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If I use IBE arguments (the best explanation argument) or phenomenal conservatism to justify my belief in the existence of other minds, do I have to ignore theory of mind? That is, I should abandon the theory of mind and use only the premises of the IBE or phenomenal conservatism arguments in order to understand what mental states other people are experiencing at the moment?

If we use only IBE, then we will have to constantly make conscious conclusions about what mental states other people feel at a given moment.

If we only use Phenomenal Conservatism, then we will be using a theory of mind to make inferences about what mental states other people are experiencing at a given moment.

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  • If you are asking here, one presumes that you do believe in the existence of other minds, and not using this facility (which you otherwise must have created) to plumb your depths :) But since I know that I am not a figment of your imagination, then I do not know what your 'theory of mind' is, and so I cannot say whether you should abandon it. Also your "in order to understand what mental states other people are experiencing" does imply a belief that other minds do exist. Jul 22, 2023 at 21:06
  • Theory of mind helps us understand what mental states other people experience. This is done subconsciously. When I use arguments I have to do it consciously. So I ask, can I use theory of mind along with IBE or phenomenal conservatism, or should I abandon theory of mind and only make conscious inferences about other people's mental states with IBE or phenomenal conservatism?
    – Arnold
    Jul 23, 2023 at 0:36
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    would it be rational for me to use IBE or phenomenal conservatism to justify my belief in the existence of other minds, but still continue to rely on theory of mind instead of constantly making conscious inferences about other people's mental states?
    – Arnold
    Jul 23, 2023 at 4:11
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    @JD Absolutely, we don't consciously survey the whole mind. It does a lot of stuff non-instrumentally, as you say! Excellent points. I think of parts of the mind as being like a horse I am riding: it does its thing, I do mine and we cooperate. Be nice to your mind and it will be obedient and helpful. You don't want to get bucked off, kicked or bitten, it is definitely more powerful than your consciousness. But the teaching says, "You are not your mind, but it is yours to use." It takes work and knowledge to get to the state of self-mastery.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 23, 2023 at 22:11
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    Does this answer your question? Can I use multiple justifications for believing in the existence of other minds?
    – ac15
    Apr 17 at 21:24

3 Answers 3

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IF you are writing an academic philosophic paper AND you explicitly assert that a fully coherent viewpoint is assumed AND you reject informal empiricism as a valid source of knowledge THEN you should probably rely just on IBE rather than intuitive Theory of Other Minds.

In circumstances where the above are not the case, it depends on how effective you want to be vs. rigorous.

In general, we do not and cannot have fully coherent worldviews. And we often seamlessly shift between incompatible models or assumption sets depending on what question we are addressing. Informal empiricism, including the world and mind models we develop early in toddlerhood, provides a much deeper knowledge set that that available only thru formal reasoning and formal empiricism. The latter two are generally too sparse to even get up in the morning, much less live one’s life.

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  • So with IBE and phenomenal conservatism we justify our belief in the existence of other minds, and then we use theory of mind to determine exactly what mental states other people experience?
    – Arnold
    Jul 23, 2023 at 1:41
  • Because if we use only IBE, then we will have to constantly make conscious conclusions about what mental states other people feel at a certain moment.
    – Arnold
    Jul 23, 2023 at 1:44
  • @Arnold One cannot consciously understand consciousness.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 23, 2023 at 3:45
  • @Arnold IBE is a laborious and time consuming process. Apply that to every inference of a thought for every person and animal around you and you will almost immediately fall hours behind real time in doing inferences. How far behind real time do you want to live? And what fraction of real time do you want to just ignore and jump over?
    – Dcleve
    Jul 23, 2023 at 4:56
  • So, with IBE and phenomenal conservatism, we justify our belief in the existence of other minds, and then we use theory of mind to quickly and subconsciously determine what mental states other people are experiencing at certain times?
    – Arnold
    Jul 23, 2023 at 5:39
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Using Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) or phenomenal conservatism to justify belief in the existence of other minds does not necessitate abandoning the theory of mind. Here's why:

Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE)

Using IBE, you infer that other minds exist because it's the best explanation for the observations you make - other people's behaviors, expressions, reactions, etc. This doesn't contradict the theory of mind, which is a cognitive process we use to attribute mental states to others. In fact, theory of mind is an integral part of the process that allows us to interpret the behaviors and expressions that form the basis of our IBE.

Phenomenal Conservatism

Phenomenal conservatism is the idea that if it seems to you that something is the case, then you are justified in believing that it is the case, unless and until you have evidence to the contrary. Applying this to the existence of other minds, if it seems to you that other minds exist (based on your interactions with others, your observations of their behavior, etc.), then you are justified in believing that other minds exist, unless you have evidence to the contrary.

Again, this doesn't contradict the theory of mind. The theory of mind can be thought of as the cognitive mechanism that allows you to have the "seeming" that other minds exist. It's the process that allows you to interpret others' behaviors and expressions as indicative of mental states.

Theory of Mind and Understanding Others' Mental States

The theory of mind is a fundamental cognitive process that allows us to make educated guesses about what others might be thinking or feeling based on our observations of their behavior. This does not mean that we are constantly making conscious conclusions about others' mental states. Much of the process is likely unconscious, based on learned patterns and associations.

At the same time, using phenomenal conservatism doesn't mean that we're using a theory of mind to make inferences about others' mental states. It just means that we're taking our immediate perceptions or seemings as prima facie evidence for our beliefs.

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  • So we use IBE and phenomenal conservatism to justify our belief that other people have minds, and then use theory of mind to determine exactly what mental states other people experience? So can we simultaneously use IBE, theory of mind, or phenomenal conservatism and theory of mind, or IBE, phenomenal conservatism and theory of mind, to justify the belief that other people have minds? Will it be rational?
    – Arnold
    Jul 23, 2023 at 12:33
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Great question!

You have three different concepts at play, and they don't quite overlap, so let's lay out what you have:

  1. IBE is an ontological strategy for arguing the existence of other minds.
  2. Phenomenal conservatism is an epistemological heuristic for justifying evidence of the existence of other minds.
  3. Theory of mind is a psychological explanation of how people function in their belief of other minds.

Note that these are slightly different domains of discourse, and therefore they are not in direct competition with each other as you seem to presume. Ontology is the philosophical discipline that rests on presumptions and arguments about the existence of minds. It is interested in the question 'Do minds exist?'. Epistemology is the philosophical discipline that revolves around belief and justification about the existence of minds, and therefore asks the quesitons 'How do we know minds exist?' Lastly, theory of mind is a psychological rather than logical explanation which purports to explain how is it that people believe minds exist even before they engage in logical theories of justification and explanation. Let's explore.

Children believe other minds exist long before they begin to construct arguments for and against and justify their conclusions. A young child will anticipate other minds and behave accordingly as any parent well knows, and young children are infamously natural lawyers attempting to persuade you of their innocence when they violate the rules. None of this happens without a presumption that those around them have minds. Just like a horse is essentially wired to come out of the womb and gallop around after a short period, a human baby quickly starts to manifest an intelligence in regards to socialization and interacting with other people. The job of the psychologist is to explain this observation scientifically. The explanation of theory of mind essentially lies in psychological, linguistic, and anatomical and physiological theory. This sort of psychological explanation is only philosophical if embraced from as a naturalized epistemological fact (SEP). While in the West, we often appeal to science as a philosophical tool, in fact, that is a deliberate choice, and not a metaphysically necessary one.

As for phenomenal conservatism, it turns out that contemporaneous work on reasoning and the philosophy of logic show that people rely heavily on intuition in reasoning, and are constrained by the nature of the brain in terms of how they go about constructing and using logic. One good example is the idea that human reason is inherently defeasible (SEP). The Laws of Logic aren't some universal fact that the mind receives and obeys, but rather that human brains construct and use logic as an extension of their linguistic prowess. Since the brain is limited, so too reason is limited, and all human thinking is fallible (IEP). As such, most reason is informal and non-deductive, and arguments are subject to new information such as defeaters. In the face of such an understanding of human reason as imperfect, it then becomes necessary to explain how human logic functions in the face of imperfection. One explanation is that human logic is heuristic, that is, uses rules of thumb to arrive at conclusions. Phenomenal conservatism might be seen, then, as an outgrowth of our tendency to arrive at the state of critical thinking with naive realism. In fact, here, psychologists use the term also albeit slightly differently. From WP:

In social psychology, naïve realism is the human tendency to believe that we see the world around us objectively, and that people who disagree with us must be uninformed, irrational, or biased.

Note how that differs from the WP article on the philosophical concept:

In philosophy of perception and epistemology, naïve realism (also known as direct realism, perceptual realism, or common sense realism) is the idea that the senses provide us with direct awareness of objects as they really are.

Note the former definition has overtones of psychological egocentrism built in, and the latter has overtones of philosophical realism built in.

Lastly, having an ontological argument using inference to best explanation is yet a third nuanced position in the philosophy of mind in that it attempts to start de novo with language to build an persuasive or perhaps irrefutable logical argument that minds exist. This isn't the same as presuming minds exist, but is an exercise in logic to show that metaphysically and logically more narrowly, minds do indeed exist according to some notion of 'existence'. Note, that the nature of existence itself is metaphysically contentious, and therefore unlike theory of mind which is a psychological fact based on observation that humans believe in minds without logical justification at all, and phenomenal conservatism which is the argument that humans have a heuristic they use to accept minds with some efforts of philosophical justification, an argument for the existence of mind that relies on IBE is a fully-fledged argument starting with first principles and drawing on a wide range of premises and inferences to attempt to show that disbelief in the mind is logically inconsistent.

So, now that we've adequately explicated the three notions, we are in a position to answer your question.

If I use arguments to justify my belief in the existence of other minds, do I have to abandon the theory of mind?

You cannot really abandon your theory of mind because it is native to how your mind works. The theory of theory of mind is a psychological explanation that explains in a third-person methodology why you believed in other minds long before you were capable of reasoning. Those intuitions are baked into the development of your brain by evolution to allow you to function socially long before you even can utter sentences. You can ignore those intuitions, or perhaps you can justify ignoring them with solipsism, or you might have a deficit in your intuition as it has been argued that autistic people might have, but you cannot simply stop your brain from having and using a theory of mind.

What you can do is strengthen your belief in other minds with an argument using IBE and appeal to the full canon of the philosophy of mind like Chalmers does, or you can argue that the mind doesn't exist and is illusory like Dennett does, and in doing so, you can invoke phenomenal conservatism as an explanation of how your mind does epistemology which is to suggest that if something appears to exist, your mind simply treats that as acceptable justification until positive evidence arises to the contrary (such as the realization that a mind is not a physical thing and therefore is not detectable by the senses directly).

So there's no need to chose among these, and in fact, arguably, this is typical for almost everyone. We are born into the world with a theory of mind that allows us to intuitively interact with other minds until we get to an age when we start critically thinking, and then if embrace philosophy and its methods, we then attempt starting with our metaphysical presuppositions to construct an persuasive and coherent argument that minds do in fact exist and that they operate according to principles such as conservatism.

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  • So I can simultaneously use IBE, phenomenal conservatism, and theory of mind to justify my belief in the existence of other minds?
    – Arnold
    Jul 23, 2023 at 18:51
  • It's probably best to say that your intuitive theory of mind is justified by IBE invoking phenomenal conservatism. Theory of mind is not a philosophical argument but a scientific one that presumes that your use of a theory of mind prexists your capacity to argue any philosophical theory.
    – J D
    Jul 23, 2023 at 23:43
  • "such as the realization that a mind is not a physical thing and therefore is not detectable by the senses directly" - Doesn't IBE and phenomenal conservatism explain the behavior of other people and its relation to the mind and mental states? The nature of our minds is irrelevant as long as we can establish a connection between behavior and mental states.
    – Arnold
    Jul 24, 2023 at 0:58
  • Well, what I take what you are asking to mean is , is essentialism less important than intuition and an absence of cognitive dissonance in understanding and acting on our perceptions of others' minds, to which I would agree heartily to which I would add that explanations needn't necessarily even be accurate or adequate as long as they are productive. Doing and explaining are entirely different activities, and whether or not one can explain is subsidiary to doing.
    – J D
    Jul 24, 2023 at 14:13
  • Let me clarify. 1. So I can use the IBE simultaneously with the theory of mind to justify the belief in the existence of other minds? 2. So I can use Phenomenal Conservatism simultaneously with the theory of mind to justify belief in the existence of other minds? 3. So I can use IBE and Phenomenal Conservatism simultaneously with the theory of mind to justify belief in the existence of other minds? It will be rational and will not contradict?
    – Arnold
    Jul 24, 2023 at 18:01

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