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Folk Psychology as Theory

The starting point of eliminative materialism is the idea that ordinary mental concepts such as beliefs and desires are part of folk psychology—a theory we use to get along in the world. The following are examples of folk-psychological concepts:

We use folk psychology not just in everyday life but also in academic philosophical discussions, as well as in psychology. Folk psychology is complex and involves thousands of mental concepts, systematically related to each other. When the Churchlands say that folk psychology is a theory, they like us to think of it as subject to refutation. But what makes them think we operate psychologically by applying theory? If folk psychology is a theory, then what does it look like? What are some examples of folk-psychological laws? There are no textbooks, folk psychology courses, or instructors to teach us. Folk psychology is part of our social background, so we normally don’t notice it is a theory. We need to unearth the laws of folk psychology. Here are three examples of what can be dug up:

  • 1. People who suffer bodily damage generally feel pain.
  • 2. People who are in pain often get angry.
  • 3. People who are angry are generally impatient.

Suppose Fred is bitten by a mosquito. How can we infer how this is going to affect him? We can infer by (1) that Fred is likely to be in pain, then by (2) that he is likely to get angry, and finally by (3) that he might be impatient. Folk psychology is made up of many such laws. These rule-based laws may appear nontheoretical. But according to the Churchlands, that they may appear so is a matter of surface appearance. Take the following folk-psychological statement:

The statement doesn’t look theoretical, but when we look beneath its surface, we find it to be an alternative way of stating a logical rule:

Let us go back to our high school physics books and compare an application of our folk-psychological law involving fears and desires with an application of Newton’s second law of motion. This law says that an object’s acceleration is equal to the force applied, divided by its mass. We begin with instantiating our folk- psychological law. Suppose Fred fears there will be an earthquake. We then infer that Fred desires that there not be an earthquake, by instantiating X with Fred and P with earthquake. Now we turn to the instantiation of Newton’s second law. In the physics case, we do the same thing—we instantiate the law to infer the results.

According to the Churchlands, examples such as these show that folk psychology is truly theoretical. Suppose folk psychology is a theory. Why ought it to be eliminated? We are to abandon folk-psychological theory in favor of neuroscientific theory.

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