Fwd: Other Minds

Technotranscendence (neptune@mars.superlink.net)
Thu, 21 May 1998 06:49:30 -0400 (EDT)


Sorry, this is so long, but I wanted your (plural) opinions of it.


Daniel Ust

Date: Thu, 07 May 1998 22:19:40 -0700
From: "William H. Stoddard" <whswhs@primenet.com>
To: philosophy of objectivism <OBJECTIVISM-L@cornell.edu>
Subject: Other minds

A crucial aspect of Ayn Rand's philosophy is her development of an anti-
skeptical position. The key to this position is her identification of axioms,
or truths that cannot be rejected without committing the fallacy of the
stolen concept. Rand equates the acceptance of these axioms to the
affirmation that human knowledge is possible.

But she does not give equal attention to all the skeptical arguments. Skeptics
classically argued against the validity of the senses, against the existence
of physical objects independent of the mind, against causality; and Rand
presents arguments that all these assumptions are necessary and that they
are aspects of the basic affirmation of existence and consciousness. But
skeptics also classically argued against the continuity of consciousness and
the reliability of memory, and against the possibility of knowing that
other minds exist--that other people are conscious. Rand does not offer a
critique of these claims, nor affirm memory and other minds as axiomatic.

In fact, Rand does not appear to address the question of knowledge of other
minds at all. This question does appear in Nathaniel Branden's early,
partially philosophically focused writings, however. Branden argues that
we are directly aware of our own consciousness; that we are aware of
the actions we perform that proceed from the control of our consciousness
over our bodies; and that, seeing other human beings perform similar
actions, we are able to infer that they are controlled by consciousnesses
like ours, though we can never be aware of those consciousnesses. This
is, in fact, very close to the classic introspectionist paradigm in psychology.

Epistemologically, this position has significant problems. Consider, for
example, a parallel position about matter: that we do not have direct
knowledge of material objects, but, from experience the sensory states
that those objects create by impinging on our sense organs, we infer that
the objects exist. This representationalist model of perception led
naturally to Berkeley's questions about how this inference could be made,
and to Hume's skepticism about knowledge beyond immediate sensory
awareness. And in just the same way, the claim that we do not have
direct awareness of other minds, but only infer such knowledge, leads to
a skepticism about the validity of this inference that was at least
latent in Hume and that emerged fully in his logical positivist
successors--and was popularized in some of the fiction of Robert
Heinlein, who was haunted by a nightmare solipsism that gave rise to
stories such as "They" and "All You Zombies." In contemporary
philosophy, it is commonly accepted that any claim to know what is in
another person's mind, or even to know that that mind exist, is difficult
to support and needs special justification.

And metaphysically, Branden's assertion that we cannot perceive
another person's consciousness, but can only infer it from its effects,
comes very close to the dualism that Rand claims to reject, and goes
beyond Rand's legitimate claim that consciousness as such as axiomatic.
It is one thing to say that our consciousness is an axiom which no
knowledge of the physical basis of human life and behavior can ever
overthrow. But it is another thing to say that no physical instrumentation
can ever detect consciousness. To assert this is to claim that consciousness
is not and cannot be a physical state or process at all--and if this is true,
then it must instead be some kind of nonphysical state or process. This
is exactly the kind of approach that Peikoff rejects as rationalistic. And if
we do likewise--if we leave it to scientific investigation to discover whether
consciousness is a specific configuration of physical changes or something
apart from such physical changes--then we are leaving open the chance
that physical instruments will be able to detect and measure consciousness
within a living brain.

I don't suggest that philosophy can prove by logical arguments that this
can or will happen. I think it's a question to be settled by observation and
experiment. In fact, I think observation and experiment have already begun
to settle it--see, for example, Paul Churchland's "The Engine of Reason, the
Seat of the Soul," which shows a sketch of an image taken from the brain of
a monkey looking at a geometric design, in which a distorted but recognizable
variant of that image is spread across the neurons of the monkey's visual

But, beyond questions of scientific fact, I think that philosophy does have
something to say about knowledge of other minds; and I think what it has to
say is quite parallel to what it has to say about knowledge of physical
objects or of cause and effect.

In the first place, I think it can legitimately be claimed that the existence of
other minds is an axiom. At a trivial level, if X tells Y that X does not
in the existence of other minds, Y is entitled to ask, "Who do you think you
are trying to convince?" By the mere fact of engaging in philosophical
discussion, we are presupposing that the other participants in the discussion
are conscious. But, more generally, the existence of other minds is at the
base of our knowledge, and to deny it would be to deny the possibility of

For one thing, conceptual knowledge is embodied in propositions that are
expressed in language. But language is learned from other people; even if
there are valid cases of children who invented their own languages when
cut off from other human beings, such cases involve at least two children
using language interpersonally. Solitary children do not learn to use a
language. But if we are to learn to use language to refer to the physical
world, it appears that we must presuppose that the people from whom we
learn it are also using it to refer to the physical world, and thus that they
too are conscious.

More generally, consider the enormous extent of human knowledge, and
how much human knowledge is needed even to think of philosophical
questions such as whether other people are conscious. No one person could
possibly invent all that knowledge alone, or hold it in their awareness.
People may perceive and reason alone, but without a massive cognitive
division of labor, they would do so in an unimaginably narrow scope. We
have to accept that other people have knowledge of reality--and thus that
they are able to identify reality--and thus that they are conscious. If we
don't, we have no warrant to accept any beliefs that rest on what we
have read, or heard in conversation. In short, the existence of other minds
is an axiom, in the strongest sense: to deny that other people are conscious
is to deny the basis of so much of our own knowledge that even the denial
itself could not be claimed to be a valid belief. Or, to paraphrase John
Galt, let the psychotic who denies that other people are conscious prove
it without drawing on anything they were taught by other people.

But, in the second place, Rand also states that axioms are known by direct
perception. We don't deduce that existence exists; we see it before us. We
don't deduce that we are conscious; we experience consciousness. Axioms
are first known by perception, and only later consciously identified and
underscored as the basis of knowledge; and that underscoring is not a proof
of the axioms--since any attempt to prove anything already presupposes
that they are true--but a recognition that we are presupposing them and
a reaffirmation of our intent to go on doing so.

It's easy to grasp that the validity of the senses can be known implicitly in
this way; all knowledge starts out through sensory perception, and thus
the fact that we are relying on our senses is implicit in all awareness of
anything. But how can we know that other people are conscious in this
way? How can we perceive consciousness in other people?

A scientific approach to this question can be found in a book that I believe
has been referred to in this mailing list previously: Simon Baron-Cohen's
"Mindblindness." Baron-Cohen proposes that there are automatic neural
mechanisms through which human beings perceive other beings, and
particularly other human beings, as conscious, and that the basis for
autism is the impaired functioning of some of these mechanisms. Baron-
Cohen describes four such processes: intentionality detection, which
identifies self-propelled motion; eye-direction detection, which
identifies the focal point of another's attention; shared attention, which
turns one's own attention to such a focal point, as when a baby looks in
the direction of its mother's gaze; and theory-of-mind, which infers
internal mental states.

Whether Baron-Cohen's account of the causes of autism is correct is
a complex issue needing further research. But the idea that such automatic
mechanisms operate within perception makes it comprehensible that
we could perceive each other's consciousness, rather than inferring it
through abstract thought. Remember that a perception is a group of
sensations that are automatically retained and integrated into a
whole. The fact that there is no sensory receptor for the neural activity
within another brain, or for the mental activity within another mind (if the
two are distinct), no more means that we cannot perceive consciousness
than the fact that there is no sensory receptor for three-dimensional
shape means that our brains cannot integrate sensations of light,
contact, pressure, and muscular effort into a perception of shape, or that
such a perception is merely a theoretical inference, or that it is
open to skeptical doubts. In fact, perception of three-dimensional
shape is the starting point for our knowledge of the physical world; and
perception of other people as consciousness is the starting point for
our knowledge of psychology, or at least a starting point for it.

And once we are freed of the idea of consciousness as a mysterious hidden
force, state, or process that lurks within the brain, we can see that
consciousness is readily apparent to observation. Is the cat asleep or
awake? I say his name, softly, and watch his ears; if they turn toward
the sound of my voice, he is awake and has heard. When I see this, I see
a shift in his attention--and thus I see his consciousness. On the usual
dualist or behaviorist accounts, going from the motion of the ears to
the functioning of consciousness to produce that motion requires
sophisticated scientific and philosophical theorizing, to such a degree
that only a brilliant mind could achieve it; but, in fact, most species of
animals that are preyed upon have some ability to perceive that a
predator is looking at them. Consciousness is known perceptually long
before it is identified conceptually.

Of course, we can be mistaken in seeing someone as conscious, just as
we can be mistaken in seeing two lines as having the same length. We
can certainly misperceive what specifically another person is paying
attention to, or what they are thinking about it. But this no more invalidates
our basic awareness that they are conscious than misperception of physical
objects gives us any ground for doubt that physical objects exist.

In short, other minds can be known to exist in the same way that physical
objects can be known to exist, by perception; and such perception is at the
base of our knowledge long before we gain enough knowledge to identify
it consciously as having the status of an axiom, which it has. And to argue
for knowledge of other minds as an inference from our own introspection
and from perception of other people's bodies is to grant too much validity
to skeptical doubts on the subject--just as to treat physical objects as having
existence inferred theoretically from our own sensations is to grant too
much validity to that sort of skepticism.

Bill Stoddard