Mind Projection Fallacy

Monsterwithgirl_2In the dawn days of sci­ence fic­tion, alien in­vaders would oc­ca­sion­ally kid­nap a girl in a torn dress and carry her off for in­tended rav­ish­ing, as lov­ingly de­picted on many an­cient mag­a­z­ine cov­ers. Oddly enough, the aliens never go af­ter men in torn shirts.

Would a non-hu­manoid alien, with a differ­ent evolu­tion­ary his­tory and evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy, sex­u­ally de­sire a hu­man fe­male? It seems rather un­likely. To put it mildly.

Peo­ple don’t make mis­takes like that by de­liber­ately rea­son­ing: “All pos­si­ble minds are likely to be wired pretty much the same way, there­fore a bug-eyed mon­ster will find hu­man fe­males at­trac­tive.” Prob­a­bly the artist did not even think to ask whether an alien per­ceives hu­man fe­males as at­trac­tive. In­stead, a hu­man fe­male in a torn dress is sexy—in­her­ently so, as an in­trin­sic prop­erty.

They who went astray did not think about the alien’s evolu­tion­ary his­tory; they fo­cused on the woman’s torn dress. If the dress were not torn, the woman would be less sexy; the alien mon­ster doesn’t en­ter into it.

Ap­par­ently we in­stinc­tively rep­re­sent Sex­i­ness as a di­rect at­tribute of the Wo­man ob­ject, Wo­man.sex­i­ness, like Wo­man.height or Wo­man.weight.

If your brain uses that data struc­ture, or some­thing metaphor­i­cally similar to it, then from the in­side it feels like sex­i­ness is an in­her­ent prop­erty of the woman, not a prop­erty of the alien look­ing at the woman. Since the woman is at­trac­tive, the alien mon­ster will be at­tracted to her—isn’t that log­i­cal?

E. T. Jaynes used the term Mind Pro­jec­tion Fal­lacy to de­note the er­ror of pro­ject­ing your own mind’s prop­er­ties into the ex­ter­nal world. Jaynes, as a late grand mas­ter of the Bayesian Con­spir­acy, was most con­cerned with the mis­treat­ment of prob­a­bil­ities as in­her­ent prop­er­ties of ob­jects, rather than states of par­tial knowl­edge in some par­tic­u­lar mind. More about this shortly.

But the Mind Pro­jec­tion Fal­lacy gen­er­al­izes as an er­ror. It is in the ar­gu­ment over the real mean­ing of the word sound, and in the mag­a­z­ine cover of the mon­ster car­ry­ing off a woman in the torn dress, and Kant’s dec­la­ra­tion that space by its very na­ture is flat, and Hume’s defi­ni­tion of a pri­ori ideas as those “dis­cov­er­able by the mere op­er­a­tion of thought, with­out de­pen­dence on what is any­where ex­is­tent in the uni­verse”...

(In­ci­den­tally, I once read an SF story about a hu­man male who en­tered into a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship with a sen­tient alien plant of ap­pro­pri­ately squishy fronds; dis­cov­ered that it was an an­droe­cious (male) plant; ag­o­nized about this for a bit; and fi­nally de­cided that it didn’t re­ally mat­ter at that point. And in Foglio and Pol­lotta’s Ille­gal Aliens, the hu­mans land on a planet in­hab­ited by sen­tient in­sects, and see a movie ad­ver­tise­ment show­ing a hu­man car­ry­ing off a bug in a del­i­cate chiffon dress. Just thought I’d men­tion that.)