The unobservability of other minds

Bohl, Vivian and Nivedita Gangopadhyay 2013. Theory of mind and the unobservability of other minds. Philosophical Explorations: An International Journal for the Philosophy of Mind and Action. Published online.

Making sense of others as psychological beings is of central importance to our social lives. Over the past three decades, philosophers and empirical scientists have carried out joint research on the issue of what cognitive processes are responsible for the human capacity to understand and interact with other subjects. Predominantly, social cognition has been thought to rely on folk-psychological theorising and/or simulation. (Bohl & Gangopadhyay 2013: 1)
The abstract of this article contains two tell-tale terms: "mindreading" and "mindedness." The first indeed seem to be the territory of folk-psychology (I cannot even express tha irk I receive from such claims as "the notion of sixth sense is derived from a woman's intuition"), the other is something I am very much drawned to (thanks to F. Merell and his discussion of mindedness in relation with Polanyi's focal and subsidiary attention). As for the notion of "psychological beings," it seems to validate human "mindedness" as a psychological phenomenon, more so when the (first) author claims interest in "social cognition" and emphasizes our capacity to understand and interact with othes subjects, e.g. intersubjectivity or what some would in a rather crudely sounding term, claim to be the subject of interpsychology (as opposed to intrapsychology).
The aim of this paper is to investigate one particular assumption that is frequently attributed to ToM and criticised by various authors: the assumption that other minds are unobservable... (Bohl & Gangopadhyay 2013: 1)
This is why I felt I could gain something from this article: I view nonverbal behaviour as "a window into other consciousnesses" - or, at least as a more immediate (compared to verbal behaviour) approach to other minds. My basic assumption is that other minds aro not unobservable, but observable to the naked eye, not to mention the techonolgical approaches to other minds or more specificly brain activity via magnetic resonance and other types of scanners. What I mean by "the naked eye" aspect is that we can visually track the "embodied" cognition of speech. There's plenty to support this idea in gesture studies, but it even seems to make sense an a common-sense level: if you know a person well enough, say your spouse or kin, then there are times when they need not bother to say anything, you can glean from their expression or gesture what they might be thinking or feeling. What follows is the well-known case of "you don't even need to say it" or "I know what you are thinking." In this very down-to-earth way, other minds become observable. At least this is what I presume, maybe the article will lead my down another path...
One of the frequently criticised assumptions that all ToM accounts arguably share is the claim that other minds are unobservable. We have labelled this claim the UA. According to UA, the mental aspects of others are perceptually inaccessible. The critics claim that UA entails the view that all we are ever perceptually presented with are the physical properties of the other person as a physical object[2] and therefore social cognition is thought to necessarily rely on dedicated non-perceptual mechanisms[3]. Because of UA, theorising and simulation are postulated as special cognitive mechanisms for surpassing the gulf between observable physical behaviour and unobservable minds (Zahavi and Gallagher 2008, 237– 238). (Bohl & Gangopadhyay 2013: 2)
Ah, my hunch was correct: nonverbal ("physical") behaviour is involved. The gulf that is mentioned here is kind of reminiscent of the body/mind dualism problematic rampant in (Western) philosophy and science. That is, how are observable-body(ly)-behaviour and unobservable-mind-phenomena connected/interrelated/associated/etc.? This is not an easy gulf to breatch, but a novice semiotician would immediately claim that this is a semiotic problem: that observables here stand for unobservables. Even some "non-perceptual" channels for linking minds can be imagined semiotically; e.g. two people who interact extensively and operate with very similar working assumptions may separately arrive at a similar idea or emotion independently of their perceptual input. But this feels like jumping way ahead; these types of things may come further on in the article and in appropriate language. The "physical properties" aspect is explicated in the notes:
“[. . .] a core assumption of both theory theory and simulation theory is that we perceive or experience only the physical movements of another person, since the mental states of others are unobservable“ (Zahavi and Gallagher 2008, 237). (Bohl & Gangopadhyay 2013: 15; note 2)
I think that the last bit should be contested. Are mental states of others unobservable? Again, presuming that the mind is not an epiphonomenon but a result of the so-called "higher functions" of the brain, then mental states are indeed nothing more than the result of neurochemical processes, which are very much "physical" but nonetheless "unobservable" without special equipment or physical (neurosurgical?) intervention. That is, you can see the indices of mental states in bodily behaviour but you cannot see the actual brain activity that causes those mental states with your bare eyes. So it's still a yes-and-no answer, depending on what is meant by observation and perception. The third note might be enlighting:
By “non-perceptual mechanisms” we mean both mechanisms that do not use perception at all and mechanisms for which perception is merely a way of delivering raw input which then needs to be processed by the non-perceptual mechanism for generating meaningful content. (Bohl & Gangopadhyay 2013: 15; note 3)
What? ... This is a mind-bogglingly technical definition. At present I cannot think of any cognitive mechanism that is non-perceptual to the fullest; then again I am operating under the assumption that internal representations work very much on the basis of outer representations, e.g. what I dream consists mostly of what I've seen, and mirror neurons thrown in there somewhere n'stuff. Yeah, this bit I neet to return to when I have a better grasp of cognitive science. Dumb-de-de-dum-dum-dum.
...a number of opponents of ToM claim that all ToM accounts across the board imply that other minds are unobservable, and that from this assumption the proponents of ToM draw the conclusion that social cognition must necessarily rely on non-perceptual cognitive mechanisms, such as theorising or simulation. It is not surprising that the critics reject both claims, arguing that some aspects of mentality are observable and therefore we have perceptual access to other minds. (Bohl & Gangopadhyay 2013: 3)
Okay, so theorizing (what the other might be thinking) and simulating (as in sembling and sympathy or imagining?) are non-perceptual mechanisms. I agree with the statement that "some aspects of mentality are observable" (emphasis mine) but at this point I don't get why more is needed: are some therists really concerned with the fact that minds cannot be observed in their totality? For example, in the case of the indirectness problem, I'm not sure the issue is really even relevant:
1. Indirectness. In making sense of one another, we need to bridge a gulf between what we can “directly” experience about other people, and what is going on ‘in’ their minds [. . .].
2. Detour. The presumed gulf between people can only be crossed by inference, theorizing, simulation or some other kind of ‘detour’ [. . .]. (Leudar and Costall 2009a, 4)
(Bohl & Gangopadhyay 2013: 3)
Are we unable to make sense of each other without trying to poke into what is going on inside their minds? It sounds almost like the case of "What are you thinking? What are you really thinking? What are you really really really thinking?" when the inquired person may not in fact be thinking of anything in particular. So do we really need to bridge this gulf? It seems to me that we can make do with what can be directly experienced about other people.
Zahavi rejects the view that other minds are unobservable by appealing to the phenomenological argument that the behaviour of others is experienced as saturated with mentality. Thus, the allegation against UA amounts to attacking the phenomenological version of UA (UAphen) – the view that our experience of others always unfolds in two steps: first perceiving others’ physical behaviour and then inferring the mentality “behind” the behaviour. (Bohl & Gangopadhyay 2013: 4)
This is agreeable for me, as I concur with Zahavi and Gallagher that "the life of other minds of others is visible in their expressive behavior and meaningful action" (2005: 222). This could be called the "embodied cognition" argument. Embodiment is saturated with mentality.
Another reason why UA is less important to simulationism than to TT is that instead of explaining how one ascribes propositional attitudes to the other, ST for “low-level” mindreading is targeted at explaining our understanding of the other’s observed motor acts and facial expressions where the mental and bodily aspects are experienced as intermingled. Thus, it is easy to find simulationist literature which is compatible with the claim that some elements of the mental are publicly presented. (Bohl & Gangopadhyay 2013: 6)
My contention that some mental activity is visible by way of embodied cognition, was head on. But now I have to take issue with the jargon in this paper, for it marks a "foreign" discourse for me. "Mental states" is a bit difficult to understand because it firstly connotes psychiatric evaluation in terms of mental health (what kind of a menal state the person is in), and secondly it seems to subsume cognitive processes, affective states (moods) and affective processes (emotions) all under this general label. The other quarrel is with the notion of "propositional attitude" - attitude itself is a fairly complex notion (in the "murky" sense), e.g. "a behavior tendency with reference to a value" (Kulp 1935), though this definition is outdated and probably has very little to do with ToM. Propositionality, even more so, is irritating for me, because it sounds a bit like something an analytical (logocentric-philosophical) worldview would endorse, e.g. that everything can be true and false.
Sometimes we simply “see” another person as happy, sad, or angry without the experience of inferring from her behaviour or the experience of putting ourselves in her shoes. (Bohl & Gangopadhyay 2013: 7)
Ekmanians would now excaim that the reason for this is that interpreting facial expression is an innate ability coordinated by a neurocultural program.
Mental states are unobservable to those without the requisite mental-state concepts, just as, according to her example, an untrained lay person cannot see red spots on her body as shingles, whereas a trained medical doctor can, because (s)he possesses the necessary background information. Similarly, people who master a theory of mind can perceive others’ mental states. “Theories conceptually inform our observations, and there is no need to think that this conceptual information is added after a perceptual experience” (Lavelle 2012, 227). (Bohl & Gangopadhyay 2013: 7-8)
This similar issue arises in terms of facial expressions: some people may not be very aware of (or simply how to use the) so-called emotion-words, or their language may simply lack these words. Ekman and Friesen overcame this challenge while testing their assumption of universal facial expression by instead using descriptions of emotional situations (e.g. you see a good friend after a long time, your son has just died, the pig has come into the house and you can't get it out, etc.). The argument that by knowin what something is called you can recognized it is driven to the extreme with FACS, wherein every common combination of facial action is designated with a code; e.g. jaw drop is AU26, rolling the eyes is M68, etc.
  1. Neither the other’s mindedness in general nor the other’s mental states in particular are attributed perceptually: all we ever literally perceive are physical bodies and their movements which are stripped of any psychological meaning (UApsychstrong).
  2. Particular mental states and their contents are necessarily known non-perceptually, whereas perception may pick out certain salient properties indicative of mindedness (e.g. biological motion instantiating intentionality) and thus enable recognition of some entities as “subjects” (UApsychmedium).
  3. Some mental states are known perceptually and others are not, whereas ToM is primarily concerned with explaining our ability to attribute the latter to the target (UApsychweak).
(Bohl & Gangopadhyay 2013: 8)
What is relevant for me is that the strong version strips nonverbal behaviour of mentalistic "meaning" while the medium makes allowances for "meaning" being exhibited in nonverbal behaviour. If crude analogies be drawn, the strong view accords to behaviorism while the medium view accords with later theories which do not shun the "covert" behaviour aspect. The strong view, it is said, is not videly supported by proponents of ToM.
Any account of accessing other minds must address the question of how one knows another’s mental aspects over and above perceptually knowing the sensory properties of an object. In other words, any account of social cognition must accommodate the premise that it is possible to doubt perceptual beliefs about mental states without doubting perceptual beliefs about the sensory properties upon which the perceptual beliefs about the mental states is based. For instance, one may doubt whether or not she perceives the mental state of shame in the other even when she does not doubt that she perceives the change in colour in the other’s face. (Bohl & Gangopadhyay 2013: 14)
Husserlianism is beyond me, but I know that change of color does not accompany actual emotions. Turning red, green, blue or whatever is a folk-psychological or metaphorical contention. To be sure, there certainly are autonomic reactions that change tho color of the face but they are not related to emotions. This on of the aspects that was overturned in Darwin's Expressions. Overall, this article turned out to be far too technical to benefit me. Although nonverbal behaviour is referred to on almost every page, I don't comprehend the discussions surrounding them.


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