Thursday, February 14, 2019

Knowing other minds

Knowing other minds

This is an old issue in philosophy and the issue is very simple: how do we know that other minds exist since we only have access to our own mind? I won’t use the technical term for this issue, Solipsism” but this form of scepticism is, as I shall argue, a victim of the state of knowledge of past eras. As in many issues in philosophy and dare I say it, science, a lot depends on the language and vocabulary we use. The issue of other minds goes back to the dualism of the mind-body question; some might describe it as mind and materialism question and so on.

From a historical perspective, the “mind” part is the problem; no one disputes the existence of a body/materialism but the body thing is fraught with determinism and causality. Hence, the idea of free will and free actions is that we want people, including ourselves, to be accountable for their actions which might not be all that free after all. But how can we be held accountable and therefore responsible for our actions if we are determined?

The mind was supposed to solve this problem by giving it some sort of “non material” properties that somehow are not shackled by determinism but still preserves moral accountability. There are no “non material” properties of the mind because there is no such thing as a mind; what we have is a brain and how the brain functions. We can classify the mind-body problem with the “morning star vs evening star” question. Today we know that the evening star and the morning star are not stars but the same planet we call Venus. Just because we believe we are experiencing different events it does not follow that those events cannot be the same single event.

A more modern attempt to explain the problem at hand is the Turing test (Intelligence test). You will remember the Turing test is an experiment, even a thought experiment, when a human being has a conversation with a hidden machine by text only using natural language. If the person cannot distinguish whether the replies were from a machine or human being the test would have succeeded and the counter part is intelligent.

In a way the Turing test pitches our own mind (brain) against a possible machine. But off course this does not deal with the issue of the existence of a mind or other minds or something else. The problem with the Turing test is that machines are man-made hence we are not comparing like with like. At best a Turing test can demonstrate the ingenuity and cleverness of people to make machines.

Hence, the “other minds” problem ought to be the “other brains” problem; or at the very least the “other persons” problem. The advantage of this new question is that we are in no doubt that other brains exist, I mean really exist, and other people exist too. We know this because many tend to annoy us and drive us mad.

It is equally absurd to think that just because other brains, including our brain, can be investigated it is possible for someone to know what we are thinking and equally more important we can be open to total manipulated. But we do know what others are thinking and we do manipulate other people’s brains. The problem is that we cannot all know all the things people are thinking and we cannot manipulate all the people all the time.

The first fallacy is that just because in principle we can know something it does not follow that we can know everything there is to know. Moreover, not only we cannot know what, why and how someone thought in their past, we certainly cannot know how future thoughts will turn out. And all this without taking into account such things as quantum mechanics, multi variable non linear models, unknown variables and errors due to physical malfunctions. In effect we are more limited by our inability to access information than by anything else. The fact that we do acquire knowledge and information suggests that at best determinism has a minimal effect on our brain.

The second fallacy is that our brains are not sealed black boxes without any flow of information; our brains are process central of our perceptions and they are even the central junction signal box of our body. In reality we do not know what sort of information enters our mind and how we, i.e. our brain, reacts to that. When it comes to understanding the brain, information is king.

Even today when companies have all sorts of information about us, which even we are not conscious off, they have problems predicting what we want: take the new idea from Amazon of delivering unsolicited products, the best that can be said about this experiment is that they have a long way to go. (see for example: ‘Amazon, why am I deluged by unwanted parcels?’ https://www.theguardian.com/money/2018/apr/21/amazon-why-am-i-deluged-by-unwanted-parcels ).

Today the best we can do with knowing other people and how they will act are the various probabilistic models some of which even consider real time information. So up to a point these models do not conflict with our idea of moral accountability since such models do not identify individuals and they include a margin of error any way. If today even Google or Amazon cannot get their targeting right at the individual level when they seem to have 100% information about most of us, what chances do other institutions have at identifying the impossible?

So, what about the question that if we can know and understand the brain we can manipulate people? As I have mentioned we do manipulate people today and done so since forever. But once again there are limits: all things being equal no matter how long they manipulate my brain I’m not going to run a 3 minute mile. Advertising and marketing are disciplines with the sole purpose of changing our mind (brain) and manipulate us to buy the relevant products. Even then companies have a hard time maintaining market share. In reality there are limits to what can be done by materialism.

Of course, we generally manipulate other people’s minds through language: an offer of “free Pizza” can manipulate a lot of brains. But even the most recent political manipulation programme in democracy, the 2016 Referendum in the UK, that involved serious manipulation of information and misinformation by the extreme right wing factions had to compete with: people voting leave as a protest vote against the establishment, misplaced racial bias against immigrants, people who voted leave just for a change and the effect of education or lack of it. But these voters at the time thought they were doing the right thing; luckily we can still apply the principles of moral accountable and identify who is responsible for this democracy fail, and why.

A. J. Ayer, (1936: Language, Truth and Logic) proposed a “consciousness test” to distinguish from a conscious man and an unconscious machine: the answer was to distinguish from perceptible behaviour.  But have a look at this article, as an example, on why consciousness is not a good test of man-machine and even more the inadequacy of behaviourism: “Coma patients might feel pleasure and pain like the rest of us” in Medical Xpress https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-05-coma-patients-pleasure-pain-rest.html. Today through Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) we can see the brain in action and some have used the technology to communicate with comatose patients by establishing a signalling language.

In conclusion, by removing the fancy “mind” factor from the discussion and stick to the reality of the brain we can see that the principle of moral accountability is not really threatened even though we can know a lot about the brain, body and people. However, because nature is what it is, our ability to know everything and our ability to manipulate everyone is just a flawed arrogance from believing in our infallibility based on a false context that we are immune from the physical world.

Best Lawrence


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