BermudezThe more you know about the science of the mind, the less appealing our common sense ideas seem. Ideas about belief and desire motivating action just don’t seem to match up in any way with what you see going on. So, at least, says Jose Luis Bermudez in Arguing for Eliminativism (freely available on Academia, but you might need to sign in). Bermudez sympathises with Paul Churchland’s wish to sweep the whole business of common sense psychology away; but he wants to reshape Churchland’s attack, standing down the ‘official’ arguments and bringing forward others taken from within Churchland’s own writing on the subject.

Bermudez sketches the complex landscape with admirable clarity. He notes Boghossian has argued that eliminativism of this kind is incoherent: but Boghossian construed eliminativism as an attack on all forms of content. Bermudez has no desire to be so radical and champions a purely psychological eliminativism.

If something’s wrong with common sense psychology it could either be that what it says is false, or that what it says is not even capable of being judged true or false. In the latter case it could, for example, be that all common sense talk of mental states is nothing more than a complex system of reflexive self-expression like grunts and moans. Bermudez doesn’t think it’s like that: the propositions of common sense psychology are meaningful, they just happen to be erroneous.

It therefore falls to the eliminativist to show what the errors are.  Bermudez has a two-horned strategy: first, we can argue that as a matter of fact, we don’t rely on common sense understanding as much as we think. Second, we can look for ways to show that the kind of propositional content implied by common sense views is just incompatible with the mechanism that actually underlie human action and behaviour as revealed by scientific investigation.

There are, in fact, two different ways of construing common sense psychology. One is that our common sense understanding is itself a kind of theory of mind: this is the ‘theory theory’ line. To disprove this we might try to bring out what the common sense theory is and then attack it. The other way of construing common sense is that we just use our own minds as a model: we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and imagine how we should think and react. To combat this one we should need a slightly different approach; but it seems Bermudez’s strategy is good either way.

I think the first horn of the attack works better than the second – but not perfectly. Bermudez rightly says it is very generally accepted that to negotiate complex social interactions we need to ascribe beliefs and desires to other people and draw conclusions about their likely behaviour. It ain’t necessarily so. Bermudez quotes the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the much-cited example where we have been arrested: if we betray our partner in crime we’ll get better terms whatever the other one does. We don’t, Bermudez points out, need to have any particular beliefs about what the other person will do: we can work out the strategy from just knowing the circumstances.

More widely, Bermudez contends, we often don’t really need to know what an individual has in mind.  If we know that person is a butcher, or a waiter, then the relevant social interaction can be managed without any hypothesising about beliefs and desires. (In fact we can imagine a robot butcher/waiter who would certainly lack any beliefs or desires but could execute the transactions perfectly well.)

That is fine as far as it goes, but it isn’t that hard to think of examples where the ascription of beliefs seems relevant. In particular, the interpretation of speech, especially the reading of Gricean implicatures, seems to rely on it. Sometimes it also seems that the ascription of emotional states is highly relevant, or hypotheses about what another person knows, something Bermudez doesn’t address.

It’s interesting to reflect on what a contrast this is with Dennett. I think of Dennett and Churchland as loosely allied: both sceptics about qualia, both friendly to materialist, reductive thinking. Yet here Bermudez presents a Churchlandish view which holds that ascriptions of purpose are largely useless in dealing with human interaction, while Dennett’s Intentional Stance of course requires that they are extremely useful.

Bermudez doesn’t think this kind of argument is sufficient, anyway, hence the second horn in which he tries to sketch a case for saying that common sense and neurons don’t fit well. The real problem here for Bermudez is that we don’t really know how neurons represent things. He makes a case for kinds of representation other than the sort of propositional representation he thinks is required by the standard common sense view (ie, we believe or desire that  xxx…). It’s true that a mess of neurons doesn’t look much like a set of well-formed formulae, but to cut to the chase I think Bermudez is pursuing a vain quest. We know that neurons can deal with ascriptions of propositional belief and desire (otherwise how would we even be able to think and talk about them) so it’s not going to be possible to rule them out neurologically. Bermudez presents some avenues that could be followed, but even he doesn’t seem to think the case can be clinched as matters stand.

I wonder if he needs to? It seems to me that the case for elimination does not rest on proving the common sense concepts false, only on their being redundant. If Bermudez can show that all ascriptions of belief and desire can for practical purposes be cashed out or replaced by cognition about the circumstances and game-theoretic considerations, then simple parsimony will get him the elimination he seeks.

He would still, of course, be left with explaining why the human mind adopts a false theory about itself instead of the true one: but we know some ways of explaining that – for example, ahem, through the Blindness of the Brain  (ie that we’re trapped within our limitations and work with the poor but adequate heuristics gifted to us, or perhaps foisted on us, bu evolution).


  1. 1. Sci says:

    It’s still not clear to me if eliminativism (or materialism in general) can avoid Rosenberg’s claim that thoughts (and thereby memory & history) have to be illusory.

    And if they do agree with his conclusion, then it seems it would necessary to show how so much illusion (which I guess includes thinking about the illusion) arises from mere matter?

  2. 2. Hunt says:

    One form of formal human interaction that comes pretty close to general human behavior is business interactions, mainly because the stakes are high. A mere sign of false intention is enough to kill an important business deal. We all know what can happen to the stock market with even the most trivial portent, and these signs are often traced back to (a single) human intention, or an action that implies belief (think Oprah). Of course, this is collective action and not just, say, executive who kills a deal because she doesn’t like the look of a sales rep. The distinction must be made between rational action, business, political, etc., which may seek some kind of equilibrium response according to game theory, cold and calculated, and normal human behavior, which is often anything but.

  3. 3. Scott Bakker says:

    Sci: “It’s still not clear to me if eliminativism (or materialism in general) can avoid Rosenberg’s claim that thoughts (and thereby memory & history) have to be illusory.”

    Rosenberg is cornered with these kinds of difficult claims because he has no workable theory of meaning. This is the perennial problem with standard eliminativisms, the ‘baby with the bathwater’ argument, which has real abductive teeth.

    There’s no such thing as ‘thought’ in any high dimensional sense (the bathwater part), but the idiom does a tremendous amount of lifting in a wide variety of practical communicative contexts (the baby part). And this is exactly what you would expect, given mad dimensions of the problem the brain poses to itself and other brains. ‘Thought’ plays some kind of yet to determined role in the radically heuristic economy of social cognition.

    Seriously, what else could it be? We know social cognition is radically heuristic: why would we think the communicative kit that comes with it would be anything different? Once you acknowledge that heuristics are central to the cognitive processes deploying ‘thought,’ then it’s a simple step to considering heuristic neglect, and understanding why it seems so self-evident that there has to be such a thing as ‘thought.’

    Thoughts have no extension, and so just aren’t objects susceptible to scientific scrutiny. But ‘thoughts,’ understood as communicative elements in larger cognitive networks, are.

  4. 4. David Duffy says:

    So, are there common sense views that aren’t contaminated by current scientific or historically informed cultural knowledge eg ascribing particular actions of others to demonic possession, or
    “the assertion, widespread in the societies of the Pacific, that it is impossible or at least extremely difficult to know what other people think or feel [Robbins and Runsey 2008].”

    And are there any bodies of knowledge that do better predicting others’ actions and utterances using the same amount of information that a competent human observer can accumulate?

  5. 5. Richard J.R.Miles says:

    Common sense is a mess, it is poisoned by peoples beliefs. Sensible people are not common. some words have become muddled and misinterpreted to the delight of the skeptic, sophist and those who just cannot be asked.

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