“Folk Psychology:” you are buying into a crazy theory if you use this term

Folk psychology is the derogatory term used by physicalists for our normal natural language (e.g., English, Spanish, etc.) way of describing mental states and explaining why people behave in certain ways.

E.g., she didn’t go to the concert on Saturday because she hates Taylor Swift.

Some materialists believe that those who believe in the existence of thoughts, beliefs, desires, motives and other mental states are victims of “folk psychology,” an unscientific attitude that will in due course be replaced by ex­planations in terms of the activities of nerves or brain states.

For those people, folk psychology is a kind of superstition, like belief in demons, and it will be left be­hind by the onward march of scientific understanding.

The alternative to folk psychology

The alternative to folk psychology is supposed to be scientific descriptions of the brain. Instead of talking about beliefs, we will describe brain states, or nerve firings. Instead of saying “Timmy likes Sally,” we will say “Timmy is in brain state G.”


There is no evidence of any kind that natural language descriptions of mental phenomena will be replaced by scientific descriptions of the activity of the brain. The claim that this will happen is complete science fiction at this point in time.

It does no good to complain that I am talking about beliefs and desires when there is no alternative at all to doing so. It would be like accusing me of being old-fashioned for driving to work instead of teleporting. Teleportation does not actually exist and may never exist. There is nothing scientific about contrasting reality with science fiction.

The materialist has written a giant unhonored I.O.U. and is treating the I.O.U. as though he has actually produced the cash and paid the debt.

Since what my brain is doing when I think of grandma may be quite different from what your brain is doing when you think about your own grandma (my grandma was a flesh-eating cannibal about whom I still have nightmares, while your grandma was the dictator of a small island country) it seems quite possible that individual knowledge about one person’s brain events would be necessary to give a scientific description, assuming such a thing ever proves to be possible. However, there is no science of individuals – just of classes of things. There is no science of Freddy the Frog – just of frogs. If specific details of the idiosyncratic goings on in individual brains is necessary, then in describing what someone is thinking, feeling or desiring, all the interlocutors (participants in the discussion) would need fantastically detailed knowledge about one person’s brain and all others referred to.

The notion of folk psychology as something replaceable with talk of brain states assumes that I will know what my brain states are. This suggests that I would need to have direct intuitive, first person access to physical goings-on in my brain. If this is not the case and my phone, for instance, is supposed to be constantly scanning my brain and giving me updates, presumably the resulting brain scan results would be so complicated only a specialist would be able to interpret and make sense of them anyway.

If the results were dumbed down sufficiently for the average person to understand them, then these results will presumably be more or less be identical to folk psychological terms and thus we would be back to where we started.

8 thoughts on ““Folk Psychology:” you are buying into a crazy theory if you use this term

  1. Talks by Patricia Churchland on her vision of eliminative psychology are perhaps second only to those by Sam Harris on free will for their amusing facility at revealing scientism and physicalism for the sophistries they are, even to one sympathetic to that worldview (as I once was).

  2. What I find difficult to grasp is the ongoing tendency of materialists to think themselves transcendent to the reality they attempt to describe. They never seem to consider that their hypotheses negate their own views. If there are no thoughts or beliefs, but simply neuronally-induced brain-states, what gives materialists the idea that this description does not apply to their own thoughts and beliefs?

  3. You are correct. Materialists of the sort of Churchland are engaged in an intellectual sleight of hand. To describe my brain states is still to engage in intentional behavior which would need its own description in terms of brain states. So my belief that Sally has brain state G; is actually not a real belief but my brain in some state K. It is self- defeating because if applied consistently nothing including what brain state someone is in could be described.

    • Thanks, boammaaruri. That seems right. My metaphor for such things is stepping into and out a river. The river can be determinism or brain states. In order to comment intelligently about determinism one must not be a determinist for the purposes of commentary and you are making this point regarding brain states. Churchland has to put brain states to one side to make her point and then pretends to subscribe to the brain state view again when has finished. The fallacy is their ever stepping out of the river for even a moment according to their intellectual schema.


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