Knowing Other Minds

Introduction: The Reality of the Mind

The more basic issue to settle at the outset is the concept of mind. To put it in question form, we ask: What do we mean when we say “mind”? Furthermore, we hope to know if the mind is something that necessarily connects with the neural system–both central and peripheral. I think, affirming the latter point is the most scientifically sustainable position. And holding this assumption will give us more solid grounding to tackle the philosophical issue at hand.

On the basis of this presupposition, the mind as a concept is the faculty of awareness that gives me the power to consciously experience the world around me and signify this experience in thoughts and feelings. Of this, I am absolutely certain for I am experiencing what I experience now and I am thinking what I think at this very moment as I am feeling what I feel right at this point in time. This is how I understand myself and my mind and this is the very framework that justifies my use of the concept of mind. In other words, I have a mind which is basically subjective but not totally so for science has confirmed to me once and for all that all these occurrences in my mind are not possible without the functioning of the neural system in my biological totality.

This conception of the mind is not a recycled version of the Cartesian formulation because I am not heading toward a dualism that differentiates body (brain and the neural system) and mind. Besides, I am not developing an argument to sustain solipsism, i.e., the belief that only my mind can exist on the basis of my knowledge of it while other minds can never be known to exist. However, I fundamentally foster the notion that it is prime and foremost to establish first the terra firma of the mind’s being before we get to the issue of other minds and the strongest of which is the very own affirmation of my knowledge of the being of my mind. In other words, the epistemological condition of the mind’s being is satisfied and well secured in my knowledge of my own mind.

The Being and Reality of Other Minds

The analogical inference supporting the being and reality of other minds and thus the possibility of knowing them is founded on the assumption that there are some non-negotiable general properties that characterize humanity. One of them is, of course, the neural system in every human being. On this basis, what I subjectively affirm earlier as the mind without a shadow of a doubt is likewise subjectively affirmed by other human beings, in fact, by all of humanity under normal circumstances. It is an inalienable fact that I have the faculty of awareness as other human beings have. Moreover, as this faculty gives me the power to consciously experience the world around me so does it perfectly gives them the same. And as this faculty signifies my experience in thoughts and feelings so does it to theirs.

I may not be able to literally enter a person’s mind to know her/his thoughts exactly absolutely. Nevertheless, a person-to-person encounter with her/him spontaneously reaches a certain convergence point in the social sphere that gives me the opportunity to confirm once and for all that s/he has a mind of her/his own. Following the trajectory of this epistemological dialectics obviously leads me from the subjective territory to the intersubjective terrain as I free myself from the elementary assumption of my mind’s being and my own exclusive knowledge of which. Now, I affirm the being of other minds as real and this affirmation totally dissolves the prospect of solipsism. What is initially established here epistemologically is my knowledge of the being and reality of other minds

The Knowability of Other Minds

Knowing other minds is essentially knowing the “contents” of other minds. Simply put, it is knowing what transpires in the mind of another person, i.e., the thoughts and feelings which are exclusively the other person’s. We may say that the starting point of this whole process is realistically a matter of approximation. In this sense, one’s initial encounter with another by way of a conversation cannot be expected to yield an absolutely certain knowledge of what transpires in each other’s minds. This is a situation where the most important aspect of knowledge comes in and we call it “understanding”. Understanding is the key to transcend approximation and get to a substantial knowledge of each other’s minds. In this connection, confidence, coherence, and consistency play vital roles. In the course of a conversation, these three factors give each of the conversants the assurance that in the end, they know each other’s minds.

However, understanding understood in this sense doesn’t superficially mean propositional understanding, i.e., simply understanding the meaning of the statements uttered by each of them. The criteria of confidence, coherence, and consistency do not intensely function under such circumstance. Human encounter that gets to the point of knowing the minds of those involved in it transcends epistemic knowledge as epistemology in this sense simply means noesis (the person who knows) – noema (the object of knowing) experience (with apologies to Edmund Husserl as I appropriate these two technical terms extensively used in his variety of Phenomenology). There is a profound version of understanding that goes beyond epistemic knowledge and we call it “relational knowledge”. This kind of knowledge is over and beyond mere experience; it is more accurately called an encounter–a dialogical meeting of conscious human beings endowed with minds capable of grasping the thoughts and feelings of each other. More than anything else, this conception further strengthens the notion that the mind does not only constitute the intellectual aspect of being but endows equal importance to the emotional strand of human existence.

Conclusion

Knowing other minds is therefore principally grounded on knowing one’s own mind. And knowing other minds can only be effected in a relational encounter. In such a dialogical event, absolute understanding based on confidence, coherence, and consistency yields the most certain knowledge of other minds.

Borrowing some important ideas from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s dialogical philosophy (based on his monumental I-Thou), the world is twofold: the epistemic and the relational. The former is a world of pure experience where the knower (the subject who knows) is in the presence of the known (object known). This is epistemology where knowledge by experience (empirical knowledge) is absolutely established and confirmed. Buber calls it the “I-It” sphere of being. However, the latter is a world of human encounter. None of the protagonists–if the goal is to know each other–is treated like an object known. Buber calls it the “I-You” sphere of being–a dialogical encounter of minds where confidence establishes the terrain and everyone’s relational knowledge of each other is confirmed in terms of coherence and consistency.

(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 11 February 2019

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