Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Vallicella on whether folk psychology is a theory

An essential dimension on eliminative materialism, and, I believe, the element that determines whether eliminative materialism is open to a self-refutation charge, is the claim that folk psychology is a theory. According to EM, propositional attitudes are theoretical entities in a theory to explain observable behavior. If this is conceded, then the advocate of EM will argue that we have to be open to the possibility that these theoretical posits could be replaced by posits that are more scientifically adequate. Those who think eliminative materialism is self-refuting also typically challenge the claim that folk psychology is a theory.

But, to me, it seems very clear that at least some propositional attitudes, like my desiring a steak dinner, are not theoretical posits, but are rather states of affairs of which I can be, and am, directly aware.


Blue Devil Knight said...

Is there a bit of phenomenology that will help me see these propositions that I have been heretofore unaware of? That is the key problem.

There is some sloppiness on both sides, unfortunately. Sometimes, when they are being more responsible, the Churchlands attack the philosophers' propositional attitude psychology (language of thought a la Fodor). This is where they are strongest. They are weaker when they try to say that this sophisticated philosophical view is identical to folk psychology. Folk psychology is a mish-mosh of (likely) inconsistent views about behavior, thoughts, feelings, etc..

They are really two different issues, and too often conflated. For instance, people who take on the folk-psychology prong of their argument, haven't really attacked the core of eliminative materialism, which is that the language of thought hypothesis of Fodor is wrong.

Victor Reppert said...

BDK: I am a little puzzled here that you think the heart of EM is the claim that Fodor is wrong about the language of thought. I take it, for example, that this fellow Drestke rejects both the Fodor thesis and Churchland-style eliminativism, so surely it is possible to reject both???

Blue Devil Knight said...

You are right that it is possible to reject both. LOT and EM are not exhaustive possibilities. (This is all orthogonal to Dretske's semantic theory: you could implement that in a language of thought or a Churchlandian state space: one could likely hold a Dretskian semantic theory that does not rely on propositions as the basic unit ).

Historically, it was taken as almost axiomatic that human cognition has a linguoformal structure, and this is indeed an important part of folk psychology, which attributes language-like symbolic internal processes to people to explain their behavior (why did he hit Johnny? He thought that Johnny stole his car.). The Churchlands have simply pointed out that this may get things completely wrong (as did Rorty and Feyerabend earlier, though in a less systematic and comprehensible way).

The most important part of all their work (Sellars, Rorty, Feyerabend, the Churchlands) is that our psychological theories do not self-verify, as some people would claim (e.g., those who like to say that their propositional attitudes are just "given": this is the whole point of Sellars' great work Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind). This fact, that we don't know how our minds work by inspection, has interesting consequences.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Talking to my friend about this, I should affirm that it is very important to make clear that I am talking about representational contents, not vehicles, in this whole debate. The question is whether our internal representations of the world consist of propositionally structured contents, or contents structured in some other way. Frankly, I am surprised by the animosity, since phenomenologically, nonconceptual content is the only one I think I have some kind of priviledged access to! (E.g., the pain in my belly, the visual scene I am experiencing).

Fodor and the like would say, despite phenomenological appearances to the contrary, such contents are actually constructed out of elementary meaningful symbols using a special type of cognitive grammar. That is, our cognitive systems are propositional all the way down. To the extent that we can know how the contents are structured just by experience, why not argue against propositional attitudes?