Simulation and Understanding Other Minds

Philosophical Issues 26 (1):351-373 (2016)
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There is much disagreement about how extensive a role theoretical mind-reading, behavior-reading, and simulation each have and need to have in our knowing and understanding other minds, and how each method is implemented in the brain, but less discussion of the epistemological question what it is about the products of these methods that makes them count as knowledge or understanding. This question has become especially salient recently as some have the intuition that mirror neurons can bring understanding of another's action despite involving no higher-order processing, whereas most epistemologists writing about understanding think that it requires reflective access to one's grounds, which is closer to the intuitions of other commenters on mirror neurons. I offer a definition of what it is that makes something understanding that is compelling independently of the context of cognition of other minds, and use it to show two things: 1) that theoretical mind-reading and simulation bring understanding in virtue of the same epistemic feature, and 2) why the kind of motor representation without propositional attitudes that is done by mirror neurons is sufficient for action understanding. I further suggest that more attention should be paid to the potential disadvantages of a simulative method of knowing. Though it can be more efficient in some cases, it can also bring vulnerability, wear and tear on one's personal equipment, and unintended mimicry.
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