The Problem of Other Minds

In a 1974 article, Thomas Nagel posed the question: what is it to be a
bat? An attempt to imagine that a human being is living like a bat
sounds absurd. The problem arising from this is that the questioner is a
human being. To answer that question, he would need to pretend to be a
bat while he is not. The immediate answer that can be offered to this
question is that no one can know how it feels like to be a bat. The only
thing with awareness of what ii feels to be a bat is the bat itself. In
this paper, the discussion centers on the assertion that a human subject
cannot have justified belief in the existence of other minds other than
his own. Granting that justification of beliefs is a major process
towards the qualification of beliefs as knowledge, this paper will
analyze the traditional account of knowledge. Further, it will establish
a connection between this account and the problem of other minds. In
addition, the paper will look at some of the solutions that provided for
this problem.
The Problem of Other Minds
The standard analysis of knowledge
The traditional account of knowledge contains three major conditions for
knowledge. They include belief, truth, and justification. According to
this analysis of knowledge, the three conditions must be met if any
claim has to qualify as a knowledge claim. The three conditions
according to this approach to knowledge are both necessary and
sufficient. Although there exists numerous attacks leveled against this
conception of knowledge (Chisholm, 1989), it still remains a standard
account of knowledge and worth analyzing.
According to the standard approach, a subject, S knows a proposition, P
if and only if: (i). P is true, (ii). S believes that P, and (iii). S
justifiably believes that P. p stands for a cognitive statement: A
statement capable of being true or false. Knowledge according to this
analysis involves an assertion by the knower who must have a mental
conviction that that assertion is the case. In addition, the assertion
must the case. Even so, the knower must have good and rational grounds
for believing that the assertion is the case. The rational grounds
accounts for justification.
The implication of the traditional analysis of knowledge is that one can
have a true belief yet lack rational grounds for that belief. Such
beliefs that lack a justification do not account as knowledge claims.
For instance, a subject may have claimed that he knows that the next
president of America will be a male African American (Thompson, 2003
pp.112). This belief appeals to an assumption that America had never had
an African American president in the past. This implies that it is
certain that the next president will be an African American. It turned
out to be true that the elected president was a male African American.
However, the subject cannot be said to have known that the next
president will be an African American. This is because the reasons he
gives for his believing in the assertion lack the rational justification
required for knowledge.
The traditional account, therefore, requires meeting the three
conditions of knowledge. One of the controversial issues in this account
concerns the nature of justification. It is worth noting that only those
beliefs that fulfill the demands of justification qualify as knowledge
claims. A true unjustified belief deems a mere lucky guess. For example,
the assertions of astrologers cannot in the strict sense be termed as
knowledge claims even if they may turn out to be true. Philosophically
speaking, palm readers may not be said to know regardless of their
claims turning out to be true. The question that arises from this issue
is: when is a belief said to be fully justified? To this question,
philosophers have suggested a number of theories of justification.
The foundationalism theories of justification claim that all justified
beliefs entirely rest on a base of non-inferential beliefs. The
assumption is that beliefs get justified by a method of inference from
other beliefs (Thompson, 2003 pp.111). Those other beliefs get justified
by inferring yet from some other basic beliefs. The process of
justification cannot go to an infinite regress or else nothing will ever
be justified. The implication is that there must be some basic beliefs
non-inferable from other beliefs. Such basic beliefs do not need a
justification. In other terms, they are self-justified (Chisholm, 1989).
The foundationalists do not, however, agree on the basic beliefs. While
some say that basic beliefs are the truths of reason, others argue that
basic beliefs are truths of immediate experience.
The coherence theory of justification holds that a belief set gets
justified if it coheres with other beliefs in the same set. To cohere
implies to be consistent with other beliefs in the set. Each belief in
the set gets justified by each other belief in the same set. The
implication of this translates to the possibility of facing out beliefs
which contradicts others in the set. A subject can have more than one
set of beliefs. Each set is justifiable on its own depending on the
level of coherence of the beliefs it contains. A stronger version of the
theory of justification appears as a combination of foundationalism and
coherentism. This translates to the foundherentism theory of
The traditional account of knowledge relates to the problem of other
minds. According to foundationalism, beliefs are justifiable by tracing
them from foundational beliefs. The foundational beliefs are
self-evident truths of reason or immediate experience. Given the nature
of the mind, the immaterial nature, it is not possible to experience the
minds of other people. Are we justified in believing in the existence of
other minds? According to foundationalism, the existence of own mind is
a self-evident truth. How can someone know about the existence of other
minds other than theirs own? How can we infer this claim? This
translates to the notorious problem in philosophy: the problem of other
The problem of other minds
The problem of other minds is a skeptical problem which concerns the
extent of knowledge about other minds other than one`s own. The problem
originates from a philosophical argument the argument that we cannot
have the knowledge concerning any other mental states apart from one`s
own. Should the above conclusion be right, then it is not possible to
tell that the other humans I see are also persons: It is impossible to
know that they have thoughts. All that a knowing subject can tell is
that there are other creatures who behave in the same way as that
subject, who talk in the same way as the subject (Thompson, 2003).
However, He/she cannot know that they have a mind. People believe that
other humans who appear like them in several ways also possess mind. As
a result of this, problem of other minds emerges. This has implications
on everyday beliefs about the existence of other minds. People think
that they are absolutely certain that other minds composed of thoughts
do exist.
Peter Carruthers argues that people will tend to dismiss the problem of
other minds owing to their immediate convictions that other minds exist.
Those who dismiss the problem argue that there must be a faulty flaw in
any argument that dismisses the possibility of knowledge about the
existence of other minds. Either the argument has a false premise or the
conclusion does not logically follow from the premises (Thompson, 2003).
The immediate implication of this assertion is that it deems possible
for someone to have a true belief which accounts as knowledge yet
without any good reasons for holding the belief. This takes us back to
the traditional analysis of knowledge. It should be remembered that
justification is a key condition in the standard analysis. Lack of it
implies that all claims held equate to mere beliefs: not knowledge. This
translates to a very subjective claim that rests on no justification.
An immediate common sense response to the problem of other minds is that
people can make direct inferences about the experiences of mind body
interaction of other people. From a first person point of view, it can
be argued that the thinking individual has similar experiences as those
of other individuals similar to him/her. Experiences are mental state
get communicated to the body. This implies that similar experiences
presuppose similar mental states. This argument, however, leads to
another complicated problem: the mind body problem. This paper does not
seek to discuss the mind body problem at present. In belief, however,
the problem concerns the interaction of body and mind. Given the
difficulties that arise from the second problem, which need not be
discussed here, it seems not plausible to use the direct inference
argument as a remedy to the problem of other minds. The direct inference
argument can be countered as in the argument that follows.
(i). It is not possible to know directly about the mental states of
other individual human beings. (ii). the knowledge of other states of
mind can only be inferred from other observable states of behavior.
(iii). There exists a possibility of human pretense and possibility of
existence of zombies. The implication is that any direct inference
argument can never be valid. (iv). Therefore, it is unreasonable to
believe in the existence of other humans mental statuses (Carruthers,
2004 pp. 10-11). This argument leaves the problem of other minds still
Solutions to the Problem
The Scientific Theory Approach: Argument by Analogy
The scientific theory approach seeks to establish that the belief in
other individual people`s mind presupposes a status of scientific
theory. Scientists on observing the behavior of other humans seek a
systematized way of explaining it. A make a postulation on the structure
of mental states causally related in several ways to each other and the
observed behavior. If there exists no better way than this to explain
the existence of other minds, the explanation features as the best. This
translates to the inference from the best explanation. For instance,
scientists may attribute to person some beliefs and desires then use the
scheme to predict that individual’s behavior. This materialistic
approach may succeed. If it does, a scientist can rationally infer
inductively that the only explanation to the success of the prediction
is a result of a mental activity in that individual. This serves as the
best explanation to the results achieved. The argument can be stated as
follows (i). There are objects in the physical world appearing like my
own. (ii). The objects behave in a way that resembles my mentally caused
behavior. (iii). Therefore, the objects, also, have mental states
(Carruthers, 2004).
According to Carruthers (2004), this approach faces two major
difficulties. Firstly, the attitude towards mind and mental activities
of other people appears to be differing from the attitude towards
theories of science. Scientific theories remain suspect to falsification
and modification. Contrary, this attitude towards theories does not
define people’s beliefs about the existence of other minds. The
beliefs about other minds do not appear subject to falsification and
modification. Secondly, there arises a need to show how the subjective
knowledge of mental states can be integrated with that of other states
of mind (Carruthers, 2004). The subjective mental state does not
resemble the knowledge of theoretical entities. While theoretical
entities are objects that furnish the mind in knowing the external
world, the mind is an entity with a self-knowledge. The mind knows
itself and knows the theoretical entities.
The Weak Dualism Argument
This approach explains mental activities as non-physical entities
possessed by physical human living organisms. According to this
doctrine, no analogies are capable of leading to the knowledge of other
minds. The logic is that mental states and physical states expose
totally different attributes. For this reason, it is not possible to
infer one from the other. Mental states are not physical states
(Carruthers, 2004). Mental states intentionally represent things in one
way and not the other. Moreover, they can intentionally represent
objects that do not exist. This doctrine implies that there is no
logical justification for any inference made from the existence of
physical states to the existence of mental states.
Solipsism contends that there is only one thing that a person can be
sure of the existence of his own mind. Knowledge of the external world
and existence of other minds is impossible. This doctrine suggests that
such knowledge may be at best said to exist only in the mind. In its
radical sense, solipsism claims that such knowledge is not possible.
This dissolves the problem of other minds (Carruthers, 2004). If other
knowledge, but that of existence of own mind is impossible, then it
follows that there exists no problem at all.
To sum this section, it can be argued that the traditional analysis of
knowledge does not account for the knowledge of the existence of other
minds other than one`s own. Even though it may turn out to be true that
there exists other minds, this truth cannot be logically justified.
Granted that true unjustified belief does not qualify as knowledge, and
given that any belief about other minds remains unjustified, it
logically follows that belief about the existence of other minds does
not qualify as knowledge. However, of the two theories the weak dualism
is more plausible. It may be true that there exist other minds other
than my own mind. This is different from asserting that we can acquire
that knowledge by use of analogy.
Chisholm, R. M. (1989). Theory of knowledge. Englewood Cliffs, N.J:
Prentice Hall.
Carruthers, P. (2004). Nature of mind: An introduction. London, UK:
Thompson, M. (2001). Philosophy of mind. London: Teach Yourself.
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