Sunday, July 10, 2011

Mirror neurons and the other mind problem

In my last blog I suggested that the existence of mirror neurons may be the solution of the sociological problem of the tuning of individual behaviour to group behaviour; so why people behave as a group animal. Psychologically mirror neurons make that we can feel empathy, easily can learn behaviour and actions and much more. I think that mirror neurons may also offer a solution to an old problem in philosophy: the other mind problem. Or at least they may put the problem in a different light.
The essence of the other minds problem is the question: How can we know that others have minds? So, how can we know that they are not zombies (zombies in the philosophical sense, so mere automata)? Formulated this way the other minds problem is an epistemological problem, a problem about knowing. Thomas Nagel replaces it by the conceptual problem of “how I can understand the attribution of mental states to others” (The view from nowhere, p. 19; italics Nagel), which brings us a step nearer to the mirror neurons. However, if we see the solution of the other minds problem in these neurons, the solution is in the way man is constructed, so then it is ontological.
Of course, one can always remain skeptical and say that the problem cannot be solved, but I think that the essential flaw so far is the intrinsically individualistic approach of the problem. Nagel says: “… to understand that there are other people in the world as well, one must be able to conceive of experiences of which one is not the subject: experiences that are not present to oneself. To do this it is necessary to have a general conception of subjects of experience and to place oneself under it as an instance. It cannot be done by extending to the idea of what is immediately felt into other people’s bodies …’ And a few sentences further: “The problem is that other people seem to be part of the external world…” (p. 20; italics mine). What’s wrong with this is that the conception of man in this quotation implicates that we have an individual and another one (and another one and another and another one….) and that these individuals are external to each other and that it is actually not possible to bridge the gap.
There is no space here to follow Nagel’s approach (which he sees in taking different perspectives or views), but that the portrayal of man presented here is wrong becomes clear once one knows about mirror neurons. Mirror neurons do just what cannot be done according to Nagel: extending the idea of what is immediately felt into other people’s bodies. For it is this what mirror neurons do: reflecting the inner world of others in yourself. It is true, this cannot happen in a 100% reliable way, but it is what they fundamentally do and it is also this what fundamentally makes man the group animal s/he is. Individual man grows up by imitating and simulating what other people do and by internalizing and creatively adapting their forms of behaviour. In a certain sense man mirrors other men. This is only possible if the other men have the same kind of mind as the mirroring man has. For if this weren’t so, the latter couldn’t become the mind possessing group being that s/he is, for what is mirrored in his or her inner self would then not be the other men’s minds, but the zombies who they are, and the mirroring man would become a zombie, too. So if you have a mind, other people have minds, too.

No comments: