Multiple Personality Disorder

Here’s the question for today: given that I can only observe the behavior of others, how can I know that others have minds?

Introductory Philosophical Winding Road

This question has a basic application philosophically. For me, I think, therefore I am. However, my subjectivity appears to only go as far as…me. I can’t see “your” thinking. I only see your actions. So whereas I know I am real by the basis of my mental activity, I can’t be so sure about you.

“You” might say you feel the same way about me, but there’s no way for me to verify that you’re actually having this thought process, or whether you’re not just saying that and behaving that way.

…This is a poor treatment of a complex philosophical question, of course, and there is, of course, spillover everywhere. For example, if we appeal to the brain, then we can find a lot of causal connections for things that happen. Different activities are associated with different patterns of brain activity. The issue is that even if we are able to map all of the behaviors and actions and whatnot to brain activity patterns, this doesn’t allow us to see the subjective aspect…the “what it feels like” aspect. In other words, it doesn’t allow us to see the mind and, in fact, sometimes appears to exclude the mind. With a perfect understanding of neurology we could make a creature that could act and operate and appear exactly like a human, but we would have no way of being certain whether that creature had a subjective experience. Whether it had a mind.

Anyway, this is still a poor treatment of even more complex philosophical questions (about zombies and qualia and materialism and whatnot), but please bear with me still.

I would imagine that most of “us” (and yes, I will say us) simply take for granted that there are other minds at some point in our development. I know that I do, which is why I feel comfortable in a pragmatic and every-day sense saying that most of us do this.

Can I justify this act of taking for granted other minds’ existence? I’m not really sure I can. But perhaps it’s the case that this belief is a basic belief — that it is one that doesn’t need to be inferred from other truths or concepts to be justified?

(To gloss over foundationalism, properly basic beliefs, and a whole host of other issues…I’d raise that other basic beliefs are things like the belief in an external universe [as opposed to solipsism, or the universe being like a persistent dream state], or that there is a past [as opposed to us being created now with falsified memories of a past], etc.,)

Alvin PlantingaAnyway, this meandering road of handwaving over complicated philosophical issues gets us to the first pitstop. In reformed apologetics (such as that as advocated by Alvin Plantinga), one of the properly basic beliefs is that there is a god. In the same way we are rational to assume there are other minds (even without evidence to affirm), we are rational to assume there is a god.

I don’t — and haven’t — know what to feel about that extension. But hey…I’ve only handwaved through the issues rather than addressing them fully. This all has been a detour anyway…we are 500 words in the post and I haven’t even begun to talk about what I’ve wanted to talk about.

So what is the point of this?

A while ago, after reading a MetaFilter front page post, I became acquainted with sidian3 and introduced to Multiple Personality Disorder and Dissociative Identity Disorder. (P.S., definitely check out that MetaFilter post…since it has a lot of meaning to what I’m going to be talking about for this post.) I had heard of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), now called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), before…but I definitely didn’t know enough about it to have much of an opinion on it. I never saw or read the controversial books/movies regarding “Sybil,” and so I didn’t have any undue reason to be especially skeptical. And so I watched some of the videos from the MetaFilter post.

I started with sidian3’s video explaining the difference between personas and personalities. It seemed tame enough, but it seemed to make sense. There’s a sense that everyone has different “faces” to show in different social settings — how I act with my parents is different than how I act at work, and that’s different than how I act with my friends. But these different personas are all a part of one whole — me. I wouldn’t say that I have multiple personalities.

And so I continued with the MeFi post by watching the four videos where sidian3’s “alters” explain various aspects of their “system.”

And this is what my thought process was as I watched the videos…

First, I was pretty confused. Even though the various alters were trying to explain things about the system, I felt like I couldn’t put the puzzle pieces together. For one thing, while “Richi,” “Beth,” “Mimi,” and “Hari” were interviewed, some of these alters would also speak about “Cassie,” “Willow,” other “ghost alters,” and so on. I was confused when they mentioned “Tommy” as core personality, especially since “Cassie” was said to be the “leader” with certain powers over the other alters.

I thought some of the affectations were weird. So, Hari was supposed to be a little child…ok. And Beth is…English?  OK.

However, what fascinates me now was the extent to which I generally granted that it was probably legitimate. And so my second thought was of intrigue. I thought it would be neat to have that — especially if you could develop a cooperative system as involved as theirs is. Yes, I do play too many video games and read too many fantasy novels, and that probably has something to do with that fascination.

…but then, I began to realize there was something underneath the surface that I hadn’t been getting before (because I was too busy trying to keep the alters straight). How had they been formed? What was the reason for their creation?

That’s when I realized the horror. Identity dissociation doesn’t just happen for fun. It is a reaction to really bad stuff happening.

This really came out when Tommy was talking about the stages of cooperation (have you been watching the videos from the MetaFilter post as I’ve suggested?) — about how the alters are born from pain, abuse, etc., and have to *learn* that there is both more in the world (e.g., it’s not all abuse…there are some people you can trust) and less in the world (you have to work…you can’t just make things appear, etc.,)

And on top of all of this, there are many people — like many psychologists and psychiatrists — who will suppose that in order to “move past” this disorder, the best option is for the “core” personality to integrate the alters. That’s the one video I’ll embed here of all of the videos I’ve been mentioning:

The Philosophical Fork in the Road

Here’s the thing. All of this fluff about other minds really comes to a forefront when you get to this point. If the multiple personalities are considered to be other persons, other minds within the same brain, then the choice to integrate has a considerably different set of ramifications than if those personalities are simply, as a commenter to the MetaFilter post put it, “exceptional well formed delusion[s] on the part of the sufferer.” One is execution. The other is enlightenment.

For me, I felt for not only Tommy, but for all the alters interviewed. I didn’t know how it came to be, and I’m still not sure about the diagnosis of MPD/DID in general (e.g., it seems to be extremely culturally bound), but that’s how I felt.

Looking back on the question of other minds and on gods, it seemed to me that the reason why I could accept one and not the other was because of interaction. I interact with other people on a day to day basis and so it’s easier to take for granted that there’s something going on inside there. Even though I haven’t met some people (like sidian3 or her alters, or any of you, my dear readers), it’s easier to trust that there is a person behind most of your words (I’m discounting the spammers. Spammers are totally fake.)

But to me, God just isn’t that accessible.

What does God have to do with multiple personalities?

But the juncture of sidian3 and her alters is where there are uncomfortable questions about God. For example, if I interact with a person who behaves as though she has a mind, I feel justified in taking her at her actions and her words. But I have to admit that it’s easier to swallow the one-to-one connection. One body, one mind. There’s one person there.

…but if I interact with a person who behaves as though there is more than one mind, or a mind split into several persons, then am I justified in taking her/him/them at their actions and words? Now, there is not a one-to-one connection between bodies and minds.

And finally, God. If God isn’t accessible to me, but I interact with people who behave as though there is a god, then am I justified in taking them at their words? If I can trust Tommy to tell the truth about her alters (although it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion that her alters are who she thinks they are), then what’s different about trusting people about the deities they believe in? Is the fact that the deity they posit is not claimed to be an “alter” of themselves sharing the same body a meaningful distinction? Is the fact that the deity they posit may not even have a body (depending on whom you ask) a meaningful distinction?


Given that I can only observe the behavior of others, how can I know that others have minds?