Skepticism Unrefuted: Strawson, Stroud and Other Minds
1. Introduction Prof. Stroud uses P.F. Strawson's "Persons" to refute skepticism about other minds. But does the refutation succeed? I doubt it. Strawson is correct that "in order to ascribe experiences to oneself in the way that one does, one must 'also ascribe them (or be prepared to ascribe them) other others who are not oneself,'" but his analysis of the meaning of "person" doesn't follow. And even if it did, Strawson's work is completely irrelevant to the problem of other minds: for all that he does is provide a conceptual analysis of "person" without proving that the concept has any real-world referents other than oneself - hence skepticism remains untouched. Put another way, before one could know that there were other persons, one would first have to know that they had minds. Hence to use the concept of a person to solve the problem of other minds, in Hume's famous words, "must be evidently going in a circle, and taking that for granted, which is the very point in question."1 2. Strawson on Ascription of Mental Predicates Strawson states that if we ascribe mental predicates to ourselves, we must at least "be prepared" to ascribe them to others. "It means, for example, that the ascribing phrases should be used in just the same sense when the subject is another, as when the subject is oneself. The dictionaries do not give two sets of meanings for every expression which describes a state of consciousness."2 And presumably, since we do in fact ascribe mental predicates to ourselves, we must in fact be prepared to ascribe them to others. I see no objection. Strawson's troubles begin once he tries to use this principle to establish that the concept of a person is "primitive." Let us first hear the argument in his own words: " one can ascribe states of consciousness to oneself only if one can ascribe them to others;  one can ascribe them to others only if one can identify other subjects of experience;  and one cannot identify others if one can identify them only as subjects of experience."3 (numbers mine) Unfortunately, there is a major equivocation here. When Strawson says that one "can ascribe states of consciousness" does he mean that it is logically possible to do so? Or does he think that it must be possible in fact? On either meaning, the argument doesn't work. If Strawson means logical possibility, then premise #3 is incorrect. It is at least conceivable that someone could have the ability to identify other minds only as subjects of experience - with telepathy, perhaps. It would be hard to argue that it is logically impossible to notice others' mental states without noticing their bodies. Or suppose that we interpret Strawson the other way. Now premise #1 seems dubious. Isn't it at least possible that I am empirically able to pick out myself, but lack the faculties to pick out others? Indeed, this is precisely what the other-minds-skeptic is saying: You can know that you're conscious, but not that anyone else is. So on either reading the argument fails. I think that Strawson's initial premise is unobjectionable: if it is meaningful to say that I am conscious, then it is meaningful to say that you are conscious. But this hardly shows that I am able to know if you are conscious; it only shows that it is meaningful to assert it. And the empirical possibility remains that I am quite able to know if I am conscious, even though I could never tell if you were. Unfortunately, Strawson appears to equivocate later in the argument, leading him to think that it is somehow illogical to affirm knowledge of oneself and deny knowledge of others. But if we read the initial premise strictly (and take seriously his "dictionary" argument) then we see that it discusses nothing but the meanings of mental predicates, not our ability to locate their presence in ourselves or others. 3. Persons and Other Minds To his credit, Strawson does not explicitly claim that his analysis of the concept of persons solves the problem of other minds. But Prof. Stroud apparently does, and perhaps Strawson thinks that his analysis helps. This section will show that even if Strawson's analysis of person were completely correct, his article doesn't take us any closer to a solution to the skeptical problem of other minds. Strawson argues that the concept of a person is "primitive." As he puts it, "The concept of a person is not to be analyzed as that of an animated body or an embodied anima."4 At first, this might seem to solve the problem of other minds. If the concept of a person - an entity with both mental and physical aspects - is coherent, and if the concepts of a mindless body or a disembodied mind are incoherent, then the problem is indeed solved. The skeptic might ask, "How do you know that these creatures around you aren't just bodies without any mental life?" And Strawson, on this interpretation, could reply, "The concept of a person can't be so analyzed; your notion of a mindless body is incoherent." Put more formally: 1. The concept of a person - an entity with both mental and physical attributes, is coherent. 2. The concepts of a body without a mind and a mind without a body are incoherent. 3. Therefore, any body you see must also be a person, i.e., must also have mental states. Now this argument would follow from the premises and would solve the problem of other minds. However, Strawson explicitly contradicts this argument. "This is not to say that the concept of a pure individual consciousness might not have a logically secondary existence, if one thinks, or finds, it desirable. We speak of a dead person - a body - and in the same secondary way we might at least think of a disembodied person, retaining the logical benefit of individuality from having been a person."5 This is a plain denial of premise #2. At this point I am reminded of one of Stroud's points on the problem of induction. Suppose, he asked, that we try to solve the problem by just saying, "By bread I mean something that nourishes." Why is wrong with this solution? Well, previously, I could know that the stuff in front of me was bread, but I couldn't know if it would nourish me. After I re-define bread, I can be certain that "bread" will nourish me, but I have no idea whether the stuff in front of me is bread. Stroud's attempt to use Strawson's concept of a person to solve the problem of other minds faces exactly the same problem. We wonder whether the people around us have mental states, but seem to have no easy way to know for sure. Then Strawson comes along, and defines "person" as "An entity with both physical and mental attributes." Can we now conclude that the creatures around us have mental states? No. At this point, we no longer know whether the creatures around us are really persons. We have a choice of two sorts of ignorance: we can either know that the creatures around us are persons, but not whether all persons are conscious; or we can know that all persons are conscious, but not whether the creatures around us are persons. Neither route solves the problem of other minds. As I noted above, there is one way to make the argument valid. If the very concept of an automaton were incoherent, then the creatures in front of us would have to be persons (i.e., entities with both physical and mental attributes). Logically, every body either has mental attributes or it doesn't. If the latter option is incoherent, then the former is the only remaining possibility. A parallel argument might be to say that the very idea of something that looks like bread but doesn't nourish is incoherent. We would then have to admit that everything that looks like bread also nourishes. Unfortunately, this argument is very difficult to make. As Hume argued, "To form a clear idea of any thing, is an undeniable argument for its possibility, and is alone a refutation of any pretended demonstration against it."6 We need not agree with Hume completely to see his point: if we have a clear idea of something, then we can't show that it is impossible by definition.7 And the concepts of automata and spirit seem to fit the pattern well. We can imagine clearly that such things exist, so the concepts must be coherent. Anyway, Strawson concedes this point. He admits that the concepts of a body without a mind and a mind without a body are coherent. So suppose that he notices a body walking over to him and wants to know whether it is conscious. How does his analysis of a "person" help? I don't see how it does. If the body is a person, it is conscious; if it is an automata, it isn't. But is the creature a person or an automata? In order to tell, we would first have to ascertain whether it is conscious. So the analysis of a person is beside the point. Indeed, we could also make the same argument about a spirit. Since the concepts of a person and a disembodied spirit are both coherent, how would we know what we are? If I am a person, then I have a body; if I am a disembodied spirit, then I don't. So before I could know if I were a person, I would first have to know that I had a body. But this is the very thing that someone like Descartes wants proof of - and for Strawson to answer him, he would have to assume the very thing in question. Perhaps Strawson would point out that he said that the concepts of automata and spirit are "logically secondary." Well, suppose that they were. They may be logically secondary to the concept of a person; but nevertheless, mightn't automata and spirits exist even though persons don't? Suppose, for example, that we said that the concept of an "orphan" has a logically secondary existence; it is meaningful only in relation to other concepts such as "parent." It would be illogical for someone to accept the concept of "orphan" but not of "parent." Nevertheless, in the real world, isn't it possible for there to be nothing but orphans without a single parent among them? If so, why would it matter if one concept is "logically secondary" to the other? Empirically, one can exist without the other; hence, knowing the logical relations among the concepts doesn't tell you anything about what you will find in the real world. In all fairness to Strawson, his thesis does undermine one form of skepticism about other minds. One such version argues that it is meaningless to say that other people are conscious, since all mental concepts derived from our own introspection. One might call this "definitional skepticism about other minds," since it argues that ascribing mental states to others is impossible by definition. Strawson's view - that if we ascribe mental predicates to ourselves, we must also be prepared to ascribe them to others - strongly undermines this version of skepticism. However, the kind of skepticism that Stroud brought up was quite different: it wasn't skepticism about whether it was meaningful to ascribe mental predicates to others; it was skepticism about whether we could verify the admittedly meaningful claim that other people have mental states. And for this kind of skepticism about other minds, Strawson is no help at all. 4. Conclusion Since Strawson never claims that he solves the problem of other minds with his analysis of "person," it would be unfair to criticize him for failing to do so. Stroud, in contrast, cannot escape criticism so easily; for he certainly argued that Strawson's article helped solve the problem of other minds. The really crucial question is this: Granted the analysis of "person," isn't the concept of an automata equally meaningful? And if so, what progress against skepticism have we made? We could only know that the other bodies around us were persons if we first knew that they had minds. If we do know that, Strawson's analysis isn't necessary; and if don't know that, then his analysis won't help. Stroud's use of Strawson's article is particular strange in light of his earlier, incisive critique of the attempt to solve the problem of induction by re-definition. It doesn't help to define a person as "possessing both mental and physical attributes." Why? Because that doesn't tell us whether the creature in front of us is "really" a person. In order to know that he was, we would first have to know that he had mental attributes. And this is precisely what the skeptic wants us to establish: namely, whether the creatures around us have mental attributes. Stroud's use of Strawson to solve the problem of other minds is viciously circular; and the error is quite hard to forgive since Stroud himself thoroughly refuted parallel solutions to the problem of induction. Notes 1: David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, p.23. 2: P.F. Strawson, "Persons," p.134. 3: ibid, pp.134-135. 4: ibid, p.137. 5: ibid. 6: David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, p.89. 7: As I argued in my previous papers (Bryan Caplan, "A Enquiry Concerning Hume's Misunderstanding," and idem, "Underived Knowledge: An Answer to Skepticism About Induction and the External World"), Hume leaves out the possibility that pure reason may do something other than merely locate the presence or absence of self- contradictions. Thus, even though examining definitions with our reason will never tell us about the world, turning our reason to the world itself often does inform us about it -- e.g., by grasping the law of cause-and-effect or logical laws. Similarly, just because something isn't impossible by definition doesn't imply that reason alone couldn't tell us that it were impossible by some sort of non-definitional reasoning.