The Arachnid Theory of Mind
Among those without an extensive academic background in psychology or philosophy, a popular question concerns what kind of mind animals possess. Usually, the question is posed in reference to the beloved family pet: is Fido happy? At a slightly deeper level, one reaches what is known as “Theory of Mind,” which is an individual’s understanding that others around them have minds of their own and are capable of having thoughts and desires that differ from from one’s own. It is often assumed that this capacity is necessary for a person to be fully conscious; although that characterization falls a little short (such as among autistic people), I would like to do a little thought experiment to see if we can discover anything new. As a baseline, I will use the arachnid mind. As we all know, spider brains are comparatively small and it seems difficult to imagine that such a small organ could produce something as complex as the awareness of others’ minds. But I’d like to know about spiders and not just the big cute animals, so maybe I can come up with something similar to spiders.
So let’s talk about college students. (Caveat emptor: I am a former college instructor.) One of the most notable aspects of the college student mind is that it is regularly focused on sex, not unlike many animal species. And speaking from personal observation, it amazes me how many students imagine that the teacher is hot for them. Seriously. (Yes, yes, I know. There are some pervs out there in front of a classroom. But not that many…) These kids possess no theory of mind, only a consciousness of themselves. They’re horny, so the teacher must also be horny. And the object of the teacher’s affection must obviously be “me” and not any of the others in the classroom. The teacher, who sees these kids only a couple hours per week, is somehow supposed to be infatuated with the student. It’s almost kind of funny.
From the teacher’s perspective, things look a little different. In my experience, I often wished I could teach as though I were leading an old-fashioned Latin Mass. It would have been great to teach without having to look at the students. Facing towards the class, the woman on my left would be sitting with her legs in a most immodest position and the woman in front of me (in the loose fitting shirt) has forgotten that she is entering a professional venue where someone will be standing right over her looking down to maintain eye contact with the class. But at least she’s wearing a bra. It sure beats looking to my right (which isn’t saying much) because the guy in the blue shirt is going commando and he’s hanging out of his shorts. I think the Catholics had it right all along by having their priests face the altar instead of the congregation.
But I digress. We’ve established that college students, at least in this one respect, lack any recognition that the people around them have (literally) a different perspective. And as anyone who has ever observed a college classroom knows, college students very often lack consciousness. And much like the spider with a tiny brain, they often lack the intellectual heft you would expect of a creature that can spin such an elaborate and beautiful web.
From all of this, we can conclude that animals may not have the same mental capacities we often ascribe to them. If you are a professional psychologist or a philosopher, you probably knew that already.