The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why It Matters

The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why It Matters



The Pequod Review:

Written with Kurt Gray, Daniel Wegner's book The Mind Club explores the "theory of mind" — specifically the ways in which we assign importance and value to those whom we perceive as possessing minds, and therefore agency and experience:

The mind club is that special collection of entities who can think and feel. It is that all-important league of mental heroes whose superpowers are not X-ray vision or teleportation but instead simply the ability for thought and emotion. Members in the mind club are “minds,” whereas nonmembers are simply “things.”

Who belongs in this mind club? To begin with, we can probably rule out the turnip. It seems safe to say we aren’t missing much by assuming that there’s nobody home in there. At the other extreme are things that almost definitely have minds, like you and us. The snooty remark goes “and we’re not so sure about you,” but we are reasonably sure about you or we wouldn’t be bringing this up to you now.

We are likely all members of the mind club. But how should we understand the things that fall between us and the turnip? What shall we make of dogs, chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, or, for that matter, cats? Do they have minds? Really—cats? If we get serious about doorkeeping at the mind club, we also have to deal with newborn infants, unborn human fetuses, and people in persistent vegetative states—they could never be mistaken for turnips, but their minds can be sadly inscrutable.


It turns out that mental abilities are not all clumped together. Instead, people see minds in terms of two fundamentally different factors, sets of mental abilities we labeled experience and agency.

The experience factor captures the ability to have an inner life, to have feelings and experiences. It includes the capacities for hunger, fear, pain, pleasure, rage, and desire, as well as personality, consciousness, pride, embarrassment, and joy. These facets of mind seemed to capture “what it is like” to have a mind—what psychologists and philosophers often talk about when they discuss the puzzle of consciousness. A mind with experience can feel what it is like to touch a hot stove, can enjoy going to the circus, and can have an orgasm.

The agency factor is composed of a different set of mental abilities: self-control, morality, memory, emotion recognition, planning, communication, and thought. The theme for these capacities is not sensing and feeling but rather thinking and doing. The agency factor is made up of the mental abilities that underlie our competence, intelligence, and action. Minds show their agency when they act and accomplish goals.

These factors come into play when we make value judgments or assign praise or blame:

Imagine that the baby and the robot were just about to tumble off a cliff and you could save only one of them. Which would you save? Likely you would save the baby and let the robot fall to its doom... Imagine that the baby and the robot have found a loaded gun and are playing with it, when it goes off and injures someone. Which of them would you hold responsible? If you’re like most people, you would forgive the baby and condemn the robot to the junkyard.

These two scenarios reveal that it is no fun being a robot, and also that someone needs to call child services on that baby’s parents. But most important, these scenarios demonstrate that there are two distinct kinds of moral status, not one. Questions of moral responsibility (Who deserves responsibility and punishment?) seem to be distinct from those of moral rights (Who deserves protection from harm?) because we protect the baby from harm and yet hold the robot morally responsible.

These choices may be relatively clear but Wegner and Gray present other examples that show our moral inconsistency when it comes to assigning value, as when we rationalize torture or attribute agency to large corporations. Or the fact that we “extend more protection to kittens than crows, despite the fact that corvids are much smarter.” In many ways, I'm reminded of Jonathan Haidt's research showing how little we in fact care about such consistency and are instead guided by a broader competition for status. 

The Mind Club is an interesting little book that inspires a lot of such thoughts. It too often explores these questions in glib and high-level way, and is not as rigorous or detailed as it could have been, but it's a solid introduction to "theory of mind" nonetheless.