The Problem of Other Minds

28 May 2014

The philosophical problem of other minds goes like this.  I know that I have a mind, that is, feelings, sensations, thoughts and the like, in a very direct way. I am directly aware of what goes on in my own mind.  But how do I know that something like this goes on in other people?  
 
I am not directly aware of your thoughts and sensations. So how do I now that anything is going on in you, like what I know is going on in me, which I call “consciouisness” or “mind”.  And, just to be polite and assume you do have a mind, vice versa?
 
One thing is clear, this is not a practical problem.  No sane person doubts that others have minds.  
 
In fact our ability to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling, “mind-reading” as it’s sometimes called in cognitive science, is a deep-seated ability humans have, apparently wired in.
 
The problem isn’t whether we believe other people have minds. It is the basis for the belief. Is the belief rational? Is it really knowledge?
 
The traditional answer was formulated by J. S. Mill: the argument from analogy. You are a human like me, you behave a lot like me, you use language like me.  I have a mind; isn’t it rational to suppose that you have one too?
 
But it's based on a pretty small sample, isn’t it?  One case. Imagine two hundred cars on the freeway. They all are very similar: four wheels, moving in response to the way the drivers steer, accelerate and brake. I notice that one has a box of Kleenex on the front seat.  So I infer the others do too.  Very weak inference.  
 
More promising is inference to the best explanation.  The box of kleenex I see in one car doesn't explain anything interesting about it, or about the similarities we observe between in and the other cars.  But suppose we look under the hood and find an engine in the car.  We see that this explains why the car moves. Pretty good inference that the others have engines too. A much stronger inference, than one based merely on analogy.
 
That seems to be what we are doing with other minds.  I know my own mind explains a lot of my behavior, and also that it is affected by the external world, and that the way it causes me to behave is responsive to the information it picks up about the world.  Isn’t it overwhelmingly likely that other people work in basically the same way?
 
Still, suppose we grant that this ia a pretty good inference.  It isn't the wort of inference that provides certainty.  After all, we might find that some cars have electric motors rather than gasoline engines.  We might find some of them were just rolling downhill, or being towed.  That wouldn’t be amazing. Our inference was probable, but not certain.  But we seem extremely confident that other people have minds, basically similar to ours. 
 
So perhaps something about the way we set up the problem is mistaken.  Philosophers as different as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Fred Dretske thought that this was so.  It's one of these issues we'll explore in the program.

Comments (5)


Gerald Fnord's picture

Gerald Fnord

Saturday, May 31, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Funny that Dr Avramides

Funny that Dr Avramides should bring up objects:  many autistic people, myself included, have very strong relationships with objects; I'll  hypothesise that once you learnt that you're supposed to treat human beings as if they had minds, even though they behave in ways that make no sense, it's easier to treat objects, pets, transit networks, &c. as if they did as well (much as how people, having got used to seeing that people make things and do things, imagine gods to make and operate the Universe).
It makes being a materialist, in the quotidian sense as well as the philosophical, very easy.

cogscisomething's picture

cogscisomething

Wednesday, June 4, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

The commenter above makes a

The commenter above makes a good point, that mind attribution is rampant and normal (and normative). I'd love to hear Profs. Taylor, Perry, and Avramides discuss this outside the binary asking whether we can('t) rationally deny the possibility of other minds, and discuss possible philosophical issues relating to degrees and kinds of mental attribution. Not just autism, but, e.g. cognitively "normal" people from other cultures, ages, etc. Could there be a practical AND philosophical problem of degrees of other mindedess in this way?

alex619's picture

alex619

Sunday, February 1, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Not just autism, but, e.g.

Not just autism, but, e.g. cognitively "normal" people from other cultures, ages, etc. Could there be a practical AND valentines day quotes valentines day poems philosophical problem of degrees of other mindedess in this way? - See more at: valentines day poems for him  valentines day quotes for him

alex619's picture

alex619

Sunday, February 1, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

So perhaps something about

So perhaps something about the way we set up the problem is mistaken.  Philosophers as different as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Fred Dretske thought that this was so. 
 

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, January 2, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

great post.that mind

great post.that mind attribution is rampant and normal (and normative). I'd love to hear Profs. Taylor, Perry, and Avramides discuss this outside the binary asking whether we can('t) rationally deny the possibility of other minds, and discuss possible philosophical issues relating to degrees and kinds of mental attribution.
Time management

 
 

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