The Tricky Problem with Other Minds


Image: NAUTILUS

How our mental states overlap with and diverge from those of other species.

Joseph Ledoux | NAUTILUS

Human “exceptionalism” is for many people an unquestioned assumption. For the religious, it is a God-given fact; for humanists, it is a celebration of our unique mental capacities. No other species has created music, art, literature, or built skyscrapers, or imagined going to the moon and figured out how to go there and how to get back. No other species has found treatments for common illnesses and fatal diseases. We are the only animals that use language to share inner experiences with one another.

Our unique features emerged through changes that made us different from our primate and other mammalian ancestors. The fact is, we continue to change over time. If our species survives long enough, future humans will be different from us, and perhaps new human species, with yet unimaginable capacities, will emerge.

Every species is, by definition, different. We care about our differences because they are ours. But from an evolutionary perspective across the long history of life, our traits are not better or more valuable than those possessed by any other organism.1 They are just different.

One of our purported differences is a source of much debate. And that, of course, concerns the nature of the human mind. To what extent do our mental states overlap with and diverge from those of other species? No one would ever confuse the body of another animal with that of a human. Even our closest primate relatives have bodies that are distinct from ours. Yet we freely attribute mental states similar to those we experience to other animals.

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