Eliminativism and Folk Psychology



I.                     Review of concepts of folk psychology and eliminativism


Folk Psychology (FP): the method used by “folk” (ordinary people, non-professionals), of explaining, predicting and manipulating other people’s behavior by the use of propositional attitudes, i.e. belief, desire, fear, etc.


Eliminativism: The position that Folk Psychology is in out-dated theory which should be eliminated and replaced by a more scientific understanding of people’s behavior


1.        Introduction of Paul Churchland’s Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes


   i) Churchland argues that Folk Psychology is a theory


   ii) Churchland’s criticisms of folk psychology:


  1. Explanatory failures. Folk Psychology is an inadequate theory of the mind, and fails to provide any explanation for many processes of the mind e.g. mental illness, creative imagination, intelligence differences between individuals, sleep, ability to perform physical actions such as catching a ball, memory, and especially learning, e.g. learning concepts


Comments: Churchland admits that these failures do not show folk psychology is wrong, but they do show folk psychology is limited. A supporter of folk psychology can argue, that folk psychology does not attempt to answer most of these concerns. It is primarily a theory concerning conscious thought, decision-making and action, and is not concerned with physical actions, sleep, mechanics of memory, etc.


  1. Stagnant and Unproductive. Churchland calls FP a theory of “retreat, infertility and decadence”.

i)                    Retreat: domain of FP used to extend to wide range of  natural phenomena such as angry sea, jealous moon, angry volcano, etc.

ii)                   Infertility and decadence: No progress made in FP since ancient Greek times. Still use same concepts to explain people’s actions, with about same degree of success at predicting and manipulating people’s behavior.


  1. Not coherent with scientific knowledge in other fields, e.g. evolutionary theory, biology and neuroscience. Whereas these other disciplines support each other, FP is isolated. Churchland claims that science can explain human being’s constitution, development and behavioral capacities through physics, chemistry, evolutionary theory, biology, physiology and neuroscience and that using these explanations, science can outperform FP at many points in its own domain.




Responses to Churchland:


A.      Point: FP is stagnant. One possible response (not mentioned by Sterelny) is to deny that FP in itself is stagnant. In fact, FP has incorporated many modern ideas from psychology, such as unconscious or repressed desires, phobias, personality types, such as neurotic, anal recessive, etc. FP is psychology used by ordinary folks (untrained in psychology) and ordinary folks do now used these concepts, even when not in proper psychological way. So-called “psycho-babble”. So FP is adaptive, flexible, and able to incorporate ideas without collapsing.


B.       Sterelny’s response to point FP is stagnant. FP is an important component of cognitive psychology. Cognitve psychology is progressive and undertakes research programs to understand learning, memory, etc. Therefore, FP is not stagnant.  This also answers Churchland’s other points of FP’s explanatory failures and FP’s not cohering with science. If FP is an important part of cognitive psychology, and cognitive psychology attempts to answer the failures Churchland mentions, and coheres with other scientific discipline, then FP is indirectly engaged in answering explanatory failures and cohering with modern scientific advances.


Folk Psychology à Cognitive Psychology à Progressive, scientific, investigating sleep, learning, etc.



Possible response: Churchland, or other advocates of eliminativism, could respond to this point in two ways:


i)                    Deny that folk psychology is an important component of cognitive psychology. Fodor’s theories obviously rely on the concepts of FP, but others, like Steven Stich, think that cognitive psychology should be free from FP concepts.

ii)                   Deny that cognitive psychology is progressive and coherent with modern science. Churchland thinks Cognitive Psychology is wrongheaded precisely because of its reliance on FP concepts.




Churchland’s Attack on Functionalist Characterization of Folk Psychology


Some defenders of FP support a functionalist definition of propositional attitudes (belief, desires, etc.). Their argument is that beliefs, desires, etc. may not correspond to any particular physical objects in the brain, but are defined as functional states.



Churchland’s Comparison of Functional Definition of FP to (fictional) Functional Definition of Alchemy


Alchemy: a medieval science engaged in combining and mixing elements, concocting medicine, and, most famously, attempting to transform base metals (iron, lead, etc.) into gold. Alchemy had an elaborate theory, including the idea that all elements were made up (or “ensouled by”) five fundamental spirits: Mercury, Sulpher, Yellow Arsenic and Sal Ammoniac.


Alchemy was replaced by the rise of modern chemistry.


Churchland supposes that alchemists could have tried to save alchemy by creating a functional definition of alchemy terms, e.g. “ensouled by mercury” means ‘having certain properties such as being shiny, liquifying under head, etc.” Then alchemists could continue using alchemy concepts, while admitting that all elements are not literally, physically made of up Mercury, Sulpher, Yellow Arsenic and Sal Ammoniac.


Churchland’s point: It would be pointless for alchemists to try to save alchemy this way. Better to admit that alchemy is a bad theory and eliminate it. Likewise, people should not try to save Folk Psychology in this empty way (redefining terms as functionalist concepts). Better to admit FP is a bad theory and eliminate it.



Sterleney’s response to Alchemy comparison


Sterleny admits that Churchland makes a good point, but says that he only proves that functionalist terms may be empty, but not that they always are. Many terms used in science are functionalist, such as definition of heart, eye and gene.  So functionalist terms can be useful, and he believes cognitive psychology functionalist terms are useful.




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