Hayek’s Self-Organizing Mental Order and Folk-Psychological Theories of the Mind

The intro and conclusion to Chiara’s chapter:

Humans are social creatures and they deeply rely on mentalizing, which aims at understanding other people behaviors and formulating expectations about their future actions. The existence of inner mental states has been postulated to give an explanatory account of the observed behaviors of other individuals. In particular, the activation of theory of mind in social situations has been demonstrated by neuroeconomic and behavioral experiments such as: processes of market exchange and specialization of labor (Coricelli, McCabe, & Smith, 2000), decision-making involving strategic uncertainty, detection of social cheaters and, in general, cooperative games in which subjects need to predict their opponents’ strategies; these are all situations in which theory of mind1 is activated. Historically, two different models of mental processes have been considered in the literature about folk psychology: theory-theory and simulation-theory. Theory-theory posits that subjects who are attributing to others a particular mental state are applying a tacit piece of knowledge previously acquired ‘‘about what people feel, think, want, etc in given circumstances and how they will, therefore, act’’ (Perner, Gschaider, Kuhberger, & Schrofner, 1999). They basically own ‘‘folk theories’’ about others’ mental states and implicit causal laws about how the mind works. On the contrary, simulation theory posits that, in attributing mental states, subjects are not possessing tacitly codified knowledge, but they are rather running a simulation ‘‘putting themselves in others’ shoes.’’ Simulating means using one’s own mind as a model for other people’s mental states, while being unaware of this activity. Simulation directly bridges perception and action (Decety & Grezes, 2006). Hayek had already envisioned this relationship between sensory and motor activity (Hayek, 1952, p. 92) but he dwells more on a neuronal level explanation than a mental one.

Notwithstanding this historical opposition between theory and simulation, an approach that highlights their intermingling contributions and crossfertilizations has nowadays been favored (Goldman, 2006). This is the reason why, after introducing a brief sketch of these two positions, the paper focuses then on theory of mind broadly speaking as the capacity to share psychological states with others: this is the social cognitive capacity making humans collaborative and cooperative, able to be engaged in mutual coordinated actions and plans (Tomasello, 2005). Humans, as social actors, have to possess a cognitive machinery that makes them able to coordinate. This chapter investigates whether theory of mind can provide a plausible explanation, at the mind level, of the tacitly triggered process of knowledge coordination elaborated by Hayek. More specifically, does Hayek’s concept of coordinating and self-organizing orders imply a model of the mind that can be framed as the current philosophical concept of theory of mind? In particular, we address the question whether theory of mind can give an account of that ‘‘inter-personal’’ understanding of other people’s mental states that Hayek sketches without developing it in details (Hayek, 1952, p. 23).

The chapter is then structured as follow: second section frames the concept of mentalizing as it has been historically developed in theory-theory and simulation-theory; third section presents Hayek’s philosophical psychology, identifying specific issues to integrate the latter with modern theory of mind; it explains the roles of communication between individuals and the process of knowledge formation in Hayek’s view, trying to address the question why Hayek’s philosophical psychology does not properly consider the concept of ‘‘theory of mind.’’ Fourth section concludes with further ideas of comparison, presenting the concept of ‘‘social mind’’ from a neuroscientific perspective, considering the idea of mirror neurons.

Philosophical and experimental research in psychology has been centered on the social nature of the mind for the past 20 years. Imitation is an important aspect of social learning, even at the mental level: mental mimicry (Gallese & Goldman, 1998) is based on the capacity to imitate other people’s mental states and has been defined as a process of isomorphism between states of mind of different persons, according to which two persons feel the same state of mind just seeing the other person in a particular situation or understanding the other person’s mental state. A particular case of isomorphism is represented by empathy: this is an automatic process triggered by an affective state, elicited by the observation or imagination of another individual’s affective state. Empathy has been associated with both epistemological and social roles (De Vignemont & Singer, 2006): it provides knowledge of the environment around us, connecting emotional stimuli coming from the external environment, ‘‘their situative context’’ (ibid., p. 440), and the relationship between the empathizer and the target. Empathy has therefore a vivid social dimension.

Moreover, empathy has been advocated as one of the explanatory devices of altruistic and pro-social behaviors specific of human nature: justice and cooperation (Boyd & Richerson, 2006; Hoffman, 2000; Hume, 1739).

From a neuroscientific perspective, the ‘‘empathic’’ nature of the brain has been demonstrated by the existence of mirror neurons; in the second half of the Nineties a particular scientific discovery has been made in the macaque monkeys’ brain: mirror neurons (Gallese, Fatiga, Fogassi, & Rizzolatti, 1996; Rizzolatti, Fatiga, Gallese, & Fogassi, 1996). These are visuomotors neuronal cells that fire both during the individual execution of a goal-directed action and the observation of the same action in a target individuals. They are located in the so called area F5 of the brain that belongs to the ventral premotor cortex, and they are fundamental in developing a ‘‘motor-theory of social cognition’’ (Gallese, Keysers & Rizzolatti, 2004) since they completely change the philosophical basis of actions understanding: this means that with mirror neurons a direct link between ‘‘first and third person experience’’ (ibid., p. 396) is possible. Bridging first and third person, in particular, means connecting the ‘‘I do and I feel’’ experience with ‘‘he does and he feels’’ experience. This can occur, not on the basis of the visual representation and interpretation performed by a central system, but by the ‘‘penetration’’ of information related to the target into the neural system and knowledge of the observer, who is empathizing. The fact that the action perceived and registered by the mirror system is goal-directed is fundamental. In fact, in the original experiment on macaque monkeys (Umilta` et al., 2001), the mirror system is activated only when an action is explicitly directed towards an object: for instance, mirror neurons are firing both when the monkey is grasping an object and both when the monkey is looking at the experimenter grasping the same object. This happens in both a full vision and hidden conditions, that is, when both the object is present in the spatial vision of the animal and when it has been hidden beyond a sliding screen, but after being present. In contrast, mirror neurons do not fire when the object is not present from the beginning, and the grasping movement is directed toward nothing in particular. In this case, neither the full vision nor the hidden treatments are characterized by mirror neurons activation. This occurs because the action is perceived as not being goal-oriented.

More recent studies have shown that mirror neurons are present in human brain as well and that, moreover, they fire in response to a wider range of actions than the monkey system (Gallese et al., 2004). In particular, mirror neurons fire in humans in the case of facial expression recognition, because the observer tends to share the emotional and affective state of the target, demonstrating its understanding. Recognizing the powerful implications that the discovery of a mirror system in humans triggers, Gallese et al. (2004) propose a ‘‘unifying theory of social cognition’’ that is able to make sense of both first-person and third-person recognition and understanding of emotions and actions, both individually performed and observed in others: the understanding of social cognition implies a bridge ‘‘between others and ourselves’’ (Gallese et al., 2004, p. 400). Hayek himself highlights the relationship between perception and action developed by the mental order: in his opinion, the sensory representations of the environment are associated with a possible goal to be pursued in that environment through a movement pattern that will make the achievement of that goal possible. This process determines particular responses, suggesting possible corrections to be taken in the movement patterns if the first ones are not particularly successful. Hayek describes motor responses as directly belonging to the act of perception since they ‘‘serve for the proper evaluation of the stimulus’’ (Hayek, 1952, p. 92). The interaction between exteroceptive and proprioceptive impulses and the consequent feedbacks generate the processes of adaptation of the organism to the external environment, which are of particular significance for the elaboration of subjective knowledge. Hayek develops therefore a fundamental and modern theory about the mental order and its relationships with the physical and neuronal order, presenting in his ‘‘central thesis’’ the role of subjective knowledge created through a process of internal reconstruction and classification of external stimuli. It is precisely in connection with this specific point that the role of folk psychology may find its fruitful application in Hayek’s theory: folk psychology is the conceptual common sense framework that socialized subjects employ to interpret, understand and predict other subjects’ mental states and behaviors. Hayek believes that the fundamental operation that human mind can accomplish is classification. Beyond classification, we believe that mentalizing should be taken into consideration in order to give an account of the interpersonal and social dimensions of human life and human mind. In particular, of special interest for us, was to present an overview of current approaches in philosophy of mind, so to understand how the idea of folk psychology can be used as a tool to bridge Hayek’s theory of mental order toward an inter-personal conception of the mind, which Hayek himself seems to support, although never developing it in details.