Mind Reading

07 April 2012

Before people think we’ve gone off the deep end, we should explain that by Mind Reading, we don’t mean anything having to do with the paranormal or the occult.  We’re talking about the way human beings can be really good at understanding each other, the way we figure out what other people believe, desire, or intend.  It’s this perfectly ordinary skill -- the basis and significance of which we want to explore today.

Our capacity for mind-reading is actually a big deal -- a major evolutionary achievement of our species.  Without it, we couldn’t learn from each other as easily and as profusely as we do.  And we couldn’t so effortlessly coordinate our lives with others in the many ways we do.

Take the people in the audience at Pacific University, where this pogram was recorded.  They all managed to show up at the same place at the same time to witness Philosophy Talk in action.  How did they manage to do that?  It might have had something to do with the posters plastered all over campus.  But those lovely posters are just a few colorful marks on paper, but somehow that enabled everybody in the auditorium to surmise that we intended to be there doing the show.  And on the basis of that bit of mind-reading, they were able to form the intention of being there too.  And Voila!  There they all were together.

But what about that age-old philosophical conundrum -- the problem of other minds?  I know my mind and its contents directly and immediately -- from the inside.  It’s impossible for me to doubt that I have a mind.  But knowing your mind is different.  I can observe your outward behavior and can maybe guess there’s a mind behind it.  But it’s just a guess.  For all I know, you might really be a mindless automaton or a zombie.  And if I can’t rule out such possibilities, how can I possibly read your mind?  You might not even have a mind to read, for all I know.

Still, we shouldn't work ourselves into a skeptical frenzy.  Suppose we take our mind reading abilities at face value and try to figure out exactly what underlies that ability.  There's lots of fascinating new work in philosophy and cognitive science about the basis of our capacity to read minds.  Maybe learning how we actually manage to read minds might cure my doubts.  Some investigators think that our mind-reading abilities are rooted in a complex theory of mind.  In other words, reading minds is analogous to making inferences about the not-directly-observable behavior of atomomic particles on the basis of theories in physics or chemistry.

But the mind is a pretty complex thing.  Philosophers and scientists who study the mind still don’t understand it fully.  How can ordinary folks be so good at reading minds, if the people whose business it is to rigorously investigate the mind, still don’t really have a good theory of how it works?  There’s another view that says mind-reading doesn't have to involve theoretical knowledge at all.  Here’s how it goes: we figure out what other people feel or believe or intend by creatively projecting ourselves into their situation and figuring out what we ourselves would do or feel or believe in that situation.  And there are other approaches as well, which we hear about from our guest, Shaun Nichols, co-author of "Mindreading: An Integrated Account of Pretense, Self-Awareness and Understanding Other Minds."

Comments (4)

Guest's picture


Saturday, April 7, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Some say the mind-reading

Some say the mind-reading thing is nothing more (or less) than an experiential or, similarly, learned behavior phenomenon. I subscribe to this and also believe it is one of Richard Dawkins' 'extended phenotypes': those traits, abilities or characteristics that present themselves, independently(?) of our genetic evolution. Certainly there must be some credence and evidence for all of these notions. Philosophers and scientists have parts of it right but will we ever know what it really means to know anything? I do not know, but have lost little sleep over that.
Warmest Regards,

Guest's picture


Friday, April 20, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Over the decades, I have

Over the decades, I have observed that a statement that begins "I know for sure that" is invariably followed by nonsense, and the more forcefully the statement is made, the more preposterous it is likely to be. (In quite a number of cases, I have had adequate knowledge of the facts or realized that the speaker was representing opinion as fact, and in the rest I have made a reasonable surmise.) Similarly, in scholarly writing, any statement that begins "We now know that" should set off all kinds of alarm bells, unless you know that it is so.
At a pragmatic level, it is reasonable to claim to know things (the dispute being about the criteria or qualifications for a valid claim to knowledge). On the other hand, Constructive Psychology considers the world largely ambiguous and open to interpretation. Indeed, CP sees the brain as an artist that creates its own reality (but that may be going a little too far).

dirtracial's picture


Wednesday, November 8, 2023 -- 7:24 AM

For anyone who may be

For anyone who may be interested, the website referenced in an earlier comment was misstated. It should read: Fireboy and Watergirl

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NellyAurora's picture


Wednesday, December 6, 2023 -- 12:51 AM

It's so great. I can enjoy

It's so great. I can enjoy this in heardle 80s game too. It's a nostalgic trip to hear the iconic tunes of the time

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