The Mind Club

Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why It Matters

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Grabbed via UNH Interlibrary Loan from Colorado State. Go Rams! Recommended heartily by Arnold Kling. I'm not as enthusiastic as Arnold.

The authors for this 2016 book are listed as Daniel M. Wegner and Kurt Gray. Wegner, professor of psychology at Harvard, died of ALS in 2013. As explained in the book's moving preface, this left Gray, his graduate student, to finish up. The book is informal, accessible, and (unexpectedly, given the somber preface) often very funny.

The authors approach the concept of "mind" from an interesting perspective: not how minds work, but instead how we perceive minds in various circumstances. Their model is two-dimensional; we see minds having different levels of "experience" and "agency". And they supply a map showing how various entities fall out on those scales (clipped from a 2007 Science article by the authors and Hannah Gray):

[Mind Club Map]

"Experience" here refers to the ability to feel (high for you and me, low for robots). "Agency" for the ability for "thinking and doing" (again high for you and me, low for frogs and fetuses).

Chapter by chapter, the book explores our attitudes toward the "minds" of different groups: animals, machines, patients (typically helpless, some irretrievably brain-damaged), enemies, the silent, groups, the dead, God, and (finally) your own self. Interesting observations are made, and a considerable amount of research is described. As usual, researchers love to put their test subjects into manipulated situations designed to fool their brains. (It's tons of fun, and often profitable!)

I particularly liked the study reported on p. 252 (hardcover). Researchers "had people read an essay supporting open immigration either on a normal city sidewalk or in front of a funeral home." They speculated that "reminders of death would lead people to identify strongly with their nationality—Go America!—and therefore see foreigners as threatening."

And that's exactly what they found!

The final chapter, "The Self", contains an argument against free will. Again, the argument is about perception: you may perceive yourself as having free will, but that's (they argue) an illusion. You may weigh their argument, find it persuasive, and choose to accept it… Oops!

I didn't. You'd think by now the anti-free will proselytizers would come up with an argument that I had no choice other than to accept.