Chimps and Folk Psychology

Like many philosophical texts that I have read in this class Churchland’s article changed my views multiple times in the minutes I was reading. The way many of these texts are written sometimes has you convinced of one thing and then quickly makes you realize how foolish you were for ever believing that idea in the first place. When first reading Churchland’s description of folk psychology I thought that this theory of mind seemed very sensible and seemed to work with my current beliefs of the way the world works. However, after reading his section “Why Folk Psychology might (really) be false” I was completely convinced of the opposite. All of his arguments against folk psychology made sense but one critique that Churchland just barely touched on really caught my attention.

Churhland states “One particularly outstanding mystery is the nature of the learning process itself, especially where it involves large-scale conceptual change, and especially as it appears in its pre-linguistic or entirely nonlinguistic form (as in infants and ani- mals), which is by far the most common form in nature. “ (596) I had not thought of this idea when originally agreeing with the ideas of folk psychology and was especially intrigued by Churchland mention of animals who have no capacity for language. I did a quick Google search for “folk psychology animals” and immediately came up with results. The most prominent results were about a book called Do Apes Read Minds?: Toward a New Folk Psychology by Kristin Andrews. Although I couldn’t get a hold of actual pages from the book I found a  great summary, which I have cited below, that shed light on Kristin Andrews’ argument.

Andrews discusses that modern science and study has made many realize how similar apes and other primates are to us as humans, even in terms of “doing” folk psychology. It seems that chimps track goals as well as perceptual awareness in other chimps. These animals use past experience and memory as well as their current states to understand other chimps they come in contact with. However, the traditional view of folk psychology as we have seen from Churchland has a lot to do with someone being able to understand beliefs. Many people are extremely hesitant to say animals like chimps can understand the beliefs of other chimps or even have beliefs themselves. Even experiments that have been done seem to suggest that chimps cannot understand false beliefs and possibly beliefs in general. So there seems to be a bit of a problem here because chimps are extremely social and complex animals who understand each other and can predict and even foresee the actions of others, yet they seem to not have the capability to understand beliefs, a key part of folk psychology. Andrews goes on to suggest that because of this information and much more that she talks about in her book a new definition of folk psychology or it must be abandoned as a theory entirely.



2 thoughts on “Chimps and Folk Psychology

  1. Reading your post reminded me of “The Bonobo and the Atheist” by Dr. Frans de Waal (he works at Emory and it’s a great read!). In it, Dr. de Waal attempts to show that even without religion, there is still a sense of empathy, community, and morality in non-human primates. Here’s an article detailing some of Dr. de Waal’s major points:
    Unconsciously, it’s because of this book that I began to believe that non-human primates do have minds.
    I did some research on the studies that were conducted on whether or not non-human primates can perceive the beliefs of others. The study has only been conducted on rhesus macaques so I’m interested in knowing whether it’s true for other non-human primates (like chimps or orangutans, both impressively intelligent animals) . It’s interesting because while I am sure that primates do have minds and I do not recoil about the use of folk psychology as Churchland does, it does raise some questions about the limitations of folk psychology as a theory. I think a way to improve this study would be to test how non-human primates test with fellow non-human primates. For example, in the study, it is the researcher’s belief about the placement of the apple that the macaque is unable to perceive. However, I wonder if the difference in species may be a confounding variable. Repeating a similar experiment in this way would be interesting. Along with this, this was one of two studies I saw that actually tested this perception of beliefs, and both had similar experimental designs. I’m sure that there are other ways to test belief reports and I think it should definitely be studied.
    Here’s the link to the study if anyone is interested (just read the abstract if you’re not interested in the jargony bits):
    Also, something key about the title of the paper: it says that monkeys fail to automatically represent other’s beliefs. I’m not sure as to the importance of differentiating automatic vs deliberate, or planned, but perhaps a study looking at a more intentional belief would yield different results.
    I’m simply pointing out some future directions for studies. While the results are interesting, I think it’s not fully developed and could definitely use some fleshing out to paint a better picture. The results are far from conclusive.
    Both Dr. de Waal’s research and the study I linked above provide conflicting ideas. For one, in order to display empathy, one must be aware of the beliefs or at least the mental states of others in order to react in an empathetic manner. As such, I hesitate to say that monkeys cannot represent the beliefs of others.
    Folk psychology may not be doomed after all.

  2. I know this is a stretch from a typical comment. However, I would like to touch on the learning development of chimps and primates. One could infer that this recognition of progress, memory, and other basic mental functions are in fact the base level of human intelligence. In a sense these signs of basic functions demonstrate the evolution of intelligence and we can in fact track our own mental development through the science and analysis of such primates. Thus to track another dimension of “folk psychology” it would behoove us to run an ancestor simulation consisting of our “true” ancestors: apes.

    If we created an ancestor simulation populated with primates and lesser life forms we would be able to study and examine the evolution of psychology, memory, and human cognition on the core levels. Such a program would provide invaluable insight into the nature vs. nurture debate, and would enable us to test various theories on mental development, mental states, and other philosophical concepts.

    Furthermore, an ancestor simulation could be tailored to have time move faster than in our base reality. Such manipulation would enable us to cultivate decades of study in mere months. In short if a complex ancestor simulation were developed I would argue a primate simulation would be far more valuable than a typical “human” simulation.

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