Problem of other minds

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The problem of other minds has traditionally been regarded as an epistemological challenge raised by the skeptic. The challenge may be expressed as follows: given that I can only observe the behavior of others, how can I know that others have minds? The thought behind the question is that no matter how sophisticated someone's behavior is, behavior on its own is not sufficient to guarantee the presence of mentality. It remains possible, for example, that other people are actually nothing more than meaty automata (or "Philosophical zombies" as the term for this example stands). Perhaps the main argument offered against this possibility in the history of philosophy is the argument from analogy; it can be found in the works of J.S. Mill, A. J. Ayer, and Bertrand Russell. However it must also be noted that the argument from analogy has faced scrutiny from the likes of Norman Malcolm who have issues with the 'one case' nature of the argument.

More recently, it has come to be appreciated that the epistemological issue is intimately related to metaphysical and conceptual issues. This is best appreciated by considering the examples of type physicalism and philosophical behaviorism. According to the type physicalist, to be in a certain type of mental state is just to be in a certain type of physical (brain) state. So, if we can detect that another individual is in a certain type of physical state, then we can know that they are in a certain type of mental state. Thus, it seems that we can know, in a relatively unproblematic way, that other people are in certain mental states. In this case, the epistemological problem is dissolved by making a claim about the metaphysics of mind. Logical behaviorism, on the other hand, makes a claim about the nature of our mental concepts. This claim is that statements about mental phenomena can be analyzed into statements about behavior and behavioral dispositions. To be in a certain mental state, e.g. pain, is just to behave, or be disposed to behave, in certain ways. Since statements ascribing mental predicates to individuals make claims about nothing over and above their behavior, they can be verified to be true or false by observation of behavior. Thus, the behaviorist closes the conceptual gap between behavior and mentality which is responsible for the epistemological problem.

Contents

Metaphysical Solipsism

Metaphysical Solipsists argue that there are indeed no minds but one's own and that attempting to prove the existence of another mind is futile. Proponents of this view argue that the world outside one's own mind cannot be known and indeed might be nonexistent.

Reductionist view

The reductionist viewpoint, supported by John McDowell and others[who?], has tried to tackle the first two propositions 1 and 2 (above), by putting forth certain modes of expression (such as being in pain) as privileged and allowing us direct access to the other's mind. Thus, although they would admit from the problem of pretense, that at no one time can we claim to have access to another's mental state, they are not permanently unavailable to us.

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