So hello everyone, and welcome to week 5, The Mind is Flat– The Round Up. Jess, what are the issues in week 5? So in week 5, we’ve moved away a bit from the very individualistic perspective of the mind and started talking a bit more about coordination and how people work together in groups. And you kind of introduce this notion of we thinking and talk about how this means that we can perhaps create this incredibly complex and intelligent society, even if all of the individual minds within it are not– well, certainly are complex as we said, but are not necessary kind of as deep as we might think.
And you talk a lot about this human ability to coordinate and to think in groups and suggest that perhaps this is kind of an incredible thing that sets humans apart from other animals. But it seems like isn’t it the case that other animals do certainly coordinate and cooperate in various ways? I think that a lot of people might be thinking you look at these animals like wolves who hunt in packs, or ants who do things kind of amazingly together in colonies. Could you perhaps say a bit about what you think is different about the human ability to coordinate? What exactly do you mean by we thinking and how that’s different from what animals do? Yeah. Yeah.
So first of all, I should say that this is a speculative claim, although not a totally incredible claim, but it is a speculative claim that there’s something unique about human cognition in relation to being able to work together. The second thing is that it’s not a claim– the claim about we thinking is a claim about a way in which we’re able to coordinate with our behaviour. It’s not saying that that’s the only way coordination can happen. So for example, termites are tremendously good coordinators. They don’t think about each other’s minds. In fact, they have very, very small minds and they certainly probably have no conception at all that other termites have any mind at all.
But they are preprogrammed to follow simple rules, which when you put lots of termites together means that they lay trails and follow trails and so on, which creates these incredibly complicated results, a bit like the individual cells in your body are programmed to operate with each other without any kind of thought of the sort in a way that leads to incredibly complicated and effective entire physiological system. So it’s not the case that mere coordination and mere complexity implies that we thinking or anything like it is going on. And similarly, thinking about something like wolves, then there’s probably a large amount of biological preprogramming going on there too.
Now with humans, the thing that’s remarkable about us is we’re able to work together to deal with totally novel problems. So when you give someone the problem of, say, assembling Ikea furniture, which is a pretty hard problem, and tell them they can’t talk, it still turns out to be possible for people quite effectively to work out how to do this together. And people will do things like pick up a screw and look at the other person, and they’ll hand over a screwdriver. And then when there’s a heavy thing to lift, one person might start lifting it. The other will rush in and help.
And people are actually very well able to do quite complicated, and clearly very evolutionarily novel tasks, without direct communication. And I think to do that requires that we’re able to think not what am I trying to do and what are you trying to do, because if I think about that, I get into this kind of loop in which case where I think now, you’ve got a screw in your hand. I wonder what you’re going to do with it. If you wanted to screw it into that board, I guess I ought to give you the screwdriver. But I don’t know whether that’s what you want to do.
And of course you with the screw will be thinking, well, there’s only any point me getting this screw and lining up if the person’s going to give me the screwdriver. But are they? So you’re in this kind of deadlock where each individual person’s behaviour only makes sense if they know what the other person’s going to do. But as soon as you think no, don’t worry about what the other person’s going to do who’s thinking about where you’re going to do in some kind of infinite loop, just think, what are we trying to achieve here?
And if we know that we’re trying to assemble this furniture and we know that it requires a screwdriver into the screw or lifting a heavy piece of wood, then we know that to do those tasks requires coordination between two people and we’ll just do it automatically. So I think the fact that we can think about what the team is trying to achieve very naturally, so naturally we don’t even notice ourselves doing it, that’s really crucial. There’s no sign, at least on my fairly admittedly partial knowledge of the literature that there’s no sign of other animals being able to do in a flexible way for novel problems in the way that we can.
But of course, that’s crucial if you’re going to, for example, solve difficult new problems and create new types of artefact and reproduce them if you’re going to create organisations, if you’re going to create forms of art, and so on and so on. And I think one thing to comment on there is that our ability to do this is so natural to us that we almost don’t really see it as being remarkable. You talk about this example of the screw and the hammer and creating a table. I think that my instinctive reaction to that and probably a lot of other people’s instinctive reaction is like, that’s not amazing. Like, what? That’s a very simple task.
But probably there are a few things to clarify there from what you said, and one is this idea of we thinking, as you said, is not synonymous with coordination. It’s a specific kind of coordination, and it’s coordination which is based on the ability to think not just about what other people are doing, but like what we would do if we could communicate and decide as a team. So sort of think as a team. And so that’s the thing you’re suggesting that humans can do and that animals can’t. And then the other thing that you touched upon was this idea that for most animals, at least it seems, that the basis of most of their coordination is genetic.
So kind of like ants are preprogrammed to work together in certain ways. Wolves kind of have this genetic basis for certain kinds of coordination, perhaps because the ability to coordinate was very evolutionarily adaptive and so would’ve evolved. And I think the point that you’re making is that because humans have this ability to coordinate beyond what is genetically programmed because we can think about what other people are thinking and think about what we would do as a team, that makes our ability to coordinate very flexible, and means that we can then coordinate in new, unknown situations that weren’t necessarily genetically programmed, and that’s what gives us the advantage. Is that an accurate summary of what you’ve been saying? Absolutely.
And a good example, which we talk about this week, is the high low game. So the high low game’s the game where we both shout high or low, and we get a big prize if we both shout high, a small one if we both shout low. There, it’s completely obvious we’re both going to shout high, but if I’m thinking about you thinking about me, then my thought is going to be I better do the same as you. So if you’re going to shout low, I better shout low. If you’re going to shout high, I better shout high. So I’ll do the same as you, but you’re trying to do the same as me. But what am I trying to do?
I don’t know. So we’re going around in an infinite loop. Whereas if you immediately think, well what would we decide to do? It’s obvious we’d decide to shout high. And that step to what should we do, is as you say, it’s so transparent to us. It’s so much the way we’re built to think that we just don’t notice it’s profound and clever. But it really is, and it may be one of the secrets of human social behaviour.
And I think again, like the high low game just sounds kind of– it’s in some ways, it’s difficult to grasp the complexity of what you’re saying with that and the fact that this is a complex thing, because it is just so obvious to us that it’s like, well obviously we would both shout high. But I think the fact that it’s obvious in a way is testament to the fact that this is like a very easy thing for us to do. And I think going on to next week, we will talk about obviously this high low game, the ability to do that.
A bit like we talked with the money pump, it’s a very abstract example and it doesn’t seem– it’s kind of hard to see, OK, how is this useful in real life? But I think in next week’s content, we’re going to talk a bit more about how this ability to we think actually allows us to develop language and culture and society, and that should hopefully shed a bit more light on why this is actually relevant and important. So on that note, we’ll stop for now, and we’ll see you for the final week next week.