Sunday, January 15, 2017
First Aired: 
Jun 01, 2014

What is it

A popular theme in science fiction is the eerily lifelike robot: a piece of machinery so well engineered that its outputs pass for genuinely human behaviors. Technology is not yet so advanced, but these robots might cause us to wonder how we could possibly justify our belief in the minds of others. You’re most likely sure that your family, friends, and boss are really people just like you, with similarly rich inner mental lives. But how can you be so sure? If we only have access to our own private thoughts, can we ever know that our minds are not unique? I think, therefore I exist – but what about everybody else? John and Ken step outside themselves with Anita Avramides from the University of Oxford, author of Other Minds.

Listening Notes

John begins with a particularly troubling observation. He knows that he has thoughts and feelings without needing to infer or guess. But how can he ever be sure that Ken has a mind just as he does? Ken notes that although the question of whether others have minds isn’t a very practical one (we all clearly think the answer is yes), philosophers are worried about finding a rational basis for our answer. Ken supplies two classical arguments to demonstrate that belief in other minds is justified – the argument from analogy and inference to the best explanation – and John shuts down each in turn.

Anita joins the conversation. She forcibly agrees with John and argues that neither argument from analogy nor inference to the best explanation are very good solutions. Anita explains that a scientific approach, where an inner mental life is hypothesized as the best explainer and predictor of behavior, is not an appropriate model to use. Rather, Anita thinks that we want something more out of our belief in other minds; one seeks to understand oneself better through the thoughts and feelings of others. Philosophers should re-examine Descartes’s starting point, where we have direct access to our own mind but the minds of others exist under a “mask” of behavior.

Audience calls and emails prompt John, Ken, and Anita to address how non-standard minds like those of autistic individuals might provide insights into the problem. John asks about the difference between knowing that others have minds versus knowing what others are thinking. Anita puts pressure on the distinction and questions whether our belief that others have minds counts as knowledge. It’s a simple fact that we respond to other people differently than the way we respond to table and chairs. Deciding on mindedness is more of a perceptual faculty than a result of rational deliberation.  

Our hosts and guest wrap up with a discussion of animals and robots. Maybe it’s clear that other humans have minds, but how are we meant to decide if other beings have them? All agree that this is a difficult issue and that it may not be useful to think of mindedness as a binary property as Descartes did.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 6:43): Natalie Jones chats with Marjorie Taylor, a psychologist from the University of Oregon who studies how imaginary play in children allows them to become more attuned to the inner mental lives of their peers.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:27): Ian Shoales muses about Descartes’s malicious demon and his automata. He humorously notes that Descartes convinced himself that he existed, but in doing so he implicitly still believed that other people were genuine people too; why else would he have bothered to write down his argument?

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Anita Avramides, Professor of Philosophy, University of Oxford

Researched By

Elise Sugarman

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