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Why You Cant Read My Mind - Paul McDonald

Why You Cant Read My Mind - Paul McDonald



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Published by: Blankety Blank on Sep 22, 2008
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Why You Can't Read My Mind
We had no idea that 
Paul MacDonald 
intended to write this article.
Much attention is given in the populist media to explaining theunexplained; every month new books, magazines, and websitesdevoted to the paranormal make their appearance. In an attempt tocounter-balance the prevalent climate of credulity,
The Skeptical Inquirer 
has offered cogent and sober analyses of claims made aboutalien abductions, after-death communication, Biblical Creationism, andother peculiar pseudo-scientific theories. However, it is rather unusualfor paranormal claims to be subjected to explicitly
scrutiny, perhaps partly because it is more common to think thatreported incidents are simply highly unlikely, implausible or garbled.But some claims made about some types of paranormal phenomena,such as ghosts, psycho-kinesis, and telepathy are more than justimprobable: they are basically confused at the conceptual level. At thesame time that cognitive scientists articulate more and more complexmaterialist theories of the mind, reducing the mental domain to theoperations of neuro-chemical computations, paranormalists postulatean immaterial mind with significant occult powers. This article is anattempt to sort out some of the serious conceptual problems involvedwith claims made about the paranormal phenomenon of telepathy.
What is Telepathy?
The word `telepathy' (from the root
) seems to convey thesense of remote-
not remote-thinking; `telepathy' is thusclosely related to `sympathy' and `empathy'. Now, on one hand,remote-feeling or feeling-at-a-distance is not such a strange or
-normal notion that one needs special guidance to appreciate itsmeaning. Let us suppose that you are in a crowded café, chatting withfriends and watching the action. You happen to notice the rapid andabrupt movement the waiters make through the swing door into thekitchen. You think that it’s remarkable that there aren’t more collisionsnear this unpredictable portal. One of the diners bends over to pick upsomething in front of the swing door at the very moment it burstsopen, striking the diner on the head with an audible thump. You wince,as do the other diners who witness this incident, and turn to yourfriends and say that you
that. This is a perfectly intelligiblestatement and requires no paranormal explanation about feeling-at-a-distance, but paranormalists assert something more mysterious aboutthe overcoming of psychic distance in some not-so-normalexperiences.It may help to draw some distinctions between various sorts of feeling(or affective) experiences with respect to one's physical or mentalproximity. In a sym-pathetic experience (`feeling-with'), your intimateknowledge of another person's situation allows you to feel how you
imagine you would feel if you had the other's problems or blessings. Inan em-pathetic (`feeling-within') experience, your intimate knowledgeof another person's feeling-reactions allows you to imagine that youare in the other person's situation, having the same problems orblessings. In the tele-pathic situation, you are able to experience painor pleasure on behalf of another person, just as if you were in theother's situation. Of course, there are profound differences betweenthe feeling a person whose head has been banged might have, and theremote feelings you have in witnessing this head banging; he mightneed a pain-killer, but you do not. The pain occurs in his head as aresult of the door banging his head, whereas it is as if the painoccurred in your head as a result of seeing his head banged.So perhaps the really salient feature of alleged incidents of telepathy issomething which might better be called tele-cognition, i.e. remotethinking. From numerous science-fiction films we are all familiar withthe idea that tele-cognition might be something like an inner, privatevoice (which the audience hears), but which the `telepath' only thinksand doesn't speak out loud. In
Star Trek: The Next Generation
no oneelse hears this inner voice except another telepath. But right awaythere's a serious problem with this illustration of so-called telepathy -the only way that we in the audience have any understanding of what'sgoing on in the scene is that we actually hear the telepath's `innervoice'. So it seems as if the telepath's thoughts must be just like ourown `inner voice', but not one we could ever hear - and what doesthat sound like? Another related question concerns whether or not thetelepath has non-projective thoughts, i.e. thoughts that anothertelepath could not hear. If so, what cognitive mechanisms could beemployed to emit one kind of thought and not the other? Would these`secret' thoughts be like whispers instead of shouts? We could pursueseveral hypotheses in this context, but all the analogies one could useare drawn from normal speech and implicate standard, this-worldlycausal mechanisms. The attempt to postulate a projective `inner voice'and an extroceptive `inner ear' completely misconstrues the actualconnections between the brain and the powers of speech and hearing.There is another intelligible and ordinary use of the concept of remote-feeling, as opposed to remote-thinking. When two people have beentogether for a long time their thoughts can sometimes intersect, thatis, they can each have the same (though not identical) thought at thesame time. This is most likely to occur when the respective thoughtsare triggered by an incident or event that is a regular feature of theireveryday life together. So much of everyday life is lived out accordingto habit that it is little wonder that a couple's thoughts may sometimesrun along parallel tracks. For example, after the evening meal, justbefore doing the dishes and just after the nightly news report, one
person says, "It would be really nice if we had some chocolate", andthe other says that's just what he was thinking - "you’ve read mymind." Several comments are called for. First, this sort of cognitive`echo' doesn’t strike us as anything out of the ordinary or paranormal.Second, this occurrence seems more likely the better the two peopleknow each other, and less likely where personal rapport is weak orlimited. But one tends to assume, without good reason, that the lesslikely such an event the more mysterious its sources must be. Third,while it may be highly tempting but misleading to construe themeaning of `mind-reading' above as a metaphorical extension of `reading', what sort of reading is this cognitive echo being comparedto? Just as mind-hearing fails to find a coherent notion of an outward`inner voice', so also does mind-reading fail to find an inner textsomehow displayed to anyone but its own author. For theparanormalist to respond that reading and hearing are metaphoricalintentional verbs does not advance his case, since it isn't clear whatreading or hearing would stand for. In contrast, one does not need ametaphor to convey the sense of having an object of thought.The straight-forward sense of mind-reading in our example is that, atthat moment, each person is thinking about the same thing; there aretwo cognitive acts whose `object' is chocolate, perhaps even the sameactual piece of chocolate. In what way would a `genuine' telepath bedoing something other than thinking about the same `object' asanother person, telepathic or not? In the
Next Star Trek 
case, perhapswe in the audience are willing to entertain the notion that real thoughttransfer has taken place because we don't know about a sharedbackground of habitual practices between the two subjects. More thanthat, we might even know for a fact (about the fictional world) that thetwo subjects do not have such a shared background. But it is a logicalfallacy to infer from ignorance of the subjects' rapport to the truth of the hypothesis that some sort of thought-transfer must be at workhere. Let's imagine a very finely tuned Magnetic Resonance Imageryapparatus attached to a person's head. The trial subject has trainedhimself to think very clearly and distinctly about several dozen simple`objects'; these are the terms in his mental vocabulary or imagerepertoire. Another person, the observer, has been trained to recognizethe MRI display of certain specific patterns and correlate them withtheir `objects'. So, the question here is whether the observer is`reading' the subject's thoughts when he correctly reports thesequence of images. But the answer is surely "No"; the observerrecognizes a pattern as being about some thing in much the same waythat anyone else comes to learn about and recognize ordinary patternsas signs; for example, certain highway signs stand for rockslides,narrow shoulders, speed limits and so forth. The insertion of an MRI

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