Folk Psychology and the Psychological Background of Scientific Reasoning
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Folk Psychology and the Psychological Background of Scientific Reasoning

theory of psychology, theory of science, psychology of science, mind-body problem, folk psychology, scientific world view

Some protagonists of science who are still married to a positivist model of how science functions see science as the pure pursuit of knowledge, free of any preconceptions, free of any personal interest, yielding clear and ideally everlasting truths beckoning humanity over from a superstition ridden dark age of beliefs and would-be knowledge toward the dawn of rational insights that allow for the bettering of mankind’s problems. Scientists have followed such an implicit model since Francis Bacon’s Novum Organon, and the most recent reverberations we hear in popular science books like The God Delusion by Dawkins (2006) or in more scientific ones on how an eliminative materialist account of mental events such as Patricia Churchland’s might work (Churchland 1986). Here, it is explicitly stated that our folk-psychological accounts such as “I love Emma,” or “I have a nasty back ache” is nothing but sloppy speaking and will soon be replaced by a more scientific account, once we know the interior workings of our brains, such as “Neuron assembly xyz in my nucleus abc in brain areas efg is firing” or “Fast A1 fibers are transmitting stimuli from my lumbar region to the brain, where they override endorphin- and enkephalin-mediated inhibiting pathways, enabling the pain network to go crazy.” It has been more than twenty years now since the publication of that somewhat futuristic account, and a whole decade of the brain and countless papers have taught us that we are very far, in fact light years away, from such knowledge as eliminative and even less eliminative materialists would have us gained by now, or in another twenty years from now.

Folk psychology is well and alive, and even more vital than ever, it seems. People go about having their beliefs and ideas about God, the mind, the soul, the world, and human beings in general just as well, eliminative materialists and neuroscience notwithstanding. The data presented by Fahrenberg speak a clear language: Students of different disciplines, but most prominently psychology students, adhere mostly to a dualist—ontological or methodological—world view that allows for some substantiality of consciousness. They suppose that some transcendent reality is active and about, they assume that paranormal events such as spiritual and distant healing can [End Page 209] happen, that telepathy is an option, to name but the more prominent statements to be gleaned by Fahrenberg’s tables.

Sure, these are students at the beginning of their career, as they come from school, some of them in their second year, some of them mature after having done some other training. They have had contact with the scientific world view mostly through their schooling and private reading, and, of course, through our folk culture. It would be extremely interesting to see a longitudinal study, surveying the same students after four years of studies. Will they then be more conformist with the mainstream scientific notion? Will they then have changed their initial belief systems? Will they have integrated and absorbed the knowledge they were taught into their private lives and worldviews, or will they have kept them apart from each other? We do not have the answer to these questions, and surely, a next step would be to follow a cohort of students, albeit small, through their journey as they progress.

Meanwhile, we can all take ourselves as an example to follow this thought along as a gedan-kenexperiment. Did we allow the knowledge we absorbed from studying to permeate our whole private life? How did we deal with any cognitive dissonance arising from information coming out of our studies conflicting with our private belief systems? Did we throw away our personal beliefs or did we organize our lives in two compartments, one for our private life, and one for our scientific knowledge?

Fahrenberg’s data are unique in the sense that nobody bothers about folk psychology, and these data are the only ones that actually tap into the belief systems of those that will become scientists, teachers, therapists and trainers...