Mid-Afternoon MOOCing: How Do You Know Whether Something Has A Mind?

How do you know whether something has a mind?

For this assignment we are asking you to produce a short piece of writing on how one might probe whether something has a mind or not. After you have submitted your text, you will receive feedback from another learner.

Drawing on this week’s content and from your own experience, how would you go about determining whether another being has a mind? If you have a pet dog or cat, etc., what makes you think it has a mind? And what makes you think your computer or mobile phone do not have a mind?

Start by describing a response or behaviour that you expect something with a mind should display. Then describe how you might test your assumptions. You can ask questions and use any ideas you like. Describe how you would go about deciding whether the thing you are testing has a mind. Even commenting on how difficult this is to do, would be sufficient. Note we are certainly not expecting you to perform an experiment on anything, rather limit this to your own past experiences or your imagination.

Why is it important to consider such questions? Philosophers would argue this question is absolutely unanswerable. The empirical or scientific approach, which we are asking you to consider in this assignment, is a very different approach. It involves some form of experimentation to probe a question. This requires you to formulate an hypothesis, and predictions arising from the hypothesis, and then testing whether your predictions are supported. Although this does not provide definitive proof, it provides practical knowledge you can use in the real world.

This written assignment should be between about 200 and 400 words long. Aim to spend no more than an hour on this task. We suggest you use your preferred text editor such as Microsoft Word, Pages or Google Docs to write the assignment. You can only submit your assignment once, so using a text editor to save drafts will ensure nothing gets lost. You can then copy-and-paste your assignment into the text box below once you are ready to submit.

Assignment Guidelines

The reviewers will be asked to give you feedback on the following aspects of your assignment, so you should consider these when writing:

  • Comment on use of terms and concepts from the week on subjectivity
  • Comment on how comprehensible and practical you think the proposal is
  • Given the challenges in determining whether something has a mind, how creative did you find this proposal?

One hour? Are you kidding me? At the speed I read (no faster than I can speak the words out loud) and type (considerably slower than the speed at which I read) that immediately rules out any background research. My usual approach to a task such as this would be to spend at least the first hour just faffing about: making space on the kitchen table, paying attention to what’s happening on the street outside, wondering if it would be worth searching through the books still boxed up in the attic, making coffee, drinking coffee, sitting down, getting up, standing around, staring at walls, trying not to think irrelevant thoughts, making more coffee…

But this is clearly a flash-challenge. On that premise I have decided the most obvious place to start is to copy and paste the details of the assignment (as copied and pasted above) into Microsoft Word and do a word count. Because I’m just like that. 421 words! So I’m expected to respond to the assignment in fewer words than it was set, with reference to not much more than the contents of my own mind, systematically and succinctly, and offer it up for critical analysis by the global Future Learn community.

An intellectual car crash waiting to happen then!

I’m going to need more coffee…

How Do You Know Whether Something Has a Mind?

You don’t. You make a best guess. How might one probe? With a stick? A series of questions? A problem solving exercise? Observations? The fact that it doesn’t recoil from a pin prick tells you nothing. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Eliza is a bot but it’s just as plausible that Eliza is a person pretending to be a bot, because minds, or the things that have them, can be deceitful like that.

My dog speaks Canine, not English. But he understands perfectly well some of the English words I speak, as his responses testify. The juvenile blackbirds in the garden are mindful enough to hide when my dog hurtles around after his tennis ball. And the parent blue tits figured out ages ago that tennis ball fluff makes pretty good nesting material. We really don’t need to have the ‘Do Animals Have Minds?’ debate, do we? They very obviously do and anyone who thinks otherwise should probably get their own head examined. That’s not to say that I think mind is limited to the volume of the cranial cavity. I really have no idea what it is, where it begins or ends, or how one might empirically test for it. Or for its absence.

Cogito ergo sum.

“I think therefore I am.” Other philosophers have already pointed out that Descartes might have been mistaken in believing that he was the one doing the thinking. But what if we flip it around?

I am therefore I think.

Or, more universally:

It exists therefore it is/has a mind.

Is that a testable hypothesis?

I suppose it could be, one day, in principle, if we could first reach an indisputable, all-encompassing definition of what a mind is. How one would account for variables of personality, experience, the inclination to deliberately sabotage the experiment, etc. – I have absolutely no idea. Whether or not any proposed methodology would be approved by the ethics committee is another matter entirely. From an ethical as well as methodological point of view, experimental data should be gathered with a view to falsifying the hypothesis, not verifying it. But what could possibly constitute falsification of the hypothesis, “It exists therefore it is/has a mind?” How would we know that a stone wasn’t just pretending to not have a mind for its own amusement? I very often think my laptop is taking the piss!

I seem to be veering unnervingly close to a position of panpsychism. I’ve also already exceeded 400 words. (That lets me off the hook then!)

In the real world, as I experience it, I feel like I intuit whether something has a mind or not. Intuition, however, is problematic for philosophers and scientists alike. My gut tells me the question is unanswerable.

Copyright: Eric Kilby

Check out Talking Head – “an interactive, audiovisual introduction to the mind” by Professor Mark Solms.