Illusionism and Bad Intuitions

I’ve posted about illusionism a couple of times, e.g. here and here. In this post, I want to discuss the frequent claim by illusionists that they are just “rejecting bad intuitions.”

Here are a couple of recent examples from the past week:

So what exactly are the (supposed) bad intuitions that illusionists are rejecting? This goes at least back to Paul Churchland’s work on eliminative materialism (a term I’ll use interchangeably with illusionism). The claim is that folk psychology is a flawed theory, and so the elements of the theory (the things it quantifies over) should be rejected. So folk ideas about consciousness and belief, for example, should be rejected. What are the problems with folk psychology? You can see here for more details, but one claim is that folk psychology is a stagnant theory that does not seem to make progress.

In a nutshell, the illusionist claims the following:

  1. Folk psychology is a theory.
  2. It is a flawed theory (e.g. it is stagnant).
  3. So folk psychology should be rejected as a theory.
  4. So we are left with little or no reason to believe in the concepts that are part of folk psychology, e.g. phenomenal consciousness, beliefs, desires.

What are some possible responses to this? One possible response is to reject point 1 above, and say that folk psychology isn’t really a theory at all. For example, we don’t understand other people by employing a folk psychological theory — rather, we engage in a sort of simulation by putting ourselves in their shoes. Understanding other people is more of a narrative act than a theoretical prediction.

A second possible response, of course, is to take aim at point 2 above and defend folk psychology. For example, everyday folk psychology can be pretty successful in predicting the behaviour of other people.

A third response is to reject point 4 above. One way to do this is to point out that, even if folk psychology is a theory, and is a flawed theory, it is not the only theory that quantifies over things like phenomenal consciousness, beliefs, and desires. For example, scientific psychology also posits these things. So rejecting folk psychology doesn’t give us reasonable grounds to reject them.

So overall I do not think the illusionists have a very strong position here in claiming that flawed folk psychology gives them grounds to dismiss things like phenomenal consciousness. And, of course, the critic of illusionism will say that illusionists aren’t just rejecting intuitions — they are rejecting observations.

On a final note, I think this type of argument puts the illusionist in a dangerous position of believing that counter-intuitive ideas are better ideas. If our intuitions are flawed, then we should be skeptical of intuitive ideas, and look more favourably on counter-intuitive ideas, the reasoning seems to go. This allows the illusionist to go down a deep rabbit-hole of skepticism, while shouting “I’m rejecting bad intuitions!”

I think this is the point Philip Goff has been trying to make in recent exchanges with Keith Frankish:

When you go down that rabbit-hole of rejecting intuitions, you wind up at an extremely skeptical position that is simply not justified by experience and observation.

So illusionism seems to have two overarching problems. One, it’s not clear that it is even coherent. And two, even if we grant that it is coherent, it is an extreme form of skepticism that is simply not justified.