In my humble opinion, one of the wackiest things about contemporary physics is the notion of indeterminacy, or the idea that (as a recent essay put it): “Reality Doesn’t Exist Until You Look at It.” This title is doubly silly, since it equates reality with what goes on at the subatomic level, and not with trees, dolphins, mountains, gerbils, Buicks, and non-fat yoghurt (the yoghurt definitely exists before you look at it, fyi). This was Schrödinger’s complaint with his famous cat thought-experiment (read here for the details).

For a long time I’d been naming this the “fallacy of deriving ontological conclusions from epistemological premises.” Ontology is the study of being; epistemology is the study of knowledge. So, in other words, one has premises concerning what one can or cannot know, and one derives a conclusion about the structure of reality from those premises. This is as illegitimate as deriving an “ought from an is,” as Hume so famously argued: the fallacy of deriving a normative conclusion–a claim about what ought to be–from some description of the way things are (read here).

Recently, and much to my delight, I discovered that this fallacy had already been noted and named as the “Mind Projection Fallacy” by E. T. Jaynes in the 1980s. Jaynes had even coined the expression to describe the mistake at work in quantum physics. Further, and even more to my delight, there’s another mistake that this fallacy names. The other mistake is to attribute aspects of one’s own mind and thinking to nature. Jaynes uses this fallacy to describe the mistake in attributing intentions to events in nature (the rain falls in order to feed the crops, as Aristotle puts it). That mistake is usually capped off by positing God (or gods) as the source of the intentions.

As Jaynes puts this first mistake:

For educated people today, the idea of directing intelligences willfully and consciously controlling every detail of events seems vastly more complicated than the idea of a machine running; but to primitive man (and even to the uneducated today) the opposite is true. For one who has no comprehension of physical law, but is aware of his own consciousness and volition, the natural question to ask is not: “What is causing it?”, but rather: “Who is causing it?”

     The answer was to invent Gods with the same consciousness and volition as ourselves, but with the additional power of psychokinesis; one in control of the weather, one in control of the seas, and so on. (Jaynes, “Probability Theory as Logic“)

Jaynes sums up the fallacy, and describes the fallacy at work in quantum theory, thus:

Once one has grasped the idea, one sees the Mind Projection Fallacy everywhere; what we have been taught as deep wisdom, is stripped of its pretensions and seen to be instead a foolish non sequitur. The error occurs in two complementary forms, which we might indicate thus:

(A) (My own imagination) — (Real property of Nature)

(B) (My own ignorance) — (Nature is indeterminate)

Form (B) arose out of quantum theory; instead of covering up our ignorance with fanciful assumptions about reality, one accepts that ignorance but attributes it to Nature. Thus in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, whatever is left undetermined in a pure state is held to be unknown not only to us, but also to Nature herself.

FYI, this is known as the “Copenhagen interpretation,” because it was favored and embraced by the Dane Niels Bohr and his cohort (whereas it made Einstein uncomfortable; and, as I noted, Schrödinger thought it was absurd). So I heartily agree with Jaynes that it’s a fallacy to a) note that (e.g.) we can’t determine something to be a wave or a particle, or determine both the location and the position of a subatomic particle; and then conclude b) that there is no way the thing actually is until observed. Again, that’s drawing an ontological conclusion from an epistemological premise.

The first form of the fallacy, (A), taking properties of my imagination to be real properties of nature sounds rather like what’s called the “anthropomorphic fallacy,” which is also known as the “pathetic fallacy.” The fallacy was identified and named by John Ruskin in the mid-1800s. Ruskin was attacking the sentimentality of the poetry of his time. So the pathetic fallacy focuses largely on attributing emotions to nature and inanimate objects. I suspect that Jaynes named his own fallacy to focus more on intentions (and perhaps other cognitive processes besides emotions) to nature.

If I’m allowed a bit of latitude then, I’d like to suggest extending Jaynes’ fallacy and use it to describe the mistake made in attributing intentions to inanimate objects (and not simply to nature). In that case, it can be used to describe the mistake made by some philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists who claim that computers can think. Some of you know that I like to rant about this issue. I’ve posted on it before. You can read the post here.

2 thoughts on “The Mind Projection Fallacy, or: Do You Exist Before I Look at You?

  1. A fallacy like this occurs when philosophers get high. 😛

    Seriously, though, it could be argued that, in an intimate relationship, if a woman perceives a man’s “bad intentions”, then they are, in fact, present, whether they were (or actually are) or not.

    I agree with Schrödinger. Completely absurd.

  2. Thanks this is helpful. I’m developing a critique of models of reality created by people who meditate a lot. I’d got as far as identifying the basic mix up between epistemology and ontology, but can not take it a bit further and give it a name!

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