Dennis Hackethal’s Blog
My blog about philosophy, coding, and anything else that interests me.
I have been accused of ‘mind reading’ at least twice. This happens when I offer an interlocutor an explanation for their behavior and that explanation conflicts with their own.
First of all, I wonder: wouldn’t it be mind reading only if my explanation matched theirs? If I ask you to guess a number between 1 and 10 – go ahead, take a moment to do so – and then I guess that you picked 7… it’s only ‘mind reading’ if I guess correctly.
Yet they complain that I got it wrong and that what I’m doing is mind reading.
Okay, maybe they only mean unsuccessful mind reading. Maybe they’re saying that what they deem ‘mind reading’ should not be attempted – that it is bound to be wrong, and that I should never offer an explanation for their behavior that contradicts their own explanation. Or that I should at least favor their explanation over mine – always and uncritically.
Ironically, my accusers are self-proclaimed critical rationalists. They follow Karl Popper in thinking that there is no such thing as a criterion of truth – that one cannot know that one is right, or probably right. Yet, in the scenarios I’ve described, they treat their own thoughts as a criterion of truth, or source thereof.
This attitude is inherently anti-fallibilist and everything Popper was against. You cannot call yourself a critical rationalist if you have this attitude.
In The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch writes about how people come up with mistaken explanations for their own behavior (ch. 15). He uses rules of grammar as an example: we often follow rules of grammar we cannot name, and if we try to, we may later find that we’re mistaken.
Now, combine this with Deutsch’s criterion of reality (ch. 1): that something “is real if and only if it figures in our best explanation of something”. So, if your explanation of their behavior is better than theirs, as critical rationalists, they should accept yours.
The thing is, grammar is fairly uncontroversial. People don’t typically feel shaken to their core when you criticize their grammar or their explanations thereof. But there may be more controversial things they can be wrong about, too – such as deeply held beliefs – and you can point it out, and you can know why they did something better than they know. That may not always be the case, maybe not even often – but it’s possible. I expect most of Deutsch’s readers who agree about grammar to accuse you of mind reading in other, only slightly more controversial cases.
Say somebody repeatedly stands you up and you ask why. They may say it’s because they were just really busy. But you know that, in reality, they’re not that busy – just last week they complained of boredom. Instead, they’re a flake; they’re bad at time management and scheduling. Maybe you used to be bad at time management yourself, so you recognize that in them. When you offer their lacking time-management skills as an explanation, they shouldn’t accuse you of ‘mind reading’. They may not like the criticism, but that’s an unreasonable (and false) accusation.
People’s fallibility extends even to their knowledge of their own thoughts. We can overestimate how much visibility we have into our minds. Nobody is guaranteed never to make that mistake.
‘Mind reading’ of the sort I have described is often a social misstep, but not always an intellectual one. I think calling it ‘mind reading’ to delegitimize it is wrong. If my explanation for your actions is better than yours and you cannot refute it, you should accept it. Your own explanation is not automatically right.
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- Post ‘Crypto-Fallibilism’
What people are saying
For other readers: I’m one of the people mentioned here.
Well Dennis, I see you get off on the wrong foot immediately. So I agree with everything you write, and ironically the thing you get wrong is the reason I scolded you for saying that I was annoyed (and guessing I would deny it).
The problem isn’t whether or not you get it right. I agree that it’s neither inherently wrong or hopeless to try to read minds. The reason we shouldn’t do it is because it’s introducing a subject that very rarely belongs in a critical discussion. You could write exactly the same analysis about ad hominem, and I suspect you struggle as much as I do imagining Popper engaging in such speculation.
In both cases, it’s not the case that dragging the subject of the other person’s feelings and qualities is always irrelevant. It sometimes is. But there is a kind of gap to filled there, namely: Why focus on that rather than the arguments presented? Whatever answer you come up with must align with rules of engagement (such as generous interpretation).
For instance, the other person’s arguments could be such utter nonsense that the most generous interpretation is that the other person is not well.
Or they have such a strong personal interest in something being true that you’re struggling to trust their neutrality.
In sum, there’s a pretty short list of circumstances where it makes sense to read minds.
Commenting that someone seems annoyed could have been acceptable in that situation (I don’t even know if you were right). For instance, you could be bothered by my tone and prefaced a request for moderation with a question about my state of mind. Totally reasonable.
Stating that someone is annoyed as a matter of fact is getting outside the realm of credible goodwill, though, and guessing that they’ll deny it is effectively nuking the discussion utterly. A miserable failure to engage properly. The only thing it does is reveal to me that you expect me to lie, which is a breach of the trust and cooperation needed to have a good discussion.
Even this isn’t what caused me to throw up my hands and disengage. No: The cherry on top was that this all appeared in the middle of a lecture in which you 1) Didn’t engage with the substance of my argument at all, 2) Assumed (didn’t argue for) that I’ve misunderstood the quoted sources and 3) Didn’t know what I was talking about.
A final point, which is my own mind reading, and thus an example of what I consider an acceptable meta-comment in a rational discussion:
I wrote my master’s thesis on normative argumentation theory, which means I spent two years reading and writing about these exact questions.
I don’t say that because I want you to be impressed and submissive; on the contrary, I say that because I want you to take me seriously and engage with what I’m saying like I’m an adult.
Isn’t lying a breach of trust first?
I don’t understand how that’s mind reading.
In this video, the interviewer asks:
He’s implying that, if women were dressing for themselves, they’d be wearing comfortable clothes instead. But they’re not, so they can’t be dressing for themselves. Three women subsequently agree that women do not dress for themselves but for attention. One says:
Her friend agrees:
In other words, many women lie to themselves about their reasons for dressing up. The interviewer did the proper ‘mind reading’ to bring that to light.
In this video, a woman comments on another woman dressing up to go to the club:
Epistemology is one big mind-reading exercise or else it couldn’t study how thinking works.