On Philosophy

July 19, 2006

Two (More) Problems With Externalism

Filed under: Intentionality,Mind — Peter @ 1:40 am

In this post I will address two problems faced by an externalist theory of the mind. Feel free to read them in whatever order you please. In these objections I make the assumption that externalism is simply a way of approaching the philosophy of the mind, not a theory that makes predictions about what is physically out there (this is actually a view that is held by some externalists). If you think that externalism can have real, observable, consequences see this objection instead.

1: The Problem Of Other Minds

The problem of other minds is a classic part of philosophy. The question is as follows: how can I be sure that other people are conscious in the same way I am? (And also how can I be sure that things such as rocks aren’t?) I think that any theory about the mind that can’t solve the problem of other minds is lacking something important, and should be rejected, since it certainly seems as if we can be sure who has a mind and who doesn’t. For example dualism and idealism are famously unable to satisfactorily solve the problem of other minds, which I personally think is a good reason to discard them. Externalism can’t solve the problem of other minds either (and internalism can). This follows from the following argument: The only things we can observe about other people are physical or that which can have a causal effect on the world. We can observe their behavior directly and we can make guesses about the activity inside their skull, but that is about it. Externalism asserts that there is a non-causal connection between thoughts (part of the mind) and the external world. It is a consequence of externalism that for a mind to be a mind (and have thoughts) it must possess this non-casual connection. Why? Well if it wasn’t required then such a connection wouldn’t be an essential part of the mind, and thus we wouldn’t consider externalism to be a good theory about the mind. (For example even though the statement that “some minds believe externalism” is true it isn’t a good theory about minds because it doesn’t tell us anything about what is essential to minds in general.) However we can never be sure when such non-causal connections are present (since as mentioned above we assumed that externalism didn’t have observable consequences), and thus we can never know with any degree of certainty if other people have minds like ours, since we have no evidence either for or against their possessing the necessary non-causal external connections.

2: The Problem Of Theory Strength

Given the kind of externalism we are discussing here, the best we can say about externalism is that it is true in the sense that it is consistent. Internalism however does make claims about the contents of the world, as well as make testable predictions, and thus the truth of internalism is a matter of certainty (not that I am saying that we are currently certain about internalism, just that we could be, given the categories of knowledge discussed in the linked post). For example internalism predicts that activity in the brain will be closely correlated with what people are thinking about, and indeed experiments have shown this to be true (or at least highly probable, since you can never eliminate all experimental error). Internalism is also incompatible with externalism, and given this we should accept internalism, and reject externalism, because of the general principle that we should accept truths that could be certain over those that are only consistent. Why should certain truths trump consistent truths? Well consider the following situation: the theory that everything is made up of the four elements can be considered a consistent truth, if we are allowed to define the four elements as we please (for example air might be subatomic particles a, b, c; earth might be … ect). However the atomic theory (everything is made of atoms) is part of the realm of certain truth, since it makes definite predictions about what we will find, its truth isn’t guaranteed by definition, it must be confirmed by experiment. We settle such cases using the principle I invoked earlier, not because it is necessarily wrong to accept the elemental theory given the right definitions, but because we seek greater predictive power and hence the atomic theory is more useful to us in our search for the truth. I argue that the internalism / externalism divide is much like this. Externalism doesn’t explain anything that internalism doesn’t, it is simply a more convenient way to talk about certain situations. Internalism on the other hand does make predictions about what we should find in our physical investigations into consciousness, and thus is of greater use in our search for the truth about the mind and consciousness.



  1. So, do rocks have experiences?

    Comment by indrax — July 19, 2006 @ 6:32 am

  2. You really should read Are Rocks Conscious? then.

    Comment by Peter — July 19, 2006 @ 8:49 am

  3. Peter, it’s not really clear to me how these are reasonable objections. For the first thing externalism is largely about the relation of the mental to the object thought about. But in terms of physical processes both the internalist and externalist should largely agree. Thus I don’t see how empirically one is less equipped than the other. You’ll really have to develop this argument. As I said, by focusing in on the empirical you’re kind of missing the point of the dispute.

    This is true of the second complaint too which seems to miss the point of the dispute by thinking it is an empirical dispute.

    Comment by Clark — July 19, 2006 @ 7:29 pm

  4. Until Clark’s last comment, I figured externalism was dead, but now, I’m beginning to see how might survive in limited form. “When we do math, isn’t it true that apprehend 2+2=4 in a way that’s more than just ‘2+2 yields 4 in my usual internal thinking pattern.'”

    Comment by Carl — July 19, 2006 @ 8:34 pm

  5. (Aw math, the last redoubt of the Forms.)

    Comment by Carl — July 19, 2006 @ 8:35 pm

  6. Clark, people do appeal to externalism as though it is saying something about what the mind is really doing, that is why it is a popular position with some. If we are going to go down the road of: we can define things however we wish, hence the theory can never be refuted … well that’s not very good philosophy in my opinion, and clearly then I could give the same defense for internalism, but I wouldn’t want to because I think that internalism does make real predictions about what we will find when we empirically investigate the mind. Philosophy is supposed to be about real stuff, about how the world really works, and about the structure of reality, not just about defining words conveniently. I argue that at some level for philosophy to mean anything it must be at least a bit empirical, or there is no reason to believe that we are talking about the objective world any more. What could the words mind, consciousness, unconsciousness, thought, ect be said to mean if they didn’t correspond to some real part of the world? And if they do describe real things in the real world then clearly they can be investigated empirically.

    Carl, I think I made almost that exact same point in my post “A Kind of Externalism” a few posts back.

    Comment by Peter — July 19, 2006 @ 11:15 pm

  7. Philosophy is supposed to be about real stuff, about how the world really works, and about the structure of reality…

    Wait, weren’t you arguing the opposite back when I criticized your most moral government as immoral due to its practical effects?

    Comment by Carl — July 20, 2006 @ 12:56 am

  8. Dude, read the about section: author reserves right to change his mind :-). No, seriously, what I was arguing is that in that older topic was that I was discussing the real subject of what is ethically right, not the real subject of what is practical. Saying something is impractical is not equivalent to saying that it isn’t ethically right.

    Comment by Peter — July 20, 2006 @ 1:01 am

  9. Peter, first, I think discussing externalism independent of particular claims is problematic. I’m obviously not going to defend every claim cast under the externalism label since some I may well not agree with and some may positively be poorly made.

    It just isn’t at all clear to me how the externalist lacks and problem with other minds than the internalist does. It seems both will respond to the exact same evidence in pretty much the exact same way. (I’ve not read your posts of today yet, so perhaps you give a more particular argument)

    As to your claim that internalism makes empirical claims, I’m extremely skeptical. But you’re definitely welcome to try. Thus far I’ve not seen anything along those lines, more just a bit of confusion over what the debate is about. (IMO)

    Comment by Clark — July 20, 2006 @ 1:32 pm

  10. I don’t see why discussing externalism in general is problemmatic, all I have done is assume that it includes a non-causal external connection between the mind and the world. If one thinks the connection is causual then I have objections to that position. If one thinks there is real evidence of the connection then I have objections to that position. Finally if one thinks that the connection is non-causual and without empirical evidence then I have my three most recent objections. Thus I don’t feel it matters what specific claims the extenalist makes, since no matter what they say they must fall into one of these three comprehensive groups. Secondly, I am not saying externalism is inferior to all kinds of internalism, since some internalist positions contain mistakes / are just definitional, I am saying that it is inferior to a specific type of internalism, that does make claims about the connection between mind and body.

    Many of the positions in the philosophy of mind can be seen as internalist positions (for example identity theory), and these positions certainly do make empirical claims, so I am not sure why you say that internalism never makes such claims.

    Finally it is very easy for the internalist/materialist to solve the problem of other minds as follows: a mind is correlated with certain activity in the brain (from internalism). The best explanation of people’s behavior is such activity in their brains (from materialism). Therfore they have minds (or at least it is very likely). Thus the internalist-materialist has a good reason to believe that people other than themselves have minds. The externalist does not, hence as I said the inability to resolve the problem of other minds.

    Comment by Peter — July 20, 2006 @ 1:49 pm

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