Course Notes – Paul Churchland, “Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes”
by Daniel A. Kaufman
In the philosophy of mind, apart from sensations, with their perplexing “qualia,” intentional states, the so-called “propositional attitudes,” have proven materialism’s biggest headache. Materialism’s greatest hope, functionalism – and particularly its computational variety – ran into trouble with the propositional attitudes by way of the Chinese (or at least, one of their Rooms), and disputes over the status of the folk psychological explanations into which they figure – Science! Bad science! Not science! – threaten to see them “eliminated” altogether. Hence the star of this edition of Course Notes, Paul Churchland, who has made it his mission to get us to believe that there are no beliefs.
It’s silliness of the highest order, of course, but there is a quite serious, important point lying underneath regarding the (genuinely puzzling) question of how we should think about intentionality and intentional explanations, which is why Churchland’s landmark paper, “Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes,” appears in the place that it does in my Philosophy of Psychology course, after “Fodor’s Guide to Mental Representation” (1) and before Wilfrid Sellars’ “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man.” (2)
First of all, let’s be clear about what we mean by “folk psychological explanations.” When inquiring as to the reasons for someone’s behavior, say getting on a certain bus, one may find oneself being told something like the following:
- I wanted to go to the mall.
- I believed this bus was going there.
We often account for our actions by citing various beliefs or desires that we have. These are “intentional” in that they have semantic content (desires have satisfaction conditions – my desire to go to the mall can be satisfied or remain unsatisfied – and beliefs have truth-conditions – my belief that the bus goes to the mall is either true or false), and this content is determinative, with respect to which actions a person performs.
But what sort of account one is giving, when one offers a folk psychological explanation for something someone has done? Specifically, should we think of these as causal explanations and of folk psychology, consequently, as a scientific theory?
Fodor, for one, thinks we should. Think of intentional explanations as causal (and of folk psychology as a scientific theory), that is. From “Fodor’s Guide to Mental Representation”:
If you ask the Man on the Clapham Omnibus what precisely he is doing there, he will tell you a story along the following lines: I wanted to get home ( to work , to Auntie’s) and I have reason to believe that there – or somewhere near it – is where this omnibus is going.
When the ordinary chap says that he’ s doing what he is because he has the beliefs and desires that he does, it is reasonable to read the ‘ because’ as a causal ‘ because’ – whatever, exactly, a causal ‘ because’ may be. At a minimum , common sense seems to require belief/desire explanations to support counterfactuals in ways that are familiar in causal explanation at large: If, for example, it is true that Psmith did A because he believed B and desired C, then it must be that Psmith would not have done A if either he had not believed B or he had not desired C. (Ceteris paribus, it goes without saying.)
Anyhow, to a first approximation the commonsense view is that there is mental causation, and that mental causes are subsumed by counterfactual supporting generalizations of which the practical syllogism is perhaps the paradigm. (3)
Now, my regular readers will know that I disagree with this; that I do not think that the reasons we give for our actions are causes, in the scientific sense; that I do not think folk psychology is a scientific theory; and that I think these sorts of explanations serve an entirely different function. (4) In a sense, then, I find Fodor’s work in this area a bit puzzling, insofar as he otherwise has demonstrated that he understands – and accepts – the idea that inquiry (scientific and otherwise) may be fundamentally dis-unified; that different types of accounts of different types of phenomena may be essentially autonomous, insofar as they are un-assimilable to one another. (5) Moreover, it’s precisely the claim that intentional explanations are causal and folk psychology a scientific theory that has opened it up to the critique of eliminative materialists like Churchland, as without this starting point, their critique simply does not apply. Of course, there are any number of reasons why Fodor (and to be fair, most philosophers of mind) moved in this direction – science envy, stubborn, semi-conscious unity of the sciences intuitions, etc. – but they really aren’t germane to these Course Notes, which are focused on the lectures I did on Churchland’s paper.
Churchland begins by making the case that intentional explanations are causal and folk psychology is scientific, but as just indicated, he needn’t have, as his opponents already have made the case for him. The question then becomes how good of a scientific theory it is, and it is here that Churchland pounces. He maintains that there are several criteria by which one judges the merits of a scientific theory:
A. The ratio of its explanatory successes to its explanatory failures.
B. Its historical “arc.”
C. How well it coheres with what other sciences are saying about the same subject matter. (6)
In every one of these respects, Churchland maintains that folk psychology fares poorly. While it might do a good job at explaining our mundane, daily goings-on, it tells us nothing about a huge range of mental phenomena:
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. Consider our utter ignorance of the nature and psychological functions of sleep, that curious state in which a third of one’s life is spent. Reflect on the common ability to catch an outfield fly ball on the run, or hit a moving car with a snowball. Consider the internal construction of a 3-D visual image from subtle differences in the 2-D array of stimulations in our respective retinas. Consider the rich variety of perceptual illusions, visual and otherwise. Or consider the miracle of memory, with its lightning capacity for relevant retrieval. On these and many other mental phenomena, FP sheds negligible light. (7)
Meanwhile, folk psychology’s historical arc is a story of contraction and stagnation. Human beings used to offer intentional explanations for everything in nature (here, Churchland is referencing primitive, animistic accounts of weather, the movement of water, etc.), but now such explanations are only applied to human activity, and they really are no different from or better than they were in Aristotle’s day. (8) Finally, all the other sciences in which human beings are an object of study are converging on a common picture of human nature, in non-intentional terms, a picture in which folk psychology has no place:
If we approach homo sapiens from the perspective of natural history and the physical sciences, we can tell a coherent story of his constitution, development, and behavioral capacities which encompasses particle physics, atomic and molecular theory, organic chemistry, evolutionary theory, biology, physiology, and materialistic neuroscience. That story, though still radically incomplete, is already extremely powerful, outperforming FP at many points even in its own domain. And it is deliberately and self-consciously coherent with the rest of our developing world picture. In short, the greatest theoretical synthesis in the history of the human race is currently in our hands, and parts of it already provide searching descriptions and explanations of human sensory input, neural activity, and motor control.
But FP is no part of this growing synthesis. Its intentional categories stand magnificently alone, without visible prospect of reduction to that larger corpus. (9)
Churchland’s view isn’t simply that intentional explanations are of limited use or that folk psychology will eventually be eclipsed by other sciences. It’s that there are no intentional states at all. No beliefs. No desires. The situation with folk psychology, he thinks, is much like it was with the caloric theory of heat, according to which it was the presence of a fluid inside bodies (caloric fluid) that determined their temperature. Of course, we now explain temperature in terms of mean molecular energy, and not only was the caloric theory discarded upon this realization, but the caloric fluid as well. We think there is no such thing.
This inference from the falsity of a theory to the non-existence of its ontology presumes a Quinean account of ontological commitment, according to which what exists is a matter of what our best scientific theories quantify over. (10) This account, while influential, is clearly too narrow to serve in a general way, and seems most suited to the postulated entities one finds in Physics. As John Greenwood points out in his excellent paper, “Reasons to Believe,” not only are there any number of cases where the falsity of a theory has not led to the elimination of its ontology (the rejection of epicycle theory in astronomy did not lead anyone to conclude that there are no stars or planets), but there also are plenty of cases where the relevant objects or processes are identified first, with the theorizing about them – often hesitant and tentative – only coming after (“Hey! Here’s a weird something … wonder what it does?”):
“Marsh vapors” exist but do not cause malaria or other tropical fevers [as was once thought]…We recognize the existence of Golgi bodies and myelin sheaths, although we presently do not have much understanding of their biological and neurophysiological function. [T]he most obvious examples come from biology and neurophysiology, where we recognize many structures and processes whose causal … role we are trying desperately hard to understand. When we abandon tentative hypotheses about the causal-explanatory role of such phenomena, we never for a moment consider their ontological elimination, as we are supposed to do in the case of folk psychology. This is just as well for biology. One of the earliest documented forms of folk psychology is biological in nature. According to the folk psychology of Plato’s Timeus, our emotional life is to be explained in terms of the swelling of the heart, and the function of the liver is to reflect the contents of our thoughts. This has long been demonstrated to be false, yet few have rushed to conclude that there are no such things as hearts or livers. (11)
The point about reduction that Churchland makes at the end of the last quotation indicates the way in which he wants to distinguish the caloric fluid case from that of hearts and livers — for him, reducibility is an indicator as to whether the ontology of a bogus science might play a role in a viable one – but it doesn’t really matter. The bigger problem with ontological elimination in the case of folk psychology is that one cannot even describe the subject-matter of much of psychology, without there being intentionality; representation. As Greenwood observes:
Many practicing psychologists are not particularly concerned with the explanation of human behaviors or physical movements per se. They are instead concerned to provide empirically supported explanations of socially meaningful human actions such as aggression, dishonesty, helping, child abuse, and suicide. They are concerned with the explanation of those behaviors that are constituted as human actions by their intentional direction and social location. [My emphasis] To abandon the ontology of folk psychology would be to abandon the very subject matter of much psychological science. (12)
As I indicated in my essay, “Representations, Reasons, and Actions,” actions are not identical with motor movements. (See note 3) Moving my arm in a certain way does not, in itself, constitute an assault. The latter is an action, not merely a set of motor movements, and depends on my representing my victim as in some way deserving of my attack (i.e. as a villain or foe or what have you). Moving my arm in other ways does not, in itself, constitute giving charity. The latter, again, is an action, not merely a set of motor movements, and depends on my representing the receiver of my largesse as in some way deserving of help. In both cases, the relevant action is only characterizable in intentional terms, and it is actions like these that psychologists are interested in explaining, not mere motor movements, for which entirely neurophysiological causes suffice. (13)
Churchland’s ontological eliminativism, then, is not only dependent upon a conception of ontological commitment that is, at best, of limited applicability, but is grounded in basic confusions regarding the difference between actions and events and the subject matter of much if not most psychology.
(3) Jerry Fodor, “Fodor’s Guide to Mental Representation,” p. 272.
(6) Paul Churchland, “Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes,” p. 73.
(7) Loc. cit.
(8) Ibid., p. 73.
(9) Ibid., p. 75.
(10) W.V.O. Quine, “On What There Is” (1948)
(11) John Greenwood, “Reasons to Believe,” in John Greenwood, ed., The Future of Folk Psychology: Intentionality and Cognitive Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 77.
(12) Ibid., p. 71.
Categories: Course Notes