*Author's note: I currently, fundamentally disagree with the conclusions drawn in this paper but have re-posted it as I believe that qualia play a fundamental role in undermining pure materialistic attempts to address qualia and other consciousness issues. Other minds is not a pseudo problem but a real problem on traditional and contemporary materialists models. Particularly, the problems, in my estimation, center upon rationality and intentionality.
The problem of other minds, simply stated, is the problem of one not being able to assent to the (seemingly) commonsensical belief that another has a mind of his own, at least not on a rational basis. Individuals are intimately aware of their own subjective, first-person inner life experience (i.e., the mind) but, so the argument goes, have no access to this perspective in others.1 It is merely assumed that others have minds but, it turns out, so argues the skeptic, that this is an unwarranted assumption in as much as there is no rational basis for such a belief.
The current, more prominent attempt at solving the problem of other minds (among philosophers at least) is a version of the analogical argument referred to as the inference to best explanation argument.2 The inference to best explanation argument, simply stated, says:
This however, is merely a weak form of argument from analogy in that it focuses upon the mental states of others (as its inferential starting point), which is at heart of the issue in the discussion of other minds, i.e., the mental states of other and the inference from those to behaviors, even if a good explanation, doesn’t solve the problem, or at least not in any strong sense. If an argument from analogy is going to be the point of appeal, the content of the analogy should be more substantial.
Starting with an argument from analogy, rather than taking the tedious and spurious route above, one might attempt, at least, a stronger version of analogical argument. There might be one to be found in the doctrine of identity theory.3 Clearly, if the mind just is the brain then there can be no problem of other minds. Individuals (pending they have brains of course!) have minds by virtue of having brains. Mental states do not exist as phenomena distinct from brain states but, rather, mental states just are brain states.4 However, if one can discredit identity theory (materialist theories in general), then the problem of other minds might just remain problematic.
The problem of mind in philosophy is divided into two major components, the so-called hard problem and, respectively, the so-called easy problem.5 The easy problem is concerned with psychological issues whereas the “hard problem” is concerned with just how biological systems can give rise to conscious experience of any kind in the first place.6 In other words, why there is such a thing as subjective, first-person, conscious experience to begin with is a mystery when one considers it somehow (seemingly) emerges from that lump of gray matter which is the brain.
What causes the most difficulty for identity theorists (and materialists more generally), the contrarians maintain at least, are qualia and intentionality.7 Though discussions of qualia can be quite lengthy and complex8, for the intents and purposes herein, suffice it to say that experiences are said to be experienced in just a certain way—to have a particular, qualitative feel. As such, accounting for them in purely physicalistic terms is said to be quite difficult. Pointing to a scan of the brain and showing the area of cortex that “lights up” when a sip of wine crosses the taste buds is not identical with the qualitative, subjective feel of the taste of wine, or so the argument goes.
It has been argued that intentionality, the notion that mental states are distinct from physical states in that they have intentional predicates, i.e., they are about something. Mental states have the quality of “aboutness.”9 Further, it is this so-called aboutness that also provides for the quality of aspectualness. While purely physical states might be “about,” i.e., represent and stand in for Z, such does not allow for intentional reference to given aspects of Z.
George Graham uses the example of aiming, as say with a dart gun:
The physical process of aiming is not aspectual. If the dart gun points at Roderick, it does not point at Roderick as bald or having graduated from Yale; it points at Roderick full stop—whether he is bald, from Yale or whatever. By contrast, Intentionality or aboutness is aspectual. Carl entertains beliefs about Roderick under this or that aspect rather than another; not Roderick whatever he is, but rather as bald, as his uncle and so on.10
What Graham is saying is that the physical, in contrast with the mental, cannot account
for intentionality and, particularly, this quality of aspectualness. Even prima facie this doesn’t seem to be the case, especially in lieu of recent developments in the cognitive and computer sciences. For example, the development of facial recognition software (based on how the brain processes and represents such information) has demonstrated that physical systems can both represent (have intentionality, i.e., aboutness) physical instances and even particular aspects of those instances (account for aspectualness).11
So, as it turns out, qualia and intentionality are not the nail in the coffin to materialist theories of mind as opponents would have one believe. There is nothing logically inconsistent with mind-brain identity (or other materialist theories) and qualia and intentionality. If anything, qualia is the more persistent of the problems for materialist notions however philosophers have accounted for such phenomena in materialistic terms.12
If the mind and the brain are equivalent, as stated above, then there is, in fact, no problem of other minds. But what if the mind and brain aren’t identical one with the other? Where does this leave the materialist? Others have argued, though consciousness might be somewhat problematic for science at present, it cannot be denied that consciousness is, somehow, a product of, or, rather, a feature of the brain, particularly, biological brain processes.13 This makes perfect sense. Think about it. When anesthesia is administered to an individual undergoing surgery, consciousness ceases, i.e., when the brain is sedated consciousness is sedated (and this commensurate with the level of brain sedation).14 Therefore, at very least, the mind depends, in part, upon the brain.15 One may debate whether the mind emerges on top of complex bio-computational processes, supervenes upon generic neural operations, is simply a feature of biological brains, etc. What cannot be debated is that mind depends upon brain and, to make the point of the discussion at hand, as such, if this is granted, there is no real problem, at least not one of other minds. To have a brain is, in one sense or another, to have a mind.
Other arguments could be advanced to support the idea that the problem of other minds is nothing more than a pseudoproblem at best. For example, one could apply the verificationist principle of meaning16 and demonstrate that talk of other minds is doing metaphysics and, therefore, ultimately, meaningless.17 One could also appeal to a version of the private language argument18 in which it might be argued that no individual could possibly be privy to a private conscious life because when one speaks of this so-called private life, he speaks in a public language, understood by all and with this understanding built into the very social fabric. Such a social context dictates the meaning of the language and, as such, each individual, in understanding another’s utterances regarding an assumed private, inner life, only does so because he shares in the same experience and in the common public language. If such a truly private life existed, a “secret” language of thought19, one might argue, there would be no possible way for discourse on matters related to the first person.
It is clear that there are many fronts on which the problem of other minds can be attacked and demonstrated to be nothing more than a pseudoproblem. Even then, it is truly only a pseudoproblem for the dualists and put forth as a challenge to materialists for, as the dualists see it, it poses many hurdles to a materialist theory of mind. As, hopefully, has been demonstrated above, the problem of other minds fails to do that which the dualists would have it do. And, as it turns out, it really isn’t a problem at all.
Audi, Robert, ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2006.
Ayer, Alfred Jules. Language, Truth and Logic. New York: Dover, 1952.
Brentano, Franz. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. New York: Routledge, 1995 (first
published in 1874).
Burr, John R. and Goldinger, Milton. Philosophy and Contemporary Issues. Up Saddle River:
Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.
Chalmers, David J. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1996.
Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. New York: Back Bay Books, 1991.
Graham, George. Philosophy of Mind: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993.
Green, David W., et al. Cognitive Science: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers,
Hameroff, Stuart R., M.D. “The Entwined Mysteries of Anesthesia and Consciousness: Is There
a Common Underlying Mechanism?” Anesthesiology 2006; 105: 400-12. Print.
Searle, John R. The Mystery of Consciousness. New York: The New York Review of Books,
1 Robert Audi, ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition, 746-747.
2 George Graham, Philosophy of Mind: An Introduction, 51-59.
3 In contrast to dualism, identity theory is an a posteriori, materialist attempt at solution to the mind-body problem, in which it is stated that the mind just is identical to the brain. I.e., consciousness can be explained in terms of scientific theory (if not yet, then there is hope for scientific advancement in the future). See E. Sober, Core Questions in Philosophy, 292-297.
4 Audi, 687.
5 David Chalmers in The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, 24-25.
6 Chalmers, 25.
7 “Qualia” is a term coined by philosophers to refer to qualitative experience of X, where X = any facet of experience evoking consciousness. In other words, just why does a particular taste, olfactory, tactile, auditory, or ocular experience seem a certain way? Related is intentionality, the idea that mental states are about things and the problem of how to coalesce this with materialist notions of mind. See G. Graham’s discussion of Brentano’s thesis, 135-142.
8 See Chalmers, 247-275.
9 Franz Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, New York: Routledge, 1995 (first published in 1874).
10 Graham, 136.
11 See David W. Green, et al. in Cognitive Science: An Introduction, 84-119 for an introductory discussion on the cognitive processes involved in facial recognition.
12 E.g., Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained.
13 John R. Searle, The Mystery of Consciousness, 3-18.
14 Stuart Hameroff, M.D., “The Entwined Mysteries of Anesthesia and Consciousness: Is There a Common Underlying Mechanism?”
15 Searle has argued not to jump to conclusions of cause and effect but rather consider mind as feature of biological brain matter, 7.
16 The verificationist principle of meaning states that, for a given proposition to be deemed factually significant it must be, at least in principle, verifiable and/or falsifiable.
17 A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, 19-20; 128-131.
18 The private language argument was first advanced by the Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951).
19 Not to be confused with LOT (language of thought) as referred to the in the cognitive sciences.
A systems analyst by profession and a curious polymath by birth, I research and write on a variety of topics.