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Other minds are neither seen nor inferred

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How do we know about other minds on the basis of perception? The two most common answers to this question are that we literally perceive others’ mental states, or that we infer their mental states on the basis of perceiving something else. In this paper, I argue for a different answer. On my view, we don’t perceive mental states, and yet perceptual experiences often immediately justify mental state attributions. In a slogan: other minds are neither seen nor inferred. I argue that this view offers the best explanation of our deeply equivocal intuitions about perception-based mental state attributions, and also holds substantial interest for the epistemology of perception more generally.

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  1. My usage of ‘seen’ and cognates is hence not synonymous with ‘epistemic seeing’. How exactly to understand epistemic seeing is controversial, but it is generally agreed that epistemic seeing does not align with perceptual presentation (see Dretske 1969; Cassam 2009; Spaulding 2015; Neufeld 2018).

  2. More precisely, I use ‘perceptual judgments’ to pick out basic concept applications performed by the subject. I wish to remain neutral on whether visual experiences might have conceptual structure. If so, I take the concept applications constitutive of visual presentation to be subpersonal.

  3. See, for example, Siegel and Silins (2015), Peacocke (1992), Campbell (2002), Smithies (2016), Pryor (2000) for philosophers endeavoring to ask and answer questions of this sort.

  4. One could hold, instead, that in cases of known illusion we first judge the lines to be unequal, and then judge that they are equal. I disprefer understanding known illusions in terms of multiple inconsistent judgments. That said, the reader can accept the importance of the conceptual distinction in the text, even if they think the example I chose is not an instance of it. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pressing me on this example.

  5. My understanding of immediate justification is inspired by Pryor (2000, (2005).

  6. Notice, in particular, how commonly perceptualists motivate Perceptualism by emphasizing the non-inferential character of many mental state attributions.

  7. Whether kind properties like dogs are perceptually presented is, of course, controversial (see Byrne and Siegel 2017 for opposing positions on the controversy). I take it that perceptualists about other minds will tend also to endorse rich content views more generally. My point is that, compared to other purported sorts of rich content, other minds pose a distinctive epistemological problem. If we can’t see dogs, then substitute a high level property that we can see.

  8. That a satisfying response to skepticism should explain skepticism’s appeal in addition to explaining why skepticism is false is well-articulated by Nozick (1981).

  9. For other arguments in favor of Perceptualism (see Gallagher 2007; Gallagher and Hutto 2008; Gallagher 2008; Green 2010; Neufeld 2018, among others).

  10. Siegel only briefly considers mental states, about which she says the same argument ‘seem[s] to go through’ (Siegel 2006, p. 500). (She also appears amenable to the suggestion in (Siegel 2012), though she doesn’t defend it there.)

  11. Siegel articulates her view, and the phenomenal contrast method, in terms of representational content. Nonetheless, the phenomenal contrast method does not essentially depend on a commitment to representationalism. Naïve realists also need to say which properties contribute to a subject’s perceptual perspective, and can appeal to phenomenal contrast arguments to address this question. In the interest of brevity, I will follow Siegel in occasionally lapsing into a representationalist idiom, with the understanding that the question of which properties are presented in perception cross-cuts debates between representationalists and naïve realists.

  12. This reply can be found in Price (2009), Prinz (2013), Connolly (2014). Spaulding (2015) also points to attention in connection with phenomenal contrast arguments and perceiving mental states.

  13. See, for example, Block (2010).

  14. Cognitive phenomenology is ‘proprietary’ if it is different in kind from sensory phenomenology. See the papers in Bayne and Montague (2011) for a range of perspectives.

  15. They will account for these phenomenal differences in terms of sensory phenomenology e.g. inner speech or bodily phenomenology. See Prinz (2007) and Smithies (2013) for discussion.

  16. See, for example, Hatfield et al. (1993), Barsade (2002), Parkinson (2011).

  17. See, for example De Vignemont and Singer (2006).

  18. Whether emotional contagion or empathy contribute to the explanation of how we attribute mental states is an open question. However that controversy is resolved, though, it’s not controversial that a correlation exists, and that is sufficient to explain an overall phenomenal difference.

  19. See Baars (1993, (1997), Carruthers (2014) for discussion.

  20. Carruthers (2015, pp. 501–502).

  21. Carruthers (2015, p. 499). Access consciousness was originally introduced by Ned Block, who characterized it as ‘availability for use in reasoning and rationally guiding speech and action’ (Block 1995, p. 227)

  22. Carruthers (2015, p. 506). Carruthers substantiates this claim by arguing that there is empirical evidence against an amodal working memory system. For my purposes, I will grant Carruthers’ preferred cognitive architecture, so I won’t discuss that aspect of Carruthers’ argument.

  23. Carruthers (2015, pp. 504–506).

  24. Carruthers (2015, p. 506).

  25. Carruthers rejects this claim. See below for discussion.

  26. I.e. it is available for use in reasoning, and rationally guiding speech and action.

  27. See Carruthers (2011, Chapters 3 and 4).

  28. One could reply that these are not genuine perceptual files, and so not counterexamples. But that response renders the argument invalid because equivocal. Premise 3 is true only if ‘perceptual files’ is understood to pick out a representational format. But Premise 5 requires that we read ‘perceptual files’ differently, since inner speech does have a perceptual format, but does not constitute perception.

  29. Compare: I believe my kitchen is next to my bedroom. I also believe John’s bedroom is next to my bedroom. Perhaps both of these beliefs are constituted by one cognitive map from which I can extract spatial information. In that case, one representation constitutes many beliefs. In the same way, a globally broadcasted ‘perceptual’ state with various concepts ‘bound in’ might constitute both a perceptual experience and various perceptual judgments.

  30. Thanks to Zoe Jenkin for encouraging me to consider this argument.

  31. The waterfall illusion constitutes a canonical example see (Addams 1834).

  32. This more capacious perspective can be found in inferential theories of vision. See, for example Hatfield (2002). The idea was canonically expressed by von Helmholtz (1867/1924), and is plausibly older than that. Hohwy (2013) is a recent exponent of this usage.

  33. For an interesting recent development of an inferential view see (Parrott 2017).

  34. Although they deny Directness, as I have specified it.

  35. The gas gauge example comes from Pryor (2005).

  36. For independent arguments against Inferentialism (see McNeill 2015; Neufeld 2018). Although Neufeld sets up the debate substantially differently, I take her arguments to be relevant to my construal of Inferentialism as well.

  37. Parrott (2017) develops a factive account of looks; as I read him, Martin (2010) develops a statistical account. See also Smith (2015) for an interestingly nuanced account of the relevant looks.

  38. A factive construal of looks is also floated by McDowell (1982), although he has distinctive epistemological motivations.

  39. Some philosophers use ‘looks’ to pick out the perspectival aspect of perceptual experience. For example, a round coin might look ovoid, while also looking round, and we might call the ovoid appearance a ‘look’ (Noë 2005). I take this to be a different sense of ‘look’ than the one at issue in ‘looks excited’. On Noë’s view, we perceive non-perspectival properties by perceiving perspectival properties. If we understand ‘looks’ as picking out perspectival properties, then I take it that the proposed view would be a perceptual view, not an inferential view. I take it, instead, that the look of excitement is not meant to be a perspectival property. Rather, the look of excitement is a non-perspectival property of a face. I am denying that perception presents ‘objective’ mere appearances, not denying that perception presents perspectival properties.

  40. In fact, I’m skeptical Inferentialism is plausible even in this case. Smiles also indicate politeness, awkwardness, pain, finding something funny, and so on. We would need much more specific beliefs about which sorts of smiles indicate which sorts of mental states. So even in the most promising case for Inferentialism, there is some reason for doubt.

  41. Of course, that is not to say that we cannot recognize expressions of fear. Obviously we can. My point is that in order for an inferential account to succeed, we would need to know a lot more about facial expressions than we seem to. Happily, there are non-inferential accounts that avoid this problem.

  42. The inferentialist could argue that our beliefs are justified but false, but then they owe us an explanation of how these erroneous beliefs are justified. It’s not obvious to me that such an explanation can be made to work.

  43. Pace Siegel (2016), who notably dissents.

  44. Spaulding (2017) also argues that judgments about motor intentions are immediately justified. The motivations and understanding of basic beliefs are substantially different.

  45. This example is taken from Nida-Rümelin (2004), although she puts it to a different use.

  46. Though I won’t argue for this claim, I will note two unpersuasive reasons for denying it: First, Marianna has not seen colors before and this may affect development of color vision. This is not essential to the case. Marianna could have grown up in the colored room without ever being in a position to figure out which color was which. Second, some people think color experience is often cognitively penetrated, e.g. (Macpherson 2012). So perhaps normal subjects would have a cognitively penetrated experience, which is thereby importantly different from Marianna’s. The objects Marianna is looking at are not ones that ordinary subjects would have expectations about with respect to color, so the kind of cognitive penetration Macpherson discusses is not relevant. A normal subject’s experiences would not be cognitively penetrated in the way Macpherson describes.

  47. Being in a position to think about Fs as such is Fodor’s (2004) characterization of concept possession. I use it here for convenience, but the point I am making doesn’t turn on a commitment to this view of concepts.

  48. Though this thought has some initial plausibility, I think on reflection we should reject it. Recall that Marianna is meant to know all of the physical facts about color. If she does not possess the concept red, it’s hard to understand how she could have any beliefs about red, much less knowledge. The objector may respond that this just shows it’s a badly conceived thought experiment. I disagree, but our disagreement is not relevant to the argument I’m making in the text, so I leave it aside.

  49. See Cole (2011).

  50. This example is adapted from Loar (1990).

  51. Brian Loar—from whom I’m adapting this example—calls this a ‘recognitional disposition’ (Loar 1990, pp. 88–90). I prefer ‘recognitional capacity’ because it’s questionable whether recognitional capacities are best-understood as dispositions. I remain neutral on that question for present purposes.

  52. For prominent examples, see Pryor (2000), and Smithies (2011) who each propose that perceptual justification works by experience presenting contents in a distinctive way.

  53. And it is not surprising that asking what an experience justifies in the abstract would result in a restrictive answer, since—once we abstract from a subject and their cognitive capacities—all we have left is the content of the experience. Though, again, even for the case of low-level perceptible properties, recognitional capacities are required for justified perceptual judgments.

  54. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this objection.

  55. See, for example Ramachandran (1988a), Ramachandran (1988b), Kleffner and Ramachandran (1992).

  56. My thinking about inferences is consonant with quite disparate ways of thinking about what inference—in the more restrictive sense at issue—is. To take two paradigmatic examples, Boghossian (2014) offers a non-natural account of inference—in terms of a primitive, normative notion of following a rule, while Quilty-Dunn and Mandelbaum (2018) offer a naturalistic account—in terms of transitions governed by syntactic rules that are built into the cognitive architecture of a system. Both restrict inference to transitions involving conceptual states like beliefs.

  57. See also Beck (2012) for a persuasive argument that some extra-perceptual cognitive systems have a non-conceptual representational format.


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Correspondence to Mason Westfall.

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I would like to thank Jennifer Nagel, David James Barnett, Diana Raffman, Imogen Dickie, Aaron Henry, Elliot Carter, Evan Westra, Manish Oza, Melissa Rees, audience members at the 2019 Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association—especially Eleonore Neufeld, Zoe Jenkin and Amogha Sahu, and at the 2019 Annual Congress of the Canadian Philosophical Association—especially Madeleine Ransom. I would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers, whose thoughtful, incisive comments improved this paper immensely.

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Westfall, M. Other minds are neither seen nor inferred. Synthese 198, 11977–11997 (2021).

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