Humans III

Philosophers have long pondered the question of other minds. In practical terms we adopt a default position over other humans by assuming that they have minds, but in other cases we are more sceptical. We require evidence that dogs and cats and chickens have minds that we do not require of human beings, but that is probably a prejudice.

How could one tell whether another entity possessed a mind, an inside-looking-out, whether it is “like anything” to be that thing (as Thomas Nagel puts it in “What is it Like to be a Bat?”)? What is the difference between something that behaves the way humans behave in all respects and a human? Could there be a difference, even if the thing is made of metal and plastic? We assume there is, but that is just a prejudice.

Talking to it for long enough is not the answer because many human beings could not sustain such a conversation (typically, the kinds of human beings we find exhibiting their ignorance and vacuity in Big Brother). No, the answer is along lines Esther Perel quotes from Proust: just as it is our imagination that makes us fall in love, not another person, so it is our determination to treat another entity as having a mind that makes it have a mind.

This is not to suggest some idealist position whereby we make something true by believing it, but to suggest that it is only by our willingness to grant something a mind that its mind can be discerned (and that is as true of dogs, cats and chickens). I can refuse to believe that a dog writhing in pain is actually feeling pain, just as I can force myself to believe that a human being writhing in pain is not really in pain, but the natural assumption is that things that are behaving as if they are in pain are actually in pain. And so it is with minds. Indeed, why should there even be such a question as “Whether something has a mind”? Why not simply observe its behaviour and decide whether or not we want to be associated with it in any way (rather as we do with other humans)?

Why should I grant this possibility? The strongest reason is that, once we abandon belief in a soul and embrace the notion of mind as the inside-looking-out-ness of a suitably-situated body, there is no less reason to believe in the minds of some artefacts then there is to believe in minds in other human beings (and in the cases of some human beings there is more).

“But I might find myself treating something as if it had a mind when it didn’t”, I hear you protest. Yes, but what would follow? We treat human beings as if they had minds and frequently we are mistaken in that belief too, or at least have less reason to hold it than in the case of some very intelligent machines. “And how would I know whether I could trust it?” How indeed.


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