Sunday, August 1, 2010

Mental Simulation and Tacit Psychological Theory: Understanding Intuitive Mindreading and Identifying Its Unconscious Structures

In my post on the a priori imagination, of 6/13, I really grappled with simulation theory of mind, and how it interacts with other forms of thought. In particular, I think I did a good job of addressing the role that tacit mental theory may play in processes of simulational mindreading (or any mindreading process). In this essay I want to give a closer look at this notion of tacit theory as it relates to mindreading and the education of mindreading abilities. Not an extended look, more so just a nuanced look. First I want to talk about my first inklings of this idea of tacit theory, which I was calling innate, or intuitive theory (I love blending memoir/reflection into this blog so that is section 1). Then I'll talk about how Alvin Goldman was the first author to confirm for me that tacit theory may indeed be a real thing, but in any case that other people are talking as if it is a real thing. Then I'll discuss how Goldman believes tacit theory plays into mindreading, i.e. he believes it either initiates or aids in processes of simulation. Then I'm going to explore the possibility that tacit theory may simply be able to bypass simulation, therefore meaning that, at certain moments, theory-theory mindreading may actually exist. Lastly I'll discuss how tacit theory may be the level at which mindreading can be educated, or, at the very least, how it may play a role in the cultivation of mindreading abilities.

Should be an interesting post for me to write. Should be fruitful in some ways. At the very least I am starting to think I should get into the literature on theory-theory more.

Clausewitz and My Musings on Intuitive Theory
So when I learned about Carl von Clausewitz's work I was compelled to conceptualize the idea of an intuitive or innate mental theory. I later learned about the notion of tacit theory, and my speculations were thus confirmed. But the notion of a tacit theory was essentially a logical conclusion of the things that I had learned about Clausewitz, and what I suspected about the
how of empathy.

Anyways, Clausewitz was the first time that I learned about simulational thinking. Clausewitz believed that historical case study should be used to
reenact (ie simulate) the thoughts that people had in the past. In particular, Clausewitz believed that reenacting the thoughts of successful commanders-in-chief could be a way to educate the mind to handle the difficulties of high-command. Most importantly, Clausewitz believed that theory was an essential element in the successful reenactment of past decision making experiences. In other words, in order to properly simulate a person's thoughts you need a body of theory that can help you fill in gaps in evidence. Evidence of thought processes, and especially past thought processes, is never complete, and surmise is always necessary.

For Clausewitz, therefore, a set of propositions (ie normative theory) is essential to successful simulational mindreading. Again, I learned about Clausewitz before I learned about simulation theory of mind, mirror neurons, or theory-theory, so it was new to me. So Clausewitz was my first exposure to a simulation theory of mind, and he stressed that theory must be used in order to achieve a successful mindreading.

So, once I learned about Clausewitz, I was trying to apply these notions of reenactment to everyday perception and mindreading. In particular, I was curious about if empathy was a process of reenactment or simulation. The mirror neuron system confirms that this is the case, but I was unaware of this at the time. Anyways, in my post of 4/30 I wrote about my concept of
instantaneous emotional reenactment. This was a sloppy phrase that I threw together in order to understand how empathy could happen instantly, naturally, and could be a form of simulation. Ie, when I empathize with someone I feel what they feel for myself, but it happens lightning fast. How does that happen?

Since Clausewitz spawned this notion of instantaneous emotional reenactment, and Clausewitz's central concern is the role of theory in mental reenactment, I immediately had questions about what kind of theory could be allowing me to engage in these everyday reenactments. If my mind naturally reenacts/simulates other people's thoughts, then how does my mind do it without reference to a theory? How can my mind just do it? Does it possess something like a innate or intuitive theory?

In concluding this section, once Clausewitz claimed that mental simulation must be aided by a body of theory, and once I connected this notion of reenactment to my everyday perception, I was immediately compelled to ask
what kind of theory my mind was using to engage in this everyday intuitive reenactments. In short, Clausewitz forced me to think of my everyday thoughts in terms of reenactment/simulation, and his emphasis on theory forced me to conceptualize a sloppy and inarticulate idea of an innate or intuitive theory.

Later, I learned about Alvin Goldman's work, and the existence of the theory-theory of mind. These philosophers very often refer to tacit or naive psychological theory. So my speculations about an innate or intuitive theory were essentially confirmed by the contemporary literature on philosophy of mind. This is where I want to go next. I'll discuss Goldman's assessment of the notion of tacit theory in general. First as it relates to theory-theory, and second how it relates to simulation theory. From their I'll discuss where my thoughts on tacit theory and simulation are these days, in that tacit theory can either structure or initiate a simulation process (this is awfully Goldman, but I forget what he says exactly). Then I'll discuss the possibility of mindreading that is accomplished solely by tacit theory. And finally, I'll talk about my ideas on how to modify tacit theory so as to educate our unconscious mindreading abilities.

Goldman on the Role of Tacit Theory in Theory-Theory
So Alvin Goldman's book Simulating Minds: The Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience of Mindreading is undoubtedly one of the most important books I have read in the last six months. Goldman is arguing that people understand other people's mental states (i.e. mindread) by internally simulating other people's thoughts in their own mind. In other words, we understand other people by simulating their thoughts for ourselves, it is like an extended and more complex form of empathy. More importantly, Goldman believes that simulation theory can answer all the central questions of philosophy of mind, and can accommodate the arguments of theory-theorists and modularity theorists (theory-theory and modularity theory being the other two major schools of thought in philosophy of mind). So now I basically want to give a run down of theory-theory, and then I want to explain how the claims of theory-theory can be incorporated into a comprehensive simulation theory of mind. Ultimately, Goldman argues for a simulation-theory hybrid. So the notion of tacit theory is actually essential to Goldman's argument.

So, what precisely is theory-theory? Well, theory-theorists generally claim that mindreading is accomplished by the use of naive/tacit psychological theories. So that whenever an individual needs to determine the mental state of another, they can draw on these tacit psychological theories to ascribe mental states to others.
This set of tacit psychological theories allows us to draw inferences about how others behave. In essence, theory-theorists maintain that every person is naturally a sort of 'folk psychologist'. They believe that we simply acquire these tacit theories over the course of our lives, and that we unconsciously rely on them to ascribe mental states to others. I am a skeptical that something like a folk psychological theory could account for all mindreading processes that people engage in.

In any case, whether or not it can account for
all of mindreading, the notion of tacit theory is still worthwhile. It is useful when trying to talk about how it is that people make unconscious inferences about other people, or why we assume certain things about other people or other situations. Our experiences almost certainly provide us with a naive understanding of how the world functions and how other people think, and I think that the term tacit theory is useful when trying to talk about these unconscious, yet seemingly structured, thought processes. Whether the term 'theory' is really appropriate or not is something I will reserve for a later date. That isn't my purpose here, and frankly I don't have the intellectual chops to get beyond the language of theory-theory right now.

But in any case, I can say right now that the term 'theory' is inadequate because what we are trying to conceptualize is not discursive, it is not language, it doesn't consist of a set of propositions, and is therefore not a theory as we know it. It is rather an unconscious understanding that guides our thoughts and actions. The term theory is useful because our unconscious understandings seem to comprise certain things, and seem to consist of definite preferences, tendencies, and inclinations. I suppose, then, that the term theory is simply meant to describe the
structured nature of unconscious thought. It seems to happen consistent to certain rules, as a theory does, or as theory specifies. So the word theory in tacit 'theory' is just meant to describe the unconscious structure that underlies our intuitive mindreading.

Now that I have sloppily handled Goldman's description of theory-theory in general, I would like to discuss how theory-theory may play a role in simulational mindreading. In particular, I will discuss how tacit theory may 1. provide a structure of framework for simulation, and 2. initiate simulation processes.

Tacit Theory as Structuring or Initiating Simulation
Now, as I said above, I can think of two ways that tacit theory would enter the process of simulational mindreading. I believe that Goldman also frames the relationship between tacit theory and simulation in a similar light, but I need to reread it to be sure. So anyways, I'll handle this without much explicit reference to Goldman. First I'm going to talk about how tacit theory may provide a structure by which simulations would happen. Second I'm going to talk about how tacit theory may be involved in initiating simulation processes. The former point I am more comfortable with, so I regard it as more important. The latter is something I know Goldman talks about, but that I don't have a grasp on at this point.

So, how would tacit theory provide a structure for simulations? Well, I think that tacit theory would let us delimit the possible factors involved in a simulation. In order to properly simulate another person's thoughts we would need to decide what criteria would be relevant in that particular simulation. Simulating the thoughts of a child, for example, would require us to take only a limited number of things into consideration. We would have to shrink our world view to properly simulate their thoughts. If these simulations happen on an unconscious level, however, we would need to be able to intuitively delimit our views. I bet that tacit theory is the way that we would be able to automatically and intuitively consider only a few things in a given simulation. Our experience with children (and remember experience is what builds tacit theory) tells us that children only care about certain things. So simulation would thus structure the boundaries of any given simulation.

Lets take the example of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Each of these social categories are so firmly ingrained in our minds that we automatically assume that certain people from these groups think in certain ways and not others. So when we see someone from a specific category our mind is already set with a certain
universe of thought in which the simulation can take place. Tacit theory would set the space, set the possible simulations, that could apply to someone of one of these perceived groups. When we see a person who is female, but they are dressed in a way that purposefully defies gender norms, we would automatically have a base set of assumptions about how they thought about themselves, others, and the world. That set of assumptions is a tacit theory that gives a structure to our possible simulations. This applies with race, class, and sexuality, like I said.

I think this makes sense, but I don't think I am articulating it as clearly as I would like to. It is a challenge for me right now to explain how tacit theory structures simulation. But I think it is the case. We have naive/tacit understandings of all kinds of groups of people, and then we would apply those tacit generalizations to help us delimit the number of circumstances that we would have to consider in any given simulation. Booya, this definitely makes sense. I'll have to do some ruminating on the language though.

Now, how would tacit theory also initiate simulational mindreading? Well, I suppose the answer is somewhat similar to what I proposed for how it structures: tacit theory would allow us to unconsciously understand in which instances we need to initiate a given simulation process. Frankly, I don't really want to write this section on the initiation. But I know Goldman claims that this is one of the functions of tacit theory. I will revisit his work at sometime. So, whatever. For now I am essentially just restating what I said above. That tacit theory may be involved in initiating simulation processes by letting us understand when and what type of simulation is required.

Next I want to explore the possibility that tacit theory may override simulation, and would thus become a form of mindreading in its own right.

Tacit Theory Without Simulation: Pure Theory-Theory Mindreading?
So, theory-theorists claim that tact psychological theories may actually constitute its own form of mindreading. I still believe that simulation is the most fundamental, the most basic form of mindreading that humans possess. But what if there were instances in which no simulation were to take place, and theory would be the only means of mindreading?

Well, in my post of 6/13 I actually made what I thought was an interesting argument about the role of the imagination and simulation in our depersonalized culture. I claimed that our culture was depersonalized by technology and an over-abundance of knowledge, and that this led us to make egocentric and simplified simulations of other people. In particular, I used the examples of meeting new people, driving, and online so
cial network, a brief quotation from that essay: 'To demonstrate the depersonalized nature of our experiences I used the example of fresh social interaction (with its over reliance on preformed concepts about people), the example of driving (with its tendency to attribute complex mental states with extremely limited evidence), and the example of facebook and text messaging (with their reliance on self-presentation and text based understanding)'. So, in short, our culture forces us to take certain perspectives on other people. In particular, I think that we have very complex and overbearing tacit theories that give us rigid ways of thinking of other people.

In that post I was thinking mainly in terms of how imagination and simulation were effected by the depersonalized nature of our culture and what that means for our tacit theories. Right now, however, I am inclined to think that our exposure to depersonalization, and the resulting tacit theories, may cause us to completely bypass simulational processes. I don't know if this is really the case, but it seems like it might be. When we make a snap judgment about a person while driving, or based on their race or gender, or on their class, does that really require a simulation? Or could tacit theory simply override a simulation process and provide us with a conclusion about the mental state of another person.

It certainly seems like this might be the case. It seems like tacit theory may indeed allow us to bypass simulation entirely. I think this is bad. I think simulation inclines us towards empathy, towards creative compassion. Simulation is how we should think of other minds. But I fear that our depersonalized cultural situation forces us to rely heavily on tacit theories, and thus makes us less empathic.

So in the last section I simply want to state some of my ideas on how we may battle this cultural tendency. How we may take control of our tacit mental theories and start to manipulate the way our minds engage in mindreading, and most importantly, how tacit theory effects how we simulate other minds.

Identifying, Refining, and Constructing Tacit Theories: Educating Unconscious Mindreading
So in this section I want to lay out some very tentative practical suggestions about how tacit theory's role in educating our unconscious mindreading processes. My goal, in this post, and in the bulk of my writing is pedagogical. I want to know how we can teach people to be more sensitive, more empathic, how to mindread better. I want to know how we can teach people to simulate other people's thoughts more sensitively.

At this time I am exploring how tacit theory needs to be dealt with in order to achieve a pedagogy of simulation. Right now I have three things in mind, identifying the nature of our tacit theories, refining our already acquired tacit theories that we have identified, and constructing new tacit theories that we may not have access to at this moment.

So, why do tacit theories need to be 'identified'? Well, seeing as how tacit theories are acquired over the course of our lives by experience, we initially have very little control over them. They simply work their way into our unconscious without our consent or control. The first step, therefore, would be to identify the tacit theories that we have been unconsciously endowed with. I am inclined to use the phrase 'personal archeology' to describe this process. I am invoking Foucault's use of the term archeology, which he uses to communicate the process of explicating the historical construction of society's most deeply held values. Personal archeology is a similar thing: it is identifying the personal history that has given us the set of tacit theories that we have. Plus, I want to pick up in Foucault's foot steps.

Once we have roughly identified our tacit theories we need to begin refining them. We need to whittle them down, figure out what parts of them we do and don't like, and start trying to refine them. We need to start thinking about why we do what we do unconsciously with the hopes of changing what we do. We need to pay attention to our behavior so we can refine the tacit theories that govern it.

Lastly, we need to creatively try to come up with new types of tacit theories. We need to start exploring new ways of thinking with the hopes of turning those ways of thinking into tacit theory. This is the real business here, is changing the unconscious. Modifying the way we think on an unconscious level. This must be creative. And once we come up with something new we have to really reflect on it to ensure that it can make it to that deep deep level of tacit theory.

Well, I think this has been a pretty interesting post. I am happy to have handled the issue of tacit theory as its own beast. I have lots more thinking to do about it, but it is a good step, this essay. I think it all echos Foucault in interesting ways. And I also think that it echos with neuroplasticity in ways that I am choosing not to articulate now. I think this is a potent line of thought that will take me places in the future. So much for this for now. Good attempt. Good exploration.

Original notes of 6/20 -
I now have a much clearer understanding of the relationship between simulation and tacit theory. Simulation is the process by which understanding of other mind's is achieved. Tacit theory is the level at which our simulative processes are 1. enacted, and 2. structured. Tacit theory, therefore, is the level we have to aim for if we want to modify our unconscious simulations.

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