Philosophy of Mind
August 26, 2005
The Missing Cat
In The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind William H. Calvin suggests that human thoughts undergo a process of Darwinian evolution similar to the biological evolution that organisms undergo. Calvin theorizes that there might be a subconscious “milliseconds-to-minutes Darwinian ratchet” that results in our complex mental life which he elaborates on in the following passage:
As Wittgenstein once observed, you gain insights mostly through new arrangements of things you already know, not by acquiring new data. This is certainly true at the level of biological variation: despite the constant talk of ‘mutations,’ it’s really the random shuffle of grandparent chromosomes during meiosis as sperm and ova are made, and the subsequent sexual recombination during fertilization, that generates the substantial new variations, such as all the differences between siblings. Novel mental images have also been thought to arise from recombinations during brain activity. In our waking hours, most of these surely remain at subconscious levels—but many are probably the same sorts of juxtapositions that we experience in dreams every night. […]. Most such juxtapositions and chimeras are nonsense. But during our waking hours, they might be better shaped up in a Darwinian manner. Only the more realistic ones might normally reach ‘consciousness.’ (5)
According to Calvin’s theory our minds, especially when encountering new problems, are constantly undergoing a Darwinian thought process in which the strongest and most coherent combination of ideas usually survive and become conscious thoughts. The following two paragraphs consist of a thought experiment designed to test this theory.
Imagine a mother, her three-year-old daughter, and their black cat living together in an apartment. Imagine that one day the mother and daughter discover that the cat is missing. All of the windows and doors in the apartment are shut—it seems that the cat must be inside. The mother looks everywhere for the cat: under the beds, in the closets, in the dryer, in the refrigerator. The cat is nowhere to be found. After about thirty minutes of searching the daughter tells the mother, “I opened the door and let the cat out.” The furious mother yells at the daughter and immediately sends her to bed. The mother spends the rest of the night sulking over her lost cat, sitting outside and waiting for the cat to return. But the cat never comes home. Sadly, the mother goes to bed.
In the middle of the night the mother is awoken to the sounds of her daughter yelling “Mommy! Mommy!”. The mother opens the door to her daughter’s room and says “What baby?”. “There’s a cat in my room”, the daughter says, and the missing cat emerges from the darkness and walks out of the room.
What does this story have to do with the theory of a Darwinian thought process? First let’s ask a simple question—where was the cat? It seems likely that the cat was in the daughter’s room the whole time. But the daughter said she let the cat outside. Is this possible? Maybe the cat was let outside. How could it get back into the daughter’s room? The window to the room was shut—that is the only opening where the cat could have made it back inside. The cat could have walked through the walls into the daughter’s room, but this is highly unlikely. It seems obvious that the cat was in the daughter’s room the whole time. This raises another question—why did the daughter say she opened the door and let the cat out, if it’s obvious that she didn’t? Did she hide the cat in order to play a trick on her mother? It is doubtful that a three-year-old would be capable of such a hoax. It is possible, but seems unlikely. Keep in mind that the daughter was immediately punished when she revealed that she let the cat outside. The daughter could have avoided punishment by simply telling her mother she did not really let the cat out. It seems that the most likely scenario is the daughter honestly believed that she let the cat out. Why did the daughter have this memory that appears so obviously to be false?
Calvin’s Darwinian model of mentality can help us understand why the three-year-old daughter might believe that she opened the door and let the cat out when she didn’t. Perhaps at an earlier time in her life the daughter opened a door and let a cat out—perhaps she did this at a relative’s house with a completely different cat. Or perhaps the daughter saw someone else open a door and let a cat out; she could have seen such an image on television. Now in the daughter’s present situation a cat is missing, and it does not seem to be in the house. If we apply Calvin’s theory of a Darwinian thought process to the child’s mind then it is possible that the child combined a previous memory or idea of opening a door and letting a cat out with the current idea of a missing cat into the false memory of opening the door to let the now missing cat out! Calvin writes, “Starting with shuffled memories no better than the jumble of our nighttime dreams, a mental image can evolve into something of quality, such as a sentence to speak aloud” (1). It is possible that the child’s false belief and statement, “I opened the door and let the cat out”, is merely a combination of random ideas that seems to best explain the child’s current experience of a missing cat.
Calvin’s theory of a Darwinian thought process adequately explains why a daughter might have a false memory of letting a missing cat out. Darwin’s theory of evolution has been a great achievement of biology, and Calvin’s adaptation of the theory to the study of the mind may prove to be an important step in our ongoing efforts to unravel the mysteries of the mind.
Calvin, William H.. The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the
Mind. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1996.