What Do False-Belief Tests Show?

by Pierre Jacob.


In a (2018) paper published in Psychological Review, Tyler Burge has offered a unified non-mentalistic account of a wide range of social cognitive developmental findings. His proposal is that far from attributing mental states (e.g. beliefs), young children attribute to humans the same kind of internal generic states of sensory registration that biologists attribute to e.g. snails and ticks. Burge’s proposal deserves close attention: it is especially challenging because it departs from both the mentalistic and all the non-mentalistic accounts of the data so far. Moreover Burge has been one of the leading philosophers of mind of the past 40 years and some of his writings on the objectivity of perception display a deep understanding of the relevance of science for sharpening our understand- ing of the mind. After taking a close look at the developmental evidence, in particular at false-belief studies, I argue that Burge’s (Psychological Review, 125(3), 409–434, 2018) account faces severe obstacles. To give one telling example: if young children can only attribute to others sensory registrations, then it is hard to explain the evidence showing that they respond differently to an agent’s ignorance and to her false belief.