Code:† TP-33




Paul Churchland attacks folk psychology, and the natural language it gives rise to, as being unable to accommodate the demands of modern neuroscientific theory. I defend, from a Deweyan perspective, folk psychology, and suggest that it can harmoniously cooperate with scientific inquiry in order to produce legitimate psychological knowledge. The use of folk psychology will allow inquiry to be more historically grounded, more contextualized, and, in brief, will allow psychology to be ecologically situated rather than being of merely particular importance to a few like-minded specialists.†


Folk Psychology as Operational Knowledge


††††††††††† In order to advance a scientifically valid psychology, Paul Churchland has worked to overcome the specter of irreconcilable and uncertain first person epistemic reports, which collectively make up what he refers to as "folk psychology" (hereafter referred to as FP).† For Churchland, FP is a body of faux knowledge which has occluded an overarching psychological certainty, one built upon the results of the study of neuroscience.† My counterclaim is that Churchland is seriously mistaken in this, and that FP is a kind of operational knowledge that is prerequisite for creating a comprehensive psychology--not something that is hindering its arrival.† I will defend in this paper a version of FP, in which FP is regarded as a cultural, personal, and even biological memory of the methods by which we have faced and solved problems.[1]

††††††††††† Deweyís critique of those philosophers who quest for certainty in order to escape from peril accurately describes Churchlandís faith in an abstracted scientific quest that has been divorced from the rest of humanityís experiential memory.† Churchland would have us believe that the solutions that have occurred before the present (scientific) moment in history are wrong, and further that the scientific solutions of the present moment will somehow be unified in such a way as to be able to provide fail-safe certainty.† In doing this, Churchland confuses the basic nature of problem solving--which is, of course, to solve a problem at hand so as to produce operational knowledge--by neglecting the contexture of lived experience of problem-solving and by exalting an abstracted part of that contexture.† Hence, Churchland overlooks what is common to all problem-solving in order to exalt one type of problem-solving as possessing the keys to ultimate reality.

††††††††††† Churchland superstitiously asserts that different means of problem solving either get antecedently existing reality "right" or "wrong."† For Churchland, all human knowledge which existed before this particular human moment simply got reality wrong, whereas the knowledge now being produced has the potential to get everything theoretically right--if only our inquiry is purified of the accumulated detritus of FP.† I will argue, on the contrary, 1) that human problem-solving techniques created the history which Churchland refers to as "folk psychology," and that the results of problem solving, including scientific problem solving, are derived from and assimilated into this broader history; 2) that Churchland has ahistorically exalted current problematic contextures, and faithfully ascribes to them, with no ground other than that they are currently useful in solving current problems, an exalted status which indicates that they will soon eclipse and eliminate the rest of human knowledge; 3) that human knowledge is, as Dewey held, formed as a response to problematic conditions and not as an observation of antecedent reality, and that Churchlandís various projects are thereby demonstrated to be inadequate

††††††††††† Folk psychology, as an abstraction, neatly refers to and summarizes a good portion of the history of operational knowledge. Other philosophers have called FP "common sense," and have understood that these "background states" (in Searleís phrase) contain a wealth of tools for solving practical and theoretical problems, as well as representing the essential human capacity for creating new techniques to deal with new problems. The goal of the pragmatic philosopher can be to improve FP, rather than replacing it.

††††††††††† The critique that follows holds that Deweyís "operational knowledge" describes the content of knowledge in a far more accurate way than Churchlandís account can, and, more importantly, Deweyís account of the creation of knowledge is far truer to valid scientific practice than is Churchlandís.† This concept of operational knowledge allows us to acknowledge the function that FP has played, and the part that it can continue to play in modern scientific inquiry. Operational knowledge, for Dewey, holds that "Knowledge does not encompass the world as a whole," but rather that "knowledge is instrumental"--instruments whose end is to solve a problem (Dewey 236). Knowledge is precisely those tools we use to solve problems. But according to Dewey, because knowledge solves problems, it has historically become hypostatized* and worshipped as the concrete certainty which will allow us to escape from the danger that problems cause. In other words, we exalt the feeling of safety that we have when we solve a problem, rather than doing as we ought--working to perfect our ability to solve problems. For Dewey, to correct this error, we philosophers should replace the notion that "knowing makes a difference to the knower but none to the world," in favor of a conception of "knowing which is a directed change within the world."† The idea here is that the scientific process works within and changes the world. These changes are both theoretical and practical, and hence neither science nor the world are static and unchanging.

††††††††††† Churchland, on the other hand, has a far more concretized version of science which has us passively understanding the world rather than participating in its construction.† Churchland summarizes his position in claiming that "explanations presuppose laws--rough and ready ones, at least--that connect the explanatory conditions with the behavior explained (Churchland 194)." Rather than participating in the creation of law; explanations presuppose law.† To Churchland, explanations arenít responses to problematic situations, but rather they are discoveries concerning "lawlike relations holding among external circumstances, internal states, and overt behavior." Churchland takes conceptions such as "external circumstances" and "internal states," forgets that they are conceptions, and believes that they actually exist †independently apart from any construction on the part of a thinking mind.

††††††††††† Ignoring the Kantian insight leads philosophers like Churchland to commit the intellectualist fallacy.[2] I offer a point-by-point critique of Churchlandís intellectualist fallacy as it occurs in his article, "Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes." But by way of preparation, Churchlandís thought suffers from another flaw, in that he offers that "folk psychology" is a theory, when in fact its breadth that is proper to "common sense" and not the succinctness nor self-aware construction that would allow it to be a theory. Searle, in his "The Rediscovery of Mind," convincingly demonstrates that FP isnít prepositional in form, but rather consists of "background states" that form the background or context for particular inquiries. I am in agreement with Searle on this point, and suffice it to say for my argument that "theories" are in fact regulated scientific attempts to solve still-problematic situations, and that problems which are sufficiently solved pass into the repository of background sates and remain there so long as they are worthwhile enough to be passed on by means of education (broadly conceived)[3]; and that human problem solving did in fact exist long before regulated scientific inquiry was first practiced[4].† But as might have come clear from my discussion of the Quest for Certainty, I am interested in exploring the comparatively more interesting cause of Churchlandís error, because it seems to be a representative and broadly shared one: a commitment to a hypostatized ideal of science that commits one to the hopeless quest which Dewey described, wherein the actuality of human problem-solving (in this case, represented by the historical body of FP) is held in disdain while the alleged conditions of human problem-solving (in this case, what an accurate neuroscience would describe as existing) are exalted into the rarified air of isolated abstraction.

††††††††††† The difference between Churchlandís condemnations of the fatal flaws of FP and Deweyís description of problem-solving techniques is demonstrated by Churchlandís assertion that:

††††††††††† The fact is that the average person is able to explain, and even predict, the

behavior of other persons with a facility and success that is remarkable.† Such explanations and predictions make reference to the desires, beliefs, fears, intentions, perceptions, and so forth, to which the agents are presumed subject.† But explanations presuppose laws--rough and ready ones, at least--that connect the explanatory conditions with the behavior explained . . . Each of us understands others, as well as we do, because we ††††† share a tacit command of an integrated body of lore concerning the lawlike relations holding among eternal circumstances, internal states, and overt behavior.† Given its nature and functions, this body of lore may quite aptly be called "folk psychology" (Churchland 194).

The difference between this and the operational view is clear.† In the operational view, it is certainly not the case that explanations "presuppose laws" which are to bridge a gap between the explanation and the thing explained.† Evolved problem-solving techniques cannot be their own antecedent precondition.† Churchlandís assertion to the contrary demonstrates that he is dealing with a rather narrow--and overly theoretical--post-Cartesian problem, far removed from the work of persons who are addressing and solving the real problems of existential problems.† He is dealing with an antiquated 18th century conception of science, one that has been completed occluded by the discoveries of evolutionists like Darwin, Heisenberg, and Einstein.† Under the operational view, "laws" are not presupposed, but rather created by the act of participatory explanation; a particular problematic situation, involving both a doer and an environment, is resolved in a way that changes the environment and the doer of the change. Further, any invocation of an allegedly "pre-supposed law" is made based on the similarity of a current problematic situation to a past resolved one, and thus the law is not actually "presupposed," but rather invoked as a problem-solving tool.† This distinction is an important one to make, because Churchlandís assertion that there are such things as "pre-supposed" laws of relation indicates that there are objects which antecedently exist to their being framed by the problem, a notion which should be rejected as being utterly groundless. Churchlandís belief that laws do exist prior to human thought about certain relations is a superstitious proposition--one that could not be confirmed by any possible empirical study--given the fact that we have no grounds to assert that we have "contained" all instances of an existential "event" within our theory, nor can we know that any number of appearances noted in the present moment were actually "the same" in past moments.

††††††††††† Churchland, in the above quote, misses the potential importance of the point he makes, when he notes but then dismisses what is actually essential about FP--that it does allow us to solve our problems.† The pure theorization that he demands is only useful in limited experimental circumstances, and even then they are not unique and superior to, but rather have strong corollaries with non-scientific problem solving.† For instance, theories can be utilized as a potential store of solutions of problems which have not yet been solved--but more often than not, they fail to successfully solve the problem, and hence have the function of a "body of lore" that helps us come to grips with the problem at hand, without necessarily allowing us to solve it all in a moment.† Because of the ideal nature of theory, it contains within it the theoretical possibility of solving related problems in one fell swoop. In fact, the history of FP demonstrates that our best theories have produced results which solve an extraordinary number of problems--but by no means all of them, which is precisely the reason why we are still theorizing after all these years.† But Churchland is not content to eat the fruit of the knowledge tree, nor let the seeds of the fruit become new trees.† He instead disdains the process and anxiously awaits the moment when the tree will become a giant fruit: that day when theory, which has as its end-in-view the furnishment of solutions to problems, transforms somehow into the ready-made solution to all problems.

††††††††††† Churchland disdains the past research which forms the historical precondition of current research, as the following passage makes clear.

[What FP cannot explain] is a very great deal. As examples of central and important mental phenomena that remain largely or wholly mysterious within the framework of †††††††† FP, consider the nature and dynamics of mental illness, the faculty of creative imagination, or the ground of intelligence differences between individuals . . . One particularly outstanding mystery is the nature of the learning process itself . . . FP is faced with special difficulties here, since its conception of learning as the manipulation and storage of prepositional 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. FP would thus appear constitutionally incapable of addressing this most basic of mysteries (Churchland 197).

Churchland here makes several closely related errors. First, he doesnít appear to realize that the set of problems he lists--intelligence differences, mental illnesses and the like--exist not as "problems in themselves," but rather arose as problems within a folk psychological context. For instance, it is not as if mental illness is a substantial unity conceived in and through itself, rather, we call certain behaviors "mental illness" when they are fail to harmonize with accepted behaviors--and/or when psychologists decide that they are treatable or correctable. Wittgenstein, Beethoven, Mozart and countless others have thus been described by our contemporary historians as having mental illnesses that had not been conceived of in their own times.† Whether you conceive such post-mortem diagnosis to be an absurdity or not, they forcefully show that "illness" exists in the relation of a biological individual to a community of interpretation.† Hence, Churchland doesnít realize that the problems he mentions as being insoluble by means of FP can exist only as part of a historical contexture--related to earlier problems, and as a result of the solutions to those earlier problems.† Rather than conceiving of mental illness as a hypostatized ahistorical entity, a study of it--such as undertaken by a Deweyan or Foucaultian genealogist--reveals that mental illness has not sprung wholly formed from the abyss, but rather has a natural history and is so named because of a community that interprets it within that historical context.† Second, Churchlandís assertion that FP "cannot explain a great deal" is nothing more than a comment on the permanent limitations of humanity. Any theory we frame, or knowledge we create, will not explain everything once it is actually brought forth into reality as a problem-solving technique.† Such techniques alter the environment, hence they are productive of the new problems that exist because of this alteration.

††††††††††† But of course, scientific theories, as with FP, must either adapt to the pace of change or else they will ossify and cease to have any operational use.† A proposed idealized theory that hopes to escape such limitation, such as Churchlandís idealized future language that will allow us to communicate at superhuman speeds without the limitations of present language, misses that natural language has evolved as it has to match the pace of our evolution within an evolving world.† Were reality an unchanging entity waiting to be understood, then of course Churchlandís proposed language would be more helpful than a fallible natural language, and the faster our language goes the faster we will catch up.

††††††††††† Churchlandís assertion that FPís "conception of learning founders on the fact that how to formulate . . . propositional attitudes is itself something that is learned . . . FP would thus appear constitutionally incapable of even addressing this most basic of mysteries," is problematic. This is a bit like saying that a language can never be learned, because one must know the language in order to understand those who would teach you to speak it.† But the actual facts of language and FP are quite different.† Languages can, it turns out, question themselves.† We are born with the capacity to speak, to solve problems, and to be participatory members in a folk psychology; and these potentialities are actualized through experience and education.† FP is rightfully considered as an abstract name for this process and for its contents--an abstraction which accurately indicates that a person has the capacity to use certain tools in certain ways, and that, when they are born in a society, that capacity is actualized.† There is no reason to exclude a developmental principle (for instance, operational knowledge) which explains both the content of FP, and its very existence, and its capacity for further development.

††††††††††† The consequence is that Churchland idealizes the fruits of inquiry--while ridiculing or neglecting their historical grounding. For instance, Churchland cites alchemy as an example of a science that is simply wrong, and modern chemistry as an exemplar of a science that has gotten things right. "The alchemists conceived the Ďinanimateí as entirely continuous with animated matter, in that the sensible and behavioral properties of the various substances are owed to the ensoulment of baser matter by various spirits of essence" (Churchland 199).† "The tradition has become faded and fragmented by the time the elemental chemistry of Lavoisier and Dalton arose to replace it for good" (Churchland 200).† But in fact, that was no replacement--this is why biologists must study both inorganic and organic chemistry.† We have more sophisticated and accurate language for our descriptions of the interaction of the organic and inorganic, but the basic problematic has not changed.† Terms like "ionic bond" and "molecular organization" show how mere atoms become worked into organic wholes, and hence fulfill the same explanatory function--but in a more precise way--that earlier terms like "ensoulment," "spirits," and "essence" did. But to ridicule humanityís earliest attempts to address the problem, because they are not as accurate as later attempts, would be something like condemning Lord Byron as a bad poet because some of his earliest drafts have a poor rhyme structure.† It seems obvious that the perfection of explanation that Churchland idealizes would not have been possible without more rudimentary forms of it.

††††††††††† Churchlandís belief that new knowledge can simply supersede the old takes on a programmatic character, as he proposes a fantastic scheme in which we will construct a new system of verbal communication entirely distinct from natural language.† This would "reflect the underlying structure of our cognitive activities in greater detail than does natural language" (Churchland 201).† Here Churchland reveals himself not as an "eliminativist," but rather as a reductionist. The "underlying structure," as it is, produces operational knowledge just as the apparent structures do; exacting one over the other is sheer reductive bias. These different structures are both necessary for our human modes of thinking, although aiming at different levels of inclusion. Thus, neither structure can replace the other. Scientific language is needed to solve precise problems of certain sorts; FP is needed to solve generic problems, and to summarize and include the results of precise scientific inquiry.

††††††††††† The conditions for the possibility of knowledge certainly donít equal the entirety of our knowledge, it is safe to say. In reducing inquiry to a structure that makes one mode of inquiry possible, Churchland betrays the process of inquiry by eliminating the vast majority of its natural history, in its incredibly multitude, in order to try to shrink it to one of its parts. "The gasoline makes the car go, so if we could only make the car out of gasoline!"† Or, "If the black box is indestructible, why not make the entire plane out of the black box?"† Churchland is quite right in realizing that without brain-language, natural language could not exist. But to fixate on it exclusively will present us with a very shallow and unhelpful psychology. Of course, if you took away glucose or any number of other things, natural language could not exist.† People solve problems in the manner and order they do because their environmental situation leads them to suggest a certain range of action; and in fact our problem-solving techniques have created rather spectacular successes in the realm of science and technology.† This cumulative advancement takes place because FP allows for cumulative progress--with occasional bouts of regress, as when Churchland asserts that libraries of the future will consist of records of "exemplary bouts of neural activity."† Of course, libraries already do this--but Churchland fails to recognize it because he is so uncomfortable with acknowledging the chains of historical contexture.† The "chains" are nothing more than is common to all inquiry: our neural activity is operational, and is directed at solving the problematic conditions within the context of our environment.

††††††††††† The facts that Churchland is holding in mind when he asserts that certain scientific claims can provide a comprehensive epistemology need not, in the end, be argued with. For in fact Churchland surveys the field of our experience, says it is faulty, and argues that a thing which we have no conscious experience of is in fact the ground of all experience. Churchland ends not with a bang but with an unhelpful whimper: All of our multivocal experience is not true, it is a mere incorrect thesis, we should throw all of that away in order to pursue something of which we have virtually no experience--the ideal future language--because doing so may lead us to solving problems more quickly!† This is unintelligent problem-solving, in the Deweyan sense, because it fails to recognize the constitutive effects and the continuing usefulness of the history of human thought.

††††††††††† As a final point I will observe that never has intelligent inquiry functioned in the way that Churchland deems it must in order to be comprehensively theoretical. While it is sometimes necessary to put aside previous problem-solving tools in order to address a new problem, no instance can be found where we have put aside all of our problem-making tools, and found a new set of tools ready made, in order to solve a new problem.† A close historical reading reveals that the scientific data that Churchland now believes to undermine the possibility of psychological understanding was in fact accrued under the rules of operational knowledge. Therefore, the burden is on Churchland to demonstrate (if it is possible to do so) that scientists could have achieved the knowledge they have without using the history of FP, broadly construed.



Churchland, P.† Eliminative materialism and the Propositional Attitudes.† In D. N.

Robinson, The mind. †(pp. 193-203).† New York: Oxford University Press.

Dewey, J.† (1960).† The quest for certainty: A study of the relation of knowledge an

action.† New York: Putnam.

[1] I construe "folk" psychology to be referring to the way people use their minds to solve problems, thus "psychology" properly extends beyond the brain and to the biological and cultural factors that enter into problem solving.† For instance, the notion that criminals should be penalized is a cultural instance of FP, for it is directed at solving the problems created by crime, with "crime" itself being another instance of a folk psychological attempt to solve problems of security and survival.† Thirst might be construed as a more personally/biologically-centered instance of FP, with the intended effect of that problem-solving technique being that the creature who feels thirst should drink water in order to survive.† Biologically speaking, we can point to the fact that brains have evolved in certain ways in order to deal with problematic environmental situations as an instance of FP.† Human folk have brains that deal with humanityís problematic contexture; while bat folk have brains that aptly deal with bat-problems in bat-ways.

[2] The philosopher committing this fallacy holds that "the ubiquity of knowledge is the measure of reality" (Dewey 232-233), so that knowledge becomes the faculty by which we somehow understand truly the way things really exist apart from any valuation on our part.

[3] The results of astronomy provide a sufficient example of this point. Scientific inquiry has demonstrated that is useful to think of the sun as being he center of the solar system; and that our sun exists within a galaxy. The scientific inquiry required to demonstrate this view--from the likes of Kepler and Galileo--was enormously complex, far beyond the average personís mathematical abilities. Yet the knowledge created by these astronomers has passed into the realm of an FP "background state," as it is inculcated in us from an early age. We thereafter simply regard the Earth as revolving around the sun, even without ever having produced evidence of that fact for ourselves.

[4] Some of FP was created in a scientifically regulated way, and some not. There are of course problem solving techniques that existed long before properly "theoretical," that is, controlled scientific inquiry was invented--for instance, people were able to make fires long before they understood the precise chemistry of combustion. Such processes are examples of theories following practice, precisely opposing Churchlandís assertion that practice and should follow perfectly formed theories. Problem-solving techniques both scientific and non-scientific share at their core exactly this--they are attempting to solve problems; however, they differ in that the first group is specifically regulated by "empirical method" so that its results might be strictly controlled. FP, as a historical body of accrued tools as opposed to a self-sufficing method, simply cannot attempt compulsive empirical checking, because it would be wasteful and absurd to, for instance, expect that every single schoolchild or even scientist should be able scientifically to prove that all accepted theories are the correct ones. But it should also be apparent that the scientific method is useful in some but not all domains, and there are areas of FP that have arisen simply because humans invent a particular solution in order to solve a particular problem, without having strict empirical evidence for doing so.