Theory of Mind, UFOs, and Music

Three items today.

  • Do Chatbots have a “theory of mind”? Probably not.
  • Why fascination about UFOs has lingered; my own brief fascination with them when I was 13; and David Brin’s current take on them;
  • How music does not “mean” anything, per Leonard Bernstein in 1958. Also —  earworm warning! — Have a Lark.

NY Times, Oliver Whang, 27 Mar 2023: Can a Machine Know That We Know What It Knows?, subtitled “Some researchers claim that chatbots have developed theory of mind. But is that just our own theory of mind gone wild?”

I think the lesson with the recent chatbots is that they aren’t “intelligent” at all, but simply crude mirrors of everything humanity has put on their computers.

Mind reading is common among us humans. Not in the ways that psychics claim to do it, by gaining access to the warm streams of consciousness that fill every individual’s experience, or in the ways that mentalists claim to do it, by pulling a thought out of your head at will. Everyday mind reading is more subtle: We take in people’s faces and movements, listen to their words and then decide or intuit what might be going on in their heads.

Among psychologists, such intuitive psychology — the ability to attribute to other people mental states different from our own — is called theory of mind, and its absence or impairment has been linked to autism, schizophrenia and other developmental disorders. Theory of mind helps us communicate with and understand one another; it allows us to enjoy literature and movies, play games and make sense of our social surroundings. In many ways, the capacity is an essential part of being human.

I’ve been reading about “theory of mind” for over a decade, at least since Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct. It’s the thing that babies initially don’t have, and then do have: an awareness that other people have minds of their own, intentions and beliefs distinct from their own.

What if a machine could read minds, too?

Recently, Michal Kosinski, a psychologist at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, made just that argument: that large language models like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and GPT-4 — next-word prediction machines trained on vast amounts of text from the internet — have developed theory of mind.

It’s just a thought, not widely accepted.

“Psychologists wouldn’t accept any claim about the capacities of young children just based on anecdotes about your interactions with them, which is what seems to be happening with ChatGPT,” said Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley and one of the first researchers to look into theory of mind in the 1980s. “You have to do quite careful and rigorous tests.”

The article goes on with examples of how ‘theory of mind’ develops in children (just as Bering provided in his book), and goes back and forth with observations about chatbots. Conclusion:

It’s natural and often socially required to explain human behavior by talking about beliefs, desires, intentions and thoughts. This tendency is central to who we are — so central that we sometimes try to read the minds of things that don’t have minds, at least not minds like our own.


Big Think, Ethan Siegel, 24 Mar 2023: Ask Ethan: Can science explain UFO sightings?, subtitled “Lots of people have seen lots of bizarre events and phenomena that defy our conventional experience. But is there a scientific explanation?”

The article’s own summary:

  • Since even before the beginning of the space age, people have reported and even recorded “eyewitness accounts” of aerial or astronomical phenomena that seem to defy the laws of physics.
  • But are any of these reports convincing or compelling enough to rule out natural or human-caused phenomena, or are they simply cases of people’s imaginations running wild?
  • By popular request, an astrophysicist takes a look into a few specific claims and assertions, and tries to apply scientific reasoning to these extraordinary claims. Are you convinced?

A familiar discussion, with a citation of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous three laws.

I’m fascinated by how the ‘controversy’ about UFOs, or now UAPs, drags on year after year. It’s human psychology, a form of pareidolia perhaps. People see strange things, and interpret them in terms that are familiar to their everyday lives.

The main arguments against UFOs being alien spacecraft are, to me, two: first, the provincialism of imagining that alien intelligences might be buzzing around the universe, just as we imagine our own starships doing, i.e. a failure of the imagination; second, the fact that there has never, ever, been any convincing evidence; all the images are just as blurry and inconclusive as they were 70 years ago, when the UFO craze began in the 1950s.

I went through a brief fascination with UFOS for a few months when I was a teenager. I read books like Flying Saucers–Serious Business! by Frank Edwards, with the same blurry photos still being shown today as ‘evidence’ of alien visitation. We were living at my grandfather’s house in Cambridge, Illinois, at the time, and I would steps outside the house and look up into the sky as if I too might see a UFO — an alien spacecraft! — at any moment. But I read more books, by less-credulous, savvy commentators, in particular Isaac Asimov, who pointed out the irrationality of flying saucer claims, and I snapped out of it. Not the least because there were much more interesting *real* phenomena in the world to explore.

David Brin has written much about all this; here’s the first item that comes up in Google, which makes the same point I mentioned above:

Forbes, Calum Chace, 25 Jan 2023: Why Are UFOs Still Blurry? A Conversation With David Brin


Finally for today, a very old video of composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein, from a series of TV broadcasts in 1958, about “What Does Music Mean.”

I think this came up via the movie Tár. The answer is: music means nothing, not in the way we assign meaning to words and images.

And that’s what fascinates me, and I think most musicians, about music. It “means” *something* if only to the degree that it greatly affects our emotions. How and why? That’s one of the remaining deep questions for which I’ve never seen even speculation toward an answer.


Finally, I will document an early memory, of the first time I ever heard the William Tell Overture. It was a TV commercial in the early 1960s, when I was 10 more or less, for Lark Cigarettes. Sixty years later, it’s a earworm, one I can’t escape every time I hear that overture. That’s the power of American advertising.

Have a Lark, have a Lark, have a Lark today…

I’ll provide the link, but don’t listen to it, lest you be earworm infected.

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