Mill: Argument from Inference

14Mar08

This argument against skepticism about other minds is often credited to Mill.

‘I conclude that other human beings have feelings like me because, first, they have bodies like me, which I know in my own case, to be the antecedent condition of feelings; and because secondly, they exhibit the acts, and other outward signs, which in my own case I know from experience to be caused by feelings…In the case of other human beings I have the evidence of my senses for the first and last links of the series, but not for the intermediate link…In my own case I know that the first link produces the last through the intermediate link, and could not produce it without. Experience, therefore, obliges me to conclude that there must be an intermediate link; which must either be the same in others as in myself, or a different one; I must either believe them to be alive, or to be automatons; and by believing them to be alive, that is, by supposing the link to be of the same nature as in the case of which I have experience… I bring other human beings, as phenomena, under the same generalizations which I know by experience to be the true story of my own existence’.

(‘An examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy’, quoted in Hospers p.177)

We can break down his argument in the following way:

1.) Other people have bodies.

2.) These bodies behave as if they had feelings.

3.) In myself, these actions result from feelings, emotions and motivations.

Therefore I can reasonably generalise that:

4.) Other beings have a psychological life like my own.

Mill’s argument might seem compelling, and certainly reflect the way in which we experience other minds indirectly. But why can’t I successfully infer that you have feelings and mental states like mine?

Firstly, unlike a scientific inference, this cannot be tested or repeated in order to guarantee the reasonability of the inference. Maybe you are just a unique creature whose mind is unlike those of others, but shares behavioural traits and physical similarities. If this is the case, the appearance of similarity is no indication of actual similarity. Furthermore, if we accept a broadly Cartesian model of consciousness (as Mill seems to) then we also seem to accept that there is no necessary causal connection between the mind and the body. To work from this observational / inferential basis is to treat others as collections of phenomena, not as ‘people’.

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