12.   Preconceptually Apprehending Other Minds?

By Paul Vanderveen

April 11, 1999

Copyright ©1999 by Paul Vanderveen

Kurt Keefner (October 27) trusts that his theory of "contextual-projective" perception of other minds "sidesteps the whole it-takes-two-units-to-make-a-concept conundrum." He refers here to my argument that, since a concept is a mental integration of two or more units, you can reach the concept of mind only by cognitively integrating your own mind, which you experience, and other minds, which you do not experience but can know inferentially. Recognizing the need to attend to others is an important step toward understanding how you reach the concept of mind.

He apparently assumes, however, that inferential knowledge of others does not mix with your own direct experience and avoids the resulting "conundrum" by holding that your knowledge of others' mental processes does not depend on inference. He argues specifically that you do not "infer the existence of other minds in the usual sense of 'infer'"--that is, you "do not deduce it from premises." Proving this, he claims, "is simple: my cat knows I am conscious."

Mike Hardy (October 28) seconds this argument, calling it a "very nice point." When you actually make inferences, he elaborates, you put together "propositions, expressed in words and sentences," according to rules you have "consciously decided to take to be valid." He illustrates with a deductive syllogism, explaining that you check consciously that it "fits the form of a valid syllogism" and grasp "why the form is valid."

While appearing to disagree with my approach, Mr. Keefner does not accurately characterize it, except in the broadest of terms. He states correctly that I hold that you know other minds only inferentially, but mentions only the idea that you deduce the existence of other minds, not addressing my views at all. You cannot discover that "other minds exist" by deducing it from prior knowledge of your own mind, because, as I have previously argued, you cannot identify or think about your own mind as such beforehand. Given the "two or more" nature of concepts, you can identify your own mind as a mind only by grasping its similarity to other minds, so self-knowledge, on this level of abstraction, does not precede knowledge of others. If you have learned to think in terms of your own mind, you have already discovered, in another way, that other minds exist and you do not need to deduce it.

Besides appearing to discuss my ideas while not really doing so, how does Mr. Keefner's argument miss its mark? First, it should be emphasized that attempting to deduce the existence of other minds does not exhaust the possible roles for inference. Thus, failure here does not force a search for a pre-conceptual, non-inferential apprehension of the sort Mr. Keefner proposes. Inference figures in other ways--for instance, you must use it on a lower conceptual level to determine what another person sees, wants, remembers, thinks, guesses, feels and so forth. Thinking about such actions is not the same as (and does not depend upon) thinking about a person's mind as a whole (rather, the latter depends on the former).

Second, inference does not always mean deduction--nor "usually" mean it when the topic is forming concepts. "The process of observing the facts of reality and of integrating them into concepts," as Ayn Rand noted, "is, in essence, a process of induction," not deduction (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 28). To infer, according to The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, is to "derive by reasoning," to conclude or judge "from premises or evidence" (2nd ed., 1987, emphasis added). You reach the concept of mind by an inductive process in which you integrate evidence, identifying a level of structure in reality which you did not previously notice.

Furthermore, making inferences (even deductive ones), while requiring conscious effort, does not require, as Mr. Hardy claims, that you express an argument in the form of a valid syllogism and formally check its validity. Young children use reason, identifying and integrating the material provided by their senses, without knowing what syllogisms are, much less identifying valid forms. Actually, they must do so before they can learn about logic, syllogisms and valid forms. As H. W. B. Joseph put it, "we must have experience of thinking about things, before we can investigate the principles of thinking" (An Introduction to Logic, 2nd ed., 1916, p. 2). Preschoolers make inferences when they move beyond what is available on the perceptual level, as when they determine (and express in words) what others can and cannot see and when they recognize that others have "different spatial-perspectival views" of things when looking "from different positions" (John H. Flavell, "The Development of Knowledge About Visual Perception," Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1977, p. 74). They make such inferences even though they have no training in logic and no idea what a syllogism is. (They learn also that they can make errors, perhaps someday later studying the principles of thinking and checking some of their inferences formally. Nevertheless, children and adults alike, including informed adults, make lots of valid inferences without formally checking them.)

Whether we consider inductive or deductive inferences does not matter to Mr. Keefner's argument. He proposes that we can apprehend other minds without using reason in any manner, without functioning on the conceptual level at all. His approach, as he notes, does not rely "on the knowers involved using concepts as such," making it possibly relevant to mention his cat.

So let us consider, finally, what it really knows. Sketching his ideas on this subject, Mr. Keefner claims that his cat and other members of "higher species" have "a psychologically mediated, preconceptual apprehension" of other minds. He does not, however, tie his ideas to reality. He provides no evidence that his cat has actually joined the ranks of the self-aware, that it grasps in any manner that "the existence of which it is aware is existence-as-perceived-by-someone (initially, by the self)" or that it projects its "cognitive context" onto him or any other object. He just postulates, using such highly abstract terminology, that this is the case. Persons can project their inner experiences onto each other--and onto cats, trees, teddy bears, statues, celestial bodies and other objects, including imaginary ones. Their capabilities in this direction are well documented, but why suppose, in the absence of evidence, that cats share it?

Even if a cat could somehow project its own cognitive processes onto others, why should we regard that as a form of apprehension? Why would automatic feline projection qualify as a form of apprehension, when human projection does not? Accurately determining what another person experiences typically requires observation of the other's overt actions and consideration of his or her context (not just your own), plus frequent testing and refinement. Some people are better at it than others for a variety of reasons, such as giving such matters thought and developing useful interpersonal skills. (Mr. Keefner does claim that a cat projects its own cognitive context onto others "based on their reactions." Such a proposed capacity might seem similar to human inference, except he is discussing an animal which lacks conceptual level functioning and arguing against a role for inference. He does not elaborate.)

Even if, amazingly, a cat could somehow accurately determine what a particular person experienced on a particular occasion--for instance, that the person remembered something, why suppose that it would be able to apprehend a person's mind as a whole?

In sum, Mr. Keefner neither successfully eliminates inference nor provides any support for his claim that his cat apprehends mental processes or minds.

Given that you do not apprehend others' mental processes preconceptually, but must rely on inference to determine what others experience, how do you actually reach the concept of mind?

Research indicates that you first spend many years learning about other persons and yourself on lower conceptual levels, using concepts of seeing, wanting, remembering, thinking, guessing, feeling and similar actions as building blocks. Note that you face no comparable problem finding "two or more" on this level of abstraction, as you yourself continually experience many different kinds of processes, as do other persons. Studies demonstrate that you normally begin reaching concepts of such actions during your preschool years and learn throughout childhood to apply them, with increasing sophistication, to both yourself and others. (For my reintegration of research data, see "Formation of the Concept of Mind," Objectivity 1, 1993 and earlier posts, linked below.)

In the course of normal development, you also begin to learn about the many complex internal relationships possible among someone's processes. You begin to figure out what another has experienced and learned and what he or she can understand. You grasp that a friend's characteristic attitudes or expectations of life, which differ subtly from yours, consistently affect his or her evaluations. After countless such observations about others, all of which involve inference, you eventually learn (if you reach the concept of mind) to regard the interrelated totality of another's experiences globally, as a single unit ("a separate member of a group of two or more similar members"--Rand, p. 6). You identify that unit and other members of the group, similar "inner worlds" of other persons--including the one and only one which you actually experience. Thus, while yourself experiencing only one member of this group, you learn to recognize a pattern that extends further, an element of similarity between yourself and others.

You learn to apprehend minds through a long, complex, essentially inductive developmental process, not on the basis of some effortless, preconceptual apprehension. You reach the concept of mind only after making countless inferences about other people's experiences on lower conceptual levels. While Mr. Keefner accepts that knowledge of others is crucial, his proposal does not begin to do justice to the underlying developments.

Mike Hardy also supported Bill Stoddard's idea that you perceive other minds directly. He responded briefly to the above post. I next address his remaining arguments and review some evidence that your awareness of others' minds depends on inference.

  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?
13.  Inferences about Other Minds    < Next
14.  The Units of the Concept of Mind

Article:  Formation of the Concept of Mind