human subjectivity by treating it as if it were continuous with the
natural world. To use the jargon of cognitive science, both erroneously portray
domain-specific systems of representation as domain-general. But in reality
values can only be applied to human subjectivity, and facts belong to the
separate world of objective reality.
You could compare the mistake made by these fallacies with
regard to the two modes of cognition which I have tried to distinguish here to
someone expecting a spreadsheet program to play music on their computer, or an
email program to produce graphics. No one today expects a single piece of
software to be able to do everything you could do on a computer, and the same
applies according to my argument to the human brain. Yet up until the present
the assumption that has been generally made is that the human mind is equipped
to comprehend any kind of reality using essentially the same basic cognitive
skills and processes. While external influences on cognition in the form of
political, social and economic biases were exhaustively catalogued in the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the existence of internal, biological,
brain-based biases was largely ignored. But as I have tried to argue, today the
situation is quite different, and recent research into autism, theory of mind,
and normal sex differences in cognition has transformed the situation entirely.
Indeed, now it seems completely naive to think that there is only one mode of
human cognition and just a single means by which people comprehend reality.
Consider a surgeon operating on a patient. The surgeon treats
the patient as an unconscious, material object on which the surgery is
performed, rather as a mechanic might approach a piece of machinery that needed
fixing. (Here autistic tendencies would not matter, indeed, to the extent that
they helped the surgeon be detached and objective in operating on a patient,
they might actually be beneficial.) But in a clinical interview, the same
surgeon would treat the same patient as a conscious subject, for example in
negotiating a drug regime or post-operative care. In such contexts as this, the
surgeon is obliged to respect the patient's real freedom to choose, for example
in agreeing or not agreeing to take medication or exercise in circumstances
where, unlike the situation on the operating table, the surgeon does not have
the power to enforce compliance on an unfeeling object. (And in such
circumstances of persuasion mentalistic skills would definitely pay off, while
autistic tendencies would be a serious handicap.) Clearly, both the mechanistic
approach to surgery and the mentalistic one to the clinical interview are
appropriate and correct, and no one would criticize a surgeon for either. On the
contrary, a surgeon who insisted that the patient should be conscious and choose
for themselves each and every procedure during surgery would probably have as
few patients as one who treated patients in interviews as if they were inert,
unconscious bodies on an operating table!
Much the same applies to mentalistic and mechanistic
cognition. Each has its appropriate context. Essentially, what I have proposed
is that values of an ethical, aesthetic, political, legal or religious kind have
a proper place in mentalistic cognition, which is rightly applied in the
humanities; is voluntaristic in its mode of explanation; relates peculiarly to
psychological subjectivity; is the basis of mental culture; and is
particularistic in the sense that mental life is individually- or socially-
determined and culturally-relative. Material facts, on the other hand, relate
to mechanistic cognition, which is properly applied in technology and the
sciences; is deterministic in its mode of explanation; relates peculiarly to
physical objectivity; is the basis of material culture; and is universalistic in
the sense that scientific and technological truths are equally valid in all
What I have tried to do here is to show that the fact/value
problem is part of this much larger picture and finds new and unexpected
insights in the study of autism and paranoia, as well as in normal sex
differences in cognition. Essentially, I have argued that human cognition
employs two distinct, non-commensurate and in many ways incompatible modes,
each appropriate and reliable in its specific domain, but prone to fallacious or
unreliable outputs if employed in the other. If I have succeeded in clarifying
the differences between what I have termed mentalism and mechanism for want of
better terms, I hope that I will have thereby contributed something - however
small - to the avoidance of confusion between them in the future.
One virtue of this way of looking at things is that it would
discourage religious, political and moral credulity, bigotry and fanaticism of
all kinds by cutting mentalism down to size, so to speak. This is because all
such reactions are quintessentially mentalistic, and according to this analysis,
mentalism is just another human adaptation: the psychological equivalent of
something like striding bipedalism, rather than some god-given, specially-
created or necessarily-evolved spiritual superiority. (To use one of the few
good analogies in another species, you might see mentalism as a means of
communication and interaction as peculiar to our species and as quaint in its
symbolism as the waggle-dance is to bees.)
Seeing culture as essentially mentalistic would also reduce
literary and artistic snobbery and elitism, and would help to counter emotive,
phobic and irrational reactions to scientific and technological innovation.
Finally, understanding and accepting the mentalistic deficits of mechanistic
thinking would also help to limit social exclusion, prejudice and
misunderstanding of autistics of all kinds. Indeed, such a change in attitude
might confer a new and special esteem on those who, like William Hamilton, have
arguably contributed the most of lasting worth to our species as a whole through
their work in engineering, technology, and science.
The author wishes to thank Simon Baron-Cohen, Charles
Crawford, Robert Kruszynski, Alex Monto, Thomas Suddendorf, and J. Anderson
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