SuperSense and the Dalai Lama

My colleagues Paul Bloom and Susan Gelman have an interesting short piece in the current Trends in Cognitive Science journal about how the Tibetan authorities selected the 14th Dalai Lama.

According to eye witness testimony from 1941, the bureaucrats tested a two-year old boy in a remote village by presenting him with personal authentic possessions that belonged to the previous 13th Dalai Lama along with a selection of inauthentic similar or identical looking items. It is reported that when presented with identical rosary beads, walking canes, and quilts, the boy grabbed the authentic one in each case. Moreover, when presented with two drums, one that was rather plain but authentic while the other was much more attractive but inauthentic, the boy chose the plain drum and began playing it with a big smile on his face. As far as the authorities were concerned this proved that, “the boy demonstrated his occult powers, which were capable of revealing the most secret phenomena.” The boy is now the current Dalai Lama.

These tests reveal that the authorities believed that the reincarnated Dalai Lama would have the supernatural power to identify authentic objects selected from among copies. This is the psychological essentialism that I discuss in my book where people believe that authentic objects and memorabilia are contaminated by the essence of the previous owner.

So the supersense forms part of the procedure for selecting world leaders. However some bloggers think that this report does no such thing. Rather they argue that it demonstrates a belief in reincarnation and not psychological essentialism. 

What do you think?

8 Comments

Filed under General Thoughts

8 responses to “SuperSense and the Dalai Lama

  1. Assuming for the moment a supernatural explanation, it seems that two issues lie behind the question you ask: the how and the why. The first can be got at by asking what is meant by ‘identical’. Imagine, for example, that someone shows you an object you have used every day, such as your mobile phone, and another of the same make. Even if you have not purposefully marked the phone in any way, you will probably recognise it on the basis of the familiar wear marks on it. The same might be thought to be the case with the ‘identical rosary beads, walking canes and quilts’ you mention. This would undermine the need for essentialist explanation. The second issue concerns the explanation for why the two-year-old chose the 13th Dalai Lama’s possessions (rather than how he spotted them). Some explanation would have to be given for this even if essentialism was accepted as the mechanism that made it possible. Re-incarnation provides such an explanation. So, it is not a case of either essentialism or re-incarnation, the two claims explain different aspects of the case.

    Of course, people tend to look for complex causal explanations when sometimes simple statistical explanations will do. Given the choice of 8 pairs of objects to pick from, it will turn out that one in 256 children is the reincarnated Dalai Lama.

  2. brucehood

    Yes, the issue of identifying features is always a problem. When Paul Bloom and I did a study of duplication of attachment objects, critics pointed out that smell could not be duplicated exactly. We did control for all this but the point is best illustrated by a thought experiment. Assume that all perceptual features are reproduced faithfully in that no scientific instrument could tell an original and duplicate apart, we still regard one as original by virtue of its history. But history is notoriously patchy and fragmented. How could the observer tap into it by purely the observable features? (I could switch them when you are not looking!). Nevertheless we feel there is a tangible property within the original and this is reflected in beliefs and behaviors that are indicative of some invisible individuating feature… that is psychological essentialism.

    Watch this space!

  3. This makes me think of two connected issues in philosophy.

    The first is the way analytical philosophers treat concepts. They (or, perhaps, I should say ‘we’, given my training) assume that the concepts are supposed to be adequate across all possible worlds and then invent science fiction scenarios in which they are not adequate: identity is a favourite in this regard. I would argue, however, that concepts are merely supposed to have heuristic value in real world situations so that it is hardly surprising that they should break if pushed too far. The far more interesting issue being that they are subject to bias even in normal situations.

    The second thing that comes to mind is Ruth Millikan’s account of biological function, this being whatever an organ did that allowed the ancestors of the animal that has that organ to survive. The essentialist sounding consequence of this account is that if we have two identical lions, one of which is the result of evolution but the other created by magic, the heart of the second has no function. Of course, it can be pointed out that this is a science fiction example. However, the history of evolutionary adaptations is a complex one. Many biologists think that, in fact, most organs have changed their functions over evolutionary history, creating a plethora of real-life problems for Millikan’s theory. My own suspicion is that the fact that her account leads to an essentialist consequence is already a sign of serious problems with it, such tendencies seeming to be typical of relatively naive scientific or pre-scientific theories.

  4. brucehood

    Ah Konrad,
    now you have raised the distinction between haecceity and quiddity as drawn by the medieval philosopher John Duns Scotus.

    Haecceity is the “thisness” or essence of the individual as opposed to “quiddity” (whatness) that defines group categorization. For example, in relation to your lions, the unique essential property that all lions share, but not tigers for that matter, is lion quiddity. However, any one lion is unique among other lions by virtue of its haecceity. The biological equivalent is the common DNA sequences shared by members (quiddity) but the unique sequences that define the individual is haecceity.

    Interesting stuff.. especially when you get ligers or weirdly human chimerics who are individuals comprised of two different sets of DNA as a result of absorbing a sibling twin in the womb.

    Again, these issues are addressed in SuperSense.

    Gosh,, this plugging of forthcoming books is shameless!!!!

  5. Are you mentioning haecceity and quiddity in a book for the general public? I love it. Both words sound like something out of Jabberwocky and the concepts are not much less weird.

    Would you agree, though, with my contention that if you scratch many traditional philosophical intuitions you’ll find magical thinking underlying them?

  6. brucehood

    They were in the first draft but unfortunately I thought it was best to leave them out…I do talk about the distinction in roundabout ways.. so hopefully I have retained some philosophical credibility.

    Absolutely regarding your last point. I deal with free will, mind-body dualism, haecceity, essentialism, categorization, mental causation, the intentional stance and even a little dab of consciousness thrown in for good measure. All of these are fertile grounds for magical thinking.

    So I support your contention whole-heartedly. B

  7. Sara Baker

    I’m very interested in Konrad’s comments on Millikan’s theory of biologicial function. It made me think about origins, as they are used to establish authenticity with respect to physical and non-physical entities. Though the origins of both physical and non-physical entities can be informative, I’d argue that origins are less clearly defined in the case of non-physical entities, and therefore enter less into our considerations when trying to individuate them (as opposed to individuating physical objects such as the paper a song was written on).

    Let me explain what I mean. It seems that the question of origins, or history, is mostly relevant for those things in the world which exhibit the haecceity/ quiddity distinction, i.e., entities which exist in a spatio-temporally conscripted manner. This is clearly the case for physical objects, such as lions, as discussed above. However, the question of the origins of functions is rather less well-formulated. I believe that in most cases (though not all, see question below) the origins and history of a function are irrelevant to its current status (unlike the case of physical objects). As Konrad points out, functions tend to change with time demonstrating a flexibility in their “essence”, whereas objects, being spatio-temporally conscripted, are not subject to the same flexibility. (Also, and probably as a result of the bluriness of what origins can be attributed to them, functions do not offer the same type of haecceity/ quiddity distinction as physical objects.) Therefore, because of this flexibility we observe in functions, it seems reasonable that their origins are a less informative factor than the origins of physical objects. So despite any “magical thinking” within Millikan’s theory of biological function, we need not disregard the rational basis for considering origins when physical objects are under question.

    Here’s a question for Bruce: when we do consider the origins of non-physical entities (such as a signature slam-dunk by a basketball star, or a quote famously attributed to a certain politician), is this supernatural thinking? After all, we are applying principles of haeccity where there is no call for them- there is no spatio-temporal boundedness to functions (or non-physical entities more broadly) which could allow us to ever delimit their origins, their instanciations, and therefore their authenticity. Yet, we sometimes do attribute functions (or words, or actions) to particular individuals as if the functions (or words, or actions) were somehow imbued with the originator’s essence. For instance, we write laws about intellectual property rights. What do you think?

  8. brucehood

    Hi Sara,

    Individuating objects by whatever criteria one applies is not in itself supernatural thinking. Both haecceity of the individual and quiddity of the group are perfectly reasonable (and biologically plausible in the case of living things) distinctions to draw during categorization.

    Rather its the allied beliefs and behaviors that accompany such individuation that I am referring to. So I don’t think memorabilia collecting in itself is irrational. Collecting can even be an activity that requires no objects such as train or plane spotting.

    Its when people covet objects because they truly believe that by owning and touching the objects this bring them closer to the previous owner.

    I guess Paul Bloom might have a different take on this as he is always one to emphasize the functional origins of objects.

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