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Other minds problem

  1. May 24, 2010 #1
    Hey guys,
    So for my philosophy class we have a writing that is related to the quote --
    "The only accounts of the mind that have any chance of solving the other minds problem don't take the subjective, 'first person' nature of the mind seriously, and the accounts that do take it seriously can't solve the other minds problem"
    I have to argue for or against this argument with examples. At the moment I am having a bit of trouble actually explaining this concept. I understand the idea that it logical to think that for example, if i hit my thumb with a hammer, I wince in pain, if someone else hits there thumb with a hammer they also wince in pain, so it is logical to believe that they too are conscious (have mental states etc...)
    I feel like I know what this is saying but I just don't understand completely what it means by take the first person nature of the mind seriously. Can anyone shed a little light on this?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 24, 2010 #2
  4. May 24, 2010 #3
    I'm with joedawg on this one. Why?
  5. May 24, 2010 #4
    Well I would believe that they too have conscious mind states because I believe that my being in pain is a mind state of my own, so therefore if my wincing and pain is a mind state, wouldn't it be logical for me to believe that another person who is wincing and in pain would share a similar mind state?

    I'm not sure I understand what is meant by your "why's". I understand that your question was intended for me to think about my statement deeper, but I am just concerned that I am going to be thinking about it in a way that will not help me.

    Do you mean why do I think that it is logical for me to attribute mind states to someone else if they show similar behaviorisms?
  6. May 24, 2010 #5


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    It is saying that a) there is "something that it is like" to be you, right now, being aware of the world and your thoughts. And b) there is no hope of objectively modelling this state with a heap of scientific detail, no matter how complicated we get.

    Consciousness is ineffable, etc. It has to be experienced, and the experience cannot be described in third person terms.

    I would say this is true in the sense that third person descriptions of anything are not designed to tell you what it is like to be that thing. Can you describe a glass of water or Jupiter in terms that would allow me to put myself in the shoes of those objects?

    Instead, modelling - our method of explaining "objectively" - is based on generalising the "mechanisms" or causality of systems. Arriving at broad principles rather than making specific descriptions.

    So in this sense, third person descriptions don't take first person descriptions "seriously" as third person descriptions are developed by the discarding of such specific detail.

    First person descriptions by contrast would want to capture all the fine detail of "what it is like".

    As it so often said, the map is not the territory. The map is your generalised model of the terrain which gets all the more useful, the more unnecessary detail that can be left out. The territory is the thing itself which has the detail. To attempt to recreate the territory would be a simulation rather than a model.
  7. May 24, 2010 #6
    So does the person you see in the mirrors reflection also feel pain?
  8. May 24, 2010 #7
    Thank you very much for this explanation of what was meant by the first/third person. While I still think I have to rethink about the arguments I will be presenting, I understand the wording of what is meant by taking it "seriously" much better. It would appear to me that if I explain my mind states and my behavior through my own eyes, there is no possible way that I can know for sure that another person has any of the same thoughts, feelings, hopes, desires... because my mind states are so experiential.
  9. May 24, 2010 #8
    You could always do a vulcan mind meld couldn't you?
  10. May 24, 2010 #9
    I apologize in advance if some of the things I say seem a bit foolish/obvious. I am not a philosophy major, just took this because it seemed extraordinarily interesting to me (I am an engineering major so classes that are more open minded oriented are very hard to come by).

    With that being said, I obviously would answer this question as no, the person that I see in the mirrors reflection is not actually a person but rather it is any object that is reflecting or emitting light. I cannot logically say that the person that I "see" in the mirror has feelings because it is a not a person. I guess the point you are making here is that the other people around me could just as easily be as empty as the reflection in the mirror?
  11. May 24, 2010 #10
    haha, that would be a solution wouldn't it. Unfortunately last time I was at the local department store they were not in stock.
  12. May 24, 2010 #11
    No. No point I just say stuff at random most the time. It's kinda an art you learn after doing enough philosophical debate.
  13. May 24, 2010 #12
    Very well magpies. Well if it was intentional or unintentional is irrelevant I suppose. It made me think about it much more and I think I have come a bit closer to understanding. I think that the question is saying that an account of the mind such as type physical \ism which doesn't worry so much about the experiential parts of mind states can easily refute the other minds problem. They can say a certain mind state, X, is a physical entity. Therefore if someone else has the physical entity they also have the mind state X. type physicalism seems to me to be something hat doesn't take the first person very seriously because we are talking about mind states through science and physics rather than literally saying that the mind state of being in pain is a "hurty" sensation.
  14. May 24, 2010 #13
    I believe there are other minds because I am able to be surprised/amused/disappointed by what other people say and do.

    That is, the phrase "another mind" is just another term for the existence of "interesting ideas and actions."
  15. May 24, 2010 #14
    What about the one universal mind what is his opinion on this issue?
  16. May 24, 2010 #15
    I think that this idea could be refuted by the idea that you can very easily be surprised amused or disappointed just as easily by things that YOU do. I can be surprised in something that I did myself, so what difference does that make that we can be surprised in what other people do?

    I am not trying to say that you are wrong, I am just trying to go a little deeper in the argument.
  17. May 25, 2010 #16
    Here is the main crux of the mind problem... While you may come to the conclusion that someone else does not have a mind you will eventually have to tell them this fact. After having told the other person who possibly has a shotgun at home that they have no mind you'll have to find a way to smooth things over. So it's basically a lose lose to accuse someone of not having a mind however the less likely they are to have a shotgun the better your odds of getting away with it are. If swamp slugs had shotguns and could use them we would most likely welcome them as members of the human race.
  18. May 25, 2010 #17


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    ...indeed, because descriptions would have to be in terms of something else "more objective" (like electromagnetic wavelength).

    So if I see this colour as red, how do I know you see red in the same experiential way? You can find lots of arguments along these lines - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary's_room
  19. May 25, 2010 #18
    What is this "red" you speak of???
  20. May 25, 2010 #19
    Thank you Apeiron. I feel like I am surely on the right track now. I just really had no clue what the question was asking me (this is like the 50th time this has happened this year haha). I am not very used to philosophy questions so they have been catching me off guard. I find it extremely interesting though.

    Once again thank you very much Apeiron, I am sure I will see you posting in the future on my philosophy inquiries. (And also the inverted qualia problem that you brought up about the colors was one of my favorite parts of my class right now. In 3rd grade I argued with my teacher that she couldn't surely know that we saw the same color as me, finally 10 years later I figured out there is actually a word for that!)
  21. May 25, 2010 #20


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    It is a scientific question too. Here is a column I wrote some years back on tetrachromats.

  22. May 25, 2010 #21


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    The thing is, long before we develop a "first person" self-awareness, already during the first months after we're born, our brains are programmed to tune in to how other people feel and what's going on with them. The fact that other people are self-conscious beings like ourselves is not something we deduce from experience. It's something we already take for granted as soon as we begin to be self-conscious ourselves.

    As we start to grow up, we get better and better at interpreting facial expressions, body language and eventually talking... we learn to express ourselves as we learn understand others, in the same mostly unconscious process of "communicating". But the "problem" philosophers like to discuss is already "solved" at the beginning -- the openness to there being other people there in our world, is built in, biologically. And these biological mechanisms can fail, to varying degrees, as in autism.

    I would guess that this specific kind of openness that's captured in the word "you" is at the heart of what makes us human. It's what somehow began to evolve a million or so years ago, gradually making our species so profoundly different from others, by making possible the evolution of language. It seems to me, language can only grow in our minds because of this built-in, unquestioned assumption that there are people there to talk to.

    Unfortunately, when philosophers think about the self-aware mind, the mind they're aware of is highly educated, detached, rational, abstract, and sitting alone by itself, thinking. And there's a long history of philosophy taking itself as the model for what's most basic and important about the mind and how it thinks. So philosophical literature is full of reflection on 1st-person experience and 3rd-person reality, and the difficulty of making a reliable connection between them. But I know of only one book -- Buber's religious-philosophical I and Thou -- that takes "you" seriously, as more basic to the nature of the human mind than "I" or "it".
  23. May 25, 2010 #22
    I should add that the limitations of human language, that lead to an inability to convey sensory experience through it, need not necessarily apply to all conceivable languages. It is conceivable that a more advanced race, maybe even modified humans, might one day actually be able to elicit rich and even novel sensory-like experiences in the minds of the receivers of their messages.
  24. May 25, 2010 #23
    You are confusing epistemology with ontology.

    The difference between them is important if you want to understand philosophy, especially the problem of other minds.

    Everything we know about biology comes from experience, and knowledge exists in an indvividual mind. We don't, however, experience other minds. So your 'assumption' is not justified.

    And biological science is more based on induction, not deduction.
  25. May 25, 2010 #24
    You need to be "mindless" in order to finally solve the "other minds problem." Digging deeper will only get you to the other side, where it is perfectly shallow again. But before you get there, you will go insane, I promise you...

    Go East, young human!

    (Beyond Europe, beyond the Central Asian steppes...)
    Last edited: May 25, 2010
  26. May 26, 2010 #25


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    Not to quibble, but you are confusing ontology -- which concerns the nature of being or what it means to be -- with science. Scientific theories have ontological presuppositions, but the sciences rarely deal with them explicitly.

    Exactly. There is no way that logic applied to experience can prove that there are other worlds of experience out there in other people's minds. However, outside of a class in so-called philosophy, this is not something it would ever occur to anyone to want to prove, because it's so obvious.

    We don't experience other minds, but we believe in them, innately... long before we're aware of having any beliefs or having a mind at all, we have an emotional structure that's geared to developing communicative relationships with others. So you're right, the "assumption" that there are other self-aware beings out there is entirely "unjustified" -- and because we have this unjustifiable assumption built in from the beginning, we gradually learn to imagine what other people are feeling and thinking, in relation to what we think and feel.

    If someone were born entirely without this innate need for emotional connection with other people, I imagine they would never learn to talk. (Very severe autism gives us a little bit of an indication of what that would be like.) But since you and I were born with it and did learn to talk, we have an overwhelming abundance of "evidence" that there are in fact other people with minds of their own. It would be literally insane for us to behave as if this assumption were not true, since essentially everything we know about our world depends on it.

    Yet, this "evidence" is indeed entirely imaginary. We don't experience other people as having minds of their own -- we imagine it. But how we imagine the world is immensely important to the way we live. The notion that one can be human, or even do science, without believing in unprovable things, is just delusional.
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