Exploring Folk Psychology [notes on cognitive science]


On this paper, Churchland explores folk psychology.

It is clear that any human can explain the behavior of other persons with remarkable accuracy. Each understands others because we share knowledge about the relations between external circumstances, internal states and behavior. This is called folk psychology.

The other minds problem states that the conviction that an individual is subject of certain mental states is not inferred deductively from his behavior. Rather, it is a explanatory hypothesis that provides explanations, predictions and understanding of the individual’s behavior. A Martian could do this, even if its own psychology was wildly different from ours, and he wouldn’t be generalizing from his own case.

The attitudes described in folk psychology can be compared to the ‘numerical attitudes’ shown by physical objects in terms of mass, velocity etc. which allow for generalization across attitudes that hold in nature. Therefore folk psychology is a theory, and it is striking that philosophers took so long to realize so. This means that the body-mind problem can be realized in terms of how the ontology of the folk psychology theory will be related to the ontology of neuroscience.  So will folk psychology be reducible in terms of another theory, perhaps a better one?

Folk psychology is an empirical theory, which means that is a possibility that its principles might be false and its ontology an illusion. To prove this, we have to evaluate folk psychology in terms of its coherence and continuity with well-established theories such as biology or neuroscience, since coherence with adjacent knowledge is the measure of any hypothesis.

We first look at what folk psychology cannot explain, such as mental illness, creative imagination, intelligence differences, the ability of catching a ball, sleep, etc. One outstanding mystery is the nature of the learning process. FP might be after all just a very superficial theory based on forced interpretation on our part rather than genuine theoretical grounding.

FP hasn’t changed too much, it has merely been reduced from the animistic assignments of intentionality to all things in nature (furious winds, etc) to just the realm of higher animals. However, it is clear that the FP of the Greeks is essentially the same FP we use today. FP can be seen as a stagnant or decadent research program that has been so for millenia.

Folk psychology stands alone against the whole bundle of newly developed theories of biology, neuroscience etc, in much the same way that alchemy stands against chemistry and physics. However strong the feeling of FP being a candidate for outright elimination, its widespread use makes it necessary to be taken seriously.

Let us attempt to transcend FP as a theory. FP is not an empirical theory, but we can examine the objections founded by the functionalist view of the mind. FP is a normative characterization of an ideal mode of internal activity. It outlines the processing of beliefs and desires and what it is to be rational in terms of these. So FP has no need to be displaced nor could it be replaced by descriptive theories of neural mechanism since rationality is explained in terms of beliefs and desires.

Functionalism states that FP characterizes our internal states in a way that makes no statement about their intrinsic nature, but rather in terms of a network of causal relations, sensory circumstances and overt behavior.

It is interesting to look at the outright displacement of alchemy (with its four-spirit description of materials) by chemistry. It is easy to imagine that by the time chemistry was being born, alchemy formed part of the common-sense explanations of many an individual about the nature of materials. The ensoulment of materials with any of the so-called spirits describes a functional state, that is, the ability to reflect light, liquify, etc. There is a similarity between the quest for artificial gold and the quest for artificial intelligence. We can obtain gold through nuclear physics, and obtaining artificial intelligence might be plausible. But in the same way that the 4 soul alchemic theory was wrong about making real artificial gold, so might be the components of folk psychology. The irreducibility, abstractness and funcionality of the 4-soul theory was not a defense against its implausibility, and FP might be wrong in the same way.

So, we can argue against eliminative materialism from the normative dimension of FP. First, the fact that the regularities of the intentional core of FP are predicated on logical relations among propositions is not grounds for claiming anything essentially normative about FP. Second, FP ascribes to us a very minimal truncated rationality, falling short of an ideal rationality. Third, our current view of rationality is built upon a sentential/propositional framework of FP, but there is no guarantee that this reflects the deeper account of cognitive virtue. Why accept a theory of cognitive activity that models its elements on the elements of human language?

Eliminative materialism thus means that our normative concerns will have to be reconstituted at a higher level of understanding, such as the one provided by matured neuroscience. Thus, FP is nothing more than a culturally entrenched theory of how we and higher animals work. There are no features that make it empirically invulnerable, irreplaceable or give it any special status of any kind.

If we go beyond folk psychology we can explore three scenarios where cognitive activity is divorced from the forms and categories that characterize natural language.

First, suppose a unified theory of cognitive dynamics based on research of structure and activity of the brain. This theory ascribes a set of complex states specified as figurative solids. It governs the interaction and transformation of these states within the space. Exact specification of the solids is not possible, but their approximations yield excellent explanations of internal change, accounts for learning process, the nature of illnesses, etc. Any declarative sentence will be a 1D projection of a 4D solid. In the same way, FP might fail to capture the whole of the picture, but might reflect enough superficial structure to sustain tradition amongst folk. It is clear how some or all of the population could become used to this new view, displacing the use of FP altogether.

Second. Regard Chomsky’s innate language mechanism theory. There is a competing hypothesis that suggests that our brain contains innate structures, but their function is to organize perceptual experience. Linguistic ability is just an additional function for which evolution has suited these structures. Imagine research shows that these structures are able to process a great number of tasks, some with greater complexity than language. This means that an ‘alien’ language of greater complexity could be learnt by our structures, improving communication between brains. If we construct this new system of verbal communication, which is learnable. Everyone uses this new system. With the disappearance of classic language, FP will be obliterated, replaced by a more revealing scheme.

Third, consider the corpus callosum. Patients whose CC has been severed display a range of behavioral deficits, showing a loss of access of one hemisphere to the information contained in the other. However, some people are born without CC, and they show little or none behavioral deficit. This means that their hemispheres have learnt to use other pathways to exchange information. Now image a CC of sorts that connects two brains. The brains learn to exchange information and coordinate behavior. Language might disappear completely! People would start understanding each other in the same way our left and right hemispheres understand each other. That is, intimately and efficiently, but not propositionally!

Thus, the propositional attitudes of folk psychology do not represent a barrier for the advancement of neuroscience, but rather propose the most interesting and intriguing theoretical displacements we can imagine.

from “Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes” by Paul M. Churchland


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