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.)