Other Minds

The problem of Other Minds is a truephilosophical enigma. It is apt to strike children with no philosophical
education whatsoever, yet remains intractable to many academics. Broadly
speaking, the problem can be divided into three questions. Firstly, how do

I come to believe that there are minds in the world other than my own?

Secondly, how can I justify my belief that there are minds in the world
other than my own? Thirdly, what can I state about the mental states of
minds other than my own?. The question we are dealing with here falls
largely into the third category, although of course issues relating to the
other two will also be involved.

Firstly, it is imperative to assert that, in looking for ‘knowledge’, we
are not aiming for logical certainties - we are not aiming to show that
any propositions about other minds can be demonstrated with absolute
certainty equivalent to that of mathematical truths. Philosophy ever
since Descartes has tended to be defined by scepticism: either it aims to
produce sceptical theories or it aims to refute them. And sceptics tend
towards extremity in their doubts. It must be stated here and now that
there are not, and never can be, any theories that prove demonstratively
that other minds exist, or that I know others’ mental states. This is not
what should be aimed at in attempting to solve the problem. As Austin puts
it "To suppose that the question ‘How do I know that Tom is angry?’ is
meant to mean ‘How do I introspect Tom’s feelings?’ is simply barking up
the wrong gum-tree."

Most philosophers agree that their theories only bestow a greater or
lesser amount of probability onto statements about other minds (although
there are exceptions, e.g. Peter Strawson’s attempt to argue
transcendentally for the existence of other minds through our own
self-consciousness). There have been a number of different attempts to do
this. J.S. Mill, who produced the first known formulation of the Other

Minds problem, used the so-called ‘Argument from Analogy’ both to explain
how we come to believe in other minds and to justify this belief. Briefly,
the argument holds that I am directly aware of mental states in myself,
and I am aware of the behaviour of mine that results from and is caused by
these mental states. As I can observe similar physical behaviour in
others, I draw the analogy that it is caused by the same (or at least
similar) mental states to my own. As in all arguments from analogy, I
assume that because x is similar to y in some respects, it will be similar
in others. So as I know how I behave if I am feeling, say, angry, I assume
in someone else’s case that his behaviour is an indication of the mental
state I call ‘anger’. My opinion in this respect is aided by the fact that
most humans’ behaviour when they claim to be angry is broadly similar.

The argument from analogy, also employed by Bertrand Russell in a slightly
simplified form, is subject to a devastating criticism. Unlike most
analogies, in the case of other minds, there is no conceivable way of
verifying the conclusion we make. We have no way of discovering whether
someone else is angry or not, and our position means that this is a
necessary disadvantage. The only way to have someone else’s experiences
would to become that person, and in doing that, I would no longer be
myself and I would no longer be having someone else’s experiences. Thus it
is impossible to conceive of any set of experimental circumstances under
which I would be able to ascertain whether or not the human who is
expressing anger-behaviour really is angry or not. And as Norman Malcolm
has pointed out, as there are no conceivable criteria I could use to
determine whether someone is angry or not, simply claiming that they are
angry is a meaningless statement.

Many philosophers, perceiving this fatal flaw in the argument from
analogy, have attempted to produce theories on other minds that are not
based on analogy. Malcolm himself held that the problem lies in the belief
that in looking for evidence of other minds, we need to start off from our
own case and then look for evidence that other cases resemble my own in
other humans. He claimed, characteristically following Wittgenstein, that
statements about mental states in others have no ‘special’ status but
rather that they are ‘primitive, natural expressions’ of the state in
question. In other words, 'my leg hurts' is equivalent to non-verbal
behavioural expressions of having a painful leg such as crying, limping,
or holding my leg. The statements are not propositions as such, and so
have no ‘truth-value’.