Paul Churchland's philosophy (Was: complexity and ...)

Nicholas Bostrom (
Sat, 16 Aug 1997 14:29:00 +0000

Eric Watt Forste wrote

> Yeah. This takes my thread back to where it derives from, Paul M.
> Churchland's work (and not just his) on "folk psychology" and the
> possibility (eliminative materialism) that hardly any of the words
> that we currently use to describe psychological phenomena have any
> actual referents. Psychological phenomena might easily be concrete,
> real, physical, computational phenomena *without* having any kind
> of one-to-one correspondence with any of the words we currently
> use to talk about psychological phenomena. In other words, they
> might *matter* without being *real*, in the sense that there might
> not *really* be anything that corresponds to the words. (Although
> things might be different with a future vocabulary of neuropsychology.)
> Obviously, it's difficult to be clear when speaking of such things,
> and I hope I'm not just making an ass of myself.

Paul Churchland's view is that folk psychology is false, and that it
is false to such an extent that many of the terms it involves fail to
denote -- there are (probably) no such things as feelings,
propositional beliefs etc. just as there is no ether, no heat, no
soul etc. This does not mean that all sentences involving those terms
are meaningless or unimportant. Au contraire: untill we have a
more mature neuroscience, folk psychology is still the best theory we
have for describing the more complex phenomena produced by the
brain. But, Paul Churchland thinks, we already have good reason to
believe that the concepts in folk psychology won't be reducible to
concepts in the improved theory that will replace it. (Notice that
from this perspective, reductionism would be the only way save our
beliefs in thoughs and feelings and beliefs.)

Some philosophers have objected that the folk psychological terms
have a special, normative, status that would protect them from the
fate that befell "the ether" or "the vital force". Some believe that
the folk psychological theory is not so off the mark as to be
comparable to the the like of folk thermodynamics.

> It was interesting to me to see the same kind of process happening
> in word that is not obviously psychological in its content:
> "complexity". The source analogies (like the disappearance of
> "caloric") are all from physics

The "vital force" in medicine was once "observed" and theorized
about, but it has been eliminated a long time ago. Similarly, I think
few historians or social scientists today would like to construct
theories involving such a notion as "blood consciousness".

Nicholas Bostrom

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