Typical Mind Fallacy: The Limits Of Generalizing From One Example

Everyone generalizes from one example. At least, I do.”

— Vlad Taltos (Issola, Steven Brust)

My old professor, David Berman, liked to talk about what he called the “typical mind fallacy”, which he illustrated through the following example:

There was a debate, in the late 1800s, about whether “imagination” was simply a turn of phrase or a real phenomenon. That is, can people actually create images in their minds which they see vividly, or do they simply say “I saw it in my mind” as a metaphor for considering what it looked like?

Upon hearing this, my response was “How the stars was this actually a real debate? Of course we have mental imagery. Anyone who doesn’t think we have mental imagery is either such a fanatical Behaviorist that she doubts the evidence of her own senses, or simply insane.” Unfortunately, the professor was able to parade a long list of famous people who denied mental imagery, including some leading scientists of the era. And this was all before Behaviorism even existed.

The debate was resolved by Francis Galton, a fascinating man who among other achievements invented eugenics, the “wisdom of crowds”, and standard deviation. Galton gave people some very detailed surveys, and found that some people did have mental imagery and others didn’t. The ones who did had simply assumed everyone did, and the ones who didn’t had simply assumed everyone didn’t, to the point of coming up with absurd justifications for why they were lying or misunderstanding the question. There was a wide spectrum of imaging ability, from about five percent of people with perfect eidetic imagery1 to three percent of people completely unable to form mental images2.

Dr. Berman dubbed this the Typical Mind Fallacy: the human tendency to believe that one’s own mental structure can be generalized to apply to everyone else’s.

And the possible application to understanding philosophers is fascinating:

He kind of took this idea and ran with it. He interpreted certain passages in George Berkeley’s biography to mean that Berkeley was an eidetic imager, and that this was why the idea of the universe as sense-perception held such interest to him. He also suggested that experience of consciousness and qualia were as variable as imaging, and that philosophers who deny their existence (Ryle? Dennett? Behaviorists?) were simply people whose mind lacked the ability to easily experience qualia. In general, he believed philosophy of mind was littered with examples of philosophers taking their own mental experiences and building theories on them, and other philosophers with different mental experiences critiquing them and wondering why they disagreed.

Read much more on this topic at Less Wrong.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.