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.
There are 3 references to this post in: