Folk Psychology and Scientific Knowledge

Paul Churchland, an American philosopher, defends eliminative materialism, or that common-sense folk psychology is a theory, and must be substituted with neuroscience. In order to argue this, Churchland demonstrates how folk psychology is only a theory and why it might be false.

Churchland begins by stating that seeing folk psychology as a theory unifies problems such as “the explanation and prediction of behavior, the semantics of mental predicates, action theory, the other-minds problem, the intentionality of mental states, the nature of introspection, and the mind-body problem.” (594) In order to argue how the intentionality of mental states is a “structural feature” of folk psychology, Churchland relates to a theory in the physical sciences. He begins by giving us an example of “numerical attitudes,” or expressions such as “…has a mass of n, a velocity of n, a temperature of n.” Substituting a number for n forms a predicate in the same way that substituting a proposition for p forms a predicate. Churchland states, “The structural features of folk psychology parallel perfectly those of mathematical physcics.” (595) Although this was only a small part of his larger argument, I believe that Churchland was effective. I am personally more inclined to accept an argument that is proven valid through science and mathematics. Churchland’s thorough explanation of the parallels of folk psychology and mathematical physics make his argument obvious and clear.

Again, Churchland takes the perspective of the physical sciences when he argues why folk psychology might (really) be false. Folk psychology may only be a theory if it “fits well with other theories about adjacent subject matters.” (597) Churchland claims that folk psychology doesn’t fit in with the sciences like the theory of the homo sapiens does. Since the physical sciences are undeniable when it comes to explaining human behavior, Churchland is strong in his claim that this theory is false. Again, this seems to make sense to me. It is difficult to deny the physical sciences as it is logical in explaining many different aspects about the universe.

Churchland claims that science can explain human beings’ constitution, development and behavioral capacities through physics, chemistry, evolutionary theory, biology, physiology and neuroscience, and that using these explanations, science can beat folk psychology.

Sterelny makes a logical response to Churchland’s arguments. He says that folk psychology is an important component of cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology includes the study of mental processes. Cognitive psychology takes part in research programs to understand processes like learning and memory. In contrast to Churchland’s scientific explanations to deny folk psychology, Sterelny says that folk psychology indirectly follows modern scientific advances. (

Thus, both Sterelny and Churchland use science to prove their argument. However, I am leaning towards Churchland’s view that folk psychology should be eliminated. Churchland makes a rational argument that neuroscience is a better way to understand the brain.

Theories of Human Cognition

For many years philosophers, psychologists, and scientists have all struggled with the concept of mental states and the truth about what happens inside of the human brain. With ongoing breakthroughs in each of the fields, bridges have been created in hopes of gaining insight towards the mysteries of the mind.  In 1981, philosopher Paul Churchland proposed the idea of eliminative materialism, which posed an attack on folk psychology and suggested that mental states simply don’t exist. This extreme theory poses a radical argument with many strong points; however, some believe it to be too drastic to be precise.

Churchland begins his argument by suggesting that folk psychology is simply just a theory and not fact. Through examining a number of mental states that psychologists have struggled with explaining for years, he states, “FP (folk psychology) has been a stagnant or degenerating research program, and has been for millennia.” (567) Although I am not arguing that folk psychology is completely accurate in all of it’s claims, I do believe that it is at least sufficient in explaining very basic fundamentals behind human behavior. Surely, it is not the case that folk psychology can explain all of human cognition a microscopic level just yet; however, with the current breakthroughs in neuroscience, folk psychology simply needs to revise its claims instead of completely reject them.

Aside from Churchland’s refutation of folk psychology, his radical theory of the elimination of all mental states seems a bit too hard to believe. How can one possibly be mistaken about his own mental state? Mental states are the basis of human cognition and to say that they simply don’t exist seems quite absurd. If one were in pain, it would not make sense for an eliminative materialist to say that he is not because mental states can be experienced first-hand.

Furthermore, take for example the famous case of Phineas Gage. In a tragic railroad accident, the man’s brain was impaled with a metal rod. The after effects clearly showed a change in behavior and mental states when the biology of the brain was altered. Of course, exactly what happened may or may not be able to be completely explained with folk psychology; however, the causal relationship between the mental states before and after the accident could not have been a coincidence

In a sense, Churchland was correct in believing that folk psychology was not the only answer; however, I believe that folk psychology is definitely a part of the answer in determining the truth behind our cognition. Just as philosophy advanced to generate eliminative materialism, folk psychology will also change with the ongoing discoveries in modern day neuroscience.

Churchland and Folk Psychology

I met Churchland’s article concerning Eliminative Materialism with mixed feelings. On one hand, I found many of his points to be valid, and he raised many good points in the beginning of his article; however, on the other hand his incessant attacks on some of the other approaches to explaining human behavior made me want to disagree with a lot of his ideas simply because he was so aggressive throughout his article when it came to proving his point.

One of the main notions that I had trouble agreeing with was Churchland’s belief that Neuroscience, once it becomes a fully actualized discipline, will effectively replace Folk Psychology. While I can see how Folk Psychology on its own will not be able to withstand the pressures of our evolving scientific community, I don’t think Neuroscience is going to be the thing that replaces it. I’m not familiar with Folk Psychology outside of this article, but the way it was explained made me think it was very reminiscent of early stages of what we have come to know as Psychology today. Given this, I would be comfortable stating that 1. Folk Psychology was the inspiration for the psychological discipline many of us are familiar with today, 2. Psychology developed from this early form of itself and 3. Psychology is the scientific discipline that will take/has taken the place of Folk Psychology.

Many of the mental phenomena that Folk Psychology fails to even address, let alone effectively explain (e.g., the nature and dynamics of mental illness, perceptual illusions, sleep, or memory and retrieval), are addressed and explained in most introductory Psychology courses (if you take Psyc 110 here you’ll get an answer to most of these questions). Additionally given the timeline that underlies Churchlands article in terms of the lack of development within Folk Psychology over the past twenty five centuries, it seems plausible that Psychology has its earliest roots in Folk Psychology, from which it has since branched off and become much more of an empirical discipline than Folk Psychology ever was. Because of these two reasons, it makes more sense, to me at least, that Churchland would cite Psychology not Neuroscience as Folk Psychology’s inevitable demise.

Smart and Occam’s Razor

Smart’s argument can be summed up as the idea that there are no philosophical arguments for mind-body dualism. In other words, Smart believes that the brain (with its mind-consciousness function), and the body, are not separate entities, and therefore, brain processes cannot be spoken about separately from physical sensations. I believe that although there is a possibility that Smart is correct, modern science has basically disproved his theories.

For one, Smart says that he wishes to resist dualism due to Occam’s razor- the theory that when testing a bunch of hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. However, at this time of modern science, Smart’s claims rely on many more assumptions than the claim that brain processes do, in fact, result in physical sensations. There has been much research done that suggests that certain parts of the brain result in certain sensations. Pet scans reveal that when one experiences pain, there is a universal part of the brain that is activated. Therefore the scans prove that a stimulus activates a brain function that in turn does produce a physical sensation. Notice, the sensations and brain processes are being discussed separately and causally in the case of PET scans. Smart’s second objection is that sensation, being a brain processe, is only a fact depending on whether scientific knowledge is true and, therefore, when we report our sensations, we are not reporting brain processes. If PET scans have shown that sensations are linked to brain processes every time they have been tested, then saying that our scientific knowledge could be wrong makes an assumption of its own kind; it makes the assumption that our proof of brain processes and sensation cannot be considered knowledge, and therefore makes an assumption on what knowledge is. Let’s say for a second that there is a chance that modern science is wrong. Then when someone reports a sensation, they aren’t not reporting brain processes, they are just not definitely reporting brain processes. The assumption that he can say that our modern scientific knowledge can be wrong makes a greater assumption than the repeatedly tested claim that brain processes and sensation are linked.

Objection number 5 that brain processes may be fast or slow, but seeing yellow cannot be relies on an assumption as well. Using Smart’s own theory that our scientific knowledge may be false, how can Smart make any claims about brain processes? If our knowledge can be false, then it is possible that brain processes can only be fast, which completely dismantles the objection. The same claim can be made for part of objection number 6:  sensations are individualistic, while brain processes are universal. To make the claim that he rejects dualism due to Occam’s razor, and then make the claim that everyone has the same brain processes but different sensations, is utter hypocrisy. Once again, he uses the assumptions that our scientific knowledge is correct while saying that it might not be. Also how does he know that sensations are privatized? He doesn’t – it’s an assumption.

Smart’s theories may have had more merits when there was less scientific knowledge. But given modern science, his claims become virtually impossible. Saying also, that he refuses dualism due to the fact it requires assumptions, and then makes many assumptions himself, make his theories hypocritical and invalid.

The Failure of Dualism to Adhere to Today’s Scientific Empiricism

In  J.J.C Smart’s “Sensations and Brain Processes”, he explores the relationship between the mind and body, specifically delving into the shortcomings of the theory of Dualism. As we learned last week by reading Churchland, Dualism distinguishes the mind from the body, categorizing consciousness as unable to be investigated by empirical science. Within this school of thought are a variety of sub-theories such Substance Dualism, Popular Dualism, and Property Dualism. Smart however, asserts that “there are no philosophical arguments which compel us to be dualists” (Smart 143). In other words, Smart fails to see the logical reasoning behind Dualism, and instead proposes his Identity Theory of the Mind. Under this school of thought, while there is a slight distinction between mental states and brain processes, there are no non-physical properties. Although the physical properties may be vague or difficult to comprehend, they are still all physical properties.

In his attack on Churchland’s notion of Dualism, Smart states: “[the idea] that everything should be explicable in terms of physics except the occurrence of sensations seems to me to be frankly unbelievable” (Smart 142). Smart does not see why sensations should be granted such scientific leniency. His Identity Theory of Mind highlights the failure of Dualists to explain why sensations are not subjected to the same logical scientific expectations.

However, Smart does spend considerable time grappling with the notion of sensations. He uses the example of pain to ultimately highlight the nuances between a mental state and a brain process. An ache is a “report of a brain process”, but it is not the same as the sensation of feeling pain (Smart 144). Thus, his thesis does not state that a sensation can be directly translated into a brain process, but does explain that the two are inextricably correlated. Sensations and mental states can exist, just as by-products of specific brain processes.

When I initially reach Churchland, I found myself siding with the Dualists. Specifically, I identified with the notion of Popular Dualism, which envisions the mind as a “ghost in a machine”. Yet, this week when I read Smart’s attack on Dualism my opinions began to shift. Churchland’s account of Dualism was initially compelling enough to allow me to overlook information and experiences I have obtained in Psychology and Neuroscience classes. I realized I had been swept up in the rhetoric of Churchland’s Dualism and had forgotten the scientific basis behind Smart’s objection’s to Dualism. Every day, more and more current research reveals biological connections behind mental processes that we as a society have always struggled to pinpoint with empiricism. Thus, I find myself siding with Smart. However, as I was reading these two pieces I began to ponder the role of religion in this discussion. As a self-described unreligious individual, how is my perception of my mind/body/spirit connection potentially skewed from that of someone who has grown up religious? I would be interested to hear from peers with religious experiences to see if they believe their opinions on Dualism have been shaped by their religion.

The Smart Explanation to Sensations

Smart referred to the physicalist perspective in the Mind Body problem. He argues that sensations are simply brain processes, which is an interesting idea, knowing what we now know about the brain and its high-functioning capabilities. However, he leaves a few questions with an answer that it will be explained later.

He believes that it does not seem logical that sensations and states of consciousness should not be explained by brain processes, just as other physic-chemical mechanisms are. He brings up an interesting idea that the same things cannot be “correlated” – two different ideas can be correlated, like evidence to find a murderer. But sensations and states of consciousness, he argues, can be explained through brain processes.

However, his explanation is interesting. He explains sensations by saying that we have not figured out the laws of sensations yet, but we’ll get there, that it will be explained. This is a poor argument alone. This would be like saying I believe that there is a god just because in my current knowledge, it would not make sense any other way. But even Smart recognizes this lack of any evidence and recognizes that it is simply his faith.

But then he proceeds to deny any further objections because even he knows that faith isn’t enough. He argues that are no sensations, just behavioral facts about a mechanism. The statements of “feelings,” such as “I love you,” are merely “the exercise of the disposition of loving someone.” (How romantic.) His brain makes him think a certain way, which is thus expressed in statements.

Which brings up an important notion of truth for me. This means that every statement I make, must be true because that is the way I feel. For example, if I say I feel hungry, then this must be true. Even Smart says that if someone says they see something (and is of the normal state of mind), then he is making a genuine report.

This is brought up again in Objection 6. “Sensations are private, brain processes are public.” If I were to say this sincerely, then I am not wrong. On the other hand, brain processes can be wrong. Smart answers this by saying that there needs to be an improvement to the theory and until then, the only criteria for someone feeling something are that he said so. But it seems intuitive that if it exists, we should be able to define it with criteria that demonstrate its truth-value. But how would you measure the truth-value of something that only that person knows and senses? Then, if the brain processes are all physical, why can’t we measure that? Could it be something is non-physical like Descartes suggested?

Objection 1 seems like a shortsighted argument. Objection 1 states that an uneducated person can talk about feelings but does not understand/ know anything about brain processes. Just because I don’t understand everything about something, does not mean I can’t understand part of it. Just as I know that when someone holds a spring out to its fullest length and is about to let go, I know that the spring will fly back. I do not necessarily need to know the physics behind the spring energy into kinetic. Smart replies to this similarly saying that someone can see lightening and experience it, but not know about the electrical charge that it makes.

Overall, Smart’s argument is compelling, even if there are some holes and remaining questions he leaves unanswered and makes me question, in this technological and science-explaining world we live in, if Dualism is just outdated.


Smart + Science

JJ Smart’s paper “Sensations and Brain Processes” argues that there are no philosophical arguments to be a dualist. Smart brings up the idea that sensations are essentially also brain processes. Smart argues that if the sensation is just a report of something, it can be said that the “something” is actually a brain process. Basically, Smart says that all mental states are nothing except states in the brain itself. Smith backs up his argument by putting forth 8 objections that readers could possibly find from his argument, and provides fitting counterpoints for each. For instance, objection #2 claims that it is at best only a contingent fact that a sensation is a brain process. This objection is then replied to, as Smart goes on to say that it is possible that our scientific sensations are wrong and therefore, when we report on our sensations we are not reporting brain processes. So essentially, this objection demonstrates that when we report a sensation we do not mean the same thing as a report on a brain process.
It is these objections and their respective counterpoints that lead me to believe that Smart’s theory is rather sound and logical in terms of science. Since Smart has done such a thorough job addressing any inconsistencies that one may see within his argument, I feel as if I agree with what he is saying, and I do not see any other science-related objections to his argument that he had left unanswered.
I personally think that Smart’s argument is valid in terms of science. This is so because if you think about it, any and every sensation you experience is, in fact, a brain process. Take into account the five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Every one of these senses has to go through the brain’s network in order to be “perceived” and actually felt. Let’s take the sense of hearing, for instance. When a sound is emitted, the waves enter the ear canal and cause vibrations of the eardrum. This, in turn, moves the ossicles in the middle ear. Then, the last bone in the sequence pushes on the membrane’s window and causes the cochlea’s fluid to move, thus triggering a response in the auditory nerve. This response then travels via the auditory nerve to regions in the brainstem and areas in the auditory cortex so that the sounds can be processed and the meanings of the words can be interpreted. This entire process demonstrates the involvement of the brain in the realm of sensations, thus supporting Smart’s argument by showing that sensations are, scientifically, brain processes.

Moving on from this, I’d also like to point out something that I found interesting in Smart’s paper, and was wondering if anyone else found it quite interesting as well. Smart mentions the theory of Occam’s razor, which states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be chosen. That being said, Smart claims that a solid reason for resisting dualism is because of Occam’s razor. He tells us that dualism could actually be the case, but assuming that it is not makes everything less complex. He claims, “it seems that even the behavior of man himself will one day be explicable in mechanistic terms.”  However, doesn’t this seem to contradict Occam’s razor? The very theory states that the hypothesis with the least assumptions should be chosen, but here Smart is picking and discarding a hypothesis based on his choice to assume that dualism is not the case, just to make things more simple. To me, this was both interesting and confusing, as it seemed to be a minor glitch in Smart’s paper.

In conclusion, I’d like to end by leaving the class with a few questions. Firstly, even though I don’t see any scientific inconsistencies with Smart’s argument, can anyone else think of a way to contradict anything he says using the basis of science? And secondly, does anyone else agree/see problems with the supposed glitch I found in the argument regarding Occam’s razor?

The middle ground

This week’s reading covers the works of Smart and his work on brain sensations. In the reading, he states how it has been claimed that sensations are just brain processes. He goes on to state how the most common claims that sensations are nothing “over and above” brain processes (Smart). He then states how many philosophers have presented objections to this claim. Smart counters these claims, by stating eight objections to these claims with replies about how they could be erroneous. One of the main purposes of Smart’s paper is to argue why taking a side of a dualist is incorrect. Because of his strong opposition to dualism he takes a stance in in favor of behavioralism, which states that the sensations are basically brain processes, yet he still finds this inadequate (Heil). The main reason why Smart is against dualism is because he finds it unbelievable that everything has some scientific reason based on the physical sciences supporting them. Therefore, Smart is able to find a middle ground where he states that reports about sensations are basically reports about brain processes.

The first objection he makes, which is the easiest to understand, states how someone who is completely clueless about science is able to describe different sensations that he feels including pain and embarrassment. I don’t really agree with this objection due to the fact that even though a person can be clueless about how something works doesn’t mean that the brain process is too complex for them to understand. Smart does do an excellent job by relating sensations and brain processes to the sight of lightning and understanding electricity. Smart counteracts one of the easiest objections to understand with multiple examples, and he makes it very easy to analyze why this type of objection just goes against human intuition. Another relevant objection that is presented is the fourth objection that basically states how after-images are not in physical space, brain processes are in physical space, and so an after-image is not a brain process.  The two objections that I have mentioned are of the stronger objections out of the eight that he presents, and that is why I felt the need to include them. His counter argument to this is how this is drawing an irrelevant conclusion and how the experience of an after-image is a brain process. Smart wraps up by stating that brain processes are an empirical claim, and yet they are not at the same time (Heil).

Before, reading the entire article written by Smart, I tended to side more with the dualistic reasoning. After reading his work, I found his replies to most of the objections to be very intuitive, and I side with his middle ground. One of his greatest replies was to the objection about how the present scientific theories about sensations are wrong, therefore trying to separate both things. He states how this does not show that they are unrelated and relates it to real life things. One of main reasons why I side with his belief is that although the article is hard to understand, he uses physical examples that are much easier to understand such as lightning and electricity and the morning and evening star. Trying to a find a classification for sensations is very difficult, and Smart manages to make great progress in this area.



Smart 11/17

In the article “sensations and brain processes” Smart makes very good argument against the belief of dualism. While he explores many different ideas and concepts one that I found interesting was Smart’s reference to Occum’s Razor. While he explains that dualism could be indeed the case it is a lot simpler to assume that it is not. I found the following passage to be a great illustration of the problem that we face if we choose to adopt dualism.

“Let us suppose that it is held that the universe just began in 4004 B.C. with the initial conditions just everywhere as they were in 4004 B.C., and in particular that our own planet began with sediment in the rivers, eroded cliffs, fossils in the rocks, and so on. No scientist would ever entertain this as a serious hypothesis, consistent though it is with all possible evidence. The hypothesis offends against the principles of parsimony and simplicity.”

I feel that this idea is also a basis for why we should not believe in many of the skeptical ideas that we vastly deceived about the state of the world. For example ideas that our lives could be an episode of the Truman show, an ancestor simulation, or that we are a brain in a vat are all in a sense irrefutable claims. However due the principle of Occum’s Razor many do not believe these theories.  I feel that this is a very important idea to consider in our basis for knowledge. Just because something cannot be disproved does not mean that we should believe that it may in fact be true. However I would not venture to make the  opposite claim that the absence of evidence means that something is not true.

What I also found interesting and confusing about the article is the necessity of need to define certain words .For example Smart feels the necessity to define how he is using the word “is” to mean strict identity.  For example like in class we discussed the difference between the factive and non-factive   “see” in class. “Seeing” something while tripping on acid is “seeing” in the non-factive sense.   I think that one of the reasons many of the concepts of the mind are non-intuitive to us naturally is the fact that much of the vocabulary to clearly describe the processes is non-existent. The vocabulary to describe these non-intuitive nuisances is only made in order to describe these points. After observing these problems I suspect that much of our viewpoints about the world are limited due to our limited vocabulary. For example while the “category problem” discussed in the Ryle reading is easy to understand by giving an example, the definition of the Ryle’s category problem is a lot harder to grasp. I suspect that many philosophical questions maybe be similar in nature. Some problems may be such no examples of natural phenomenon and no vocabulary has been created to explain the problem. If this is the case problems such as these may be very hard to define or solve.


Functionalism and moral responsibility

As I read Churchland – Matter and Consciousness, I was gravitated to the theory of functionalism. Functionalism is a branch off of dualism with a very specific difference. Functionalism says, “ … A reductive definition solely in terms of publicly observable inputs and outputs is quite impossible” (Chruchland). The key difference is that functionalism believes that mental states in the mind play a key role in determining what the output is going to be. So a diagram would include an input into the brain, a very complicated series of events with casual relation, and finally an output as a behavior. Why I became so interested in this theory because what does this theory have to say about moral responsibility.

Moral responsibility is the idea or concept that a human is responsible for their actions because they were able to make a conscious decision over different alternatives. For example, I can choose a red shirt or a blue shirt to wear tomorrow. It seems very weird to say I am morally responsible for choosing to wear a red shirt, but take the example and change it: I can either choose to kill someone tomorrow or I can choose not too. In today’s society it is the overwhelming idea that I am morally responsible if I choose to kill someone tomorrow. However, if the functionalist view is taken I was not given a choice in some instances. A certain input was placed in my brain and certain mental states occurred that led me to kill someone. Can it be said that in every case I was able to be in control of all of my mental states and thus I can be held responsible for my actions. In my opinion, the answer to this question is no. For example: I could be diagnosed with schizophrenia. In this instant, I was unable to tell the difference between what is real and what was not real. It is wrong to say that I was morally responsible for this crime. This example was very extreme because there was a mental diagnosis that shows that I was not able to control my mental states.

Most of the cases in court do not have specific evidence that the defense can point to and say there is proof that my defendant was not in control of his mental states at the time the crime was committed. In these cases, are all of these people still morally responsible for their actions and should be sent to prison? I believe the average person or American would answer yes to this question. I however believe this to be wrong. The environment in which a person is placed has been show in many instances to change their mental states. For example: if a child is raised in a family where hunting animals is acceptable and apart of their cultural, they would most likely see nothing wrong with killing an animal to gain food. Now take the opposite example, if a child is raised in a family where hunting animals is frowned upon and deemed and inhuman, the child is mostly likely going to say killing animals is wrong. This is a prime example of how the environment in where a human is placed can change their mental state about a certain idea. Since environment plays a role in human mental states, it calls into question if anyone should be morally responsible for their actions. This is really an issue in the court of law. Why would people being sentenced to death or life in prison if they are not morally responsible for the crime that they committed?






Churchland, Paul M. Matter and Consciousness a Contemporary Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999. Print.


Jones, Lucy. “Philosophy of the Mind Episode Seven: Functionalism.” YouTube. YouTube, 5 June 2013. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.