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.

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Light laughter and genuine curiosity

There are two connected attitudes toward living a well-led life that cannot be adopted by anyone who believes that the mind is inherently sickly and prone to illness. (The sickly mind is consistent with the metaphysical view of the world as being bad and ugly.) These attitudes are light laughter and genuine curiosity, and both spring from a common source: the affirmation of life.

Yesterday, I opened a letter to one philosophical friend,

Our conversation began lightly, proceeded lightly, something that is only possible when the atmosphere of the world, the world perceived resplendently is light. Perceiving the world in itself lightly and beautifully, one responds immediately by smiling and laughing lightly. Only by affirming the world as basically good and beautiful does laughter come forth. I take this to be the logical point of the Book of Genesis: God created the world in its essence as good. Not this bit or that bit but the whole. Yet once this world in itself is no longer disclosed and darkness settles in, drawing our attention to some of its darkening parts, enveloping us in the particulars, the ‘ignorant armies clashing by night,’ laughter can no longer come forth. 

There is no light laughter, only aggression, cruelty and empathy elevated to an ascetic ideal, when the mind is held to sick and ill thoughts of itself, of other minds.

Nor is there curiosity as Vico understands it. In New Science, he elaborates,

Curiosity–that inborn property of man, daughter of ignorance and mother of knowledge–when wonder awakens our minds, has the habit, wherever it sees an extraordinary phenomenon of nature, a comet, for example, a sundog, or a midday start, of asking straight away what it means.

Ignorance comes from astoundment with what there is, how it is, and why it is. Perplexed or fascinated, we surround the occurrence or the phenomenon with plentiful questions. The world magnificently, deliciously reveals itself to be a more interesting place than we had conceived of or imagined. Experimenting, essaying, probing, inquiring, hypothesizing, postulating, meditating allow us to become better acquainted with the world. Then, a practice may emerge in which we inquire and meditate time and again so that the curiosity is channeled, educated, refined, cultivated into a way of thinking.

Light laughter deepens one, giving rise to silent appreciation. Curiosity, cultivated well, becomes a desire for wisdom.

The emotions accompanying our mental activities

It is time to put to rest the Platonic assumption that emotions are one kind of activity (or faculty) and reasoning another kind of activity (or faculty). They are not two forces vying against each other, and it is not that one is the ‘slave’ or the ‘master’ of the other: Hume holding that reason is the slave of the passions, Kant replying that passions had better be kept under watchful eye by our reason. This Platonic assumption concerning the divide between our reasons and our emotions has been carried forward into our conversations concerning ‘John’s being emotional’ or ‘Jane’s being quite cerebral.’ Granted, it may be that John has strong emotional responses to a range of things and it may also be that Jane’s responses tend to be more tempered, but neither has anything to do with a response’s being untethered to reasons.

Quite the contrary, believing a number of things is at least a prerequisite for emoting. For I cannot be angry with another unless I believe that this other has deliberately wronged me. And I can be angry with ‘the world’ only if the world consists of hostile people who are bound to harm me. In this, sadness is like anger: only if someone I value greatly has gone away can I feel sorrow. Even if I cannot verbalize this belief to others when the emotions comes on (and mostly we do not do so from a first-person perspective when we are experiencing anger or sorrow or whatever), still it does not follow that this belief is not a necessary condition for the possibility of experiencing this emotion. It is.

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Healing the sickly vs. trying to understand another’s character

Recall that this is the invalid and deleterious argument that I have sought to examine:

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

In the past couple of posts, I have been trying to say some things that I believe to be accurate about minding. Chiefly, I am concerned with the question of how we are in the world because I want to understand myself and others better and because I am convinced that we have an erroneous view of ‘the’ mind. The idea that the mind is like the body has held us so transfixed that we have come to believe that minds, like bodies, can be sick or healthy. How strange! And this, in turn, leads us to help, diagnose, treat, manage, and cure. My view is that this picture is incorrect. In much bolder terms, Nietzsche would say that this picture supposes a world of weak persons and proposes a regimen that will only make us weaker.

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Trying to understand mental activities

Last time, I wrote about the common category mistakes we make. We are in error when we think of minding as it if were like the body or some bodily organ. It is not. Since minding is not only not the body but also not like the body, it follows that minding cannot be healthy or ill (though the brain, a part of the body, can be healthy or ill), and it follows further that minding cannot be treated, diagnosed, prescribed, or cured. From erroneous conceptions and assumptions, we arrive at hazardous courses of action.

Now, if we are not warranted in speaking of mental activities as if they occupied a spatial location (where is the mind?), as if they were a kind of thing (what is the mind?), and as if they were a container (what takes place in there anyway?), then how shall we speak of mental activities?

Alva Noe, a philosopher of mind and cognitive science, has a nice way of speaking of mental activities. These are the complex mutual interactions of brain, body, and environment. Without a brain, there would be no minding. Without the kind of body we have (with our hands, our turning neck, our eyes, etc.), we wouldn’t experience the world in the way we do. And without the kind of environment we find ourselves in, we wouldn’t have minding–or at least not the kind of minding that is the one with which we are familiar. Of course, minding is not identical with the brain, the body, or the environment. Conceivably, a different sort of brain-body-environment configuration would produce a different sort of being, only not the one we recognize in our daily lives, in works of literature, and elsewhere.

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