11.   Perceiving Other Minds Directly?

By Paul Vanderveen

October 16, 1998

Copyright ©1999 by Paul Vanderveen

Your consciousness, according to Ayn Rand, is accessible to others only by inference, but Bill Stoddard holds (May 7) that others can perceive it directly, much as they can perceive the three-dimensional shape of objects directly. His view "follows from Objectivist principles and modes of analysis," he suggests (May 25), whereas Rand's own view may fall short of being "properly part of Objectivism." What are his reasons for thinking we can perceive each others' minds directly?

Illustrating his approach, he describes an interaction with his cat. "I say his name, softly, and watch his ears; if they turn toward the sound of my voice, he is awake and has heard. When I see this, I see a shift in his attention--and thus I see his consciousness." He claims to see it by "direct perception," possibly due to "automatic neural mechanisms." In just the same way, EMTs at the scene of an accident "do not call in a philosopher or an experimental cognitive scientist to determine if the victim is conscious," but rather determine it by performing very simple tests, using "only their own senses." Inferring others' mental processes, he argues, would require "sophisticated scientific and philosophical theorizing, to such a degree that only a brilliant mind could achieve it."

Is inference based on sophisticated theorizing really the only alternative to direct perception? Do we have no other options in-between?

Researchers studying the cognitive abilities of children find that diagnosing others' mental processes is not an "all-or-none step," that various tasks present different "degrees of difficulty," and that children master simpler tasks before moving on to more complex ones, ordinarily learning over time to make judgments with "increasing accuracy" (Paul Harris, "The Work of the Imagination," in A. Whiten, ed., Natural Theories of Mind, 1991, p. 283-84).

To understand how preschool children are able to make many realistic inferences about what others see, remember, think, guess, feel, want and so forth, it helps to realize that they are unencumbered by our adult way of regarding such experiences as "mental processes" or "processes of consciousness." They function instead on a lower level of abstraction. Researchers note that young children are relatively unfamiliar with the term "mind," for instance, and commonly misconstrue its meaning (M. H. Nagy, "Children's Conceptions of Some Bodily Functions," Journal of Genetic Psychology 83, 1953; J. Broughton, "Development of Concepts of Self, Mind, Reality, and Knowledge" in W. Damon, ed., New Directions for Child Development, Vol. 1, 1978, p. 82; C. N. Johnson & H. M. Wellman, "Children's Developing Conceptions of the Mind and Brain," Child Development 53, 1982, p. 226).

Although children become increasingly adept at inferring others' thoughts and feelings over time, the evidence suggests that many years typically pass before they learn to restructure that data and regard the totality of each different person's experiences as a unit, reaching the modern concepts of mind and consciousness. If we perceive others' minds directly, as Mr. Stoddard maintains, why does it typically take so long to learn how to think explicitly in terms of minds?

While thinking about one's own and others' minds as such is more complex than simply inferring what someone else sees or remembers, even that broad integration of direct and indirect material is within the typical educated adult's capabilities and does not require the sort of "sophisticated scientific and philosophical theorizing" that only someone with graduate-level training or an especially "brilliant mind" could do. Research shows that many people, by their early college years, have secured this concept (C. N. Johnson, "Acquisition of Mental Verbs and the Concept of Mind" in S. A. Kuczaj, ed., Language Development, 1982).

This brief review, tracing a gradual development toward more complex inferences and higher levels of abstraction, shows that posing sophisticated theorizing about consciousness as the only alternative to direct perception is a mistake, as is claiming, on that basis, that our knowledge of others' inner life must be the product of direct perception.

Mr. Stoddard also presents an analogy, discussing "a parallel position about matter: that we do not have direct knowledge of material objects." He notes the difficulty of holding that we do not directly perceive objects but only infer their existence on the basis of sensory experience. In Western philosophy, such a mistaken view "led naturally" to skepticism about material objects, and "in just the same way," he writes, "the claim that we do not have direct awareness of other minds, but only infer such knowledge, leads to a skepticism about the validity of this inference that was at least latent" in David Hume.

That you experience your own mental processes, however, is not in question, so a parallel claim with respect to material objects would be the novel hypothesis that you directly perceive many elements of only one object (not none) and infer the elements of others. How, therefore, does the claim that we lack direct awareness of other minds lead "in just the same way" to skepticism? Is Mr. Stoddard claiming that it somehow logically leads there? If so, he needs to spell out how in greater detail.

As for the historical record, Hume may be seen as challenging, in a way, the assumption that you can observe your own mind, as such, by simple introspection. John Locke was one of those who held, long before Rand, that your consciousness is "that alone which makes what we call self." He also held that you have "an internal infallible perception" of yourself, of your own being as a "conscious thinking thing" (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2.27.17; 2.27.21; 4.9.3). "When I enter most intimately into what I call myself," Hume responded, "I always stumble on some particular perception or other.... I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception" (A Treatise of Human Nature, 1.4.6).

Hume was right about one thing--you cannot "catch" yourself simply by looking inward. Introspection or any "internal perception" of your thinking, remembering, feeling and so forth, by itself, does not provide you with adequate material to conceptualize your mind. You cannot observe your own mind as such without taking a conceptual perspective, grasping the similarity between yourself and others. Straight introspection will not do the job because a concept integrates "two or more" units, but you "enter" only one mind introspectively.

Mr. Stoddard accepts my critical argument to this effect, but apparently also assumes that you must mentally integrate only existents which you "perceive or experience directly." This leaves, as his only escape from skepticism, his claim that you can perceive other minds directly.

That we do not directly perceive other minds becomes especially evident when we consider his illustrations--thinking that a cat is awake after noting its ears move in response to your voice and judging that an accident victim is conscious because he is talking to you. These are not instances of direct perception.

Direct perception, as David Kelley noted, "does not require the cognitive integration of prior knowledge." When you perceive an object, your awareness of it "does not depend on knowing its relation to other objects or facts" (The Evidence of the Senses, 150, 155).

Observing that an object is a cat or an accident victim, however, requires more. "Between the percept and inferential knowledge lies the perceptual judgment, the conceptual identification of what is directly perceived." Even the simple judgment "that is a cat" requires the concept of cat, which you can reach only by noticing "patterns of similarity among objects." "The entire conceptual level," observed Kelley, "is indirect," and even such basic judgments are not instances of direct perception.

Moving beyond perceptual judgments to recognize that the cat is conscious because it moves its ears in response to your voice involves a host of volitional, conceptual processes, including inferences you had to make before reaching the concept of consciousness. You are functioning on the conceptual level when you make such judgments, even if you now make them effortlessly, after years of learning and practice.

Mr. Stoddard also suggests that there is scientific support for his view, citing Simon Baron-Cohen's 1995 book Mindblindness. Baron-Cohen brings together his and other researchers' previous work in their efforts to understand autism. Building on theories in evolutionary psychology, he proposes that, due to defective neural mechanisms, the autistic person is blind to the mental states of other persons, leaving him or her handicapped.

While elements of Baron-Cohen's broad thesis may seem plausible, he leaves something to be desired when he touches on the origins of conceptual knowledge, proposing that perceptual level "neural mechanisms" simply cause you to observe things in certain conceptual ways. He describes his hypothesized Intentionality Detector, for instance, as "a perceptual device that interprets motion stimuli in terms of the primitive volitional mental states of goal and desire" (p. 32, emphasis added).

Plausibly, sense organs and brains have evolved through a process of natural selection to make us sensitive to some of the particular features of our environment which Baron-Cohen discusses--an object that moves apart from its background, for instance, or an object that has the appearance of a face with eyes. Perceptual-level processing might account for such sensitivity, but not for our moving beyond the perceptually given and making the conceptual judgment that such an object is alive or for our understanding its behavior "in terms of" goals, desires and other mental state words. Chimpanzees exhibit similar perceptual sensitivities, "using each others' gaze," for instance, "to discover things not in their immediate visual field," without providing researchers with evidence of interpreting stimuli in mental state terms, raising "troubling questions" for Baron-Cohen's thesis (Daniel Povinelli & Theodore Povinelli, "Mindblindness," Trends in Neuroscience 19, 1996). While defective perceptual mechanisms in the brain may thus play a role in autism, the proper functioning of hypothesized perceptual mechanisms does not, by itself, account even for the typical preschooler's use of mental state words, much less our adult awareness of minds as such.

Finally, Mr. Stoddard holds that the existence of other minds is axiomatic and that this somehow means that you perceive other minds directly. It is true that you must make use of your knowledge of other minds to reach the axiomatic concepts of self and consciousness. The act of grasping that existence exists, Rand noted, implies the corollary axiom that you exist possessing consciousness (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pp. 3-4); you cannot grasp this corollary, however, without functioning on the conceptual level and grasping that others around you also possess consciousness. To form a concept, you need to observe patterns of similarity between "two or more units." If you had never learned to regard each other person's experiences as a single unit, cognitively integrating that inferential data with your own direct experiences regarded as a separate unit, you would never have reached the axiomatic concepts of self and consciousness and been able to grasp that you exist possessing consciousness.

Nothing about this, however, implies that you "perceive or experience" other people's minds directly. To experience consciousness "directly" is to experience your own consciousness, nobody else's. You know about others' mental processes indirectly, by inference.

This last was also Rand's stated view, even in her chapter on axiomatic concepts in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. The passage in that chapter to which Mr. Stoddard refers suggests nothing to the contrary, so he cannot legitimately claim to have shown that his account "exactly fits" her thinking and "follows from Objectivist principles and modes of analysis."

His thinking and hers do appear similar in one important regard. Some of her statements--you need to grasp only "your being conscious" to form the concept of self, for instance, and some others about reaching axiomatic concepts (e.g., pp. 255, 262)--suggest that she assumed that you do not need inferential knowledge to reach the concepts of self and consciousness. He closely reflects this stance with his apparent assumption that, to reach the concept of mind, you must cognitively integrate only material which you perceive or experience directly.

I invite him or anyone else to validate these assumptions, for they appear false to me. Your knowledge of other minds is inferential, so if inferential knowledge is unavailable to you, then forming the concept of mind is not just difficult, it is impossible. I dare say this is the conclusion he wishes to avoid, but realistically there is only one way, by "checking your premises" and accepting the need to rely on your inferential knowledge of others, along with your own direct experience of yourself, to reach the concept of mind.

Kurt Keener responded, rejecting both direct perception and inference and proposing instead that you apprehend others' minds by non-inferential projection. Mike Hardy also joined the discussion, arguing against a role for inference. In my next post, I pointed out the weaknesses of their arguments and reviewed the process of reaching the concept of mind.

  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
  9.  Retaining the Concept of Mind
10.  Ayn Rand and Other Minds
11.  Perceiving Other Minds Directly?
12.  Preconceptually Apprehending Other Minds?    < Next
13.  Inferences about Other Minds
14.  The Units of the Concept of Mind

Article:  Formation of the Concept of Mind