Once upon a time, there used to be a great and acrimonious debate in philosophy about whether people had “mental imagery” — whether or not people actually see a little picture of an elephant when they think about an elephant. Is “imagination” merely a way of speaking or a real phenomenon?
Upon reading this, my intuition shouted: “Of course we have mental imagery. Anyone who doesn’t think we have mental imagery must be cognitively impaired.”
Unfortunately, back in the 1800s, there were many famous people who denied mental imagery, including some leading scientists of the era.
It later turned out that some people see a little picture of an elephant, some don’t, and both sides thought that the way they personally worked was so fundamental to cognition that they couldn’t imagine that other people worked differently. So both sides of the philosophical debate thought the other side was just full of crazy philosophers who were willfully denying the obvious.
What feels oh-so-normal to us, and seems at if it results from the standard operations of our species’ neural machinery might not be so innocent at all.
Once you grasp this idea, you’ll see it everywhere: human beings are really genuinely different from one another.
Rethinking the obvious
When you enter a new room, do you check it for oxygen? When you meet another intelligent mind, do you ask whether it might not have an emotion of joy (or experience mental imagery)?
When something is universal enough in our everyday lives, we take it for granted.
Likewise, when something feels so natural, we also assume it without thought. Some mental phenomena, gut feelings and intuitions seem as if they are part of the default settings of the human brain. They appear as an immediate presence in consciousness. “It’s just obvious.”
And because they are so immediate — so given —it’s natural to suppose they are untouched by our interpretation or biases and must therefore reflect the way the world is and be a universal experience for human beings with typical-functioning brains. In philosophy, this is known as the distinction between what is given in experience and what we bring to experience.
As the mental imagery example shows, however, these feelings are fooling us. We are probably cutting our objectivity too much slack when we claim that something is part of “the given”.
There’s even a name for this: the typical mind fallacy is the bias whereby we assume we assume most other people are much more like us than they actually are. It’s the mistake of modeling the minds inside other people’s brains as exactly the same as your own mind.
When someone who denies something “self-evident”, or claims not to have this or that intuition or mental phenomenon (such as mental imagery), we’re all too tempted to conclude he is either dysfunctional or willfully denying the obvious. Perhaps we shouldn’t.
The psychological unity of mankind..?
In the mental imagery debate, the ones who ‘had it’ simply assumed everyone did, and the ones who didn’t simply assumed everyone didn’t, to the point of coming up with absurd justifications for why they were lying or misunderstanding the question.
In hindsight, this may sound crazier than it actually is. In fact, courtesy to evolution, most human brains are probably very similar. The logic of sexual reproduction makes huge differences in mental machinery between members of the same species unlikely. As Eliezer Yudkowsky shows in a series of Less Wrong posts on the topic, Einstein must have had very nearly the same brain design as a village idiot (assuming the village idiot does not have any actual knockouts).
Here’s why. One bird may have slightly smoother feathers than another, but they will both have wings. A single mutation can be possessed by some lucky members of a species, and not by others — but single mutations don’t correspond to the sort of complex, powerful machinery that underlies the potency of biology.
Likewise, there is simply no genetic room in reality for Einstein to be on a different scale altogether. We’re the same species — by the nature of sexual recombination it’s very unlikely to get widely different adaptations competing in the same gene pool.
Maybe Einstein has some minor genetic differences from the village idiot, engine tweaks. But the brain-design-distance between Einstein and the village idiot is nothing remotely like the brain-design-distance between the village idiot and a chimpanzee. A chimp couldn’t tell the difference between Einstein and the village idiot, and our descendants may not see much of a difference either.
So it’s not crazy to assume that our brains work the same way. But then why are people so different? How can the typical mind fallacy be a fallacy?
What seems obvious to you…
In 1806, US entrepreneur Frederic Tudor sailed to tropical Martinique with a big scheme to sell ice to the locals. Sounds like a solid business plan — it’s rather hot over there — but it didn’t work. The islanders found the product to be nothing other than a curiosity. Having never experienced a cold drink, they could not get why ice had any such value. They left Tudor’s cargo to melt away — unappreciated and unsold.
If you don’t have the concept of a ‘cold drink’, you don’t understand the value of ice for that purpose.
People’s finite ‘conceptual horizons’ (for lack of a better term) constrain how they make sense of the world.
Or, consider Robert Levy’s classic field study of the Society Islands in Tahiti, anthropologist Robert Levy noticed that when Tahitians suffered from a painful loss of a loved one, they expressed no such thing as ‘grief’. By contrast, they described their sorrow as “sickness” or “feeling strange”.
Similar brains don’t exclude very dis-similar experiences of identical objects or analogous events.
Our brains might have similar hardwiring, but apparently a lot more than innate machinery goes into what feels as given, intuitive, obvious for each individual. This casts doubt upon the separation of what is given and what is brought to experience — perhaps there is no such thing as an immediate presence in consciousness that’s unaltered by thoughts and biases and interpretations.
We only have first-person knowledge of one mind
Because it feels so natural and innate we tend to make inductive inferences — from the particular to the general — about this or that aspect of mental life, and think it’s the most innocuous thing to do while it in fact betrays a deep cognitive bias.
We only have direct first-person knowledge of one mind so we all end up reliant upon our own presuppositions about what certain feelings and experiences mean and find it tempting to treat these as typical.
The most obvious and important realities are the hardest to see, as revealed in David Forster Wallace’s brilliant parable This Is Water:
“There are two young fish swimming along who happen to meet an older fish. The older fish nods at them and says: “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks: “What the hell is water?”” —
It can often be hard to realize the shape of the lens and spot its idiosyncrasies, especially when we only have one lens to look through with which to see those flaws.
We don’t realize that each of us has a personal frame through which he/she perceives the world and engages in it. And we think our own point of view isn’t really a point of view, but an objective ‘view from nowhere’.
They’re the biased ones.
This, funny enough, too is a built-in characteristic of the human mind. According to what psychologists call naive realism, each of us thinks that on any given subject our views are essentially objective, the product from a dispassionate, realistic accounting of the world. This is naive realism, though, because we are bad at recognizing the biases that operate on us.
What’s dangerous about this naivety is that it spins out into our appraisals of other people. We’re jarred and offended when other people don’t agree with what, to us, is so blatantly clear. If we think we see the world as it is, then we think that other people ought to agree with us. And to the extent that they disagree with us, we conclude they’re not being reasonable — they’re biased.
We tend to neglect the role of differently-built minds in disagreements, and attribute the problems to the other side being deliberately perverse or confused.
The takeaway: two lessons
This has been an abstract article, and I hope you can see why it matters. Let’s wrap up by making it more concrete.
We’ve seen that humans lack insight into their own minds and what is common among everyone or unusually specific to a few. As a consequence, we make the mistake of modeling the minds inside other people’s brains as exactly the same as your own mind (the ‘typical mind fallacy’).
It’s natural to assume that what feels as default, intuitive, self-evident is untouched by our interpretation or biases, and therefore reflects the world as it is. Those who deny it are deluded, biased, or willfully denying the obvious. As it happens, this oversimplifies things.
This has two big implications for how to live your life:
1: Be skeptical of explanations in terms of character
Resist explaining disagreements in terms of character.
In an age of apparent polarization, each group fights to maintain its beliefs bydemonizing other groups. When people disagree with you about issues such as “What should the United States’ response be to Iran?” to the extent they disagree with you, it has become standard to attribute this to them being biased or evil.
“Is he an idiot?”
No, he was simply looking at the world through a slightly different lens.
We don’t need moralizing. If you think someone’s intuitions about what’s “obvious” are hopelessly deceived, realize that these intellectual seemings are in their head, whispering in their ear. Don’t hold it against them. Help them.
2: Realize your intuitions are probably fooling you
Our understanding of the world is shaped by tribalism, the media is often biased, and most people have an incredibly skewed view of the world. This means we all should be less certain about our own politics, and try to read sources from the other side.
It’s essential to learn to take some distance and to view one’s own experience of objective reality from the outside, as an event in the world that needn’t be truth-conducive, even though it feels so ‘default’.
Scientists are amassing more and more evidence that we are specifically designed by mother nature to delude ourselves. Your own intuitions about what’s true are likely to be way more off-track than you think. Don’t let your gut feelings carry justificatory weight when it comes to figuring out what’s true. Be more vigilant to distinguish between those things that are really true and those that simply feel obvious to you.
Work around your feelings and follow the data instead:
“We are faulty and there’s no need to bother trying to correct our flaws. … The only success I’ve had is going around my emotions rather than rationalizing them.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randmoness
Like to read?
Join my Thinking Together newsletter for a free weekly dose of similarly high-quality mind-expanding ideas.