The Multi-dimensioned Mind, The Inexperienced God

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New findings reported by Harvard researchers in the journal Science suggest that the mind is typically viewed as having multiple dimensions that relate to specific important characteristics of individuals. This study has implications for how individuals develop ethical or moral stands on topics such as abortion, and how individuals view god, life, and death. The study was based an online survey (n= 2,000+). The results suggest that we perceive the minds of others along two distinct dimensions: One is “agency,” or the individual’s ability for self-control, morality and planning. The other is experience, or the capacity to feel sensations such as hunger, fear and pain.

This is said to be different from the traditional concept that the mind is best conceived along a single continuum.

“Important societal beliefs, such as those about capital punishment, abortion, and the legitimacy of torture, rest on perceptions of these dimensions, as do beliefs about a number of philosophical questions,” says co-author Kurt Gray, a doctoral student in Harvard’s Department of Psychology. “Can robots ever have moral worth? What is it like to be God? Is the human experience unique?”

The research was also conducted by Heather Gray and Daniel Wegner.

Survey respondents were given 13 characters: 7 living human forms (7-week-old fetus, 5-month-old infant, 5-year-old girl, adult woman, adult man, man in a persistent vegetative state, and the respondent himself or herself), 3 non-human animals (frog, family dog, and wild chimpanzee), a dead woman, God, and a sociable robot.

Participants rated the characters on the extent to which each possessed a number of capacities, ranging from hunger, fear, embarrassment, and pleasure to self-control, morality, memory and thought. Their analyses yielded two distinct dimensions by which people perceive the minds of others, agency and experience. The researchers assert that these dimensions are independent: An entity can be viewed to have experience without having any agency, and vice versa. For instance, respondents viewed the infant as high in experience but low in agency — having feelings, but unaccountable for its actions — while God was viewed as having agency but not experience.

“Respondents, the majority of whom were at least moderately religious, viewed God as an agent capable of moral action, but without much capacity for experience,” Gray says. “We find it hard to envision God sharing any of our feelings or desires.”

Not surprisingly, respondents ranked themselves and other “normal” human adults as highest in both dimensions. Even less surprisingly, they attributed neither dimension to the dead person. Some characters, such as the fetus and the man in a persistent vegetative state had little agency, and ranked somewhere in the middle on experience, which suggests that people disagree on whether these entities are truly capable of experience.

“The perception of experience to these characters is important, because along with experience comes a suite of inalienable rights, the most important of which is the right to life,” Gray says. “If you see a man in a persistent vegetative state as having feelings, it feels wrong to pull the plug on him, whereas if he is just a lump of firing neurons, we have less compunction at freeing up his hospital bed.”

“When we perceive agency in another, we believe they have the capacity to recognize right from wrong and can punish them accordingly,” Gray says. “The legal system, with its insanity and reduced capacity defenses, reflects the fact that people naturally assess the agency of individuals following a moral misdeed.”

You can visit the mind survey site here.

[source: Press Release, Harvard FAS]

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