What's Wrong With Mind-Reading Arguments

Consider Fred. Fred hates cars. But Fred hates cars in 1946. We don't know why he hates cars and perhaps he might like modern cars. We can speculate all we like, but we can't say for sure that Fred would like modern cars. We can't say, "Well, when Fred hated cars in 1946, cars were very different. Fred didn't even know about modern cars. Therefore, Fred would not hate cars in 2017." The reason we can't make the conclusion is because no kind of car was specified as the subject of Fred's scorn. Indeed, it is highly likely that Fred hated all species of cars not because he hated every car he had encountered, but because he hated cars per se. 

The above mind-reading is problematic reasoning, but it is used all the time especially in moral reasoning. The essential feature of this reasoning is some assumption about what a speaker (or writer) 'has in mind' when he or she says (or writes) something. For example, imagine you are back at school. You have just been told by the headmaster that you may not steal from another person. You panic. You worry about whether you have stolen anything. You recall that you copied someone else's work and submitted it as your own. However, you reason that the headmaster had in mind the theft of material goods such as iPhones and money. You conclude that since the headmaster did not have in mind the theft of another person's academic work, you are in the clear. 

In this case, an assumption is made about what the headmaster is referring to as an act of stealing. The assumption is illicit. Just because all the species of stealing are not listed does not mean that the headmaster is excluding cheating. Indeed, the headmaster has used a general term--stealing--of which cheating is a species. 

Now, one might reply that perhaps the headmaster does not have cheating in mind. Perhaps, upon going to confess your moral failure, the headmaster replies, "don't worry, I wasn't talking about cheating." The problem is that unless we know that the headmaster excludes cheating, we have only positive evidence that he does mean cheating (since cheating is a kind of stealing) and no evidence to suggest that he did not have cheating in mind (he did not say so until asked). 

This form of reasoning often appeals to what it is possible for that person to have in mind. In cases of this kind, there is usually some cultural or temporal distance between the speaker and hearer. For example, a common objection to the defense of the rights of Americans to bear arms is to suggest that those who wrote the second amendment only had weapons available at the time in mind. Since it was not possible to predict the kinds of weapons we have available today, we can presume that they would never had written the second amendment if they wrote it today. 

Again, in this case, some speculation/assumption is made about what a writer had in mind and a conclusion is reached based on it. In the second amendment example, we have good reason to assume that the writers had only the weapons they knew about at the time in mind. This is obvious. However, even given this, it does not follow that the second amendment is faulty. Indeed, the reply should be that the intention of the second amendment is that citizens should have sufficient arms to bear in the case of a tyrannical government who turns against the people. In which case, this would include modern weapons. 

This kind of reasoning is also common in exegesis of the Bible. Take Paul's negative attitude toward homosexual acts. His definition of such acts is fairly clear: 
For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Recently, Steve Chalke has argued that Paul did not have in mind the kind of homosexual acts that Steve Chalke has in mind. Chalke argues that, for this reason, we should not think that Paul would be negative to those kinds of acts. Chalke cites recent archaeological discoveries revealing the debauched nature of sexual activity in the ancient world. The debauchery was so bad that it infected everything:

“So ingrained was this way of thinking and behaving that it became incorporated into religion. Drug- and alcohol-fuelled orgies featuring men sleeping with women, men sleeping with men, and women sleeping with women and men were even classed as acts of worship.”

Chalke then claims that scripture condemns only those kinds of acts and not the kinds of acts performed by homosexuals involved in same-sex relationships today:

"...it is a disingenuous misreading of the text to conclude that what Paul describes in Romans 1 can be used to prevent people forming loving, faithful, and nurturing relationships with people of the same-sex.”
Chalke thinks that Paul cannot have in mind the kinds of acts performed by homosexual people today who are in "loving, faithful, and nurturing relationships with people of the same-sex." This is because Paul only had in mind the debauched, crazed sexual immorality of ancient pagan culture.

But it does not follow from the fact that ancient homosexual practices involved orgies, that non-orgy homosexual acts are okay with Paul. The above text from Romans cannot be made to reduce the scope of those actions from anyone engaged in homosexual acts to only those engaged in homosexual acts in an orgy. It is simply not possible to mind-read and, consequently, if Paul had exceptions to what he was talking about, we cannot know what they are.

Another way to think about this kind of reasoning is to think about the difference between universal claims and particular claims. A universal claim might be something like, "All grass is green." A particular claim might be "this popcorn is burned." A possible way to refute a universal claim is to provide an instance in which the subject does not have the property contained in the predicate. For example, one might point at some grass that is not green. But what if you did this? Perhaps you have grass that loses its color in the winter (we have plenty of this kind of grass in North Carolina). Now, imagine the following response: "Yes, but that isn't really grass." Would you buy it? Probably not since you would imagine that it would not matter what kind of non-green grass you pointed at, the other person would always be able to say, "Yes, but that isn't really grass."

Now return to Chalke's argument. He responds to Paul's assertion that homosexual acts are wrong by saying that there are kinds of homosexual acts that are not wrong. This would be a plain denial of the Bible, but Chalke wants to suggest that Paul would reply that the kinds of homosexual acts Chalke has in mind aren't really homosexual acts. Just as you would not buy the response, "yes but that's not really grass", you should not buy Chalke's imagined response from Paul. Indeed, if we allow this kind of reasoning, then we can 'mind-read' Paul and redefine what he meant according to whatever we want.