The “Mind Projection Fallacy” in Systems Thinking:

In today’s post, I am writing about the wonderful Bayesian E. T. Jaynes’ idea of “Mind Projection Fallacy” (MPF) with respect to Systems Thinking. He explained MPF as asserting one’s own private thoughts and sensations as realities existing externally in nature. Jaynes noted – One asserts that the creations of his own imagination are real properties of Nature, and thus in effect projects his own thoughts out onto Nature.

Jaynes used the English language to delve into this further. In Logic, we say that If A is B, then B is A. However, when we apply this in our language, we will have issues. He used the old adage of “knowledge is power” as an example. If we then say “power is knowledge”, then we have said something that is fantastically absurd. The trouble here is with the verb “is”. As Jaynes pointed out:

These examples remind us that the verb ‘is’ has, like any other verb, a subject and a predicate; but it is seldom noted that this verb has two entirely different meanings. A person whose native language is English may require some effort to see the different meanings in the statements: ‘The room is noisy’ and ‘There is noise in the room’. But in Turkish these meanings are rendered by different words, which makes the distinction so clear that a visitor who uses the wrong word will not be understood. The latter statement is ontological, asserting the physical existence of something, while the former is epistemological, expressing only the speaker’s personal perception…

Common language – or, at least, the English language – has an almost universal tendency to disguise epistemological statements by putting them into a grammatical form which suggests to the unwary an ontological statement. A major source of error in current probability theory arises from an unthinking failure to perceive this. To interpret the first kind of statement in the ontological sense is to assert that one’s own private thoughts and sensations are realities existing externally in Nature. We call this the ‘mind projection fallacy’.

Once one has grasped the idea, one sees the Mind Projection Fallacy everywhere; what we have been taught as deep wisdom, is stripped of its pretensions and seen to be instead a foolish non sequitur.

Jaynes noted that there are two complementary forms to MPF:

The error occurs in two complementary forms, which we might indicate thus:

(A) (My own imagination) –> (Real property of Nature)

(B) (My own ignorance) –> (Nature is indeterminate)

I am more interested in the first of the two forms here in relation to Systems Thinking. The “Thinking” in Systems Thinking implies that there is a thinker. This also implies that we are doing thinking about “systems”. As MPF suggests, we are prone to assuming that our epistemological stances are in fact ontological nature. When we talk about a “system”, it is in terms of “as-if” statements. We say that the health care system as-if there actually is a physical corresponding entity in the real world. We talk about fixing “systems” as-if there is a mechanical entity that needs some switching out of parts or upgrading. When we come across a phenomenon, and we try to understand the phenomenon, we do it so by creating a narrative around it. For example, if we see an object fall to the ground, we create a narrative around how something caused the object to fall to the ground. Or if we face some adverse events, we create a narrative around having a bad day. In these narratives, there is always a “wholeness” aspect in the sense that things make sense or things happen for a reason. This wholeness aspect is what makes the narrative flow. The big rub in all this is that the narrative is done from a perspective. Usually this is from the perspective of the one doing the narration, the observer. We create “systems” in order to make sense of things around in our world. We are in situated in the world, in this place and time. How we create these grand narratives are impacted by this situatedness.

As I noted above, systems thinking requires thinkers, and no one thinker is alike. Their versions of “systems” are unique to them. If we treat our “systems” as being real, it leads us to also assume that others are also seeing the same “system” and can understand what we mean by “system”. This is the Mind Projection Fallacy in action.

Another aspect of MPF is that we tend believe that there is uncertainty everywhere. As Jaynes pointed out this “is” a very troublesome verb. Uncertainty is not existing out there in the world, but in here in our understanding. This is the whole premise of Bayesian epistemology. Probability is not a property of a phenomenon in the real world, but a property of our knowledge or belief about the phenomenon. Jaynes wrote:

that term (random) is basically meaningless as an attribute of the real world; it has no clear definition applicable in the real world. The belief that ‘randomness’ is some kind of real property existing in Nature is a form of the mind projection fallacy which says, in effect, ‘I don’t know the detailed causes – therefore – Nature does not know them.’

What does all this mean to a Systems Thinker? How does this help improve our thinking? Jaynes continues:

It seems to us that the belief that probabilities are realities existing in Nature is pure mind projection fallacy. True ‘scientific objectivity’ demands that we escape from this delusion and recognize that in conducting inference our equations are not describing reality; they are describing and processing our information about reality.

This is a second order view – we are thinking about our thinking. We are able to better think only when we realize that there are problems with our thinking. When we assume that “systems” are not real or objective but mere devices to further our understanding, we come to be more curious. We become curious about how others view the world. If we thought that others can objectively view the “system”, then there is no need for us to seek their perspectives. When we are curious about how others view the “system”, then we can really start talking about “systems”. Tweaking what the great cybernetician Heinz von Foerster once said – You cannot hold a system responsible for anything – you cannot shake its hand, ask it to justify its actions – and you cannot enter into a dialogue with it; whereas I can speak with another self, a you!

I will finish with the wise words of the grand master of Systems Thinking, West Churchman:

The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Authentic Cybernetician:


6 thoughts on “The “Mind Projection Fallacy” in Systems Thinking:

  1. As always well put. I nowadays tend to avoid constructing sentences with “is”. I’ve also always tend to avoid reifications: using a noun – or thing – where one’s talking about processes. So I prefer communicating over communication, organizing over organization. All ready in my thesis at university I showed “information” doesn’t exist, only processes of informing, and that this means asking good questions and not having the right data. I barley passed ;-).

    While working in information system design (sic), i used to say that people use the word ‘system’ when they don’t understand how something works. For a long time, I called my approach “systemic” and was only once asked what I meant with it. “I don’t know”, I replied, “but I always get away with it”.

    I now go one step further: the structure of our use of language, the grammar, prevent us from expressing what we’re thinking about, making us think we’re thinking in language. (We’re thinking metaphorical in metaphors or imagining images, projecting projections) Our language has a “command-and-control”-structure, reinforcing double-binds (Bateson) preventing one to question the structure of our use of language.

    Liked by 1 person

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