7.   The Problem of "Other" Minds

By Paul Vanderveen

January 10, 1998

Copyright ©1999 by Paul Vanderveen

George Lyons (June 18) argues that "externally observable behavior, probably most obviously the use of language," enables us to infer that other minds exist. "Since people learn language from other people to begin with, the awareness of other entities with minds is hard to escape." Dorothy Fanyo (September 30) asks rhetorically, "When one reads a book, how can one not know that others have minds?" Chris Cogen (October 2) claims that "the belief that other people have minds is both inductively natural (and rational) and minimal." These responses to my previous arguments about the concept of mind fail to take a basic step: if one wants to understand how we acquire knowledge of minds, one must begin by considering the conceptual perspective of someone who lacks that knowledge. One cannot begin by assuming that each of us already knows what a mind is in his or her own case.

Young children clearly do not know what minds are. Many suppose that your mind is something like your brain, located right next to it in your head, and that you could touch and see it if you could open up your head (M. Nagy, "Children's Conceptions of Some Bodily Functions," Journal of Genetic Psychology 83, 1953; Carl N. Johnson and Henry Wellman, "Children's Developing Conceptions of the Mind and Brain," Child Development 53, 1982). Even older children, when asked about minds, sometimes answer quite directly that they do not know what minds are. This can be a prelude to learning; researchers have noted that successful learners are usually more aware of what they do not understand than are less successful learners (J. Bransford, R. Sherwood, N. Vye & J. Reiser, "Teaching Thinking and Problem Solving," American Psychologist 41, 1986).

Most people learn to use language--and in the modern world, to read--long before they conceptualize minds. I think that most school children, many adolescents and some adults have not completed this process of conceptualizing, even though they may read books. Of course, they realize that people see, remember, think, feel, imagine and so forth, and they function with increasing competence in this complex realm, but they have yet to learn to use "mind" (or some other word) to identify conceptually each individual's cognitive faculty or consciousness as a whole, that integrated sum of experiences directing his or her actions.

Assuming that each of us knows what a mind is in his or her own case, Mr. Lyons considers "the evidence we use to test" whether in fact other minds exist, and he finds the "scientific answer" in the old "problem of other minds" literature in philosophy. In this literature, H. H. Price probably made the best case for the idea that it is our understanding of language that provides our principal evidence for the existence of "other" minds ("Our Evidence for the Existence of Other Minds," Philosophy 13, 1938). He began, however, by using the word "mind" in the sense in which one applies it "to oneself." He maintained that one knows from introspection what acts of thinking and perceiving are and that one knows "what it is for such acts to be combined into the unity of a single mind."

As I have argued, one cannot learn what a mind is simply from one's own case, independently of grasping the existence of other minds. The word "mind" stands for a concept, and one forms a concept by mentally integrating "two or more" units. A unit, as Ayn Rand noted, is "an existent regarded as a separate member of a group of two or more similar members" (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 6). Thus, conceptualizing one's own mind (and grasping its "unity") involves observing its similarity to other minds. Even Price, in his later book Thinking and Experience (1962), articulated the principle that conceptual awareness rests on the similarity of things.

Other philosophers challenged the traditional reliance on first-person experience--while treating mental states or processes (such as thinking, remembering and feeling) and minds as a single class. This "package deal" had unfortunate consequences. Norman Malcolm, in "Knowledge of Other Minds" (The Journal of Philosophy 55, 1958), quickly turned "the perplexity" about the existence of other minds into perplexity about "the meaning of one's own psychological sentences about oneself," claiming that it is a "mistaken assumption" that one learns from one's own case what thinking and feeling are. Peter Strawson, in "Persons" (Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science 2, 1958) and "Self, Mind and Body" (Common Factor 4, 1966), argued that "there is no sense in the idea of ascribing states of consciousness to oneself" unless one already knows "how to ascribe at least some states of consciousness to others." He extended his argument to "the whole of an enormous class"--to thinking, remembering and seeing, as well as "individual consciousnesses or minds." Such broad arguments neglected important differences between concepts of various processes such as thinking and remembering, on the one hand, and concepts which identify the interrelated sum of each person's experiences, such as mind and consciousness, on the other. One can learn what thinking is and recognize instances of one's own and others' thinking long before one learns what minds are, as most four-year-olds demonstrate.

In addition to drawing on the philosophical literature, Mr. Lyons likens the process of acquiring knowledge of "other minds" to the process of acquiring knowledge of black holes and various types of elementary particles "for which no real instances existed until an energetic search was made." He suggests that we can search for things such as black holes, elementary particles and other minds, after conceiving of them on an informed basis. His formulation stumbles basically not on his analysis of the complexity of acquiring scientific knowledge, but on his continuing assumption that each of us already knows what a mind is in his or her own case, that it is only other minds for which we must search. A person who has not yet grasped the similarity between his or her own and other minds simply does not know what a mind is, including his or her own.

A fundamental, integrated approach must take into account the perspective of someone who has not yet completed the process of forming the concept of mind. Consider a young teenager who, having truly found "no real instances" yet, says that he does not know exactly what adults mean by "mind." He has already learned a great deal, as has every normal person in his position, about the seeing, thinking, remembering, dreaming and so forth that people do, but he does not yet recognize any minds--neither his own nor any others. He might be able to conceive of his own "inner world" on the model of the concept of universe (integrating individual instances of his seeing, thinking, remembering and so forth), but this by itself would be isolating and not give him the modern concept of mind. To reach that concept, he must regard his own "inner world" itself, in all its interrelated complexity, as a unit--a separate member of a group of two or more similar members, cognitively integrating it with the similar "inner worlds" of other persons. This, in principle, is necessary for any of us to form the concept of mind. Until he completes the process of integrating self and others and learns to recognize this level of structure in reality, he does not know what anybody's mind is, including his own.

Even though he has been using his own mind and interacting with others since infancy, he may still find explicit knowledge of minds elusive. It demands not a special search just for other minds, but a new stance, attitude or way of thinking about what has been present--and about which he has been thinking (on a lower level of abstraction)--all along. He can be imaginative in learning to think this way and it takes time to develop skill in doing so, but the way of thinking is not just about "others," but himself as well.

Nick Bruijn asked about the early stages of cognitive development leading to the formation of the concept of mind, and I responded to his questions next.

  1.  Forming the Concept of Mind
  2.  Basing the Concept of Mind on Reality
  3.  Proper Names and Concepts
  4.  The Concept of Mind and Certain Symmetries
  5.  Concluding Remarks about Forming the Concept of Mind
  6.  Recognizing Minds
  7.  The Problem of "Other" Minds
  8.  Concept of Mind and Early Development    < Next
  9.  Retaining the Concept of Mind
10.  Ayn Rand and Other Minds
11.  Perceiving Other Minds Directly?
12.  Preconceptually Apprehending Other Minds?
13.  Inferences about Other Minds
14.  The Units of the Concept of Mind

Article:  Formation of the Concept of Mind