Desperately Seeking Explanation

Session Date: 
Feb 15, 2013

As early as 600 million years ago, some branches of life on earth evolved what we now consider the first “complex brains”. Since then, a fantastic diversity of animal brains (and hence, minds) have evolved. How do we compare these minds? One way is unabashedly anthropocentric, using the human mind as the gold standard. In principle, there is nothing wrong—and much to recommend—this myopic interest in the origins and uniqueness of our mental abilities. In practice, when we fail to highlight both the commonalities that link our minds to other species, as well as the equally differences that contrast them, we quickly go astray. Even a cursory glance at the fantastic intelligences of the animal kingdom should impress us. The waggle dance communication of honeybees. The echo-informed mental images of bats and dolphins. The memory-laden manner efforts of seed-storing birds who accurately recall the locations of tens of thousands of hidden seeds. Unaided, the human mind cannot replicate these feats. But our minds appear to have some tricks of their own, as well. In this talk, I suggest that “seeking explanations” is a uniquely human mental function. In every domain of intelligence⎯from temporal and spatial reasoning, to social cognition, to understanding the causal properties of objects⎯the human mind may have specialized in the ability to construct higher-order, analogy-based inferences that support the explanations for the (admittedly limited) patterns our minds detect in the world. I propose that this mental oddity, coupled with other uniquely human abilities, has, in the blink of an evolutionary eye, given our species the capacity to begin to understand and manipulate forms of intelligence our brains cannot manifest. In science, this “explanatory drive” can be properly regarded as a mania, which, as it proceeds largely uncontrolled, will continue to yield products that both improve, and threaten, our very existence.

File 2013_02_15_03_Povinelli-Web.mp4163.56 MB