How do I know what you’re thinking?

How can we prove that other people have minds that work in the same way as our own? Each of us has unique access to his or her own mind— no one can read another person’s mind. But if we don’t know how someone else’s mind works, how do we know what that person is thinking?

Other minds

We can’t get inside another person’s mind to see what it is like, but we can see how others behave. John Locke said
that watching other people’s behavior leads
us to assume their minds are like our own. However, these observations don’t give us actual knowledge, since they are based on our own ideas, which are still only in our own heads!

Understanding behavior

Imagine that you see someone walk up to a store, find it closed, frown, and walk away. Based on your own experience, you might assume that the person felt frustrated. However, that person’s mind and body might operate very differently from yours. Perhaps that person frowns when thinking hard, and therefore may not be annoyed at all. When we see smiling kids we assume these children are happy because they look the way we feel when we are happy.

The language game

German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that we have developed language to help us share our experiences with other people. Language lets us make our private thoughts public, and we can only talk if we understand what is being said. So language proves that there are other minds, because it represents shared thoughts—things that lots of us think or feel. Without language we wouldn’t know that we think and feel in similar ways.

Feelings are common

If there is a word for something, it means that many people have experienced it. For example, if you start using the word “pain” in the wrong way, you will soon realize you are wrong by the way other people react to you. From a young age, you learn to use the word to describe the same kinds of feelings that others do. Learning language lets you learn about feelings that everyone has. If you use a new word to describe something that only you have ever felt, no one will correct you. They just won’t know what you’re talking about!

Is my pain the same as your pain?

Even if you explain to your best friend exactly what happens when you stub your toe, can he or she really know what it is like toexperience that in your body and mind? It’s possible that if you asked 10 other people to describe the feeling of stubbing their toe, they would all use the word “pain,” but they could all be feeling it differently. How can we know exactly what they are feeling?

Similar experiences

We all think we experience the same feelings. But how do we know we all feel the same thing when we say we are happy, hungry, excited, or tired? Some would say that this does not really matter— our experiences are similar enough.

We can understand enough about what is happening to those people, even if we cannot experience their actual feelings, right?