Knowing Other Minds

I’ve got stuff on my mind!

My post last month about Dr. Gregory Berns and his studies of animal minds ran long because I also discussed Thomas Nagel and his infamous paper. Dr Berns referenced an aspect of that paper many times. It seemed like a bone of contention, and I wanted to explore it, so I needed to include details about Nagel’s paper.

The point is, at the end of the post, there’s a segue from the “Sebald Gap” between humans and animals to the idea we can never really even understand another human (let alone an animal). My notes for the post included more discussion about that, but the post ran long so I only mentioned it.

It’s taken a while to circle back to it, but better late than never?

As I said at the end of that post, “Millennia of literature and art tells us that the viewpoints of other humans are similar, even very similar [to our own].” Yet, despite being able to find echoes of ourselves in the words of others, we can never truly know their mind. Nor they ours.

At the same time, given enough exposure — say living with someone for many years — I think we come to know a great deal about their mind. We build an increasingly accurate model of it in our mind. (Could our model of another mind include their model of our mind, which could include our model of their mind with its model of our mind… Obviously the fidelity fades with each copy. Our model of another mind is just an echo.)

But if one believes mind is nothing more than patterns of information, then the model we build of another mind, if accurate enough, can be seen as a genuine, if incomplete, extension of that person. If we know someone well enough to imagine a conversation with them in our head, then in some sense an approximate version of them truly exists in our mind. Our minds can be reflected in the minds of others.

BTW: I first encountered this idea in Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979), by Douglas Hofstadter. He explores it in a far more succinct, focused, and accessible, way in I Am a Strange Loop (2007). [See: Strange Loops]

But — and this is an extension of Nagel’s point about bats — we can never truly know what it’s like to be someone else, no matter how good our predictive model is. Even what we know of someone from direct report can be inaccurate, false, or poorly expressed.

There are many more slips between minds than between cup and lip. We truly are islands in a wide and empty ocean. We can see others if they’re close enough, communicate with them even, but we can never actually reach them.

It’s a bit like how someone blind from birth can never truly know what it’s like to see the color red. There may be many approximations, but the actual reality is forever out of reach.


In my notes, this led to a margin note about poor Mary. (Not Proud Mary. That’s someone else.) Poor Mary is the unfortunate subject of a horrific thought experiment where she’s imprisoned all her life in rooms with no color — only black, white, and shades of gray. [See: The Grayscale Dungeon]

Her sole consolation (if you could call it that) is that she’s able to study, and she has learned everything there is to know about color and how humans perceive it.

There is a related question: “If a red photon is emitted and no one is around to see it, is it really red?” As with trees making a sound, it depends mainly on the definition of red. If defined as a photon with a wavelength around 680 nm, then yes the photon is really red. If defined as what a conscious system perceives, then not so much.

The question about poor Mary is what happens when she manages to escape her imprisonment. Like Dorothy she leaves a grayscale world and is confronted with color (including red) for the first time. Does she learn a new fact about color — one she could not have learned from her study?

To me the answer seems physically obvious and beyond debate. Yet I’ve had that debate more than once with those who assert Mary learns nothing new upon seeing red for the first time.

Since they do not seem to be asserting Mary has the ability to simulate seeing red via some special virtual reality equipment or mind stimulator, I don’t see any way for her mind to experience the necessary mental states. (In any event, I would argue that special equipment that simulates seeing red is the same as actually seeing red. It produces the necessary mental states.)

If physicalism is true, then experience is a physical fact, and it cannot be said, “Mary knows all the facts about red,” until she has the experience of actually seeing it. The initial claim that Mary learns everything there is to know about red from study is necessarily false. She cannot learn what it is like to have those brain states without actually having them, and she cannot have them without actually perceiving red.

There is a reason so many forms of education include practical hands-on experience. Just imagine trying to learn to drive without ever actually doing so (or simulating it). Or imagine trying to learn to fly a plane. Or perform surgery. It is, in fact, a rather well-known truth that one can’t learn everything from books and that actual experience is the best teacher.

The bottom line is that subjective experience cannot be obtained objectively. A person blind from birth cannot objectively learn what red looks like. I genuinely don’t understand how that can be debated.

§ §

For some reason, I have a note about panpsychism. I’m not sure why; it feels like a digression or sidebar. (I’m certain Dr. Berns never mentioned it.)

I’ve never posted about panpsychism because, to me it seems based on a case of semantic confusion (a general problem of our era; I keep meaning to post about it). I think panpsychism confuses, for instance, the experience of gravity or a magnetic field with the experience of redness or bitterness. The uses have different semantics. The latter is a quale; the former is not.

Neither form of panpsychism tracks for me, largely on their respective canonical objections. The macro version has a separation problem; the micro version has a combination problem. To me those problems, plus that we only ever see consciousness in brain systems, are significant enough to provisionally invalidate the view. (Strong evidence, of course, could always overturn that.)

Regarding micro-panpsychism, beyond the combination problem, we think we’re pretty clear about sub-atomic particle attributes. They have mass, spin, charge, a few other quantum properties… Where is there room for more? Where is evidence of unexplained behavior due to other properties?

With both forms I have the question: Why does consciousness apparently only manifest in brains? If the universe or particles are conscious, where’s any evidence of behaviors we associate with consciousness?

There seems a huge gap between conscious behavior due to brains and the lawful physics behaviors of everything else. (Of course, there is the question of how much conscious thought is driven by the same deterministic physics, but that’s another discussion.)

Finally, what about the energy requirements of being conscious? We don’t see energy variations other than due to understood interactions and dynamics. There seems no energy devoted to any kind of “thinking” — no EEG signal.

§ §

I think my note about functional states also came from free associating while reading and reflecting (and not from anything Dr. Berns wrote). It’s a controversial topic that comes up repeatedly in discussions. The view is that everything about consciousness can be accounted for by some function.

The counter view is that, since functional states don’t require, imply, or suggest, subjectivity, why does it exist? Perhaps more importantly, how does it exist? That’s the infamous “Hard Problem.” [See: Chalmers Again]

The topic is so controversial that some deny the Hard Question exists. That evolved into the the meta-Hard Question that asks why people think there’s a Hard Problem in the first place. [See: The Meta-Problem]

I’ve been pretty clear where I fall on this. I see it as physically obvious that Descartes had a point and that subjectivity is a phenomenon without parallel or explanation. However, that doesn’t entail a view that no explanation exists or can be found — only that we currently don’t have one.

It may be that there is something it is like to be a complex (analog!) information processing system — that subjectivity is just what it’s like to be inside such a thing — but so far we don’t know why or how it happens. (It’s possible it may turn out to be axiomatic — just the way reality behaves.)

My bottom line here: Function is certainly part of consciousness, but it doesn’t explain, require, imply, or even suggest, subjectivity. That is an open question and has been for a long time. Its evasiveness and apparent disconnect from known physics are what make it (genuinely, in my opinion) a Hard Problem.

(Also note that: Hard ≠ Unsolvable)

§ §

Dr. Berns does mention Buridan’s Ass. In fact, that’s one of the chapter titles, and in the post I wrote about the experiments they designed that tried to put dogs in a balanced choice situation.

For the dogs it was between a treat and their owner. Not surprisingly, the dogs were all over the map on their preferences. Even the same dog might act differently from one trial to the next.

I couldn’t help but think of my canonical free will situation: Picking something for dinner. In particular, when I’ve decided to have soup (usually because it’s cold and/or rainy outside), picking which soup to have seems to come close to a Buridan’s Ass situation.

It’s in trivial questions like these I think the question of free will most obtains. As I just mentioned, choosing soup has some obvious external factors — the weather — that sometimes makes soup a high probability choice. But which soup I pick seems far more freely chosen of my own will. I have a strong intuition that, if the universe could be wound back to that moment, I might pick a different soup, and I’m not ready to dismiss that intuition as necessarily wrong.

As I mentioned in the last post, I just read The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine, a text by Scott Aaronson that attempts to ground free will in basic physics.

In my view it operates at a higher level — I think free will emerges from how the brain functions, from our minds, but it’s a fascinating paper that I’ll post about in the near future. The freedom he discusses might ground that high-level operation. (It aligns with the idea about information I raised in my post Is Reality Determined?)

My bottom line here: Brains can choose. They may be the one thing in the universe that can.

§ §

With regard to animals, Berns uses the terms sapience and sentience many times. One or two times I thought he used one when the other was probably more accurate, but generally he used them as I understand them. They’re certainly easy to confuse, and many define them differently or consider them the same.

For the record, in my view:

Sentience is the lower or broader term. It basically means the ability to feel sensation and to be on some level aware of feeling it. Think of it as the ability to know you’re miserable. Many animals are sentient. It’s not until one gets down to fish or insects that the question of lacking it arises. Some might ascribe sentience to ants or even plants.

Sapience has roots in the word for “wisdom” and is a far more specific term. Because sapience is conceptually very similar to the elusive notion of human consciousness — it might even be the same thing — sapience is as hard to define as consciousness is. Self-awareness is certainly required for sapience. (Note that it doesn’t even have its own Wiki page!)

§ §

Speaking of better late than never, many years ago I did a pair of posts about color with intentions of a third post wrapping it all up. [See: Color My World and Color Redux] I never got to that third post, but I’ve also never quite given up on the idea. It would be nice to cross it off my list. I have some images for it that have been sitting in a folder for a very long time.

Lastly, its Tau Day tomorrow! Also the Eighth Anniversary of my retiring!

Stay mindful, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

10 responses to “Knowing Other Minds

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I’m not planning a Tau Day post for tomorrow. I’ve already posted about it, and Pi Day, plenty. I’ll just mention that it’s a great excuse to order two pizzas — double the π!

    I will pop a bottle of champagne to celebrate my Retirement Eighth Anniversary, though!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    The Mary’s Room thought experiment, besides being horrific, is problematic in other ways. The practical issues alone are formidable. But one can translate the idea to explaining red to a blind person. Or for that matter, trying to describe something extremely visceral — such as skydiving, for instance — to someone who has never experienced it. Even watching videos doesn’t fully communicate the experience.

  • Peter Morgan

    Poor Mary, if she truly understands red and color from books, might be able to construct a diffraction grating or use Moiré patterns to construct red. Unless she’s put in a completely different universe that is truly black and grey and white, her skin color should be a giveaway. She definitely should be able to obtain a red pigment by, say, cutting herself: presumably her books will mention the fact that blood is red? If she doesn’t understand the ideas well enough to do either of those things or many others, then seeing red for the first time at least represents information she could have obtained while imprisoned but did not.

    To me poor Mary seems not a specially good thought experiment.

    I look forward to what you have to say about the Scott Aaronson text you link to.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, as with many gedanken experiments, it doesn’t bear close examination. The sheer horror and cruelty of it aside, it’s impossible. Even just slapping one’s skin makes it red. Or seeing a bright light through closed eyes. (The diffraction grating is a clever idea. Her jailors would have to make sure those are on the list of prohibited items!)

      One can translate the idea to someone blind from birth suddenly granted sight by technology (I believe crude versions of that have already happened). A milder version exists for those who have never: (1) seen the Grand Canyon in person, or (2) jumped out of an airplane, or (3) witnessed the birth of their child, or… some other visceral very subjective experience. (The first time I took a helicopter ride, because of all the movies and TV shows that have depicted such a thing, aspects of it were almost disappointingly familiar. But even so, the actual experience was on a different level from any video or film.)

      The basic problem with Mary’s Dungeon is twofold. Firstly the assertion that Mary can know everything there is to know about color. Secondly, exactly as you say, that Mary can actually be prevented from the experience of color. We have to take these as axiomatic, but it does beggar the imagination a bit. (The first, I think, it proven false within the experiment.)

      I don’t know if you had a chance to read my initial post about poor Mary, but there I mention that Jackson intended this to refute physicalism and to support epiphenomenalism. I don’t see that it does either due to the problems with its axioms. Under physicalism it is (I think) trivially true that Mary cannot know everything about color until she sees it. But it certainly highlights the difference between subjective experience and objective knowledge.

      That Aaronson paper has been on my radar for over a year. The title alone grabbed me. He’s attempting to find the freedom for free will in what he calls freebits, which are quantum states nothing has collapsed since the Big Bang (e.g. photons from the CMB). I look for it in the notion that infinite precision in the initial states would be required but it doesn’t exist. Aaronson looks for primordial unobserved information (whereas I look for newly created information).

      • Peter Morgan

        I had decided not to take the time to read it, but I have now, teacher :-). I like your parachuting example, which I can imagine is different from reading about it. At a much paler level, I found even a zip-line for the first time, a long time ago, different from reading about a zip-line. Your last-but-one paragraph in your comment above seems more-or-less right to me.

        I saw that Aaronson piece in January 2019, when I downloaded it from arXiv (that version would be preferable because it has links to sections et cetera, but it’s apparently two months later and very slightly different), but I can’t remember whether I read it all through or only started it. It’s very long! I don’t want to take so much time now as would be needed to read it all and think about it. In any case, I always feel that we construct only finitely generated models for the universe, so for me there’s always a gap. I want to look for ways to build better models, but in different ways —as maps can be better or worse for different purposes— so I’m not committed to there being a best model, either in my lifetime or in anybody else’s.

        Jumping in wildly, however, his “freebit” idea seems to me too specific to one class of models and ways to think about those models. To some extent I’m more predisposed to your idea of precision, but that’s also rather specific. Can I just think that “here be dragons” and mostly have done with worrying about the nature of my mind and dreams?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I can well imagine riding a zip-line (which looks like a lot of fun!) would be a good example of a visceral experience where text and videos can’t communicate the actual experience. To me the world is filled with such. As I mentioned, even seeing the Grand Canyon (or other sites and sights) for the first time is a legit breath-taker.

        Yeah, one reason it’s taken me so long (at least a year) to get to the Aaronson text is its length and substance. It’s not some mystery novel I can float through; I have to engage my aging brain (which has gotten harder and harder). I’ll have to get through it at least twice more to be able to write about it, so it’s been one of those projects on my TODO list where I know I need some time and clarity (both of which have been an issue lately). Exactly as you say, much is required to read it and think about it.

        Grabbing the copy off arXiv is a great idea! Done. I like having the links, too. 🙂

        True point about models; I quite agree. The map is never the territory, and all models have strengths and weaknesses. As I’ve mentioned, I have ontological leanings, so my hope is that many different models lead to some understanding of what’s really out there. At the very least, it would be nice to have some unification of GR, QM, QFT, and Newton. (Your program to unify classical and quantum mechanics is the sort of thing we need more of.)

        “Can I just think that ‘here be dragons’ and mostly have done with worrying about the nature of my mind and dreams?”

        😀 Certainly always an option!

        That unique subjective-objective divide does sometimes make me wonder if there might be some sort of Turing-Gödel-esque limit to what a consciousness can determine about consciousness. The inability of a system to fully know itself.

        Or perhaps brain systems turn out to be forever ineffable solely on account of their complexity. We’re already finding it difficult to understand the Artificial Neural Networks we’re constructing.

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