Sanford C. Goldberg
How do you know that there are minds other than your own? This is the standard “Problem of Other Minds.” It is a problem (and not just a question) if we make two further assumptions, both of which can be traced to Descartes. The first is the assumption that each of us has mental access, not to the world and its inhabitants themselves, but to exclusively one’s own thoughts or ideas about the world and its inhabitants. The second is the assumption that when it comes to others’ minds, our thoughts or ideas are always directed towards others’ overt behaviors, from which we infer that others have minds. The standard “Problem of Other Minds” is the problem of justifying the transition, from the claim that one has thoughts or ideas about other people (with minds of their own), to the claim that other people (with minds of their own) actually exist.
The “Problem of Other Minds” persisted in more or less this form throughout much of the Twentieth Century. It is taken up in Russell’s Problems of Philosophy (1912) and in Ayer’s Problems of Knowledge (1956), both of which have been reprinted as recently as the 1970s and 80s. And when I was a graduate student in the 1990s, it was familiar to have the “Problem of Other Minds” (in roughly its Cartesian form) still on the syllabus for epistemology courses.
Though I am an epistemologist, I have never been particularly exercised by this problem. In part, this is because I reject a good deal of the Cartesian framework itself. But it is also because, while I think that the topic of other minds is a rich one for epistemology, the traditional “Problem of Other Minds” utterly fails to capture the problem other minds pose to epistemology.
To get at this problem, we do well to start off with the assumption that knowledge of other minds is not especially problematic: not only do we know that other minds exist, we also sometimes know how another mind – or rather the person with the mind – takes the world to be. When one person knows what another person believes about the world, I will call this content knowledge of another mind. From an epistemological point of view, content knowledge of other minds would appear to be very special. Suppose you know what another person – say, Smith – believes – say, that it is currently raining. For you to know this is for you to be in a position to appreciate that Smith takes it that there is sufficient evidence to settle the question regarding the current weather. Insofar as Smith is an ordinary, cognitively healthy human being, she forms her beliefs in accordance with what she takes the evidence to support. As a result, the fact that Smith believes that it is raining is a consideration that tells very strongly in favor of the truth of what she believes: so long as you have no reasons to doubt Smith’s competence or to question whether it is raining, your knowing that she believes this ought to lead you to form the same belief. And if this is correct, then other minds have an epistemic significance that is very different from the epistemic significance of ordinary evidence. And herein is what I take to be the new Problem of Other Minds: to characterize the epistemic significance of other minds.
This “problem” is less a single problem than it is a collection of topics to be addressed. Front and center is the question about the epistemic significance of another person’s speech. The main source of our content knowledge of another mind comes from observation of how another behaves, and in particular what she tells us; but of course it is possible that what she tells us is not really what she believes. What epistemic significance should we ascribe to the fact that another person said such-and-such? This question, which is the core issue in the epistemology of testimony, is one we must address as we seek to characterize the “new” Problem of Other Minds.
But when it comes to the epistemic significance of other minds, testimony is only the tip of the iceberg. In forming beliefs about the world, we rely on one another in a host of further ways. When we rely on experts, we rely by extension on the institutions which certify expertise and determine who are the experts among us, as well as on the people who run such institutions. When we rely on professionals, we rely by extension on the professional organizations that regulate their intellectual conduct. When we rely on scientists, we rely by extension on the many individuals who participate in the construction, validation, and upkeep of the scientific instruments on which the scientists themselves rely. When we rely on journalists, we rely by extension on the social practices through which the media try to ensure reliability and relevant coverage. When we rely on our friends and neighbors for information, we rely by extension on the informal social practices that have evolved whereby we share information with one another, as well as on the methods through which we enforce the norms of those practices. In these and many other cases, we also rely on the teams of people involved in the participating institutions, social practices, and epistemic groups. All of this (and no doubt more) should be included when we think about the epistemic significance of other minds.
What epistemic significance should be ascribed to the cognitive and intellectual work of others, when one implicitly relies on them to do the sort of background work just described?
Traditional epistemology offers a simple answer: in itself, this work has no epistemic significance whatsoever. According to the traditional view, what has epistemic significance are the subject’s beliefs about her reliance on others, together with the inferences that she draws from those beliefs. On such a picture, it is as if each of us is an epistemic island: if we are to acquire knowledge through our reliance on others, each of us needs to have enough information in our own heads about the social practices on which we are relying, and/or about the reliability with which those practices yield truths.
I reject this traditional view outright. Knowledge itself is often the result of a very complicated division of intellectual labor. There is little reason to think that the participating individuals need to know very much about the division of labor on which they are relying. On the contrary, as individuals we are the recipients of an epistemic good – knowledge – in whose production we may have played little role, just as in our role as consumers we are the recipients of economic goods and services in whose production we typically play little role. The task is to understand how we relate to one another as knowers, such that we can epistemically benefit in this way from the intellectual work of others. That, I submit, is the overarching question raised by the “new” Problem of Other Minds. Any epistemology that purports to address this I call Seriously Social Epistemology.
In the next decade or so I fervently hope that an increasing number of thinkers from a variety of different disciplines become interested in pursuing Seriously Social Epistemology. More investigation is needed if we are to understand the social dimensions of knowledge. A good part of this will involve an attempt to understand the social practices whereby we acquire, process, preserve, transmit, and assess knowledge. To attain such an understanding, we will of course need philosophers – above all, epistemologists, philosophers of science, political philosophers, and ethicists. But we will need insights from a great many other disciplines as well, including Political Science, Psychology, Sociology, Economics, History, Library and Information Sciences, Anthropology, and no doubt many others. Given the increasing ease and efficieny of social sources of information, as well as our recent worries about “information bubbles,” allegations of “fake news,” and the like, this sort of research is extremely timely.