Philosophical Studies

, Volume 152, Issue 2, pp 271–285 | Cite as

Simulation, simplicity, and selection: an evolutionary perspective on high-level mindreading

  • Armin W. Schulz


In this paper, I argue that a natural selection-based perspective gives reasons for thinking that the core of the ability to mindread cognitively complex mental states is subserved by a simulationist process—that is, that it relies on non-specialised mechanisms in the attributer’s cognitive architecture whose primary function is the generation of her own decisions and inferences. In more detail, I try to establish three conclusions. First, I try to make clearer what the dispute between simulationist and non-simulationist theories of mindreading fundamentally is about. Second, I try to make more precise an argument that is sometimes hinted at in support of the former: this ‘argument from simplicity’ suggests that, since natural selection disfavours building extra cognitive systems where this can be avoided, simulationist theories of mindreading are more in line with natural selection than their competitors. As stated, though, this argument overlooks the fact that building extra cognitive systems can also yield benefits: in particular, it can allow for the parallel processing of multiple problems and it makes for the existence of backups for important elements of the organism’s mind. I therefore try to make this argument more precise by investigating whether these benefits also apply to the present case—and conclude negatively. My third aim in this paper is to use this discussion of mindreading as a means for exploring the promises and difficulties of evolutionary arguments in philosophy and psychology more generally.


Mindreading Evolution Simulation Theory Simplicity 



I would like to thank Alvin Goldman, Elliott Sober, Larry Shapiro, Stephen Stich, Eric Margolis, and an anonymous referee of this journal for useful comments on previous versions of this paper.


  1. Apperly, I., Back, E., Samson, D., & France, L. (2008). The cost of thinking about false beliefs: Evidence from adults’ performance on a non-inferential theory of mind task. Cognition, 106, 1093–1108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Baron-Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male-brain theory of autism. Trends in Cognitive Science, 6, 248–254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bull, R., Phillips, L., & Conway, C. (2008). The role of control functions in mentalizing: Dual-task studies of theory of mind and executive function. Cognition, 107, 663–672.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Byrne, S., & Whiten, A. (Eds.). (1988). Machiavellian intelligence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Carruthers, P. (1996). Language, thought and consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Carruthers, P. (2006). The architecture of the mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Clark, A. (1992). The presence of a symbol. Connection Science, 4, 193–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1992). The psychological foundations of culture. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind (pp. 19–136). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Dawkins, R. (1986). The blind watchmaker. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  10. de Waal, F. (2008). Putting the altruism back into altruism: The evolution of empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 279–300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dennett, D. (1978). Brainstorms. Montgomery: Bradford.Google Scholar
  12. Fodor, J. (1983). The modularity of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  13. Fodor, J. (1992). A theory of the child’s theory of mind. Cognition, 44, 283–296.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Godfrey-Smith, P. (1996). Complexity and the function of mind in nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Godfrey-Smith, P. (2003). Untangling the evolution of mental representation. In A. Zilhao (Ed.), Cognition, evolution, and rationality: A cognitive science for the 21st century. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  16. Goldman, A. (2006). Simulating minds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Gopnik, A., & Wellman, H. (1994). The theory-theory. In L. Hirschfeld & S. Gelman (Eds.), Mapping the mind (pp. 257–293). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gordon, R. (1986). Folk psychology as simulation. Mind and Language, 1, 158–172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Harris, P. (1992). From simulation to folk psychology: The case for development. Mind and Language, 7, 120–144.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Klin, A., Volkmar, F., & Sparrow, S. (2008). Autistic social dysfunction: Some limitations of the theory of mind hypothesis. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 33, 861–876.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Leslie, A. (2000). ‘Theory of mind’ as a mechanism of selective attention. In M. Gazzaniga (Ed.), The new cognitive neurosciences (2nd ed., pp. 1235–1247). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  22. Nichols, S., & Stich, S. (2003). Mindreading. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Papineau, D. (2001). The evolution of means-end reasoning. In D. Walsh (Ed.), Naturalism, evolution, and mind (pp. 145–178). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Pinker, S., & Bloom, P. (1990). Natural language and natural selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13, 707–784.Google Scholar
  25. Savage, L. (1954). Foundations of statistics. New York: John Wiley.Google Scholar
  26. Saxe, R. (2009). The neural evidence for simulation is weaker than I think you think it is. Philosophical Studies, 144, 447–456.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Saxe, R., & Powell, L. (2006). It’s the thought that counts: Specific brain regions for one component of theory of mind. Psychological Science, 17, 692–698.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Saxe, R., Schulz, L., & Jiang, Y. (2006). Reading minds versus following rules: Dissociating theory of mind and executive control in the brain. Social Neuroscience, 1, 284–298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Schulz, A. (forthcoming). Sober & Wilson’s evolutionary arguments for psychological altruism: A reassessment. Biology and Philosophy.Google Scholar
  30. Sober, E. (1994). The adaptive advantage of learning and a priori prejudice. In From a biological point of view (pp. 50–70). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Sober, E., & Wilson, D. S. (1998). Unto others: The evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Stephens, C. (2001). When is it selectively advantageous to have true beliefs? Philosophical Studies, 105, 161–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Sterelny, K. (2003). Thought in a hostile world: The evolution of human cognition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  34. Stich, S. (2007). Evolution, altruism and cognitive architecture: A critique of sober and wilson’s argument for psychological altruism. Biology and Philosophy, 22, 267–281.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Wicker, B., Keysers, C., Plailly, J., Royet, J.-P., Gallese, V., & Rizzolatti, G. (2003). Both of us disgusted in my insula: The common neural basis of seeing and feeling disgust. Neuron, 40, 655–664.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA

Personalised recommendations