Brain-imaging technologies have posed the problem of breaching our brain privacy. Until the invention of those technologies, many of us entertained the idea that nothing can threaten our mental privacy, as long as we kept it, for each of us has private access to his or her own mind but no access to any other. Yet, philosophically, the issue of private, mental accessibility appears to be quite unsettled, as there are still many philosophers who reject the idea of private, mental accessibility. I have attempted to refute such rejections and to establish this idea on firmer grounds. My arguments in this paper show that brain imaging allows no access to our mind and that mind privacy is quite different from brain privacy, as the latter can be breached by brain imaging, whereas the former cannot. A reduction of the mind to the body inescapably fails, as there is a categorial difference between mind and body or brain, which is compatible with their inseparability. Brain imaging cannot enable one to “read” the mind or to breach our mental privacy. There is no external access to one’s mind. Each of us has exclusive access to his or her own mind.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Cf.: “mental privacy could face enormous new challenges, in both legal settings and beyond, as there has been no precedent for being able to look into the mind of another human being” (Tong and Pratte 2012, p. 502; cf. Haynes and Ress 2006). Nevertheless, Farah et al. (2009, p. 119; cf. p. 126) somewhat limit her abovementioned claim. On the other hand, Valtteri Arstila and Franklin Scott argue that brain imaging does not threat mental privacy yet, as it depends on the information that the subjects provide voluntarily about their mental states (2011, p. 207). For a criticism of the relevancy of neuroimaging to the study of the mind consult Coltheart 2006a and b; and Tressoldi et al. 2012. For a methodological response to Colheart see Roskies 2009. Roskies concludes: “There are limits to what imaging can tell us about psychology, and we have yet to determine what they are. One can acknowledge this while also accepting that neuroimaging can bear on questions of mind” (op.cit. p. 939).
There are philosophers who dissociate subjectivity from private accessibility. An exception, for instance, is Madell, who considers subjectivity as a matter of privacy, namely, of what is epistemically, phenomenally, or experientially accessible only to a single subject (Madell 1988, p. 88; and 2003). Note that Nagel’s view on subjectivity or the mental does not imply an endorsement of the idea of private mental accessibility: “I am not adverting here to the alleged privacy of experience to its possessor. The point of view in question is not one accessible only to a single individual. Rather it is a type” (1979, p. 171). According to Nagel, we practically do have access, though not a direct one but at least a partial one, to other people’s minds; it is only other species, such as bats, to whose minds access is denied to us (ibid., p. 172).
For the strong relatedness of pain to subjectivity and consciousness see Chalmers 1996, pp 4–9.
Cf.: “we are somewhat inclined to say there is some sort of falsidical pain hallucination, but we are not really inclined to speak of pain illusions or of illusory itch experiences. If we did, we would probably be talking of a case where we mistake the phenomenal character of an experience, not where we mistake its object” (Chalmers 2010, p. 451).
In Saul Kripke’s words “the relation between (…) [pain and C-fiber stimulation] is not that of identity” (Kripke 1980, p. 154).
The indubitability of the reality of the mental-subjective can be along some Cartesian lines. Prominent defenders of the indubitability and irreducibility of the mental-subjective and the first-person ontology are John Searle and Galen Strawson (1994). Thomas Nagel’s criticism of mental reductionism and his defense of the irreducible reality of the mental and the subjective have much force. The same holds true for the views of Colin McGinn (1983) and John Foster (1991), concerning, in different ways, the irreducible reality of the subjective and the mental.
Fred Dretske claims that as a “result of thinking about the mind in naturalistic terms[,] subjectivity becomes part of the objective order” (Dretske 1997, p. 65). On these grounds, he excludes private accessibility. One of the possibilities to refute such a naturalistic view is Madell’s. Madell argues that “there is (…) no way in which phenomenal, or perspectival, or first-person awareness can be accommodated in a materialist framework” (Madell 2003, p. 125), a framework which is subject to objective viewpoint. In contrast, Galen Strawson (1994) and some other materialists or naturalists argue that the irreducibility of the subjective can be quite compatible with their views.
The noted problem of other minds is related to the issue of mental privacy for a crucial philosophical question is: How can I be sure about the existence of other minds although I have no access to them? The other minds problem, nevertheless, cannot be properly discussed within the limited scope of this paper, and, thus, I will comment about it as little as the following sentences. One of the ways to deal with the problem of other minds is to show how do I know that the person just in front of me now is not an object but a subject even though it is only his or her body that I perceive now by means of my senses. The subjective states of this person are mental and epistemically accessible to him or her alone—they are privately accessible. In contrast, no private accessibility can be ascribed to any object, which, in principle, is publically accessible. As a physical-biological object, the brain is in principle externally, publicly accessible dependently on the technological progress of brain imaging. We refer and relate to persons or subjects quite differently from the way we refer and relate to objects—only with persons or subjects we can have an intersubjective relationship. This clearly distinguishes between objects and other minds. As we clearly know, the relations between persons and objects are quite different—category-different—from the relations between persons and other minds.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss Peter Unger’s zipper arguments or Alfred Ayer’s arguments against the privacy of experience. I have discussed them elsewhere. See Gilead 2011, pp. 71–91.
Unfortunately, “instantiation” plays a similar role in the current discussion regarding to what extent brain imaging has to do with the mind. See, for instance, Roskies 2010, p. 659. Roskies’s paper fluctuates between various, even conflicting, terms concerning the psychophysical relation: the brain is the “material basis of the mind” (ibid., p. 635); the mind is “realized in the brain” (ibid., p. 640); and “the mind is the brain” (ibid., 653; all italics are mine).
Pure possibilities are individual possibilities which are entirely independent on spatiotemporal and causal conditions or restrictions as well as on any actual circumstances or actualities. Independent or regardless of any such conditions or restrictions and on any actual circumstances or actualities, any possibility is pure. Gilead’s publications to which this paper refers are about individual pure possibilities in various branches of philosophy, to begin with metaphysics. This original metaphysics is called “panenmentalism.” Whenever the term “possibilities” is mentioned in this paper, it refers to individual pure possibilities.
“Friends of analysis have advised us to meet the threatened publication of our failures with statistics of our successes drawn up by ourselves. I did not agree to this. I pointed out that statistics are worthless if the items assembled in them are too heterogeneous; and the cases of neurotic illness which we had taken into treatment were in fact incomparable in a great variety of respects” (Freud 1917, p. 460).
I am grateful to Prof. Roberto Casati, the Associate Editor of this Journal, and to an anonymous reviewer for their most helpful comments.
Arstila, Valtteri, and Franklin Scott. 2011. Brain reading and mental privacy. Trames 15(2): 204–212.
Ayer, Alfred J. 1971. The problem of knowledge. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Brouwer, Gijs Joost, and David J. Heeger. 2009. Decoding and reconstructing color from responses in human visual cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience 4: 13992–14003.
Chalmers, David. 1996. The conscious mind: In search of a fundamental theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chalmers, David. 2010. The character of consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chun, Marvin M., and Marcia K. Johnson. 2011. Memory: Enduring traces of perceptual and reflective attention. Neuron 72: 520–535.
Coltheart, Max. 2006a. What has functional neuroimaging told us about the mind (so far). Cortex 42: 323–331.
Coltheart, Max. 2006b. Perhaps functional neuroimaging has not told us anything about the mind (so far). Cortex 42: 422–427.
Ḉukur, Tolga, et al. 2013. Attention during natural vision warps semantic representation across the human brain. Naure|Neuroscience 16(6): 763–770.
Davidson, Donald. 1989. The myth of the subjective. In Relativism: Interpretation and confrontation, ed. Michael Krausz, 159–172. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
Davidson, Donald. 1991. Epistemology externalized. Dialectica 45: 191–202.
Davidson, Donald. 1994. Knowing one’s own mind. In Self-knowledge, ed. Quassim Cassam, 43–64. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Davidson, Donald. 1996. Subjective, intersubjective, objective. In Current issues in idealism, ed. Paul Coates, 155–176. Bristol: Thoemmes Press.
Davidson, Donald. 2003. Quine’s externalism. Grazer Philosophische Studien 66: 281–297.
Dretske, Fred. 1997. Naturalizing the mind. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Farah, Martha J. 2005. Neuroethics: The practical and the philosophical. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9(1): 34–40.
Farah, Martha J., et al. 2009. Brain imagining and brain privacy: A realistic concern. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 21(1): 119–127.
Foster, John. 1991. The immaterial self: A defence of the Cartesian dualist conception of the mind. London: Routledge.
Freeman, Jeremy, et al. 2011. Orientation decoding depends on maps, not columns. The Journal of Neuroscience 31(13): 4792–4804.
Freud, Sigmund. 1913. “On beginning the treatment (further recommendations on the technique of psycho-analysis, I),” SE 12: p. 123 ff. SE refers to The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. under the general editorship of James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis [1953–1974]).
Freud, Sigmund. 1917. Introductory lectures on psychoanalysis, SE 16, pp. 241 ff.
Gilead, Amihud. 1999. Saving possibilities: A study in philosophical psychology, vol. 80. Amsterdam: Rodopi—Value Inquiry Book Series.
Gilead, Amihud. 2003. Singularity and other possibilities: Panenmentalist novelties, vol. 139. Amsterdam: Rodopi—Value Inquiry Book Series.
Gilead, Amihud. 2008. A humean argument for personal identity. Metaphysica 9(1): 1–16.
Gilead, Amihud. 2009. Necessity and truthful fictions: Panenmentalist observations, vol. 202. Amsterdam: Rodopi—Value Inquiry Book Series.
Gilead, Amihud. 2011. The privacy of the psychical, vol. 233. Amsterdam: Rodopi—Value Inquiry Book Series.
Haynes, John-Dylan, and Geraint Ress. 2006. Decoding mental states from brain activity in humans. Nature Reviews|Neuroscience 7: 523–534.
Kripke, Saul. 1980. Naming and necessity. Harvard: Harvard University Press.
Madell, Geoffrey. 1988. Mind and materialism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Madell, Geoffrey. 2003. Materialism and the first person. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 53: 123–139.
McGinn, Colin. 1983. The subjective view: Secondary qualities and indexical thoughts. Oxford: Clarendon.
Nagel, Thomas. 1979. Mortal questions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nagel, Thomas. 1986. The view from nowhere. New York: Oxford University Press.
Naselaris, Thomas, et al. 2011. Encoding and decoding in fMRI. NeuroImage 56: 400–410.
Nishimoto, Shinji, et al. 2011. Reconstructing visual experiences from brain activity evoked by natural movies. Current Biology 21: 1641–1646.
Rissman, Jesse, and Anthony Wagner. 2012. Distributed representation in memory: Insights from functional brain imaging. Annual Review in Psychology 63: 101–128.
Roskies, Adina L. 2009. Brain-mind and structure-function relationships: A methodological response to Coltheart. Philosophy of Science 76: 927–939.
Roskies, Adina L. 2010. Saving subtraction: A reply to Van Orden and Paap. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 61: 635–665.
Searle, John. 1994. The rediscovery of the mind. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Soon, Chun Siong, et al. 2008. Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature|Neuroscience 11(5): 543–545.
Strawson, Galen. 1994. Mental reality. Cambridge: MIT Press/Bradford.
Tong, Frank, and Michael S. Pratte. 2012. Decoding patterns of human brain activity. Annual Review of Psychology 63: 483–509.
Tressoldi, Patrizio E., Francesco Sella, Max Coltheart, and Carlo Umilta. 2012. Using functional neuroimaging to test theories of cognition: A selective survey of studies from 2007 to 2011 as a contribution to the decade of the mind initiative. Cortex 48: 1247–1250.
Unger, Peter. 1990. Identity, consciousness, and value. New York: Oxford University Press.
Zuboff, Arnold. 1981. The story of a brain. In The mind’s I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul, ed. Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett. New York: Basic Books.