April 23, 2004


Reading Your Mind: How our brains help us understand other people (Rebecca Saxe, Boston Review)

Children's early understanding of what makes people do the things they do appears to develop in two stages. In the first stage, children understand that people act in order to get the things they want: that human beings are agents whose actions are directed to goals. At 18 months, a child already understands that different people can have different desires or preferences—that for instance an adult experimenter may prefer broccoli to crackers, even though the infant herself much prefers crackers. Toddlers not yet two years old talk spontaneously about the contrast between what they wanted and what happened. Even nine-month-old infants expect an adult to reach for an object at which she had previously looked and smiled.

Children in the first stage are missing something very specific: the notion of belief. Until sometime between their third and fourth birthdays, young children seem not to understand that the relationship between a person's goals and her actions depends on the person's beliefs about the current state of the world. Two-year-olds really do not understand why, if Sally wants the ball, she goes to the basket, even though the ball is in the box. They do not talk spontaneously about thoughts or beliefs, and have trouble understanding that two people could ever have different beliefs. Similarly, while a five-year-old knows that she has to see a ball to be able to tell whether its red, a three-year-old believes he could tell if the ball is red just by feeling it. In the first stage, children think that the mind has direct access to the way the world is; they have no room in their conception for the way a person just believes it to be.

The limitations of a stage-one understanding of the mind apply even to the child's own past or future beliefs. If you show a child a crayon box and ask her what she thinks is inside, all children will say that the box contains crayons. But if you open the box to show that it actually contains ribbons, re-close the box, and then ask the child what she thought was in the box before it was opened, the three-year-old children claim they thought all along that the box contained ribbons.

An impressive conceptual change occurs in the three- or four-year-old child. From American and Japanese urban centers to an African hunter-gatherer society, children make a similar transition from the first stage of reasoning about human behavior, based mainly on goals or desires, to the richer second stage, based on both desires and beliefs. What explains the change? How do children acquire the idea that people have beliefs about the world, that some of the beliefs are false, and that different people have different beliefs about the same world? Between three and five, children mature in so many ways: their vocabulary increases by orders of magnitude, their memory improves, they just know more facts about the world. Each of these changes might account for the advantages of a five-year-old over a three-year-old in solving the false-belief task.

But more than just an accumulation of knowledge is at issue. Rather, we seem to be equipped by evolution with a special mental mechanism—a special faculty or module in our minds—dedicated to understanding why people do the things they do. The maturation of this special mechanism between three and four, in addition to all the other changes happening around the same time, makes the difference between a child who simply doesn't get Romeo's decision and one who does. [...]

So far, we have avoided the questions about whether the capacity to reason about other minds is innate, universal (common to all members of the human species), and specific to the human species. But the very idea of an evolved special mechanism of the mind implies that this mechanism is part of the human genetic endowment, universal within our species and possibly unique to it. So troubles with any of these three ideas may mean trouble for the idea of a mental faculty dedicated to reasoning about other minds. And each of these three is the subject of intense current debate.

Rather than try to do justice to the enormous range and subtlety of these debates, I will defend just the possibility that the capacity to use attributed beliefs to explain and predict behavior is innate, universal, and species-specific by answering three narrower questions: (1) How can a capacity be innate if that capacity only begins to operate three to five years after birth? (2) How can we say that reasoning about other minds is universal, when the very notion of a mind changes dramatically across cultures and across time? (3) Based on what evidence do we accord or deny to other species the ability to reason about other minds? [...]

What is still missing is definitive evidence that any non-human animal has ever gone beyond stage one, to make the three-year-old's impressive transition into a world of beliefs: a transition that enables us to predict one another's conduct, coordinate for the common good, and suffer the sorrows of Romeo and Juliet when we get things wrong.

What's most interesting about this is that modern liberalism--of the Left and of the libertarian Right--is then in a precise sense anti-human:
[T]he new social fact here analysed is this: European history reveals itself, for the first time, as handed over to the decisions of the ordinary man as such. Or to turn it into the active voice: the ordinary man, hitherto guided by others, has resolved to govern the world himself. This decision to advance to the social foreground has been brought about in him automatically, when the new type of man he represents had barely arrived at maturity. If from the view-point of what concerns public life, the psychological structure of this new type of mass-man be studied, what we find is as follows: (1) An inborn, root-impression that life is easy, plentiful, without any grave limitations; consequently, each average man finds within himself a sensation of power and triumph which, (2) invites him to stand up for himself as he is, to look upon his moral and intellectual endowment as excellent, complete. This contentment with himself leads him to shut himself off from any external court of appeal; not to listen, not to submit his opinions to judgment, not to consider others' existence. His intimate feeling of power urges him always to exercise predominance. He will act then as if he and his like were the only beings existing in the world and, consequently, (3) will intervene in all matters, imposing his own vulgar views without respect or regard for others, without limit or reserve, that is to say, in accordance with a system of 'direct action.'
-Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses

Indeed, Man would appear to have evolved towards (or been Created for, or both) Judeo-Christianity:
In the first place, Christianity places duties to God and duties to one's neighbor before individual rights and cannot easily accept the proposition that people have the right to pursue happiness as they see fit, especially if that right leads to societies that are indifferent to God. Second, Christianity's foundation on divine revelation implies a duty to accept transcendent truth as well as authoritative pronouncements about truth by a hierarchical church rather than to accept the dictates of individual conscience wherever they might lead. Third, the Christian notion of original sin implies distrust of weak and fallible human beings to use rights properly; it instills a keen sense of how freedom can go awry and ultimately must view political freedom as a conditional rather than an absolute good. Fourth, Christianity puts the common good above the rights of individuals, and its emphasis on the family and man's social nature conflicts with the individualism and privacy of rights. Fifth, the Christian teaching about charity--whose essence is sacrificial love--makes the whole notion of rights seem selfish, as if the world owes something to me when I declare, 'I have my rights!' Ultimately, of course, Christians cannot accept the premise of human autonomy or the natural freedom of the autonomous self that underlies most doctrines of rights.
-Robert P. Kraynak,

The very essence of being human would seem to be that we consider one another.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 23, 2004 11:04 AM

I'd agree with that, which is why your complacency about slavery is so puzzling. Even the slightlest consideration of the other would raise questions about that, wouldn't it?

Oh, well, I guess not.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 23, 2004 1:59 PM


Yes, that's precisely why classical slavery is moral. A people are conquered but rather than put them to the sword you integrate them into your own society. That is a positive good.

Posted by: oj at April 23, 2004 2:10 PM

There's no mention here of Jean Piaget's Stage Theory of cognitive development. What's discussed here dovetails into Piaget's splendid contribution. In addition, the Stage Theory has been extended into human adult development, by such researchers as James Fowler and Lawrence Kohlberg.

What you present here displays shallow depth and embarrassing generalizations, compared to Piaget, Fowler and others

When I took the college course History of Western Philosophy, the professor spent the first three weeks outside of the textbook, discussing the findings of ethologists such as Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen - - which demonstrated how one can WITNESS animal behavior and consequent abilities which, down through the ages, various philosophers have claimed were distinctly UNIQUE human abilities.

Philosophy, indeed much of the humanities, has a bedrock of foolishness. These excerpts under "Consideration" demonstrate just such humanities-oriented B.S.

So does Rececca Saxe, anywhere in her Boston Review piece, happen to mention Piaget(or another recognized figure in human cognitive development, Stage Theory or otherwise?) I can't find any mention in the website version. A refereed scientific journal would NOT let such a writeup appear without identification of the recognized conceptual field - - including the leading relevant perspectives both consistent and at odds with the author's perspective.

Saxe's claim about the missing evidence for non-human animal development, implies that she did not pursue the ethological evidence.

Jose Ortega y Gasset and Robert P. Kraynak display a classic approach within the humanities. They present NO evidence beyond second- and third-generation stereotypes: generalities derived from generalities.

Way to go, Orrin.

Posted by: Larry H at April 23, 2004 2:44 PM


But you're a materialist, no?

Posted by: oj at April 23, 2004 2:56 PM

That's why you should read "Courtesans and Fishcakes," Orrin.

It's about classical slavery, all right, nothing more classical than the 2-obol whores at the gates of Athens. But the girls were not captives or barbarians.

They were just poor Greek girls from the countryside.

It was a class thing.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 23, 2004 4:42 PM


They were only women.

Posted by: oj at April 23, 2004 4:50 PM

"Second, Christianity's foundation on divine revelation implies a duty to accept transcendent truth as well as authoritative pronouncements about truth by a hierarchical church rather than to accept the dictates of individual conscience wherever they might lead."

"Third, the Christian notion of original sin implies distrust of weak and fallible human beings to use rights properly;"

Original sin should also imply distrust of weak and fallible human beings to exercise the power of a hierarchical church and to pronounce on truth. We only have a concept of individual rights and freedoms because of the abuses perpetrated against humanity and the "Truth" by such fallible humans who have gained such authority.

I agree that there is a duty to accept transcendent truths, that is why I reject any teaching that cannot establish its grounding in an authoritative, indisputable source. No religion has yet established it's authority in this regard. Faith is not truth or authority.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 23, 2004 5:16 PM


And so because of that logical conundrum you reject all the wisdom and authority of trial and error, contemplation and study, experience and revelation, etc. and declare that truth is whatever anyone says it is--starting with you?

Posted by: Peter B at April 23, 2004 6:54 PM


It does. Everyone understands that the pedophile scandals are a function of sinful humans not of the Church.

Posted by: oj at April 23, 2004 7:10 PM

Yep OJ, Maritain himself said so:


Posted by: Scof at April 23, 2004 7:13 PM

No, Peter, I do not reject all the wisdom and authority of trial and error, contemplation, study, and experience. I reject what has been claimed to be revelation, because it has no grounding in the previous five, nor is there any method to validate it.

What wisdom there is in religion has been derived through human experience. The human conscience, the bane of absolutist authority schemes like Kraynak's, when guided and disciplined by the accumulated wisdom of the past, is our best hope to maintain a just society. Of course it is fallible, but it is also correctable. But it won't operate if it is abandoned in favor of an absolute authority. Then society is at the mercy of that authority. If that authority doesn't truly speak for the absolute Truth, then look out!

It is a valid point to say that people cannot act in absolute autonomy, thinking only of their own interests. People do have duties to one another and to their society. But the opposite extreme, of absolute subjugation of the individual to the society, is just as wrong. It is a matter of striking the right balance between autonomy and collectivization.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 23, 2004 8:15 PM


The five are ungrounded as well and can never be validated, unless you first have faith. You're just picking one faith and rejecting another then puffing your choice up beyond what it will bear.

Posted by: oj at April 23, 2004 8:48 PM

They are as grounded as anything can be grounded. To borrow from some of that wisdom, "You shall know the tree by it's fruit". That which is good will prove itself by it's actions.

As another wise man said, "God is in the details".

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 23, 2004 9:05 PM

That's called begging the question.

Posted by: oj at April 23, 2004 9:18 PM

So, and why shouldn't I just tell YOU to take YOUR faith and, so to speak, bugger off?

Your faith's record does not inspire confidence. Now you've written off women. In one of your Psalms, it is recommended to smash babies's heads open on a rock.

In what practical sense is YOUR faith any better than any other system?

Experience says it's worse than most. In fact, of any that have had a similar run, experience shows yours is the worst.

(The men went to the silver mines in Laurium.)

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 23, 2004 10:26 PM


It is the imposed assertion of a universal, salvationist, absolute truth that is the problem. No matter what guise it takes. Kraynak's assertion there is a duty to "accept .... as authoritative pronouncements about truth by a hierarchical church ..." is about as silly a statement as I have seen.

On precisely what basis does this Church claim to have superior insight to truth? Does it read The Bible better than you? Is it smarter than you? Perhaps this is the wrong time to bring up the "pronouncements of truth" and 20 centuries of Christian persecution of Jews.

Simple application of common, garden variety, everyday, sense has at least as good a track record as anything organized religion has been able to muster.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at April 24, 2004 12:02 AM


Nothing's stops you. There's one of you and two billion of me. Most of the advances and decency in our lives come withing my faith's cultures. But you may be right, even if the experiments in Germany, Russiua, and China failed. There's always next time.

Posted by: oj at April 24, 2004 1:04 AM


Do you believe that the evolution of man is complete like St. Ernst or ongoing like St. Richard? Why do you believe in the history of the West as advanced by St. Will as opposed to St. Jacques? Why do you believe totally in non-religious interpretations of the history of religion? Do you refuse to form any opinions on either until you have spent as much time as they reviewing and verifying all primary research for error or fraud?

Why do you think the U.S. is the best country in the world to such an extent that you would fight and die for it? Because it is the most peaceful? Sorry, we've got you beat there by miles. Prosperous? Yes, but lots of others keep pace right behind. Freer? You've done an empirical comparative study and talked at length with citizens of other countries and all those anti-American Americans, have you? Oh, I see. Because it is yours and you love it. Nice, empirical, rational conclusion there.

Why do you reject Johnson and most other modern historians' claim that Nazism and Stalinism were outgrowths of the decline of faith and the triumph of secular thinking and latch on to anyone of lesser stature who claims they were akin to religions themselves? Why do you insist gayness is genetic when there is no conclusive proof of that and the debate is still raging? You seem so certain you are willing, nay eager, to upset a whole population, turn marriage right around and damn the popular will. Reviewed all the research and excerised unbiased, rational judgment? I trust you have completely expunged the unscientific, irrational influence of friends and family.

It's exhausting being the sole determiner of truth, isn't it.

Posted by: Peter B at April 24, 2004 6:25 AM

Peter, you are painting a false dichotomy between being the sole arbiter of truth (your strawman), and being an uncritical follower of a hierarchical, absolutist moral authority (Kraynak's vision). To reject the authority of the Church is not the same as to reject what they teach. If you haven't noticed, I am quite socially conservative, I agree with much of what the Church teaches regarding morality. It is because of the fact that many of their teachings have stood the test of time, and have been validated by the experience of many generations, not because the Church's moral authority is infallible.

If you wish to bemoan the freelance, autonomous determiner of truth, point your finger at the founders of this trend, the fathers of the Reformation. "Every man a priest" did not start with the secularists of the Enlightenment.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 24, 2004 11:02 AM


Darnnit, once again you said what I was going to, only better.


Despite your strawman, my post said nothing about materialism, or my view of morality. In fact, my post strictly referenced your (apparent) religious beliefs. You don't seem to have accepted the Episcopal (?) Church's every dictate, hook, line and sinker. Your appear to seriously read the Bible and take your own lessons from it, even though they might vary from strict orthodoxy. Any believer who doesn't accept Church Orthodoxy completely contradict's Kraynak. In fact, Kraynak's point of view took a permanent dive with the invention of printing and widespread literacy.

After all, what need do you have to read the Bible if Orthodoxy suffices?

I think the US is the best country in the world because it is the most likely to leave me and OJ and Tom and Robert and Raoul the heck alone unless we start pestering other people. I think it is the best country in the world, because it is the least likely to forcefully impose a particular version of absolute truth on everyone.

Many, probably most, historians consider communism and nazism to be forms of religious belief, including some very Christian historians. Regardless of the basis, claims to possess absolute, universal truth, combined with the power to impose it, always leads to slaughter. Whether the Albigensians, victims of the Inquisition, kulaks, or infidels, the result is as predictable as sunrise.

Do you have the slightest doubt what Islamists would do, with all the Quranic justification they might desire, with even one nuclear weapon? For all the millions Communism killed, and all the nukes Communists posess(ed), they never aspired to that goal.

I insist that, within the context of your own morality, you consider the possibility that gayness is generally, if not exclusively innate. (BTW--please read my posts a little more carefully. I believe it is far, far more likely that innate homosexuality is a result of gestational variances--recall the example of XY females--and very unlikely to have any genetic basis whatsoever.) You need to ask yourself whether the available evidence indicates at least some gayness is innate, and, if so, what impact that would have, if proven conclusively, on your moral beliefs.

And your belief, such as it might be, in Biblical inerrancy.

I believe that if there is a God, then God created gayness. And if there isn't, accident did.

Apologies if this rambled, but I am too pressed for time to edit. I'm building a cabinet for my daughter, and when it came to making the drawers, I converted what should have been a two hour exercise into a two day example of assembly line stupidity.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at April 24, 2004 12:48 PM


I know exactly what the problem is with the cabinet drawers. Instead of following the hierarchical authority of the company directions, you got on your independent critical high horse and now look at the mess you are in.

I think we are reading a different Kraynak. I don't see the word "uncritical" there. I understood him simply to say that that obedience to the church on dogma is commanded and that he was mainly addressing actions, not private beliefs. You are quite right that this issue is one that divides Protestants and Catholics, but despite these differences, neither has spawned an Al-Qaeda or anything close.

The point of my post was simply that, to assert the freedom to decide ultimate truth is one thing. To assert an equal skill and capability to find it is something else. In re-reading your posts, I may have been a little hasty with Robert, but not you.

"On precisely what basis does this Church claim to have superior insight to truth? Does it read The Bible better than you? Is it smarter than you? Perhaps this is the wrong time to bring up the "pronouncements of truth" and 20 centuries of Christian persecution of Jews."

Hey, any time is a good time for you to bring that one up. It's your version of the Apostles's Creed and quite impervious to historical analysis, much like Harry's belief the Church backed slavery. But no matter, of course the Church is likely to have superior insight and read the Bible better. They have been doing it en masse full time for centuries (when they weren't killing all those people). Do you believe SCOTUS understands U.S. constitutional law better than you? Do you submit to its authority and recognize your duty to do so as an incident of citizenship? Weenie!

To argue theologically that each man's knowledge of the divine truth is ultimately direct and personal is respectable and time-honoured. To argue everybody is just as competent as anyone else to understand scripture and faith is silly and a form of know-nothingism. To argue that accepting the spiritual authority of a Christian church is a first step to Islamic-like automatism is libellous.

BTW, unless you have done a multi-year systematic study in comparative political economy, I have a hard time believing your patriotism is based on a scientific, empirical freedom quantification. Tell me exactly why the U.S. is freer than Switerland, the Bahamas or Singapore. Do you respect as co-rationalists the anti-American Americans who claim to have studied the issue and conclude the U.S. is a fascist repressor? I suggest it is also because you accept more than a little historical and contemporary authority uncritically. Good for you, weenie.

Posted by: Peter B at April 24, 2004 4:58 PM

Sure I understand the Constitution better than SCOTUS. As evidence, I offer my opinion about campaign financing vs. theirs.

And, of course, it is true that the Church supported slavery. What's the matter, don't you read Paul?

Kraynak is delusional about belief. Most American Christians do not believe what Jesus taught about divorce, and not one in 10,000 believes what he taught about wealth.

They pick and choose among the alleged wisdom of those superstitious fools who spent their lives studying the bible. They pretend not to, but actions, they say, speak louder than words, don't they?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 25, 2004 12:42 AM

Peter, methinks thou needest a chill pill.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 25, 2004 12:28 PM

Sorry, that should say "needeth".

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 25, 2004 12:29 PM


Regarding the cabinet, the reason for the industrial strength, assembly line stupidity is rather different: it is my design, built from scratch.

I read the directions very thoroughly. Problem is, I wrote them.

You are right, the Church has much more institutional experience reading, and intepreting the Bible than I. Or you. But taking that argument from authority position, you have no alternative but to accept every ecclesiastical pronouncement as, well, fatwa.

Oh, by the way. Which Church? Beyond the realm of the readily apparent, they all disagree on fundamental matters. Otherwise, they wouldn't exist as separate institutions.

In general, the SCOTUS is going to have superior insight into constitutional law than I. But that doesn't mean I must check my powers of critical thinking, such as they are, at the door when reading their decisions.

I can't read everything about anything, or anything about everything. But I can, just like you, analyze what I have read, integrate it with experience, and reach conclusions on which of a variety of opinions comes closest to passing a sanity check.

Unless you follow Christ's direction regarding wealth, or, despite your personal weakness for your own posessions, agree that it would be a good thing if everyone could do as Christ directed, then, as Harry says, you are picking and choosing.

It is best to clean your finger before pointing out someone else's spots.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at April 25, 2004 4:09 PM


Ever been to the Galapagos?

Posted by: oj at April 25, 2004 5:01 PM
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