Mississippi State University professor Robert Thompson wrapped up this semester’s Philosophical Friday series with a lecture entitled “How to Read a Mind.” However, those in attendance did not learn anything about telepathy. The subject of Thompson’s dissertation was theories of the mind.
Thompson’s research focuses on the age at which a child can detect false beliefs. It is not about actually having a false belief but rather the point at which a child understands that another person has a false belief. Instead of sounding like a philosophical discussion, Thompson’s presentation seemed more like a lesson in developmental psychology.
“Psychology and philosophy go hand in hand,” Thompson said. “In fact, psychology started as a subpart of philosophy. Philosophers go to psychology for scientific findings and data to substantiate different theories.”
In the lecture, autism was discussed in the context of mind theory. A defining characteristic of autistic individuals is the lack of understanding that someone can have a false belief.
“People that have various forms of autism are sometimes thought to be deficient in some way in their ability to think about others having a viewpoint, having desires or goals,” Thompson said.
The purpose of this lecture was to explore the way certain groups of people and animals think about each other, including primates, autistic people and young children. The majority of Thompson’s lecture focused on the theory of children’s minds.
This topic of study could influence the future of elementary education and the views surrounding child development.
“What this basically does is introduce a debate about exactly what changes take place and when they take place,” Thompson said. “An interesting issue is how this goes into thinking about diagnosing things like autism or educational psychology. I think if educational psychologists thought more about these kinds of issues it could shape the way that they think about human interaction in the classroom.”
Michael Dearmey, a senior member of the Department of Philosophy and Religion, anticipated the lecture would discuss more than false beliefs.
“I was expecting to hear about the range of diverse theories about how people and animals understand what other people and animals are doing,” Dearmey said. “I think that is extremely important.”
However, during the question portion of the lecture, Dearmey and Thompson disagreed about some aspects of animal cognition. Thompson mentioned in the lecture that there should be a “divorce” between animals and humans in comparison making. He is not fully convinced that there is any substantial proof to suggest that animals think in the same way as humans.
Dearmey disagreed and brought up an opposing argument on animal emotion. In his opinion, there was not a thorough explanation of Thompson’s claims on that topic.
“I thought the lecture was extremely interesting,” Dearmey said. “But I thought he was mistaken about animals. It seems to me that some animals understand what other animals are thinking and act accordingly.”
Dearmey also wants to introduce a new course in the philosophy department that discusses animal behaviors and cognition.
“How to Read a Mind,” courtesy of Robert Thompson, is the last Philosophical Friday until the spring. The new schedule will be posted in the philosophy department tab on the USM website before the semester ends.