In his groundbreaking work Philosophical Investigations, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein put forth a famous thought experiment often called “Wittgenstein’s beetle.” The experiment goes as such: Imagine that you have a beetle in a box, as does everyone else. But no one can access another person’s box to examine what is actually inside. What, then, does the word “beetle” mean? Quite simply, “what is in one’s box.”
Wittgenstein’s argument is about language and how it cannot be private and intelligibly be called “language,” but it is often used as an analogy for the mind. After all, despite the fact that we generally think other minds exist, we don’t actually have access to the internal mental states of another human being. We assume, to some degree, a semblance of similarity between our minds. Ultimately, the mind is just “what is in the box” for most of us.
This state of affairs can sometimes make empathy difficult, but it’s what we’re stuck with.
Unless, of course, you go around talking like you can see in other people’s boxes.
We’ve all seen this before, I’m sure. I’d bet that most non-Christians have probably heard Christians argue that everyone believes in God because the Bible says that God has made his creation and truth evident to all people so that everyone is “without excuse.”
It’s a great example of how (in this case) Christians make their claims impossible to disprove: If you say that you do not in fact believe that God is evident anywhere, you’re just denying the truth that you really do understand, if you’d just admit it. Your own access to your own mental state doesn’t matter; the Christian can just say “God knows better than you” as a sort of trump card.
There’s a fair amount of this faux-psychoanalysis that goes on. Paul Vitz famously made the claim that atheists have absent, weak, or abusive fathers, which makes them unable to connect with the idea of a Heavenly Father. This is of course bunk based primarily on cherry-picking, but I’ve heard the claim many times, even from more moderate Christians.
There are a number of myths about atheists that center on the presumption that atheism is caused by a lack of respect for authority.
Or that atheists just want a license to sin without any kind of divine accountability?
The list could go on and on. In each case, the believer is assuming that they have a better understanding of what goes on inside atheists’ heads than actual atheists do. They not only think they can see our beetle – they argue that we can’t even really see it correctly.
Let’s be clear about this, believers: You do not live here. You do not inhabit my skull, and you cannot tell me what I believe better than I can. It is arrogant and condescending and just wrong. Period.
If you want to argue that a belief of mine is wrong, fine – we can engage in an equitable discussion about that. But when you try to ‘splain to me that I don’t actually believe what I say I believe or that I believe for reasons other than what I’ve stated (especially when those reasons are not particularly legitimate), then you aren’t being charitable or intellectually honest about what you actually are capable of knowing.
And this isn’t just a vice that Christians or religious people fall prey to. I’ve seen atheists do this, sometimes in the most bizarre ways. Some of the more typical ways this happens are reminiscent of the above myths: Theists believe in God because they can’t handle the idea of an indifferent universe or because they fear death. Moderate or liberal theists don’t actually take their beliefs seriously. And so on.
When we go the route of armchair psychology, we have given up any real dialogue in favor of cheap innuendos.
And worse still, if that person really does have unresolved mental conflicts that they aren’t disclosing or don’t recognize, we rob them of the opportunity to engage in honest self-reflection as the person who really has authentic access to the relevant data.
So unless you find a magic door to someone else’s mind, stop pretending that you can get inside someone else’s head.
[Hat tip to my friend Janet Factor for inspiring the title of this piece.]