Epistemology is an area of philosophy that asks how we know things and what it is for a belief to be reasonable and supported by good evidence. How might we know that any animals have minds, or reasonably believe any such claims? We can call this question “The Epistemological Problem of Animal Minds.”
Before we think about this (hard) problem, it’s worthwhile to mention that philosophers (and some psychologists and neuroscientists) worry about a more general (hard) problem called “The Epistemological Problem of Other Minds” regarding humans’ minds. The problem is that each of us only has “direct access” to our own perceptions, thoughts, and feelings: we cannot directly “see” that anyone else is conscious and has a mind. All we see is external, overt behavior (including speech) and, presumably, somehow infer from this behavior that another individual has thoughts, feelings, and perceptions somewhat like our own. Perhaps this inference is not consciously made, but how else could we know that other people have minds?!
Believe it or not, this question has troubled philosophers for millennia and there is no widely accepted answer. Many philosophers argue, however, that we know that other people have minds either by reasoning by analogy or by reasoning from the best explanation of some phenomena, in this case, the overt behavior.
To reason by analogy is, most simply, to reason like this:
- Thing 1 has these characteristics a, b, and c;
- Thing 2 has characteristics a & b;
- Thing 2 is relevantly similar to Thing 1;
- Therefore, probably Thing 2 has characteristic c too.
Or, even more simply: “These two things are similar in the relevant ways, so therefore what is true of one is probably true of the other.” The strength of an argument from analogy depends on how similar to two things are: the more similar, the stronger the analogy, obviously, and more likely the conclusion is to be true. To respond to the “Problem of other Minds,” someone might reason, “I behave these ways, have this kind of biology, and I have a mind. Other people behave in similar ways and have similar biology. Therefore, they probably have minds too.” It’s important to observe that we apparently often use the same kind of kind of reasoning about animals’ minds, as our authors demonstrate.
The second common pattern of reasoning about minds is an argument from the best explanation:
- There is some event that requires explanation.
- Explanation or hypothesis E best explains that event (i.e., is a better explanation than other candidate explanations in that it makes sense of more of the data/observations, allows predication, is simpler, fits with pre-existing knowledge, etc.)
- Therefore, probably E, and what’s entailed by E, are true.
This pattern of reasoning is often applied to animal behavior: an animal does something (e.g., reacts in some interesting way to new surroundings); we try to figure out if this reaction would be better explained on the hypothesis that (a) this animal is a mindless automaton or (b) this animal has a conscious mind (or some other explanation, perhaps with greater details than [b]). How this reasoning will work out very much depends on the details of the case, but it’s important to note that we use this pattern of reasoning to investigate both humans’ and animals’ minds.