Overcoming the Problem of Other Minds

The Problem of Other Minds is a philosophical challenge that disturbs one of our most basic human assumptions – that other humans have minds in the same way that we do. How can we be certain of this when we can’t get inside another mind (if there even is such a thing) to check. While it seems like other people have similar mental states to us – they express thoughts and exhibit emotions, we cannot be sure that their thought experience or pain experience is the same as ours. Philosophers, while generally agreeing that sound arguments against the Problem of Other Minds exist, cannot agree on which argument is the soundest. So you have to wonder, if the experts can’t agree on how to justify that other people have minds, how can we begin to know what goes on inside them.

Sheltering Philosophical Minds

Mind ShelterLes Trois Ombres, Musee Rodin, Paris

I know what you’re thinking – what does it really matter anyway? Well it matters if you are trying to understand your own mental state as I was last year when I started seeing a therapist. I was trying to evaluate whether my experience of the world was anything like everyone else’s. Given that mental illness runs in my family, I think I’m more in tune with my mental state than others. But I have no real way of knowing if this is true. I wanted to know if I had depressive tendencies of my own, or if other people felt equally challenged by life. Maybe we all feel the same way at different times or maybe we are all having our own completely unique experience ranging somewhere on the spectrum from blissful to oppressive. I thought a good way to get to the bottom of this would be through benchmarking – and who better to rank me on the scale of mental normalcy than a professional who sees lots of different minds every day. After ten months under psychological observation, my therapist has brought our sessions to a close. I’ve been released. My primary and not so profound conclusion from the experience is this: I’m OK – somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. I suspected this from the beginning, but I just couldn’t know for sure – I didn’t have other minds to compare mine to.

So I know I’m OK thanks to heavily health insurance subsidized therapy, but what about all of you – how do you know if you’re OK?  I think the answer to this lies in homegrown benchmarking. We should do more informal and free comparisons with friends and family. I feel like although mental illness is less taboo now than it once was, it is still rare for us to delve into realms of the mind in our everyday conversations. Part of the problem is that we don’t have a common language for what we are experiencing. The true meaning of the word depressed has been hijacked: ‘I’m like sooooo depressed’ can usually be translated to ‘I’m a bit disappointed’. So when we are really suffering we don’t know how to let our people know. I’ve learnt to understand that when my friends lightheartedly say, ‘I’m having a total meltdown’ or ‘a wobbly’ they’re not OK and they’re letting me know. While I can’t know what precisely is going on in their minds at that point in time, I can ask questions that will allow them to describe their experience in more detail. Through such conversations, I’ve learnt that many of my friends have very similar mental experiences to mine. Sometimes they are happy, sometimes they are sad, sometimes they are tired, confused, desperate, sometimes elated. And so the Problem of Other Minds becomes less of a problem if we talk more about what’s going on in our minds. Specifically, it’s talking about it, or talking about it more specifically, that’s the challenge. Try asking someone what’s going on in their mind – it may not be too different from your own.

For more serious intelligent insight into the Problem of Other Minds see:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/other-minds/ (Theoretical Synopsis)

http://vibrantbliss.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/the-problem-of-other-minds/ (Further contemplation)


2 thoughts on “Overcoming the Problem of Other Minds

  1. this reminded me of another thing i learned when i was in that sort of exploration mode: to let others into my life when things aren’t going well specifically because pretending everything is okay backfires because people don’t want to let you know when they’re not alright – they think you can’t relate.

    that was a huge lesson for me because, by instinct, i always want to pretend that everything is okay and i didn’t realize that i was actually convincing people into my unrealistic image.


  2. I recognise that picture from the garden of the Rodin Museum! Apparently amazing perspective can be had from a reading of Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. The basic idea is choice of life, made on a minute-by-minute basis, against evil. And why the recounting of a holocaust survivor is relevant is that evil can take the form of a doubtful thought, an intrusive memory, a construction in one’s head that is unrealistic, as well as an SS soldier. Of the person whom I know who studied near that same Rodin Museum – she is awesome!


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