Why Kids Are Robots

I will argue that our intuitions that kids are not robots are incorrect via the question as to whether shame is a self-referential emotion. Papers written by Zahavi and Lewis will be in focus.

Lewis [Lewis(1995)] accepts what might be termed the `standard model’ of emotions. That model holds that there are six basic primary emotions. These are the familiar emotions such as fear or sadness which are not complex in that they are not self-referential. There are in addition more complex emotions including shame which are held by Lewis to be self-referential, meaning that in order to experience that emotion, I must be able to introspect — to take myself as an object — which clearly `require[s] the concept of self’. Lewis holds that this ability to represent oneself to oneself becomes available `from around 18 months of age’.

Zahavi challenges Lewis’s claim that the complex emotions are necessarily self-referential, but the challenge fails, as I will now outline. Zahavi notes that Lewis holds that mental states only become conscious when they are taken as objects of introspection. Zahavi asserts that this commits Lewis to the `absurd’ consequence that animals and infants lack phenomenal experience. But Zahavi’s assertion can be questioned. Lewis would certainly be committed to that further claim if the assumption be made that phenomenal experience requires mental states to be available to be taken as objects of introspection. That assumption is not indefensible, but it certainly needs defending.

However, an even stronger response is available to Lewis: he need not attack that assumption. He could instead allow it but then argue that while this does indeed commit him to the consequence that animals and infants lack phenomenal experience, that consequence is not absurd. I will support this claim with two arguments, from anthropomorphism and evolution.

It is well-known that humans are remarkably prone to anthropomorphism, tending to explain the behavior of even inanimate objects by projecting on to them emotions, knowledge, intentional states: in short, all the precursors of phenomenal experience. So the refusal to ascribe phenomenal experience to animals and infants is not absurd; it is on the contrary wise. People see nothing wrong in making remarks about a chess-playing computer such as `it has seen the threat and now it wants to castle’. They would go further and refer to the computer as `she’, were it to be given a female name. There is a science fiction short story bearing this out. I am unfortunately unable to provide a citation, but that, while discourteous to the author, is unimportant for our purposes since the story does not gain its relevance and import from its author’s name, but from the way it commands our immediate assent that we would share the feelings of the protagonist.

The story concerns an observer, an engineer and a device he has built. The engineer has built a fairly simple small robot, which may be pictured as something like a vacuum cleaner of the type that rolls along the floor. The engineer has given this device some characteristics. It emits a series of somewhat anxious beeps as it scurries around, looking for a power source. Once it finds one, it extends a proboscis into the socket and contentedly hums as it draws power. Once sated, its lights brighten, the beeping ceases and the device moves o ff about its business, more quickly than before.

At this point, the engineer invites the observer to smash the device with a hammer. We and the observer greet this suggestion with horror. This is because we are convinced that the device has phenomenal experience. Note that it is not adequate to object that this reaction is in fact because we are reluctant to destroy property, since the engineer is the one making the request. The engineer could have shown us other examples of the device, demonstrated its construction and made it clear in all ways that this is just a machine. None of that changes our hardwired animist response to consider almost everything in the world to be like us and therefore to be protected. These tendencies are all the more liable to become engaged with animals (`Fido understands everything you say!’), and infants. If your reaction was short of horror, but could be called reluctance — in any way and to any extent — then your options are to accept my claim or produce an explanation which does not rely on respect for property.

Consider the plethora of anthropomorphic elements to the description I gave of the story. Was it strange or jarring when I described the device’s behavior as `anxious’ or `contented’ or was it entirely natural? This illusion is as potent
as the Muller-Lyer illusion and works in the same way: we know that X yet we perceive that not-X. The conclusion in both cases must be to rely on what we know rather than what we perceive: we should require extraordinary evidence that any entities have phenomenal experience in view of our well-known promiscuous habits of painting it on to the world.

Finally, Nagel [Nagel(1974)] has argued convincingly that we cannot know what it is like to be another creature because we could not even aim for that target. The aim of imagining what it would be like to be a bat would be approached by imagining ourselves with some or all of our characteristics and modes of perception removed and some or all of the corresponding items for bats added. This is simply not the right target, which remains forever closed to us by an impenetrable barrier in cognitive space that is no different to the one which prevents us from imagining life as a thermostat. This argument of course does not show that bats do not have phenomenal experience, but it does show that we could not know if they did, thus greatly reducing the import of an argument relying on it being absurd that they do not.

Turning to evolution, we may start by noting that all animals are subject to evolutionary pressure and experience extreme competitive stress in terms of energy budgets. This is true in terms of both physical and mental characteristics. Kaplan notes that `individuals must live within finite energy budgets […] never spending more than they have available’. Allocation of a finite budget entails trade-off s and hence forces decisions about the relative value of possible ways to spend.’ [Buss(2005), pp. 68-95] This budget must be expended also for mental characteristics: `psychological adaptations are some of what humans have been selected to invest in, at an expense’. [Buss(2005), p. 69] Not only that, but the brain is an especially heavy user of resource in mammals in general and humans in particular. In fact, the amount of energy a mammal can obtain directly controls the size of brain it can `afford’, as noted widely by many including Hofman: `adult brain size of mammals is a function of two major components: the animal’s rate of energy consumption and the evolutionary level of brain development’. [Hofman(1983), pp. 495-512] A larger brain is a more complex brain, a more expensive brain and a brain capable of providing or supporting more complex experience including phenomenal experience.

No evolved individual uses energy and resources unnecessarily, where `unnecessary’ means in a way not promoting fitness. It is much less resource-intensive to simulate phenomenal experience than to have it. Actually having it achieves nothing. Simulating it produces immense benefits in terms of fitness. Human infants are not viable alone and require the support of adults. They can do this by simulation of simple phenomenal experience. And that simulation can be done by very straightforward heuristics.

When hungry, it is much more important for infants that they manifest an audible behavior which leads an adult to supply food than it is for there to be `something it is like’ for them to be hungry. Simple heuristics explain actual behavior and apparent phenomenal experience in infants and animals. Those denying that would have to attribute phenomenal experience to spiders. And they would have to say that sugar-eating bacteria `want’ to climb the sugar gradient. Or they would need to conduct a difficult line-drawing exercise discriminating similar organisms from each other which have minor differences in cognitive abilities and yet major shifts in the ability to have phenomenal experience, which is presumably a binary capacity.

One may object here by asking why, if phenomenal experience is so expensive, adult humans have it. This is of course too large a question to be addressed here. The topic has been widely considered, with questions ranging from `[h]ow could a physical system such as a brain also be an experiencer’ [Chalmers(1997)] to `what good is consciousness?’. [Dretske(1997)]

I will confine myself to observing that i). if we have it, it must be useful and ii). there could be fitness benefits to phenomenal experience beyond possession of correct information if that experience makes it more likely that we will act on the information. It is not an objection to i). to say that it would also be true of infants: in fact it is precisely my point that this is not the case. The needs of infants require them to do nothing more complex than emit noise automatically on presentation of a hunger stimulus.

Adults are not so simple. Dretske, as cited above, asks why we would have phenomenal experience in relation to observation of sexually available members of the opposite sex, when the key fitness benefit would be derived from the mere knowledge that they were so. My claim is that if there is something it is like to know that, viz. pleasant and stimulating, then we could be more highly motivated to pursue the opportunity. Analogs of that argument may be run across all pleasurable activities. The same goes for unpleasant experiences.

Remaining with infants, what is needed to achieve their objectives when they cry? That it be unpleasant enough for the adults in earshot that they respond rapidly. What is not needed? Phenomenal experience in the infants.

So there are compelling reasons why one is forced to the simplest explanation that no phenomenal experience exists in infants and animals. We avoid the trap of succumbing to the prevalent illusion resulting from our tendency to ascribe phenomenal experience widely and wrongly. We avoid making a claim that infants have a useless and highly expensive capacity, thus also avoiding being on the wrong side of the theory of evolution. We may also note that none of us have convincing memories of undergoing phenomenal experience as infants.


[Buss(2005)] Buss, D. (2005). The handbook of evolutionary psychology. (John Wiley & Sons).

[Chalmers(1997)] Chalmers, D. (1997). The conscious mind: in search of a fundamental theory. Philosophy of Mind Series. (Oxford University Press).

[Dretske(1997)] Dretske, F. (1997). What good is consciousness? Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 27, 1-15.

[Hofman(1983)] Hofman, M. A. (1983). Energy metabolism, brain size and longevity in mammals. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 58, pp. 495-512.

[Lewis(1995)] Lewis, M. (1995). Shame: The Exposed Self. (Free Press).

[Nagel(1974)] Nagel, T. (1974). What is it like to be a bat? The Philosophical Review, 83, pp. 435-450.

[Zahavi(2010)] Zahavi, D. (2010). Shame and the exposed self. In Reading Sartre: On Phenomenology and Existentialism. (Routledge).