From folk psychology to cognitive ontology
Dewhurst, Joseph Edmund
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This thesis examines the relationship between folk psychology and scientific psychology, and argues that the conceptual taxonomy provided by the former is unsuitable for fine-grained cognitive scientific research. I avoid traditional eliminativism by reserving a role for folk psychology as a socio-normative discourse, where folk psychological concepts primarily refer to behaviour rather than to mental states, and also exert a regulative influence on behaviour. In the first half of this thesis I develop a positive account of folk psychology as a broad discourse that includes mental state attributions, behavioural predictions, narrative competency, and regulative mechanisms. In the second half I argue that the conceptual taxonomy provided by this discourse has led to theoretical confusions in both philosophy and cognitive science, and I propose a systematic methodology for developing a novel ‘cognitive ontology’ that is better suited for contemporary scientific research. What is folk psychology? In chapter 1 I survey the history of the term folk psychology and demonstrate that the term only really came into general usage following the work of Fodor and Churchland in the 1970s and 80s. I also argue that it is a mistake, stemming from this era, to identify folk psychology exclusively with propositional attitude psychology, which is just one particular way in which the folk might understand one another. If folk psychology is not just propositional attitude psychology, what else might it be? In chapter 2 I consider what I call the ‘universality assumption’, i.e. the assumption that folk psychological intuitions are shared across all cultures and languages. If this assumption were justified then it might provide partial support for the claim that folk psychology presents an accurate account of human cognition. However, there is significant evidence of variation in folk psychological intuitions, suggesting that folk psychology might be at least partially biased by cultural and linguistic influences. If folk psychology is not the same in every culture, how come it is so successful at predicting behaviour? In chapter 3 I look at various ways in which folk psychological discourse can play a regulative or normative role by exerting an influence on our behaviour. This role helps to explain how folk psychology can be predictively successful even if it fails to accurately describe the fine-grained details of human cognition, as via regulative mechanisms it is able to become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. How well does folk psychology match up with our scientific understanding of cognition? In chapter 4 I present evidence of cases where folk psychological concepts have served to mislead or confuse theoretical debates in philosophy of mind and cognitive science. I consider several case studies, including the false belief task in social cognition, the taxonomisation of sensory modalities, the extended cognition debate, and the recently emerging ‘Bayesian brain’ hypothesis. If folk psychological concepts do not refer to entities in our scientific theories, then what do they refer to? In chapter 5 I examine the status of folk psychological kinds as natural kinds, and argue that even under a very liberal account folk psychological kinds probably do not constitute viable scientific kinds. However, due to the regulative mechanisms described in chapter 3, they do constitute what Hacking has described as ‘human’ or ‘interactive’ kinds, which exhibit complex looping effects. What kinds of concepts should cognitive science use, if not folk psychological concepts? Finally, in chapter 6 I look at recent developments in ‘cognitive ontology’ revision and argue that we should adopt a systematic methodology for constructing novel concepts that better reflect our current best understanding of cognitive systems. In closing I consider the relationship between these novel concepts and the ontology presented by folk psychological discourse.