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Title:Three problems of folk psychology: meaning, character, and domain
Author(s):Fagan, Tyler
Director of Research:Cummins, Robert
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Cummins, Robert
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Melnick, Arthur; Waskan, Jonathan; Roth, Martin
Department / Program:Philosophy
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
folk psychology
nonlinguistic thought
theory of mind
Abstract:Folk psychology has been an object of great philosophical interest for the last 50 years, but it remains obscure in many fundamental respects. One finds little consensus on what folk psychology is, how it works, and who uses it and how. My dissertation aims to resolve some of this confusion by addressing three major problems about folk psychology, pertaining respectively to its meaning, character, and domain. In the first chapter I discuss what I call the Meaning Problem. Despite the term “folk psychology” having wide currency, its meaning remains obscure. I note that the term’s usage pattern comprises two distinct strands that echo a proposal by Stich and Ravenscroft to separate the internal sense of the term “folk psychology” from its external sense. The external sense concerns an outside-the-head body of lawlike “platitudes” that make up our collective lay understanding of human behavior; the internal sense concerns our in-the-head capacity for getting a cognitive grip on other minds. I argue that respecting this separation makes sense of the two strands of usage and provides a useful division of labor. I argue that an internal meaning for “folk psychology” worth wanting must be specific enough to capture the phenomenon cognitive scientists care about—what they call mindreading—but general enough to leave room for debate on the many still-unsettled questions about that phenomenon. I propose that an agent A mindreads just in case its behavior systematically depends on changes in the psychological states of an interactor B and that dependency exists in virtue of A’s psychological states systematically tracking those of B. By focusing the rest of my dissertation on mindreading, I am free to set aside whether folk psychology is true or accurate. This is a problem that is properly about the external sense of “folk psychology”; and while the internal sense is not entirely unrelated to this problem, the issues I address in chapters two through four can be pursued in isolation from it. We don’t need to know about the truth of the platitudes that make up external folk psychology in order to fruitfully investigate folk psychology in its internal, in-the-head sense—to ask how the latter works, and who uses it. In chapter two, I turn to the debate over this capacity’s character. Traditionally, this debate has pitted “theory theorists” against “simulationists.” Theory theorists argue that mindreading involves the application of a theory, perhaps tacitly held, about the behaviors and thoughts of others. Simulationists argue that what underwrites our social reasoning is a capacity to simulate the way others think and act. I suggest that slow progress on this debate can be blamed on fundamental misunderstandings of core concepts that produce ill-posed questions and bad ways of addressing legitimate questions. To illustrate this point, I discuss a specific case of much interest in the current literature: what mirror neurons can tell us about how mindreading works. Some simulationists argue that mirror neurons provide a neurological ground for simulationist accounts, lending them empirical support. But to assess this claim, one must first understand what it would take for anything to provide a neurological ground for simulationism, which in turn requires a clear and plausible view of what simulation itself is—and such a view is largely missing from the debate. I sketch a more respectable picture of simulation, on the basis of which I am able to rehabilitate the mirror neuron hypothesis. But even if mirror neurons do represent a victory for simulationism, that victory has a decidedly limited scope. The current evidence suggests that simulationists have the more compelling account for some mindreading abilities. For others, theory theorists seem to hold the stronger position. I endorse a hybrid account that includes elements of both theory theory and simulationism. My view is hardly the first such account, but it improves on previous efforts by employing the unifying, integrative idea of folk psychology as a model, an idea that synthesizes and extends insights from Ronald Giere, Philip Johnson-Laird, and Peter Godfrey-Smith. In chapter three I take up the problem of establishing folk psychology’s domain. This problem must be divided into two components: the first is specifying the role mindreading plays in the cognitive lives of normally functioning adult humans. The second part of the problem is whether other sorts of creatures can read minds as well. There are independent reasons to insist on this distinction, since it provides conceptual clarity and practical boundaries, but it is especially pertinent to my interests, which lie with the second question. For the rest of the thesis, it is this second question I will call the Domain Problem: given that normally functioning adult humans are members of the mindreading “club,” who else belongs in that club? Those working on the Domain Problem can be roughly grouped into inflationist and deflationist camps. Inflationists argue that animals and prelinguistic infants may have a serious claim to be mindreaders; deflationists disagree. One robust strain of deflationism, best articulated by José Bermúdez, contends that creatures lacking language are incapable of mindreading. I argue that this language-dependency thesis is incorrect even if one requires that mindreading necessarily involves the ascription of propositional attitudes. While there may be some mindreading phenomena that necessarily involve linguistic thought, there is no good reason to think that creatures without language could not engage in a robust folk psychology. Of course, whether such creatures actually do so is another matter, and that is my focus in chapter four. While the Domain Problem is an empirical matter for science to settle, I argue that philosophers can still contribute in at least three major ways: generating novel hypotheses and experimental paradigms, evaluating pre-empirical principles used to guide research, and carefully interpreting contentious data. To illustrate this claim (and follow my own advice), I discuss some actual cases from the scientific literature. First, looking at primate mindreading research, I show how a persistent and seemingly intractable methodological problem in mindreading research may be overcome by clever experimental design. I next criticize two pre-empirical principles one often finds being invoked in mindreading debates—one stems from anxiety about anthropomorphism, while the other is a descendant of Morgan’s Canon. Finally, drawing on work by Elliott Sober and others, I show how appeals to parsimony should (and should not) be used in interpreting the results of mindreading research. Taken individually, these cases show that philosophers can do meaningful work on the Domain Problem. Taken together, they provide tentative support for inflationism about mindreading in nonlinguistic creatures. I close chapter four by sketching some of my project’s implications in areas outside cognitive science. Our practices and attitudes concerning the treatment of animals, for instance, are shaped by our beliefs about how animal minds work, and the ethical justification of those practices and attitudes depends on the accuracy of those beliefs. A warranted move toward inflationism should therefore change, for the better, some of the ways we think about and interact with our fellow creatures.
Issue Date:2013-02-03
Rights Information:Copyright 2012 Tyler K. Fagan
Date Available in IDEALS:2013-02-03
Date Deposited:2012-12

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