By: Arjun Verma
The problem of other minds is a challenging question posed in philosophy that attempts to undermine our belief in the fact that consciousness exists in other people. Its proposed solutions and historical relevance have important implications for our everyday conduct.
What is it?
Before introducing the problem itself, it can help to understand what epistemology is. Epistemology is defined as the study of knowledge; this can include (but is not limited to) questions and answers related to what knowledge is, how we can justify beliefs, and what statements are true.
The problem of other minds is, at its heart, an epistemological problem. It is fundamentally the belief that we do not, and in fact cannot, know that other people have minds and consciousness. While this might seem like a radical and unjustifiable proposition, this is not an attempt to prove that others do not have minds. Rather, it simply claims that proof of their existence is impossible. Thus, other minds are unknowable.
This is a challenge to nearly every conceivable ethical philosophy. Short of pure egoism, any concept of ethics focuses on our obligation towards other people. For example, Immanuel Kant thought we ought treat others with dignity, J.S. Mills argued for promoting their happiness, and John Rawls believed in creating a fair and equal society for everyone. The common thread between these is that they believe in the fact that other minds are just like us. Kantianism and Rawlsianism requires that others be rational agents. Utilitarianism requires that others be sentient creatures who experience pleasure and pain. Yet, this epistemological problem of other minds undermines these axioms. If we have no reason to believe in the existence of others, then what stops us from being solipsistic egoists?
What are some possible solutions?
Because of this problem’s radical skepticism that infiltrates nearly every aspect of our life, many solutions have been proposed.
One solution fundamentally uses an argument from analogy to dispel the problem. Importantly, as indicated by the specification of other minds, this does not attempt to challenge the existence of one’s own mind. That, as Descartes eloquently pointed out with his famous “Cogito ergo sum,” is conceptually impossible. Thus, this line of thought claims that because others seem to be similar to me in terms of their actions and outward appearance, one can claim that they also have minds by way of analogy.
However, this same idea of thinking proving existence does not analogize towards the minds of others as we do not have access to the fact that they are thinking. All we know is what their actions are within the world. While it initially might seem as if the only possible explanation might be the existence of a mind, there are other completely valid explanations, like just simply being a computer, a figment of my imagination, or a puppet of some higher power. Even though all of these seem ridiculous, they are still hard to dispel as possibilities. Again, the burden of proof has been laid on the person justifying the existence of other minds.
Additionally, this solution suffers from the problem of inducting from one case. The only mind you know exists is your own, and while this is an important case, it is still only one case. This is thus generalizing across everybody from one example, which is illogical and unsound.
Another solution could rely on Occam’s Razor. This is a principle which states that when choosing between two equally valid explanations for a phenomenon, we ought to prefer the simpler one. Accordingly, it seems as if the idea of other people have minds explains everything perfectly about the world and thus ought to be preferred for its concise explanation.
Yet, upon further examination, this also fails. Minds and consciousness are extraordinarily complex. In fact, modern science has mapped celestial bodies light years away yet still has lingering questions about the very brains that are powering those discoveries. A world in which all of this is dismissed and other agents are perhaps just fleshy objects moving in the world as a result of physics, some other actor, or randomness rather than as a result of the indescribably complex concept of a mind seems to be in some way simpler. Even if that is controversial, it’s still at the very least ambiguous, implying that this solution won’t do.
Lastly, another solution might rely on a version of Pascal’s wager. The original wager by Blaise Pascal concerned the existence of God. He argued that we should believe in God no matter what because if they didn’t exist, then there was no harm; on the other hand, if God did exist and we were non-believers, then we would be infinitely wrong.
According to this view, even if we can’t know for sure that other people exist, we should still act as if they do. It’s better to be precautionary that other people have minds rather than be unethical towards a sentient moral agent. This has intuitive appeal: even if others don’t have minds, there’s nothing wrong with treating them as if they do, whereas if they are agents, then it would be completely wrong to treat them as if they are not.
However, when this logic is extended, it gives rise to two problems. First, this Pascal’s wager is a claim about infinite value. Thus, it seems it would apply to objects that we are convinced don’t have minds. In fact, literally everything would have to be treated as if it had a mind, a view called panpsychism. What if rocks had minds? We might ridicule this, but there’s no basis for disproving it, and Pascal’s wager leads us to act as if they did. This would imply that functionally everything we did was wrong. Walking? That treads over the morally valuable floor. Flying? You’re occupying air’s personal space. Reading? It’s an invasion into the book’s privacy. This implodes our conception of ethics altogether. Second, what about a negative Pascal’s wager? What if these were a form of negative minds, which we had obligations to destroy? This would imply the opposite infinite value claim, which causes a contradiction. Thus, we ought to disregard this Pascal’s Wager-esque logic.
How does this impact the real world?
This might seem like a problem purely relegated to the realm of abstract philosophy. However, this problem actually unveils a deeper problem about human behavior. For centuries, humans had indeed denied the consciousness and moral worth of other humans. How else could they justify the moral atrocities that they committed? Thus, it’s important to wrestle with this problem in order to reflect on our troubled history as a species and work to prevent it in the future.
Ultimately, I personally believe that while the problem of other minds is a massive challenge to our knowledge, we can use pragmatism to justify our belief in other people’s minds. Intuition, even if it has its flaws, is necessary in order to act at all in the world. Despite the problems illustrated in the rebuttal to Pascal’s wager logic, we can draw lines at the boundaries of reasonableness in order to make sense of ethics and our worldview.
Thus, in a fitting twist, we can ask a simple question: If the existence of minds is such an important concept for philosophy, can’t we simply trust our own mind to make judgements?
Arjun is an undergraduate student at Yale University who became fascinated with philosophy through his high school's Lincoln Douglas debate team.
I am an undergraduate student who's fascinated by anything related to philosophy. I hope to show you how philosophy can apply to everyday life! Check out my Youtube Channel, Philosophy in Context.