13.   Inferences about Other Minds

By Paul Vanderveen

August 30, 1999

Copyright ©1999 by Paul Vanderveen

Mike Hardy (April 19) does not address my objection to his argument that you perceive other minds directly, yet he repeats a disputed view. "Kurt Keefner's cat," he claims, "is aware of Kurt Keefner's consciousness by a means other than inference." His claim appears to suffer from the same basic problem as I noted with Mr. Keefner's original claim--the lack of supporting evidence. Why he and Mr. Keefner think a cat is aware of another's consciousness (by any means) remains a mystery to me.

Lest my objection to his earlier argument be lost, let me restate it. He minimizes the role of inference by casting it in terms of a logician's formal analysis--e.g., you use "propositions, expressed in words and sentences," check that they fit "the form of a valid syllogism" and grasp "why the form is valid" (October 28). Before you can study and make inferences formally, however, you need experience thinking and making inferences informally. You gain this experience even as a young child, reasoning informally about many things, including what other people think, remember, feel and so forth. Mr. Hardy seems to discount such activity on the basis of an unduly narrow (formal) construal of inference. (See my April 11 post, #12 linked below, 7th paragraph, for elaboration and references.)

He does emphasize that his essential point "was not that inferences are always deductive." I did not claim or assume that it was, but appreciate his clarification (as he had quoted and endorsed Mr. Keefner's argument, which included the assumption that infer usually means deduce). We also seem to agree that inference is a conscious process, while we differ as to its role in awareness of others' minds.

He supports both Mr. Keefner's critical argument (October 27) against a role for inference and Bill Stoddard's theory (May 7 & May 25, 1998) that you can perceive another's consciousness directly, although he admits that the idea of directly perceiving other minds may seem strange at first. He attempts to lend it plausibility by reviewing a couple features of perception.

First, he touches upon its automatic nature. When you see a table, he observes, you do not infer its presence from awareness of signals moving along your optic nerves. Who here, however, supposes that you do? No one has suggested that you normally sense signals moving along your nerves and, from this, infer the existence of things.

Second, he argues that "perception is not quite as simple a process as one may be tempted to think," since it can involve the integration of information from different senses. Again, no one has denied this integrative feature of perception (or taken the processes of perception to be simple). Perceptual processes may often include, as David Kelley noted, "integration among the sense modalities" (The Evidence of the Senses, p. 215).

Mr. Hardy thus argues against imaginary opponents. Their defeat is no substitute for addressing my arguments (see my posts of October 16 & April 11, #11 & 12 linked below) or for providing some evidence to support his view that you (and a cat) directly perceive other minds.

The complexity of cognition, to which he alludes, extends beyond direct perception and may make it seem that you perceive other minds directly. Kelley cautioned, however, that since adult perceptual capacities are integrated with other cognitive skills, "seemingly direct observations may actually contain interpretive elements" (p. 69). We must therefore be open to considerations "that provide evidence of interpretation."

Consider the following evidence that awareness of others' mental processes and of their minds as a whole depends on inference.

Research suggests that you reach the explicit concept of mind through a protracted developmental process, often culminating around adolescence (see "Formation of the Concept of Mind" for an integration of research data and references). If you directly perceive others' minds, why does this process of conceptualizing such common and highly significant existents take so long? Early in life, you typically reach concepts of many common entities which you do directly perceive--such as dogs, tables and shoes, and of actions which you yourself take and which you directly perceive others taking--such as standing up, running and eating, and of a special category of actions including seeing, thinking, remembering and imagining, a multitude of which (unlike minds) you yourself experience. If you directly perceive others' minds, thus directly perceiving "two or more" units required to form a concept, why do you reach the concept of mind only years later?

The objects of direct perception are given and perceptual awareness of them is as reliable as your senses. Once you turn your attention toward an object, what you directly perceive depends "on the stimulation available in that direction" (Kelley, pp. 149-150). When you turn your attention toward other persons, however, you do not automatically detect what they are experiencing. Instead, you commonly hesitate and guess, testing your guesses so as to correct or refine them, and you may do this even when considering the thoughts and feelings of your closest intimates, all of which indicates the involvement of much more than effortless perceptual processes.

Observers of widely varied backgrounds frequently note the private nature of mental actions, and adolescents and even young children commonly make related observations (see "Formation" for examples and references). Researchers have established, for instance, that even five-year-olds typically know that others cannot see an object that you imagine, such as "a picture in your head" of a cup or balloon (D. Estes, H. M. Wellman & J. D. Woolley, "Children's Understanding of Mental Phenomena," Advances in Child Development and Behavior 22, 1989). The claim that you directly perceive others' mental processes or minds, and reciprocally that they directly perceive yours, clashes with these widespread observations.

None of the arguments that you directly perceive others' mental processes, or otherwise apprehend them preconceptually, have withstood close scrutiny, and no one has responded substantively to my objections. Evidence indicates instead that reasoning plays a pivotal role in your awareness of others' experiences and that reaching awareness of minds as such is a still higher level cognitive task.

To master that task and reach the concept of mind, you must cognitively integrate two or more units--your own mind, which you experience, and others' minds, which you do not. The concept of mind identifies the unity of your own experiences and the separate unity of each other person's experiences. To reach this concept, you must focus on elements of similarity between yourself and others, drawing not only on your own experience of yourself, but also on your inferential knowledge of each other person's similar experience.

Monart Pon, in his review of my article "Formation of the Concept of Mind," claims that the concept of mind is axiomatic and that this enables you to form it without thinking about other people. I explain next that, even if the concept were axiomatic, this would be irrelevant. The units of the concept of mind are not mental processes, but minds. You have only one mind and consequently cannot reach this concept without thinking about other people.

  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
14.  The Units of the Concept of Mind    < Next

Article:  Formation of the Concept of Mind