Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fuzzy Aliens Learn About Theory of Mind

I found myself up early Sabbath morning so I read John Scalzi’s new novel Fuzzy Nation cover to cover. (It is not that long a book.) I find good science fiction the perfect ticket to feeling spiritual enough to actually pray. This is not Scalzi’s best novel, but considering that this is the author of Old Man’s War we are talking about, that is hardly a knock on the book. The basic premise of the book, a reboot of a novel from the 1960s, is that a prospector, Jack Holloway, finds himself at the center of a pair of major discoveries. The first a major gem stone find on a newly explored planet and the second that one of planet’s native species just might be sentient. Think of this book as Avatar with actual characters and a sense of humor. My favorite part of the book is Holloway; in classical American heroic tradition, he is a self absorbed man-child, though a charming one and one who turns out to be a much better man than even he believes. (If they ever make a movie I would want Nathan Fillion from Firefly to play him, though I would not say no to Josh Holloway of Lost.)

What particularly caught my attention was a part in which the female scientist, Isabel Wangai, gets one of the Fuzzies to make a sandwich and then is surprised that the Fuzzy “demonstrated theory of mind” by offering her the sandwich. I doubt Scalzi meant anything by it, but theory of mind (ToM) is a rather loaded term within Asperger culture thanks to the nonsensical notion put out by researchers like Tony Attwood and Simon Baron-Cohen that people with Asperger syndrome lack a “theory of mind,” the ability to recognize that other people think differently.

In truth there is no such thing as a theory of mind unless you mean it in the very narrow sense that a person, having made the Cartesian leap to recognize that they have a mind and are not simply figments of their own imagination, uses Occam’s Razor to conclude that other people also have minds along with their own likes and dislikes and are not simply figments of his imagination. As the inner workings of the minds of others lies outside of empirical science and logic, the only way to know what someone else is thinking is to guess based on one’s own mind, usually a hazardous decision, or have the person tell you what they are thinking. In this Aspergers are at a disadvantage because they think differently from neurotypicals, making it practically useless to guess based on oneself. This leaves the Asperger with only the option of asking neurotypicals to clearly state verbally what is on their minds. The proof that Aspergers have no particular lacking in theory of mind is that neurotypicals are equally ill suited at intuiting our minds as we are at intuiting theirs.

If a stranger asked me to make a sandwich, I would assume that the person was assessing me to see if I was a rational being, who could understand language and follow instructions. In other words a being who could be negotiated with in order to form social contracts and possibly even a government, a preferable alternative to coercion and violence. As I desire to build relations with other beings based on negotiated agreement and not coercion, I would happily comply with such a test and make the sandwich. While I am making the sandwich I might even regale the person with tidbits of information and stories relating to sandwiches (such as Arthur Dent serving as the prophesied sandwich maker for a group of aliens in one of the Hitchhiker books) to demonstrate that I posses culture and am therefore not some barbarian incapable of social negotiation. After my demonstration of rationality, I would eat the sandwich. Do I lack a theory of mind? Hardly. I was not informed what kind of sandwich the person liked and would be unable to come to such knowledge through logical intuition. Obviously going on my own taste would be useless here. Why would the person want me, a complete stranger whom they have no relationship with, to make them a sandwich in the first place? If they desired to make me their servant to be coerced then I do not care to feed them.

If I were a Fuzzy dealing with a human scientist, like in the book, I would be correct. The purpose of the  interaction would have been to prove that I was a rational being, who should be granted rights and left to exploit my own planet for myself and for the rest of my kind in peace.

1 comment:

Pink Carnation Maryann said...

"spiritual enough to actual pray"

Do you mean "spiritual enough to actually pray?"