I want to apologize in advance for my dearth of knowledge concerning cognitive science research and history, I'm an AI student.

I've been reading up on cognitive science/linguistics literature mostly to get a better grasp on the physical symbol system hypothesis/language of thought vs connectionism debate.

I read this very interesting review of Berwick and Chomsky's book "Why Only Us" by Ian Tattersall, in which he exposes the authors' idea that language suddenly appeared as a result of a minor mutation in our ancestors' brain 80,000 years ago. However, because of the lack of linguistic archeological artefacts, it is impossible to prove. He then goes on:

If that is true, perhaps the best proxies we can seek for language in the human archaeological record are objects or activities that reflect the working of symbolic human minds: minds capable of envisioning that the world could be otherwise than it is at this moment.

And my question is then: why does counterfactual thinking require a symbolic mind? It seems perfectly plausible to imagine a species who can't talk but can still imagine "other world" scenarios using his visual system. However, a counter-argument is that animals have a highly developed visual system, yet they can't think counterfactually. (Hariri is famous for saying "You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him that after he dies, he will get limitless bananas in chimpanzee Heaven.")

This all seems related to the LoT vs Connectionism debate: did we first grow a mind strong enough to do counterfactual thinking, which was also able to process language, or is language and symbolic thought really the precursor to higher level thinking like counterfactual thinking?


1 Answer 1


This is controversial, to say the least, and possibly false according to one interpretation on such experiments with monkeys. But note that there is a subtlety here: the way counterfactuals are usually tested with monkeys involves them having seen what a reward could have been, but had not received.

Recent studies on reinforcement learning in primates indicate that humans are not alone in our ability to think about hypothetical outcomes. For example, Lee and colleagues (Abe & Lee 2011, Lee et al. 2005) presented rhesus monkeys with a computer-based version of the game rock- paper-scissors. When they examined the strategies that the monkeys used over time, they found that monkeys did not simply adjust their choices based on what they received on the previous trial. Surprisingly, monkeys also adjusted their strategy to account for rewards they would have received had they chosen a different option. Using a similar computer-based setup, Hayden and colleagues (2009) presented rhesus monkeys with a risky decision-making task with eight possible choices. Whereas seven of the options consistently provided small juice rewards, the final option was variable: Sometimes it provided a much larger reward, and sometimes it provided a much smaller reward. Critically, monkeys were given feedback about what the risky option would have provided on every trial. In this way, monkeys could see how much juice they would have gotten from the risky option, regardless of whether they had chosen it. As in the rock-paper-scissors task, modeling of the monkeys’ behaviors showed that the monkeys adjusted their future strategies on the basis of what they would have received. In cases where the risky option would have provided the high-value outcome on one trial, monkeys were especially likely to seek this option out in future trials. In this way, monkeys—like humans—change their future choices according to counterfactual situations that could have (but did not) happen.

(There's subsequent para that discusses that monkeys, like us, seem to be driven by regret-like emotional responses in such matters.)

More recent experiments indicate that monkeys intentionally explore the "counterfactual space", i.e. try to find out what rewards they might have missed, even if they aren't just shown these potential rewards without them incurring an actual cost (in terms of missing other rewards, already known to them). Rather unsurprisingly, monkeys are willing to pay, in terms of missing certain rewards for finding out "what else is there", i.e. they ("deliberately") pay for information.

I think Chomsky isn't really talking about this though; actually he's not even using "counterfactual" in the para you cited but "minds capable of envisioning that the world could be otherwise than it is at this moment". Basically: do the monkeys merely think of the world in a seen-potential-reward and seeking-information-about-unknown-rewards fashion, or do they "truly imagine" there could be rewards they didn't ever see? That's probably (very) difficult to test. Basically, his thesis/question isn't really about counterfactual thinking, but whether monkeys "have imagination" in some kind of "visual language" perhaps...


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