The Problem Of Other Minds: What It Is And What Theories Address It

The problem of other minds

The mind is very mysterious, so much so that sometimes we don’t even understand how our own mind works. But as much as we can understand the reasons that make us think about something, there is no doubt that the only ones who have access to our minds are ourselves.

We cannot enter the minds of others directly, but we can infer what is going on in others’ heads, as we can demonstrate with the theory of mind… or not?

Do others really have minds? How can we empirically demonstrate that other people have mental states? These and many more are the questions that have led to a curious and intricate philosophical issue: the problem of other minds

What is the problem with other minds?

One of the most studied topics by epistemology, which is the branch of philosophy focused on knowledge, is the famous problem of other minds. This problem refers to the difficulty of justifying our belief that other people have minds as is our case We infer that others have mental states, that there must be something behind their behavior, and that it cannot be that the rest of the people wandering the world are mere automatons in human form.

Although the problem is spoken of in the singular, it can be divided into two problems: the epistemological problem and the conceptual problem of other minds. The epistemological refers to the way in which we can justify our belief that others have mental states, while the conceptual refers to how we can construct a concept of another person’s mental state, that is, what we base on to imagine how They are the mental processes of others.

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The main defining characteristic of the problem of other minds is that it is a problem of justification of intersubjectivity, that is, demonstrating that each person has their own mind, a totally subjective aspect that cannot be observed objectively or scientifically. from outside, apparently. We can only believe that others have minds based on our own experience, since it is the only subjectivity we have access to. Only we know our mind, and it is only our mind that we can know firsthand

But even though the only mind we are going to know is our own, we can “understand” how others work. The idea of ​​believing that others have minds arises from an intuition regarding the mental life of other people, trusting that those other human beings who look like us must feel the same as us, such as emotions, pains, thoughts, beliefs. , desires… But no matter how much we see similarities between them and us or believe we understand how their minds work, this does not rationally demonstrate that they actually have mental states.

Far from giving up or considering that only we have a mind, human beings trust that others do. Despite not having the ability to directly access the minds of others, this does not take away our belief that other minds exist and that each person we see walking down the street has their own. We cannot justify it, we probably never can, but we believe it, probably because, among other reasons, we are terrified by the idea of ​​being alone in this world.

A philosophical problem with many possible solutions

As one might suppose, the problem of other minds has been widely debated in the history of philosophy. No philosopher can resist asking whether others have mental states, since this problem is so unlikely to be solved one day that it serves as endless entertainment for the most thoughtful thinkers who have a lot of free time.

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For centuries and centuries people have tried to “prove” that others have minds, using all possible intellectual efforts to develop a theory that justifies that belief None has been convincing enough since how can it be empirically justified that others have minds based on a belief of our own, our own? Three have been the ones that have obtained the most consensus.

1. Other minds as theoretical entities

This gives strength to the justification that other minds exist based on the idea that the mental states that make up the mind are the best explanation to explain the behavior of other people. We infer that the thoughts of others are the cause behind their behavior, even though This inference is made solely and exclusively with external and indirect evidence

2. Criterion and other minds

This criterion consists of saying that the relationship between behavior and thought is conceptual but not a strict link or an infallible correlation. That is, behavior does not clearly demonstrate that behind a certain behavior there is a mental state or a mind itself. Nevertheless, This approach to behavior plays the role of criterion for the presence of mental states serving as an indicator that something must be behind it.

3. The argument by analogy

This solution is, basically, based on how we are and extrapolating it to others, being the most accepted of the three proposed solutions. Although the possibility that others are mindless automatons could be true, there are enough reasons to believe the opposite and that others, having an appearance similar to ours, must also have a thought similar to ours.

Since we do not have direct access to other people’s experiences, we can only have knowledge of them indirectly using their behavior. Their behaviors serve as clues that allow us to understand what would happen in the minds of others. For this we resort to the logical resource of analogy, taking our own case as a case.

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From our own case we realize that our mind and body are in constant relationship, seeing stable correlations between thoughts and behaviors. For example, if we are nervous it is normal for our hands to shake, sweat or even stutter and when we are sad, we cry, our face is red and our voice falters. Seeing these body-mind relationships, if we see that other people’s bodies behave the same, we assume that the mental processes behind them are the same.

Criticisms of the argument by analogy

The only mind that we can justify its existence is our own, as René Descartes already thought when he said “cogito, ergo sum”. For this reason, it is considered that the argument by analogy does not provide sufficient confidence to justify belief in other minds, responding to it with several criticisms. One of them is that, as an induction, it is too weak since it relies only on a single case: our own experience. No matter how much we trust the correlations we establish between our mind and our behavior, we are talking about our personal experience.

Another criticism is that the relationship postulated by the argument between mental states and behavior is too weak because it is contingent, without providing security that behaviors are unequivocal signs of a specific mental state. It makes sense to think that, at some point, a certain behavior may be related to a specific mental state, but in the future this may not be the case The same thought can imply different behavior both in ourselves and in others.

The third criticism is that we cannot conceive of another’s experience and, therefore, we cannot know it Yes, it is true that we can imagine what is going through a person’s head after doing something, but in reality, we are simulating how we would behave, based only on our way of acting and without knowing how they really do it. others. That is, we cannot understand another person’s mental state because the experience we have is based on our mental states, and these cannot be extrapolated to others.