In the past two posts we examined a background belief that must be true if atheism is true, that is, that matter is the ultimate reality that explains the existence and nature of everything else. We evaluated this materialist option from two different experiential starting points, our experience of the intelligibility and materiality of the external world and our experience of our own minds as active, free, and creative. In this tenth part of our series (“Is Christianity True?”), we will consider materialism from a third experiential starting point: our experience other minds, other intelligent human persons.
Amazingly, we can understand and think ideas that come from other human minds. We find ourselves not only able to read the passive information written into nature and able to write information into the physical world, we also encounter other minds like ours, active and free and able to communicate information from their minds to ours through language. Although there is no way to prove that a human body with whom we are speaking really possesses a mind like ours, we believe it so strongly that we think it absurd to doubt it. We recognize in others what we experience as self-evident in ourselves. What does our experience of other minds, that is, other intelligent human persons, add to our experience of the intelligibility of the physical world and of ourselves as active minds?
1. The existence of other minds confirms our internal experience of ourselves as active, free, and creative minds. Our experience of freedom, which seems so real experienced from inside, is confirmed as really real in encounter with other people who act and express that same freedom. Our mental encounter with other minds differs from decoding the structures embedded in the physical world. In our efforts to understand the intelligible order in the physical world we experience the order as passive and ourselves as active. But when we meet other minds we find that they are also active and creative. In encounters with other people we experience being understood by the thing that we are attempting to understand. We meet a new kind of reality, a person. Other minds/persons actively resist and protest any effort to reduce them to their ideas, sense impressions, or material constituents. We also resist and protest depersonalization. And, in encountering other persons we become aware of our own irreducible personhood more intensely than we can in encountering the passive intelligible order in the physical world.
2. The existence of other human minds and our ability to communicate with each other adds a new dimension to our experience of the intelligibility within the world. Our minds meet and transfer information through the medium of the external world in which we find an intelligible order that can be understood alike by many minds. In verbal language we encode information in the medium of air as sound impulses. Receiving information from another person through language gives us confidence that we know what the other is thinking, and we know it by rethinking the thought communicated.
Our experience of other minds as free actors and creators of information and as co-readers of the information encoded in the physical world reinforces our conviction that the order that structures the physical world is indeed intelligible and derives from an active mind. We experience minds other than our own creating information understandable by us and still other minds.
3. Encountering other intelligent persons introduces a moral dimension to our experience of mind, a sense of the inestimable worth of others. I will deal in greater detail with the moral dimension of human experience later. Here I will point out that encountering other intelligent persons introduces the idea that the universe is ordered not only in increasing levels of complexity but also in increasing levels of value, which in turn gives birth to the idea of a teleological order that moves toward producing greater and greater perfection.
Does our experience of other minds/persons add anything to the case made in the previous two posts for choosing the option that affirms the irreducible and primordial nature of mind, intelligibility, life, and spirit and rejecting materialism? Yes, I think it does. (1) In the previous post I argued that our experience of our own active minds gives plausibility to active mind as the explanation for the intelligible order in the world. Encountering other free and creative persons strengthens our conviction that our minds are irreducible to matter. Hence our experience of active minds/persons other than our own reinforces the idea that a primordial active mind orders the world. (2) Our experience of other minds/persons opens up a moral and teleological dimension to our experience of the world. These dimensions cannot be perceived simply by using our reason to read the information embedded in the physical world or experiencing ourselves as creators of information. If the worth we perceive in other persons is a real property, independent of our subjective feelings, this worth must be the product of a valuing and purposive mind at least equally primordial with matter.
Next week, we will summarize the case for moving through the first decision point on the road from non-belief to Christian belief in the direction of belief. Though we cannot remove all possible doubt, we will take the road marked “Mind is at Least Equally Primordial with Matter” and leave untraveled the road marked “Matter is the Ultimate Reality that Explains Everything Else.” Now we are faced with the second decision point: is the mind that orders the world one or many, personal or impersonal?
I wanted to go a bit further off what you said about the warrant for believing that other minds exist:
“Although there is no way to prove that a human body with whom we are speaking really possesses a mind like ours, we believe it so strongly that we think it absurd to doubt it. We recognize in others what we experience as self-evident in ourselves.”
So, to paraphrase, it seems that our experience of our own mental lives is so strong that when we encounter behavior in other humans that is relevantly similar, we have a strong intuition that the other human possesses a mind like ours. We recognize it by analogy, perhaps as one might recognize that two Symphonies are both composed by Tchaikovsky due to relevant similarities.
So now, suppose that hypothetical person A is a materialist. Suppose further that A holds firmly and consistently to an epistemology of verificationism and/or scientism (as many sceptics do). It seems to me that A would have to believe solipsism in regard to other human minds, since there is no proof that would meet their standards that other humans have minds and there is no immaterial reality s/he can appeal to that could possibly provide support for others having minds. Some sceptics are indeed solipsists for this reason.
If indeed belief in materialism + scientism/verificationism entails solipsism, would you take it as good grounds for rejecting materialism (or at least the scientistic epistemology on which it is often based)? That even if solipsism is a conclusion that would be consistent with materialism and the accompanying scientism, our intuition that other humans have minds analogous to ours is simply too strong to deny in this way?
I purposely left out a theory of how we know we are encountering another mind because any theoretical account will be less certain than the immediate certainty in the encounter. As for A’s materialist account as you describe it, it clearly ignores the strong “intuition” in favor of a system of theoretical beliefs. I am not impressed with such analysis. Demanding proof that another person has a mind like your own (if indeed you have one!), demands one support immediate certainty with theoretical conjectures, which themselves are unproven and unprovable. This epistemology demands proof for beliefs that are “basic” (to use Plantinga’s terminology). It demands that we show what other beliefs our belief that other minds exist is based on. But our belief in other minds is not based on inference from other beliefs! It is basic. Indeed, I am using the certainty about the existence of other minds to argue for my theoretical conclusion about the irreducible nature of mind. Hence my response to the reductionist is that I reject his/her background belief that all beliefs must be based on other beliefs.
And that brings me to solipsist strategy. Yes. It does seem that any position that drives you to solipsism should be looked on with suspicion. But solipsism seems to me to refuse to apply to itself what it applies to the question of other minds. I’d never thought about the possibility of a materialist solipsist because such a person would hold that even their mind is reducible to matter. And how could they prove they have a mind by the method they demand that the existence of other minds must be made evident?
Another thought: backing away from the immediate issue, early modern science from Galileo through Newton discovered the explanatory power of reduction, of explaining wholes by the relations of their parts. Originally, the reality of the holistic aspects of things was not denied, but these aspects were ignored because they cannot be explained reductionistically. But the power of reductionism is seductive. Eventually, the idea that everything about everything can be explained by reduction came to dominate some schools of science and philosophy. It came to symbolize the mandate of natural science and the measure of scientific progress. The claim that their are irreducibly real things was seen as superstitious and backward. The materialist can deny or ignore such basic beliefs as belief in other minds to the point of absurdity because his/her epistemology demands that all beliefs must be based on other beliefs, just as all wholes can be explained by the relationships among their parts. These two epistemologies are incommensurate. There is no middle ground. One of us must make a gestalt shift or in religious terms one of us must experience a conversion.