Epistemic error: Distrust follows from the unknowability of other minds

I am slowly working my way toward a reconsideration of concepts like ‘inner’ and ‘outer,’ ‘inward’ and ‘outward,’ ‘internal’ and ‘external.’ In most cases, I will take these to be metaphorical descriptions of certain mental activities that, because they couldn’t anyway, can’t reveal themselves to the eye. I would like, as  it were, to do away with them or, more likely, to interpret them figuratively.

Today, I will bring out one of the dangers in believing that ‘the’ mind consists of private inner contents. That danger is epistemic doubt concerning the thoughts, beliefs, emotions, etc. of others, a danger that often comes to mind in the form of distrust. ‘If I do not or cannot know other people (and this includes those individuals close to me), then how can I possibly trust them?’

Recall the main thesis that I have been skeptical of. It is

5.) Because the human mind, like the human body, tends to be sickly and ill, it seeks healing or cures.

One assumption made in the argument above is that the mind resides in the head. Hence, it is assumed that the question, ‘Where is the mind?’ is a legitimate (and interesting) question to answer, and the answer is that it is mysteriously somewhere or other in the head. This question leads, in turns, to another seemingly legitimate (and also seemingly interesting) question, ‘What goes on in there anyway?’ As Gilbert Ryle would have it, these questions imply that the mind is like a private theater in which plays are staged yet no one is in attendance. The result is that the other’s mind, being invisible to the observer, becomes unavailable and unknowable.

Ryle believes this picture is false, and so do I. Note that the practical stakes of these epistemic errors are surprisingly high. Suppose you believe both of these things: that others’ minds are unknowable since they are not accessible and that there is a lot of interesting things going on in there (intending, believing, having certain motivations, meaning, proposing, implying, etc.), things that would be excellent to know about. Based on these assumptions, about this other person one is left observing his behavior, trying to make possible or plausible inferences, hypothesizing, wondering, conjecturing, and none of these can be tested to finally confirm whether they are on track. Of course, some things I conjecture about may be wildly off base and so may, with further observations, be falsified. I can at least rule out certain things. Yet, for all that, I cannot know what is the case.

To see what this is like, imagine going through the world mostly wondering, being idly curious, making things up, using many ‘perhapses.’ The likely conclusion would be skepticism concerning the knowability of others as well as an overriding distrust of others. ‘John says P, but he may mean Q or R.’ ‘John does P, but he may do so with ugly motive Q.’ There is no sense, therefore, in which I can take what he says at face value nor can I understand whether his apparently kind act is actually kind. And this skepticism is generalizable: about nobody can I say for sure that he means what he says or says what he means, does what he says he will do with the reason he gives (or doesn’t give), or not do what he says he will do. Let us be clear about what it would be like to live in this fashion. It is terrifying to live in a world in which others can neither be known nor be trusted.

There is no short route to dismantling this mistaken view of the mind which brings about this kind of damaging skepticism and paralyzing distrust. Nevertheless, we already have the conceptual resources at our disposal to start that inquiry into the understanding of other minds.

To begin with, we must learn to regard the ‘Where is the mind?’ and the ‘What goes on in there?’ questions as errors. These questions do not make sense. For a time, the desire to ask them remains but only for a time; the desire goes away once one understands others more easily and more fully. (Consider when and where one is bound to ask this question. Where are you when you pose it? What has happened in this specific context?)

Secondly, we must recall that minding just is (if the view I am espousing of being minded is correct) an array of mental activities occurring in certain sequences, with certain durations, with certain repetitions, and with certain (emotional) intensities. Because, as Alva Noe and others point out, mental activities are identical with the complex mutual interactions of brain, body, and world, it follows that mental activities occur and can only occur in the world we share in common. We may not share a brain, but we do have bodies that do similar sorts of things and we do inhabit a world that has a certain shape. Indeed, minding just is common world-invoking. ‘Promising’ means something in our world. Granted, John can make a promise and not yet grasp how to keep it or when to keep it. He may not have learned the difference between ‘I will likely…’ and ‘I shall…’ or the difference between ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if…’ and ‘I promise to….’ He may want to hold himself to his promise yet not be able to (with this ‘not being able to’ admitting of various descriptions based on the context). For any number of reasons that can be ascertained based on good contextual considerations, he may make yet not keep his promise.

Thirdly, background knowledge of the world helps us to make sense of others’ speech, conduct, assumptions, and implications. This was the crucial point that E.D. Hirsch made in his seminal work on cultural literacy in the context of reading comprehension. He shows that we cannot understand any text unless we have the relevant background knowledge which allows us to draw inferences from what it stated to what follows therefrom. I need to know that an oriole is a kind of bird; I may need to know more about orioles beforehand to interpret a passage about orioles. Take a second example: if I do not know that the American Civil War takes place in the second half of the nineteenth century, then a historical passage detailing specific battles fought during the American Civil War will not make much sense to me.

By analogy, I cannot grasp others’ minds unless I also know lots of other things about persons, kinds of persons, the sorts of things people commonly do, and the way the world unfolds. If I see an acquaintance buying food at the grocery store, there are probably lots of plausible inferences I can draw about his being there even without conversing with him. And these inferences are based on what I know about people’s reasons for and ways of being in grocery stores.

Fourthly, I can inquire if I do not know. Plainly, this is philosophy’s greatest yet simplest insight. ‘Why is our neighbor building a wooden stairwell up the rocky mountainside? And why has he added a small deck near the top?’ He tells us that he imagines having tea and coffee with his wife there when they return next fall. This is a sufficient reason for his doing so, and it is consistent with what we already know about him.

Admittedly, these four reasons are little more than a brief sketch of how one goes about understanding other people’s minds. Doubtless, further reasons would have to be given in order to come up with a fuller, more cogent account. Still, if this way of thinking were to become a set of exercises whose point was to grasp others’ mental activities (occurring in certain sequences, with certain repetitions, and certain intensities), then skepticism of others’  mental activities and distrust of the kind that flows from skepticism would both disappear. Minding, recall, is world-involving and world-invoking.