Friday, October 24, 2014

Mind Reading for Fun

Mind reading, or telepathy, is generally understood as the capacity to directly perceive the thoughts of another entity. Together with clairvoyance, empathy with technological devices, lie detection, memory modification, and mind shielding, mind reading can be a particularly enjoyable experience - or not, depending on the thoughts into which one tunes. 

Over time, women have become particularly skilled in the art of mind reading - but all mind readers know this! 

Although many people associate mind reading as being purely fictional - a thing of science fiction - mind reading powers is a particularly intriguing notion with respect to issues of the mind in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. While mind reading is treated differently in each of these professions, the concept of mind reading, the ability to "hear" the thoughts of others as if they were communicating to you verbally, is exactly what researchers hope to understand. 

In philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, mind reading is the ability to use insight and observation to infer the thoughts of others. While methods differ, the result of both skills is the same: acquiring precious information about secret passwords and such. 

Now, imagine yourself ordering your favorite caffeinated beverage at your local coffee house establishment. The barista looks distracted, her eyes are downcast and an expression of deep concern is on her face. Without much reflection, you'd probably conclude that she must be having a tough day; you might also speculate that her present thoughts have hijacked her otherwise rational brain. 

Instantaneously, you have harnessed a remarkable amount of information about her mind (in its current state), concerning both her thoughts (I wish I were somewhere else right now) and her emotional state (despair). This instant assessment is not so far removed from mind reading. The similarity is present in the final result: you end up with insight concerning the mental state of another individual under observation. 

The only difference is in how the insight is achieved: a mind reader can perceive the thoughts of others, usually by hearing them as sentences in his or her own head, whereas we (when we walked into our coffee shop) had to resort to inference to "read" the barista's mind, making GUESSES based on behavior and demeanor. 

Let's call the cooler telepathic ability "superkewl mind reading" and the inferential talent that we all share to some degree "amazing but not as exciting mind reading." The first phenomenon has received little consideration in philosophy. The latter, however, is a major topic in the philosophy of mind, which is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of mental phenomena and their connection with behavior and the physical body, particularly the brain. 

Even though philosophers are mostly interested in exploring the amazing but not as exciting mind reading ability and have been rather skeptical of its superkewl friend of a friend version, close observation of mind reading powers is rather illuminating when applied to a variety of classical problems. 

In reality, this should come as no surprise. Superkewl humans have long since served as an allegory for real life humans, merely with superkewl powers and problems. Mind reading falls into this category. 

The problem with the way other people think is a classical issue. How do we justify that we can infer or understand anything about anyone else's mind by using our mind to do the exacting? Philosophers look to Zombies for answers. 

Philosophical zombies differ from undead creatures, but they're pretty unnerving just the same. In The Conscious Mind David Chalmers says that "[a philosophical] zombie is just something physically identical to me, but which has no conscious experience - all is dark inside."  

Essentially philosophical zombies are input-output machines with no inner mental life. They can replicate human expressions of behavior, body, brain, expressions, and reactions, but nobody's home. 

Thus, the problem with the way other people think is this: we cannot know - for sure - that other people are not philosophical zombies because we do not have access to their minds the way we have access to our own. We are "in touch" with our inner states: we recognize our sensations, we experience our emotions, we consider our thoughts, and we monitor most of our reasoning. 

Okay, we monitor some of our reasoning. 

Well, some of us monitor some
interesting tidbits related to our reasoning. 

I think most of us would agree that when it comes to assessing the mental states of others, most of us are not very good at figuring out what exactly others are thinking. Most of us do not have privileged access to other people's minds. All that we have is observation of external behavior and the context from which this behavior arises. Then, we employ our powers of informed guessing and infer what someone else is thinking. The only determination for accuracy is for someone else to corroborate our GUESSES. Furthermore, we have no idea whether or not they are accurately corroborating our guesses. They might not be telling us what they were actually thinking. 


The point here was not to say that there is a problem with how other people think, the point here was to say that the problem is we cannot know how others think. This conclusion returns me to my first philosophical insight: our opinions of others merely reflect ourselves in a period of growth. 

(I had this insight at age 14, and despite the many philosophical insights I think I've had since, I returned to this one via Zombies.)

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