[Being one of the greatest logicians of all time, it is not surprising that Bertrand Russell is rather more tolerant of the mischief that logic causes when applied outside its proper sphere than most of us would be. He was always testing its limits, and doubtless always hoping that more could be accomplished by analytical thinking than less brilliant, but more sensible, minds would expect. Alas, Russell commentator Alan Wood concluded that, ‘The general trend of Russell’s thought led to results directly opposite to those he hoped to reach.’]
It must be conceded to begin with that the argument in favour of the existence of other people’s minds cannot be conclusive. A phantasm of our dreams will appear to have a mind—a mind to be annoying, as a rule. It will give unexpected answers, refuse to conform to our desires, and show all those other signs of intelligence to which we are accustomed in the acquaintances of our waking hours. And yet, when we are awake, we do not believe that the phantasm was, like the appearances of people in waking life, representative of a private world to which we have no direct access. If we are to believe this of the people we meet when we are awake, it must be on some ground short of demonstration, since it is obviously possible that what we call waking life may be only an unusually persistent and recurrent nightmare. It may be that our imagination brings forth all that other people seem to say to us, all that we read in books, all the daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly journals that distract our thoughts, all the advertisements of soap and all the speeches of politicians. This may be true, since it cannot be shown to be false, yet no one can really believe it. Is there any logical ground for regarding this possibility as improbable? Or is there nothing beyond habit and prejudice?
The minds of other people are among our data, in the very wide sense in which we used the word at first. That is to say, when we first begin to reflect, we find ourselves already believing in them, not because of any argument, but because the belief is natural to us. It is, however, a psychologically derivative belief, since it results from observation of people’s bodies; and along with other such beliefs, it does not belong to the hardest of hard data, but becomes, under the influence of philosophic reflection, just sufficiently questionable to make us desire some argument connecting it with the facts of sense.
Bertrand Russell (from Our Knowledge of the External World, 1914)
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