PHL471: Churchland's elminativism
Churchland is going to argue that our working notion of
intentionality, and in particular of propositional attitudes, is a
theory -- and more importantly a bad theory. Many of the
kinds of things supposed in this theory (the theory's "ontology")
simply don't exist.
Folk psychology as theory
- People predict and explain the actions of others
with reference to beliefs, desires, feears, intentions,
and so on. Most important of such states are propositional
attitudes, Churchland assumes.
- People seem to assume that these are related to
each other and to behavior in lawlike ways.
- Together this is tantamount to a statement of natural
kinds and their lawlike relations: this is a scientific
- This is a realist theory: introspection has no
special status, and there is no special problem of other
- This theory is apparently pretty good at making predictions
of behavior. This is its task.
- There is a parallel between propositional attitude
claims and scientific numeric claims.
- ___ has mass x.
- ___ fears y.
- There is something that has mass x.
- There is something that fears y.
- There is something that has some mass.
- There is something that fears some event.
- If something has mass x, then it requires
force f to accelerate it at rate a.
- If something fears some event, then it
desires that that event not occur.
- Reduction and other ontological questions are
questions about the reduction or translation from one
theory (folk psychology) to another (e.g., neuroscience).
Claim: folk psychology has more problems that benefits
Churchland claims this theory, folk psychology, is inadequate.
- Folk psychology cannot explain many phenomena:
- Mental illness
- Intelligence differences
- PerceptuoMotor control
- The function of sleep
- Perceptual illusions
- Features of memory
- Learning: you must learn language
and how to use it before you can learn
things by way of manipulation of propositional
- Folk psychology has been in continual retreat or
stagnation (which should perhaps make us worried that
there is some systematic difficulty here).
- There has been no progress in thousands
- Lack of fruitful coherence with other
- Folk psychology is not the only game in town:
neural science, evolutionary theory, psychology, and other
sciences are improving -- and folk psychology does not
cohere or fruitfully interact with them.
Churchland sympathetically (that is, to take his case as strongly
as we can make it, which we should do before we assess it), it is
important to recognize that he explicitly grants that folk psychology
"does ejoy a substantial amount of explanatory and predictive success."
But, "when one centers one's attention not on what [folk psychology]
can explain, but on what it cannot explain or fails even to address"
see may see its limitations.
I believe one can consider Churchland's position like this.
Imagine a time at which the development of medicine was such that
it saved more lives than it lost, but that medicine at this time
still did much harm compared to medicine today (when, say, they
knew to make people rest in isolation when they had a disease, but
didn't have the germ theory yet and doctors went from autopsies to
deliveries without washing their hands). Then imagine medicine
stayed at that point of development for a very long time. One
might then say, medicine is stagnant, we have to shake it up and
improve it. This would not be to deny it was beneficial in many
ways; but rather to say it can be greatly improved.
Churchland specifically says, "Eliminative materialism does not
imply the end of our normative concerns. It implies only that
they will have to be reconstituted at a more revealing level of
understanding, the level that a matured neuroscience will provide."
Thus, we must be careful to not indulge in the denial of the
antecedent of a conditional. That is, to make the fallacious
move from "If P then Q" and "not P" to "not Q." E.g.: if
folk psychology is true, then human obey certain norms; folk
psychology is false; humans do not obey these norms. That is
Eliminativism is a viable alternative.
Churchland considers and addresses three objections:
- Folk psychology has a special normative character.
- Objection: propositional attitudes and their
relationships to each other (we are talking here
about rationality, not directly about reference)
are ideals or otherwise constrained by norms.
- The interpretationists (Dennett, Davidson)
argue like this, and many believe they are correct.
- Reply: the normative nature of propositional
attitude reasoning arises because we value some
inferences, not because they are inherently normative.
Also, the rationality that arises in folk psychology
is limited and weak.
- Folk psychological states are abstract entities
- Objection: On a functionalist theory, to
describe functional states is to give a high-level
relationship that is not the kind of thing that
should be criticized for not fitting scientific
theory -- it is pitched at a different level.
- Examples include Fodor, Putnam.
- Answer: functionalism is fundamentally
flawed. It allows us to conserve bad theory.
Churchland's story of functionalist alchemy
illustrates this claim.
- Note: eliminativism regarding folk
psychology is consistent with some forms of
- Eliminativism is susceptible to a reductio
- Objection: Churchland is asking us
to believe in eliminativism about, among
other things, belief. He is contradicting
- Reply: this begs the question, by
assuming that grasping a theory is belief
as posited by folk psychology.
- An analogy: the modern biologist
denies that vitalism [the view that biological
processes cannot be explained with chemistry
alone, and we need to add to our ontology
a vital force] is true; but the modern biologist
is contradicting herself, because she is
alive and so there must be a vital force.
What might the successor to folk psychology look like?
We can only speculate, but here are some options, and how
they might change our everyday discourse about minds:
- Connectionism. Common discourse might remain
quite like it is today.
- Innate perceptual processing units. Understanding
these, we might talk in terms of their basic structure.
- Modularity. Notions of single mind begin to break down.