Believing in Beliefs?

In Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes, Paul M. Churchland focuses his essay on the concept of eliminative materialism, which is “the thesis that our common-sense conception of psychological phenomena constitutes a radically false theory, a theory so fundamentally defective that both the principles and the ontology of that theory will eventually be displaced, rather than smoothly reduced, by completed neuroscience” (Churchland, 593). In this piece, Churchland attacks the idea of mental states and folk psychology. Folk psychology is used to discuss to “cognitive capacities,” such as prediction and “explain[ing] behavior” (Folk Psychology as a Theory, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Folk psychology is also referencing behavior in the brain.

Churchland claims that the idea of folk psychology is insufficient. He states how it is remarkable that we can explain and predict the behavior of others, in terms of desires, beliefs, fears, perceptions, and intentions, also known as propositional attitudes. These propositional attitudes, according to Churchland, lead to issues with folk psychology because, “its conception of learning as the manipulation and storage of propositional attitudes founders on the fact that how to formulate, manipulate, and store a rich fabric of propositional attitudes is itself something that is learned, and is only one among many acquired cognitive skills” (Churchland, 596). He also mentions how mental illnesses, catching a fly ball, sleep, and more all are not shed any light by folk psychology. Due to this, Churchland sees folk psychology as “a highly superficial theory, a partial and unpenetrating gloss on a deeper and more complex reality” (Churchland 597). In my opinion, I feel that Churchland is very tough with his critique. Just because folk psychology may not, in Churchland’s eyes, explain the above (mental illnesses, sleep, etc.) that does not mean that nothing in the world can explain these. Psychologists analyze sleep and its affects on the human mind, and they  focus on mental illnesses, since psychology is the study of the mind/behavior.

Churchland’s theory of eliminating all mental states is too severe, in my opinion. Eliminativism’s argument focuses on how beliefs and desires are a part of folk psychology, but since folk psychology is false, so are belief and desires. I have an issue with this conclusion. How can beliefs and desires not exist? I can form a belief in almost anything, and I can desire many things. In this moment, I am hungry and desire a slice of New York pizza. Is this desire false? I believe that beliefs and desires exist. If I believe that beliefs and desires exist, how is it possible that these two do not exist? Eliminativists believe that beliefs don’t exist… Eliminativists also state “there is nothing more to the mind than what occurs in the brain” (Eliminative Materialism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). When I approached some peers of mine and asked them what is the first thing that you think of when I say the word “mind,” all of them responded immediately with “my brain.” This belief relates to the eliminativist, but does not necessarily coincide or contradict this viewpoint. Some individuals may believe that there is more to the mind than the brain, but others choose not to.



Paul Churchland’s Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s Eliminative Materialism

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s Folk Psychology as a Theory

7 thoughts on “Believing in Beliefs?

  1. When I read Churchland’s piece on eliminative materialism, I immediately struggled with his rejection of folk psychology. Churchland continually emphasizes the insufficiency of folk psychology, and in my opinion, fails to acknowledge its importance. The way that Churchland disparages the popular/ common-folk approach to psychology, not only comes across as elitist but also ignorant of how important initial attempts to understand the mind and body connection have been. As with all scientific fields, philosophy has been built from the ground up and has taken thousands of years of thinking to reach its current state. Without simplistic and perhaps naive attempts to explore the mind, we would never have reached our current advanced level of understanding. Churchland seems to disregard the evolutionary process of philosophy in his attack on folk psychology. Even in the present day, not everyone has access to leisure time to peruse philosophical literature and stay up to date on neurological advances. Thus, I find Churchland’s critique on folk psychology to be perhaps too harsh and also lacking in understanding.

    1. I also believe that Churchland was harsh about criticizing folk psychology, but it is necessary in my opinion. He is proposing a radical new way to view and think about the brain. In my opinion, he comes across so strongly to try and lead his audience to believing this new radical way of thinking. Eliminative materialism is very plausible to me as well. Just because I, as a person, think I have a certain belief doesn’t make the belief true. It could easily be a bunch of chemical processes that are presented to me in a form of a belief or desire. Thinking about the mind with the eliminative materialism approach I think is very useful because it allows scientist to study these mental states that really could not be scientifically studied before. Folk psychology has greatly enhanced our knowledge about the brain and how it works, but I feel that in today’s time eliminative materialism is the best way to think about the brain and mind. This allows to further progress human understanding of the brain.

      1. I completely agree with Houston on this one. I think that Folk psychology was a very important theory on mental states and was very close to getting it right but as we have learned more about neuroscience and other scientific studies I think Folk Psychology has become a bit outdating. Also as I talked about in my blog post there are instances where other intelligent animals such as chimps seem to really understand each other and can even seem to “mind read” or predict others feelings and actions. However, these chimps cannot fit the current definition for folk psychology because they cannot understand the idea of beliefs.

        1. I also agree with Houston and Gordon. Because evidence and proof of what we previously believed is constantly changing and evolving it is important to be constantly and rigorously modifying the theories we believe in. If there were no Churchlands in the world and no strong oppositions, we would not make the progress that we have in terms of understanding newer theories about the body and mind. That being said, I do not think it is ok to completely disregard folk psychology as it has been crucial in the development of eliminative materialism, but it is still necessary to push the boundaries of different theories. I also disagree with your point about desires and beliefs being false. As proved currently, everything in the brain and mind is caused by a chemical process. Everyone knows that to be true so why can’t our beliefs and desires simply also be chemical processes within the brain?

  2. I truly see both sides of the argument. When I read Churchland, I did think he was being overly critical because I think that the idea that beliefs and desires are false is absurd, but I also agree with some of the flaws of folk psychology that he pointed out. Just because beliefs and desires may be caused by chemical processes in the brain does not mean they are false. Brain processes only take a person so far. Environment, medicine and a mix of other things cause the brain processes that cause beliefs and desires, and these cannot all be false. While I reject this idea of Churchland’s, it is true that parts of folk psychology are antiquated. Other parts, however, have been integral to understanding the brain and human mind, as well as led to other philosophical theories.

  3. I feel as though what Churchland conveys in his essay is not necessarily that beliefs and desires don’t except but the constructed idea of them is false. It’s not a belief; it’s a chemical reaction in your brain, it’s a firing of neurons that activate other neural networks. It’s not a desire; your amygdala and parts of your frontal lobe are activated because of signals to the brain sent from your stomach (if it is the case that you’re hungry). All of these phenomena exist even for the eliminative materialist, the only difference is that the eliminative materialists is of the mindset that folk psychology has caused the lay person to misinterpret these brain states as mental states, giving these chemical processes the misnomers of beliefs and desires.

    If this is what Churchland is trying to do, I personally don’t see the point. I can understand the need for science to be concise and correct. If old theories are not longer necessary, there’s no reason to keep them around. But at the same time, how much better off would we actually be abandoning our construction ideas of beliefs and desires and replacing them with terms more suited for neuroscience?

    1. I believe Churchland is pushing for this change because when we talk about mental states as beliefs and desires in my opinion we are mystifying them. In folk psychology, there is no real answer for why these beliefs and desires happen. These are just words we have used to describe the brain states we are experiencing. I believe Churchland is trying to show is reader that if these words are still used and folk psychology is not abandoned the world will remain stagnate in developing better theories to discuss the mind. If not they will remain mystical and just be taken as the truth in the public.

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