The Boston Philosophy of Mind Group Message Board › A contrarian view: There is nothing wrong with recognizing (without proof) t
After our 'The Utility of Conscious Experience' meeting last Friday, Andy posted the follow comment:
"The way I see it, I don't have to experience what Tom is experiencing to know and understand that he is experiencing something."
To this Kar replied:
"At the practical level, I think you are right. But at a philosophical level, it may not be the case"
Kar's reply to Andy expresses a common way at looking at the question of other minds: How can I ever know that someone else is conscious? How can I know that someone else is experiencing anything? How can I know that someone else’s experiences that are similar to my experiences? How can I understand what it is that someone else is experiencing?
I will give an argument to show that (1) There is, or may be, nothing wrong from a philosophical point of view, with recognizing (as a fundamental presupposition, without proof) the existence of other minds;and (2) It maybe wrong, or worse, to require scientific proof for something, like our belief in other minds, that cannot, by its very nature, be proven.
Given the way questions about other minds are usually framed, I don’t think they can ever be answered. The reason is that we set too high a standard for what constitutes knowledge. We tend to think that the best way, if not the only way, to understand something or have knowledge of something is through science.
Kar suggested two ways to think about “knowing what someone thinks or experiences.” He distinguished between the practical point of view and the philosophical point of view. At the practical level we do know and understand what someone else is experiencing. We all recognize this in our everyday life. But this is not sufficient for us as scientific philosophers. As scientific philosophers, we have a higher standard. We want more. We wants the kind of certainty, we believe, that is attainable by the experimental methods employed by the sciences.
I think this is a mistake to ask for this kind of certainty in all matters. The scientific philosopher presumes that all questions and problems can be answered by employing the scientific method. There are, however, many questions that cannot be answered by science. Here are some examples:
How can I know that there is an external world?
How can I know that physical objects persist in space and time?
How can I know that I retain my identity in the midst of continuous change?
How can I know that the laws of nature do not change?
How can I know that laws of nature are uniform throughout the universe?
These questions cannot be answered using the experimental methods employed by the sciences. An obvious question arises: What is the difference between these questions, for which we know there are no [scientific based] answers, different from the questions about other minds? I believe that they are the same kind of questions and require the same kind of considerations. If we want to come to a satisfactory resolution, we need to consider the existence of other minds a fundamental presupposition that can be modified but cannot be eliminated.
It is fairly clear how one might proceed with regards to a discipline like physics. We can just grant that there are in fact fundamental presuppositions. We assume there are fundamental presuppositions we cannot prove. Here are some examples:
There is an external world.
Physical objects persist in space and time.
The laws of nature do not change.
The laws of nature are uniform throughout the universe.
From time to time, physicist may challenge one or more of the presuppositions. For example, we no longer assume that space and time are separate concepts.
It is not so clear how one should proceed with regard to human psychology. However, it is a little cleared with regards to law and jurisprudence. As a rule, the law assumes that a person is a moral agent and retains their identity over time. It does not worry about the integrity of a person’s identity except in special cases, like dementia and mental illness.
Conclusion: There is, or may be, nothing wrong from a philosophical point of view, with recognizing (as a fundamental presupposition, without proof) the existence of other minds.
Corollary: It maybe wrong, or worse, to require scientific proof for something, like our belief in other minds, that cannot, by its very nature, be proven.
Edited by Ron Willig on Apr 2, 2013 8:41 PM
Ron, I have been trying to respond to your comment but just things keep piling up.... ok I have a counter argument for your proposal and corollary:
"There is, or may be, nothing wrong from a philosophical point of view, with recognizing (as a fundamental presupposition, without proof) the existence of other minds.
Corollary: It maybe wrong, or worse, to require scientific proof for something, like our belief in other minds, that cannot, by its very nature, be proven."
Just as Beth pointed out in the discussion, you have to start from somewhere. There is nothing wrong to take as fundamental that "other minds exist". But one needs to be aware that once you do that, you are eliminating a lot of other possibilities. One can equally take as fundamental the claim that God exists, then everything flows from there.
If you recall, I pointed out two meetups ago that some uneducated people may take the phenomenon that things fall downward as fundamental. You will get a blank stare if you ask them why things fall downward instead of upward, in hope of soliciting a concept of gravity. Basically, to people who take "things falling downward" as a fundamental principal which requires no prove or rationale or reason, introducing the concept of gravity is really just kicking the can down the road, or worse, kicking the can upward (it is going to fall down and hit you).
But what is good about introducing the concept of gravity to replace the concept of "things fall downward"? Do we gain anything by doing that? Equally interesting is concept of warped space-time, and using that to replace the concept of gravity. What do we gain by introducing a warped space-time while the good old gravity is just as "fundamental"?
We can always take anything we like as fundamental and stop asking questions and live happily ever after, just beware that once you stop asking questions, you limit yourself to a small subset of possible knowledge. So, from a philosophical point of view (philosophy means something beyond a superficial level), the concept of the existence of other minds should be challenged.
Ron's comment that: "There is, or may be, nothing wrong from a philosophical point of view, with recognizing (as a fundamental presupposition, without proof) the existence of other minds." is not only reasonable but defensible ... we are born and develop as humans believing and behaving as if the "zombies" in our perceptual field have minds. In other words we are all born believing that our mothers are "real" and that "there is something it is like" to be mommy.
Well, maybe that concept that mommy is like me (i.e. minded) is not there at birth, but the notion that other people have minds certainly occurs developmentally before the idea that they may not have minds.
Science, when it is applied to conscious experience is attempting to understand or describe conscious experience in observable, largely physical terms. So of course "the brain" the physical object most closely correlated with conscious experience is the subject of inquiry.
But we really don't have any reason to believe that our scientific inquiry will be fruitful. We are interested in experience itself and all we have to inspect is merely physical. It is a presupposition of science that the world ( creation the cosmos reality, what-have-you) is ultimately understandable in physical terms. Maybe it is not!
Also Kar says: But what is good about introducing the concept of gravity to replace the concept of "things fall downward"? Do we gain anything by doing that? Equally interesting is concept of warped space-time, and using that to replace the concept of gravity. What do we gain by introducing a warped space-time while the good old gravity is just as "fundamental"?
More complex and "scientific" models of reality seem to lead to greater control over our environment (airplanes , iphones etc). So it appears that they are objectively "better" for that reason. I'm not sure.
What strikes me about our whole conversation is that consciousness has the characteristic of focusing on a part of what is available. By that I mean that we can concentrate our mind on some aspect of our visual or auditory field and pay attention to particular aspects. More than that we can focus our minds, direct our thoughts to some aspect of our metaphysical belief. Not only CAN we do this , but I think we CAN'T HELP doing this. We have perspectives built into our experiencing of the data stream that we assume is coming into our perceptions. I think what I'm trying to say is that consciousness is, in its essence, a thing that takes a perspective on the "all". I think that is what Beth meant by our need to "start from somewhere"
Lastly , I was thinking of what Tom was trying to clarify in Kiril's ideas about the brain's role in conscious experience: Tom pointed out that if the brain is the locus and genesis of our experience then what it does (the brain's product) IS our experience. It doesn't CAUSE our experience since there is no person that it could cause the experience to occur in. In this identity view of consciousness, the brain constitutes ALL that there is! There is no self. Interestingly, since there is no self to observe the brain there can be no scientist (for they are all selves) who can observe the brain so we are left with the idea of the brain observing the brain (whatever that means?). My mind boggles at this point bu my intuition and imagination soldier on and I come away with a murky sense that the brain cannot , in and of itself, explain conscious experience.
I think I agree with most of what you say. There were a few points that you make that I want to repeat just to make sure that I understand you correctly.
1. We are biologically wired so that we are inclined to believe in other minds.
2. It is a mistake to think that everything is understandable in physical terms.
3. There is more than one point of view.
If there is only one point of view and that is the scientific point of view, then it is clear that there is nothing corresponding to what we call the self. However, this is a reductio ad absurdum argument – because it leaves no room for anything resembling the notion of self. Hence, there is more than one point of view.
The third point is not exactly what you said. What I have done is to try to reformulate it so that is shows the absurdity of the identity theory.
I also think you have hit on a good argument against ever reducing or connecting the mind to the brain. The brain does not and cannot cause our experiences. Why? The reason is fairly simple. We know of no causal mechanism that connects the two. All the talk about correlates is a way of ignoring this fact. One of the arguments against the existence of our mind is that there is no way for our mind to act on the physical world because the mind is not physical. But the reverse is also true. Strictly speaking, there is no way that the physical world can act on our mind because the mind is not physical.
This is a reply to the counter arguments given by Kar in his post on April 2, 2013.
Kar, I want to thank you for your comments. You seem to be very good a finding the weakness in an argument. If presuppositions were the same as hypotheses or assumptions, your arguments would be decisive. However, you misread me on two points: (1) the meaning of fundamental presuppositions, and (2) whether I would allow fundamental presuppositions to be challenged. At the end, in item (3), I make a request. I would like you to address the question of whether belief in other minds is similar to other fundamental presuppositions.
1. What are fundamental presuppositions?
A person cannot choose their fundamental presuppositions. One cannot simply take something to be a fundamental presupposition. The examples I mentioned, in my original note, were meant to indicate what kind of beliefs or propositions would qualify as a fundamental presupposition. What I had in mind were our most basic habitual beliefs – things that we take for granted as obvious and almost beyond question. Although no one can prove that gravity is permanent, none of us are able to seriously doubt that gravity will be there if we fall out a window. Here are three characteristics of ‘fundamental presuppositions’:
(a) A presupposition is a belief that is indirectly implied by our actions and thoughts.
(b) A fundamental presupposition is a one that we cannot help but believe.
(c) A fundamental presupposition is a one that we believe but cannot prove.
Our actions and language indicate that we believe a number of things, whether or not we are conscious of these beliefs. When we drive a car and talk about the movement of a car along a highway, we presuppose, almost trivially, a number of other things: There is an external world. Physical objects persist in space and time. The laws of nature do not change.
It so happens, that for me (and I suspect for you too), the existence of God does not qualify as a fundamental presupposition. I can try to imagine what it would be like to believe that God exist, but the concept is so far removed from everything else I believe that, at least for me, it makes no sense to say that I can choose or adopt “the existence of God” to be a presupposition, let alone a fundamental presupposition.
The belief that “things fall downward” is quite a bit different from the belief in the existence of God. Both you and I believe that things fall downward. In our daily life it may come close to being a fundamental presupposition. However, we have an enlarged concept of gravity that allows us to keep and to incorporate our belief that “things fall downward”. So, I guess I would object to the word ‘replace’. We don’t replace the belief that things fall downward so much as qualify it, broaden it and explain it.
A presupposition is a subtle belief. We normally think of beliefs as something of which we are fully aware. We may or may not be aware of our presuppositions.
A presupposition is also different from an ordinary assumption. We are able to adopt or choose an assumption, say for purposes of discussion. Presuppositions as I have tried to make clear above are not that much under our control. A presupposition is more like an implicit assumption.
Here is and example of how one philosopher uses the notion of presupposition:
“Language is the presupposition of the existence of other social institutions in a way that they are not the presupposition of language. This point can be stated precisely. Institutions such as money, property, government and marriage cannot exist without language, but language can exist without them.” (John Searle, ‘Social Ontology, Some Basic Principles’, Anthropological Theory, March, 2006, vol. 6, 12-29)
2. Can we question our fundamental presuppositions?
Kar, at the end of your note, you suggest that we should challenge “the concept of the existence of other minds”. I hope that nothing I have said suggests that I think we should never challenge this concept. I think something close to the opposite: I think that one of the primary jobs of philosophers is to challenge our presuppositions.
The purpose of my original note was not to say that we shouldn’t question things. The purpose was twofold. First, I wanted to challenge the idea that every question (for example, are there other minds?) can be answered by employing the scientific method. Second, I wanted to point out that questions like this (are there other minds?) are categorically different from the questions that we ask in science. In science, the questions are concerned with facts about the physical world. Here, we are asking questions at a higher level. We are asking questions about our presuppositions.
3. Are there fundamental presuppositions?
I hope that I have made it a little clearer what I mean by a fundamental presupposition. The next question is this: Are there any beliefs of this sort? More to the point, have I correctly identified any fundamental presuppositions?
So, I ask you, Kar, would any of the following qualify as fundamental presuppositions?
List A: Fundamental presuppositions of people in everyday life and for physicists:
A1. There is an external world.
A2. Physical objects persist in space and time.
A3. The laws of nature do not change.
A4. The laws of nature are uniform throughout the universe.
A5. The only valid explanation is a scientific explanation.
List B: Fundamental presuppositions of people in everyday life and in American law courts:
B1. A person retains their identity in the midst of continuous change.
B2. A person is a moral agent.
B3. Other people, who speak the same language that I do, understand what I am saying.
B4. I understand what other people, who speak the same language that I do, are saying.
B5. Other people are for the most part like me and have experiences like me.
Remember, a fundamental presupposition is a belief that we cannot prove, but which we nevertheless cannot help but believe.