Do the dead have thoughts? The late Harvard psychology professor Wegner (The Illusion of Conscious Will, 2002, etc.), assisted by neuroscientist Gray (Mind Perception and Morality/Univ. of North Carolina), ponders that ethereal question and much more.
I think, therefore I am. I know I am—but what about you? We scarcely know our own thoughts, it seems, but we accord other humans, and other beings, respect and agency because we acknowledge that they have thoughts, that they have mind. Never mind that we may be wrong about how much respect we accord others; for instance, as the authors write in a move guaranteed to tick off cat lovers, we “extend more protection to kittens than crows, despite the fact that corvids are much smarter.” Yes, they are, demonstrably and measurably, but our view otherwise grants kittens slightly more capital in the animal rights department. And what of dead people? What, particularly, of a dead you? Write the authors, with admirable clarity, “trying to perceive your dead mind is paradoxical, because you have to perceive a state that is incapable of perception—which is impossible while you are currently perceiving.” The authors’ approach to understanding the minds of others—whether those minds are those of people we consider enemies or people who for whatever reason cannot express themselves—is a touch softer than the hard-core neuroscience of, say, Antonio Damasio. Still, they look at some very tough questions: how do we sort our thoughts about the minds of others in such a way that we can rationalize torture? (The answer hinges on levels of empathy.) What kind of mind does God have, if God exists? (A provocative hint: “God is perceived as being very high in agency but relatively low in experience.”) And so forth, all leading to the wise if unsettling thought that “our perceptions are all we have.”
Complex science lightly delivered; a pleasure for anyone comfortable with the thought that knowing others’ minds will improve our own.