Re: Can Hypnosis Solve the Other-Minds Problem?

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Sun Feb 18 1996 - 16:38:18 GMT

> Date: Sun, 18 Feb 1996 14:36:24 GMT
> From: "Cooke, Alex <>
> I would like to ask whether the practice of
> hypnotising people and then putting them under regression,
> i.e when they start to talk about living a totally different
> life, opposes the 'other mind theory'? and if so how can
> regression be explained, if it is real. Alex Cook

Hi Alex,

First, it is important to ask yourself the basis on which you raise
this question: Have you seen evidence from controlled experiments on
"regression" (I think you may be confusing "age regression" with
"hypnotic induction"), or are you just assuming that the popular
magazine and TV accounts of hypnosis we all hear now and again are

I don't know of any evidence for "other life" effects in hypnosis; and if
there were, I'm not sure how they could be confirmed to be correct,
rather than imagined. Nor is it clear whether "lost" memories in THIS
life can be recovered through hypnosis. Hypnosis is much more often
reported to make you forget rather than remember (hypnotic amnesia) --
and of course that's much easier to get a person to do, or to believe
or act as if they do.

But even if we imagine that it's all (remarkably, miraculously) true --
that somehow, under hypnosis, I can have an experience as if I were
someone else, somewhere else, and (remarkably, miraculously) it is
confirmed that what I experienced actually did happen to someone else,
at some other time: So what? Does that mean I had HIS experiences, or
just that I had the same experiences he did?

For having the same experiences as someone else is also, like
forgetting, easy: It already happens, as I said in the lecture,
whenever two people look at the same green light, or both have a taste of
the same soured wine, gone to vinegar. Of course, there's no guarantee
their experiences will be EXACTLY the same -- but then there's no
guarantee with this hypothetical hypnotic "shared experience" either.
All you can have in both cases is agreement that my description of my
experience matches your description of yours. What I can't ever know is
whether the experiences were really identical -- or even whether you
actually had any experience at all, rather than merely acting as if you

And that is the other-minds problem all over again: Hypnosis is no more a
solution than the cerebroscope I described in lecture would be: Even if
every time I plugged myself into that machine I had experiences that
exactly matched yours, they would still be MY experiences, and I'd have
no way of being sure they really were the same as yours -- or even
whether you had any at all, as opposed to just acting as if you did.

The other-minds problem is centuries old, and philosophers have already
thought through the hypnosis and cerebroscope angles on it, and have
seen they don't work

It's important to understand, though, that the other-minds problem is a
problem about what you can and cannot be SURE about. It's not that other
people don't have minds. Of course they do. It's not that we don't know
they do. Of course we know. It's just that there is a way we can be
absolutely sure we ourselves have minds, so sure that doubting it
simply doesn't make sense: This is Descartes' famous insight in "Cogito
Ergo Sum: I think, therefore I am."

Try doubting you're feeling something, say pain, WHILE you really are
feeling it: you may be able to make the pain go away (perhaps with the
help of hypnosis), and you may even be able to forget you ever felt it
(again perhaps with the help of hypnosis), but WHILE you are actually
feeling the pain, does it make any sense to wonder or doubt whether
you're really feeling it? Again, don't think about a tiny pain, where
it's on the borderline of hurting or not really hurting; think of a big
toothache: You may be wrong about the tooth; there may be nothing wrong
with your tooth; you may not even have any teeth! But you can't be wrong
about the feeling of toothache. That's because it's YOUR toothache, your
experience, and you're experiencing it. MY toothache is another story,
at least for you: You can't experience my toothache, even with the help
of hypnosis or a cerebroscope, so the kind of certainty you have about
your own experiences is not possible for you about mine.

Have a look at the World Wide Web where this Skywriting Discussion will
be archived so you can all read and participate. Now that you have
mastered email, time to master the Web...

Professor of Psychology
Director, Cognitive Sciences Centre
Department of Psychology
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton
phone: +44 1703 592582
fax: +44 1703 594597

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