On knowing I am not alone in the universe

CFS lecture by Naomi Eilan, Professor of Philosophy, University of Warwick, UK.


Questions about our knowledge of other minds have occupied far less philosophical attention than have questions about our knowledge of the material world, at least in the analytical tradition. The major reason for this is the underlying assumption that the resources we should appeal to in explaining such knowledge are the same as those we appeal to in explaining our knowledge of the material world, namely observation and inference. I call this assumption the Observation Claim.

Given this, accounting for our knowledge of other minds is not of much additional interest, epistemologically speaking. This view is often accompanied, however, by the concession that our belief in the existence of people we know and are emotionally engaged with is much stronger than our belief in the existence of physical objects. I call the challenge to explain the strength and nature of this belief the Friends and Family Challenge.

In the first half of the paper I describe various attempts to deal with the Challenge, either by rejecting its validity, or meeting it within the confines of the Observation Claim, or dissolving it by claiming our engagement with others is purely practical in a way that excludes knowledge. I argue that they all fail.

In the second half, I argue that we can and do know we are not alone in the universe; and that the concerns underpinning the Friends and Family Challenge can and should be incorporated into our account of such knowledge.

However, doing so requires preparedness to broaden our understanding of the nature and source of knowledge in this domain. In particular, it requires giving communication a constitutive role, and finding a place for the ethical ladenness of our concept of a person in explaining such knowledge. It also requires that we locate answers to the question of how we know we are not alone in the universe in explanations of what it is to know a person, a question rarely discussed in the context of the epistemological question of other minds, which tends to focus exclusively on propositional knowledge.