Richard Marshall interviews Katrina Sifferd in 3:AM Magazine [Photo: Marcela Rafea Photography]:
3:AM: You’re interested in criminal responsibility and punishment. One thing you’ve defended is common-sense or folk psychology when used in law. So you say the law should take the state of mind ‘intent to kill’ or ‘knowingly’ seriously. Before saying why, can you outline the main reasons some say that this folk psychology is all wrong and shouldn’t be used in law?
KS: When folk psychology was under attack twenty-some years ago by eliminativists, the practice of holding persons responsible was threatened. If Paul Churchland is correct and folk psychological terms are radically false, then when judges and juries are trying to determine if a criminal defendant intended to kill someone, or knew that their act was likely to result in a death, they are looking for nothing real in the world, and criminal verdicts are nothing but post hoc just-so stories. One goal of my PhD thesis was to show how radical of a claim ontological eliminativism is from the perspective of the criminal law: if folk psychology is false, criminal verdicts, which of course result in very serious consequences for defendants, cannot be justified.
I think most of the elminativists, and behaviorists such as Gilbert Ryle, were motivated by the idea that folk psychology isn’t “scientific” enough. They were dubious that we can use our perceptions of people’s outward behavior to postulate true claims about what is going on in their heads. But this suspicion seems unjustified: a quick examination reveals that folk concepts tend to be roughly accurate, not radically false. Folk physics concepts, for example, appear to have captured true distinctions in the physical properties of objects. Solidity doesn’t really mean “no spaces between”, but folk concepts of gas, liquid, and solids do capture real differences between these states of things in the world, and such concepts have predictive power (liquid undergoes displacement whereas solids do not). So it seems a safe basic supposition that folk psychological concepts are likely to capture real categorical differences in the brain between states of desire and belief, or happy and sad, for example, especially as they seem to be so useful to understanding and predicting behavior.
Nobody really takes the elminativist position seriously anymore, but worrying about eliminativism is an effective way to begin exploring how true folk psychology has to be for our system of criminal responsibility to be correct, especially given data from neuroscience, and how we might effectively translate neuroscientific data into the folk psychological terms the criminal justice system uses.