Semantics and a “theory of minds” cover the same ground, Peter Gärdenfors told the Evolang conference as it started its last day in Utrecht, the Netherlands. He gave the audience an interesting angle on the cooperative theory, much favored on this blog, and argued that meanings constitute a “meeting of the minds.”
A theory of minds holds that another individual has a distinct point of view and the individual’s knowledge may differ from one’s own. In his book How Homo Became Sapiens (2003) Gärdenfors proposed that a intersubjectivity (a.k.a. a theory of mind) has four “domains”:
- Emotion: for example, this person feels something I can recognize (empathy). This domain is the most basic if any kind of theory of mind. When two people “click,” they typically have a strong sense of emotional recognition. Apes have a theory of mind at this level, and have been observed consoling one another.
- Attention: for example, this person is paying attention to something, and the observer looks to see what the other is looking at. Gaze following is very common among animals, so much so that many try to hide their gaze.
- Intention: for example, that person is planning to bend over and kiss me. This kind of theory of mind is more unusual although it is not exclusive to humans. Dogs are much better than apes and anticipating human intentions, and prey on the savanna are said to be able to distinguish lions on the hunt from lions that are just passing by.
- Beliefs: for example, that person believes the pea is under the middle walnut shell, even though I saw the operator slip the pea into his right hand. The idea that apes may have this aspect of a theory of mind is more controversial, although not entirely without evidence.
All in all, this seems like a decent list of the dimensions governing a person’s character, and if you know where a person can be mapped on this four-dimensional graph, you have got a pretty good grasp of that person.
Gärdenfors has now proposed that semantics can be understood in terms of these same domains, permitting a “meeting of the minds.” Gärdenfors says that communication’s basic function is to coordinate actions and the normal goal of communication is to bring the minds of the communicators together so that successful joint action can be achieved. I’m normally skeptical whenever a function of language is reduced to so charmingly a pithy statement, but in this case I’m interested because it avoids both the overly-specific (e.g., the original function of language was to tell others about carcasses they could scavenge) and the underspecified, which is the norm when speaking abstractly about communications.
In particular, I like the way this definition suggests a reason selection could favor effective speech. In yesterday’s talk, Stephen Anderson made a joke about not being sure what selective advantage subjacency offered. I chuckled, anyway. Gärdenfors’s definition may not explain that one, but it does suggest that in the early days of speech, groups that had the most effective speech were the best coordinated and therefore the more likely to survive. The most ferocious argument one can raise against that point is that selection takes place at the gene level; however, readers of this blog will know that I am a proponent of multilevel selection and that by the time of Homo our lineage’s default level of selection was at the group.
Gärdenfors points out that communication domains parallel the theory of minds domains.
- Emotional: Along with vocal signals, body posture and facial expressions indicate one’s emotional state. (Parallels theory of emotional mind.)
- Visual: Body posture can (unintentionally) indicate something of interest. Gesture, notably pointing, can do the same. Visual and emotional communications can be combined. For example, a baboon may see something and show fear, alarming and frightening another troop member even though it has not seen what the first baboon sees. (Parallels attention in theory of mind.)
- Goal: Gärdenfors said that the actions of others generally communicate their goals. I wonder if most animals or even people have goals when they perform most of their actions, but it may be true that when they do have goals their actions give them away. (Parallels intention in theory of mind.)
- Category: Here communication is deliberate. (Most emotional, visual, and goal communications are inferred by others and not intentionally done by the communicator; however, apes do engage in deliberate, communicative gesture.) Communication in this also refers to mental representations, concepts, in the communicator’s mind. Language enables communicators to align their mental representations so that they can cooperate effectively. (Parallels beliefs in theory of mind.)
In short, the account of language evolution here involves three discontinuities: (1) switch from unintentional to deliberate communication (although there is some foreshadowing of the change in ape gestures); (2) switch from coordination based on dominate or control one based genuinely cooperative communication; and (3) the use of words or signs to “point” to conceptual space.