8. The Joy of Other Minds

Here’s a story I’m not especially proud of:

I used to enjoy putting my Flintstone’s chewable vitamin in my cereal (this isn’t the bad part, but it’s not particularly exciting either). I was so enthusiastic about this method of eating it, that one time, I tried to convert my cousin to eating it this way, and, despite his clear disinterest (for example, when I said he should try it, he said “no”), I decided I knew better and I put his vitamin in his cereal for him (this is the bad part)! This wasn’t done sneakily or anything, he was watching me do it. He was, quite reasonably, upset with me.

The purple ones were particular favorites, if that tells you anything about me.

The important morals of this story are not altered by whether or not vitamin in cereal is actually better than eating it separately. Actually, there are a lot of lessons to learn from this story, but a few key ones are: a) I shouldn’t assume other people want what I want, b) hey, assuming has nothing to do with it if they outright tell me, and c) in fact, if people want things from me—like advice or physical relocation of their food—they will ask, and I for sure shouldn’t do the opposite of what they ask, as a general rule. Ok, that last one was a little bit wordy, but still apt).

Sometimes in philosophy we talk about a thing called “The Problem of Other Minds”. Put simply, the issue is supposed to be that the sort of basis you have for knowing that your mind exists isn’t available to you for knowing about anyone else’s mind, and so: what, exactly is your reason for thinking that other people have minds?

One popular answer to the question is that it is roughly something we can conclude by analogy. “I know that I have a mind, and that’s why I am crying/raising my arm/baking a cake/etc., and that body over there is crying/raising an arm/baking a cake/etc. so, probably, barring some reason to think otherwise, it also has a mind.” And this seems relatively reasonable.

Insofar as Adam Smith addresses the issue, this is the account we see him offer. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, he he says we can only entertain what feelings other people have by imagining ourselves in their circumstances (the theory gets considerably more complicated than this, but its a nice statement of this style of view of our access to other people’s perspectives):

As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.

Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, the second paragraph

So, Smith is my example representative of the class of views that says “you have your own perspective, and you can project it outwards to try to understand the rest of the world, including the perspectives of the rest of the people out there”. As I flagged above, this is the second paragraph of Smith’s theory, so, please, do me a favor, and do not leave here thinking that he advocates narrowly doing this in a way that would have you heedlessly drop your vitamin in someone else’s cereal. But observe: he starts from the premise that there is a problem, and then introduces a mechanism to solve it.

Hold this thought for a moment.

It’s worth flagging that it is always a good thing to do, when someone starts out saying something that seems like it’s going to be an argument that there is a problem, and ends up presenting you with a rhetorical question (as I did above), to go ahead and ask the person posing it to you to get more specific about what, exactly, they are suggesting the problem is supposed to be.

In this case, what you are going along with, if you just accept the move from set-up to rhetorical question at face value, is that the whole process of knowing that there are other minds out there is a process of reason and inference. Maybe that’s not right, and maybe it is, but instead of asserting it, I just sort of smuggled it into the background (this is especially tricksy of me to do in written work, since you can’t stop me and ask me to clarify). And not everyone in philosophy thinks that this is a problem, or would go along with the framing that this is a process of rational inference.

One philosopher who would not have liked this being smuggled in was Thomas Reid. I’ve talked about him here before, and I’ve even published a bit about some of the things I’m going to discuss right now (though in a slightly more technical mode). Thomas Reid said that we’re naturally constituted with an instinctual sense of the existence of other minds (or, more carefully: an inborn tendency to believe things about other minds when encountering various natural signs of them). The instinctual language of humankind includes, e.g., gestures and facial expressions, which immediately suggest the mental operations of others to our minds, even in infancy (this seems like something that can probably be very much informed, if not settled, by developmental psychologists and empirical neuroscience). But it is nice to read how he phrases the importance of these social operations of the mind:

If nature had not made man capable of such social operations of mind, and furnished him with a language to express them, he might think, and reason, and deliberate, and will; he might have desires and aversions, joy and sorrow; in a word, he might exert all those operations of mind, which the writers in logic and pneumatology have so copiously described; but, at the same time, he would still be a solitary being, even when in a crowd; it would be impossible for him to put a question, or give a command, to ask a favour, or testify a fact, to make a promise or a bargain.

Thomas Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Mind, V.6

For Reid, without our innate social capacities we could be on a deserted island or stuck in the middle of the densest crowd, and it would not make a difference, we would be equally socially isolated. Thus, on his view, we do not construct our interactions with other minds from the resources of our own internal perspective, we have been equipped, from the start, with the capacity for direct social connections.

Hold this thought for a moment.

For many of us, this has been a long year or so of social isolation, and we’ve all been coping with it in various ways. Even if you are not literally alone in your home, the shape and extent of your social network has likely changed and you’ve felt the impact of that in sizable ways in your day-to-day life. For me, there have been massive shifts, as well as reflection on how some of the behaviors that are the same feel different. This is large things, like not having been able to meet my niece yet, or grappling with enormous changes to much work it takes to teach my courses, and how much more effort it takes to get so much less enjoyment out of social interactions, to very small things like the lack of a commute meaning that I can’t keep up with podcasts as easily. And this is all from a position of immense privilege and security with respect to the basic necessities such as health, shelter and overall well being.

I’ve been thinking a lot about John Donne’s well known poem from which we take the line that no one is an island, during this time. Donne’s verse emphasizes the extent to which we are deeply connected to each other and how this can be felt through our reactions to the way others are harmed or benefitted. Our fundamentally social nature connects us and, in his view, this means that we parts of a collective humanity, not individuals who come together to incidentally form a whole.

Many philosophers have us as epistemic islands, at least to start, and so take on the problem of other minds. (Those philosophers would not describe what they are doing in this fashion. They would say that they are observing that we are islands, and because of this, everyone has such a problem, and so it needs a solution). Other philosophers have us as epistemically connected to each other in some fundamental way. I’ve used Smith as my example of one who has us start off insulated from each other, and then tries to build the connections, and Reid as my example of one who has us begin in epistemic contact with each other.

My vitamin story always seemed to me, to weigh in favor of epistemic/social islandhood. It is about the ease with which we can project our own individual perspectives onto others, as I am even doing here, in using the first person plural, and presuming that you, the reader, will identify with something in the story, even though it’s just a story about me doing that. In fairness to me, though, I do frequently observe others generalizing far too readily from “this is how it works for me” to “this must be how it works for people in general”, so I don’t think I am unique in making that mistake.

And my experience this past 12 months, I think, and my reflections on Donne, weigh in favor of epistemic/social connectivity. Staying at home and just not spending time with people, or shifting to less satisfying forms of interaction, would not be so difficult, or feel so profoundly unsatisfying, if the social connection weren’t such a deeply engrained part of our mental lives.

Of course, vignettes are not arguments, and even if we were to extract and craft arguments suggested by either one, it is important to note that Smith could certainly propose to capture the profundity of loss felt this past year (he does after all, believe us to be intensely social beings), and Reid could certainly offer an explanation for the folly of my misguided attempts to project my perspective onto others (he does not think our inherent sociality ensures prudence in modeling the minds of others). The point of ruminating on these contrasting views is not to try to use these two anecdotes to settle things between them (that wouldn’t be a very good approach to doing so).

While I don’t think these reflections will help either view win the day, I do think they each have striking features that are worth reflecting on in relation to social distance and social proximity. And despite the explicit theme today being about other minds, I probably just have to be satisfied with drawing some conclusions about what these views can tell me about myself (point for epistemic islandhood?).

The thing that strikes me most about the approach I’m using Smith as the representative of, is that it really does seem to help explain (in a direct way), exactly what mistake I was making back then, and which I’ve been trying train myself away from making since. One of the most important habits I’ve been working on building, over, well, my entire adult life is just to keep trying to better internalize the recognition that not everyone is like me (which is made somewhat ironic by my simultaneous awareness from a much younger age that I am, also, a relatively weird person).

The thing that strikes me most about Reid’s view is how appealing I find it, that it gets to reject the idea that there is any problem about other minds. Reid, in a sense, did not get taken in by my clever rhetorical trick, and can say (this is not a direct quote): Of course I know other people have minds, I simply see them smile, and know they are happy! Even babies know this! How are you, an adult philosopher, so much worse at knowing about the world than babies are?

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