Problem of other minds

Problem of other minds

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 automata made out of flesh (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 (other things have minds if they are sufficiently similar to us); it can be found in the works of J.S. Mill, A. J. Ayer, and Bertrand Russell. 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.


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.

Soft materialist viewpoint

Counter to the reductionist argument would be a more biological theory (and somewhat materialistic viewpoint). Take the eye and the perception of color. The light-sensing cone cells of the retina that respond to the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum designated as red are tuned similarly in every person tested, so we might expect all people to experience red in the same way. However, we also know that some people are missing certain (or all of) types of cone cells in the eye; thus giving rise to color blindness and other such visual variances. Similarly, differences in the distribution of brain cells and dendritic connections (among many other potential variances) could give rise to different mental states for the same stimulus. Cross-culturally, when people have a word for red, they agree with other cultures on which wavelengths of light best fit the term "red" (the same wavelengths that primarily excite the cone cells which detect red, and the red/green channel to the brain). Yet even if human eyes and brains may be built in such a way that the same wavelengths stand out for everybody, still it is conceivable that for different individuals these wavelengths could evoke experiences that differ. In particular, one external stimulus may give different experiences to the same individual according to which eye is used.


  • Wisdom, John, Other Minds (1952)
  • Dennett, D.C., Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology (1978)
  • Anita Avramides, Other Minds (2000). Routledge.
  • Masahiro Inami, The Problem of Other Minds in the Buddhist Epistemological Tradition (2001), Journal of Indian Philosophy

See also

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • other minds, problem of — In epistemology, the problem of explaining how it is possible for one person to know anything about the quality of another person s inner experience, or even that other people have inner experiences at all. According to a standard example,… …   Universalium

  • Other Minds — For the epistemological challenge, see Problem of other minds. Official Other Minds logo Other Minds is a San Francisco based private 501 (c) (3) not for profit organization, founded in 1992 by Charles Amirkhanian (who serves as Executive and… …   Wikipedia

  • God and Other Minds — is the name of a 1967 book by Alvin Plantinga which re kindled serious philosophical debate on the Existence of God in Anglophone philosophical circles [see eg The Rationality of Theism quoting Quentin Smith God is not dead in academia; he… …   Wikipedia

  • problem — /prob leuhm/, n. 1. any question or matter involving doubt, uncertainty, or difficulty. 2. a question proposed for solution or discussion. 3. Math. a statement requiring a solution, usually by means of a mathematical operation or geometric… …   Universalium

  • Problem of universals — The problem of universals is an ancient problem in metaphysics about whether universals exist. Universals are general or abstract qualities, characteristics, properties, kinds or relations, such as being male/female, solid/liquid/gas or a certain …   Wikipedia

  • Other dimensions of the Discworld — Discworld, the fictional planet of a fantasy series by Terry Pratchett exists at a point near the very edge of universe s reality spectrum. From here, the fabric of the fictional universe s reality is gossamer and thin, and excessive pushing can… …   Wikipedia

  • Mind–body problem — René Descartes illustration of mind/body dualism. Inputs are passed on by the sensory organs to the epiphysis in the brain and from there to the immaterial spirit …   Wikipedia

  • Gettier problem — A Gettier problem is a problem in modern epistemology issuing from counter examples to the definition of knowledge as justified true belief (JTB). The problem owes its name to a three page paper published in 1963, by Edmund Gettier, called Is… …   Wikipedia

  • Many-minds interpretation — The many minds interpretation of quantum mechanics extends the many worlds interpretation by proposing that the distinction between worlds should be made at the level of the mind of an individual observer. The concept was first introduced in 1970 …   Wikipedia

  • Quantum mind–body problem — The quantum mind–body problem refers to the philosophical discussions of the mind–body problem in the context of quantum mechanics. Since quantum mechanics involves quantum superpositions, which are not perceived by observers, some… …   Wikipedia