School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences Philosophy


Mental Fictionalism Conference

14 – 15 Jul 2014
Start time
Room 3.10/3.11, Dugald Stewart Building, 3 Charles Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9AD
Type of event

Debates about mental entities have tended to assume that there are only two options concerning their ontological status: realism or eliminativism. Little, if any, discussion has been focused on a third option: that mental entities are fictional entities. According to this option, although not real, mental entities play such a useful role in theorising that talk of them should not be eliminated. Given the popularity of fictionalism in other domains it is surprising that fictionalism about mental entities has not received more attention. This conference will be used as a platform to build a network of like-minded researchers interested in mental fictionalism, and to further debates concerned with the ontological status of mental entities.

Invited Speakers:

  • Dr Emily Caddick Bourne (Cambridge)
  • Prof Gregory Currie (York)
  • Dr Tamás Demeter (Phil. Institute Hungary)
  • Prof Dan Hutto (Wollongong)
  • Dr Ted Parent (Virginia)
  • Dr Meg Wallace (Kentucky)
  • Dr Adam Toon (Exeter)

The format for each paper is as follows:

  • 45 minutes for paper
  • 5 minutes commentary by Greg Currie
  • 45 minutes discussion

Monday 14 July

09:30 – 10:00 Registration & Coffee/Tea
10:00 – 11:35 Adam Toon
"Epistemology as fiction"
11:35 – 11:50 Coffee break
11:50 – 13:25 Ted Parent
"Theory-Dualism: Incomplete Physicalism b/w Mental Fictionalism"
13:25 – 14:25 Lunch (Provided)
14:25 – 16:00 Meg Wallace
"Saving Mental Fictionalism from Cognitive Collapse"
18:00 Dinner at Spoon restaurant

Tuesday 15 July

09:30 – 10:00 Coffee/Tea
10:00 – 11:35 Tamás Demeter
"Two Roads To Mental Fictionalism: And Where They Take Us"
11:35 – 11:50 Coffee break
11:50 – 13:25 Emily Caddick Bourne
"Mental fictionalism for realists"
13:25 – 14:25 Lunch (Provided)
14:25 – 16:00 Dan Hutto
"Mental Fictionalism and the Hard Problem of Content"

Registration is free. To register please email Adrian Downey.

Contact Details

0131 650 3960

Further Information

Further Information


  • Adrian Downey (University of Sussex)
  • Joe Morrison (Queen's University Belfast)
  • Mark Sprevak (University of Edinburgh)

For enquiries, please contact Adrian Downey.


Adam Toon "Epistemology as fiction"

In A Neurocomputational Perspective (1989), Paul Churchland argues that connectionist approaches to cognition should lead us to endorse eliminativism with regard to traditional "sentential" epistemologies of science. Recent work on extended cognition suggests that Churchland downplays the importance of external devices and the environment in scientists' cognitive processes. And yet the threat of eliminativism remains. In this paper, I shall propose an alternative to eliminativism, which I will call extended fictionalism. Drawing on Kendall Walton's work on make-believe, I will suggest that traditional sentential epistemology acts as a useful pretence for describing complex interactions between brain, body and world. I will explore the attractions of this view over various alternatives and show how it might help to explain competing intuitions in the debate over extended cognition.

Ted Parent "Theory-Dualism: Incomplete Physicalism b/w Mental Fictionalism"

The paper is a response to the Place-Smart after-image argument: A green after-image is not located outside the skull, but if we cracked open your skull, we won't find anything green in there either. (If we did, you'd have some disturbing medical news.) So the after-image seems not to be in physical space, suggesting that it is non-physical. In response, I argue that the green blob is a fictional object, while assuming a weak sort of realism about fictional objects (where they exist as mind-dependent objects). This view can look like dualism, but I try to interpret the situation not as implying metaphysical dualism, but rather as reflecting a dualism of theory. Roughly, there can be a theory of mind-independent objects, and a theory of mind-dependent objects. Yet there are principled reasons why we cannot integrate the two into a consistent whole, for reasons related to Russell's vicious circle principle. The paper motivates this by an analogy between the physicalist's theory of the world, and drawing a map with a complete representation of the map itself. Theory Dualism avoids the heterological-like paradoxes that arise, when trying to represent as part of a model the very representations used to define the model.

Meg Wallace "Saving Mental Fictionalism from Cognitive Collapse"

Mental fictionalism maintains that: (i) folk psychology is a radically false theory, but (ii) that we should nonetheless keep using it, because it is useful, convenient, or otherwise beneficial to do so. We should (or do) treat FP as a useful fiction—false, but valuable. Some argue that mental fictionalism is incoherent: if a mental fictionalist rejects FP then she cannot appeal to fictions in an effort to keep folk psychological discourse around, because fictions presuppose FP. In this paper, I defend the mental fictionalist against such objections. Whatever disadvantages mental fictionalism may have, it need not suffer from cognitive collapse.

Tamás Demeter "Two Roads To Mental Fictionalism: And Where They Take Us"

In this talk I'd like to achieve the following things. 1) To sketch compatible a priori and a posteriori ways of motivating mental fictionalism while highlighting some problematic aspects of its previous criticisms and distinguishing it from other kinds of fictionalism. With this background I turn 2) to characterize mental fictionalism so as to distinguish this position from eliminativism with which it is frequently coupled. I'll argue that, despite common wisdom, eliminativism and fictionalism are independent positions, and eliminativism follows only if the core theses of fictionalism are coupled with a further premise that the fictionalist is not forced to accept. 3) To show that Dennett's interpretationist approach collapses into a more robust fictionalism than he is usually ascribed and willing to subscribe to. I'll also generalize this insight to other interpretationist accounts like that of Davidson. 4) Finally I'll sketch the future work required for fictionalist account of folk psychological discourse and practices.

Emily Caddick Bourne "Mental fictionalism for realists"

Questions about ontology are bound up with questions about what it is to represent. The reason 'fictionalism' looks like an appropriate name for certain types of ontological anti-realism is that fiction is taken to be a type of representation which we engage with and understand without believing in whatever the fiction represents. I defend a view of representation according to which fictions represent by being true descriptions of (existent) non-actual worlds. This is a realist semantics of fiction, and it also involves ontological realism, i.e. a commitment to fictional entities. So I deny that representational content can be detached from truth and ontological commitment in the way mental fictionalism typically requires, since I think this does not happen even in the case of fiction itself. If this is correct, then fiction does not offer a direct route to explaining or accommodating talk of psychological states without committing to their existence. But, I argue, there are other illuminating parallels between fiction and discourse about psychological states. One is the possibility of 'indefiniteness' in the representation. Another is the way in which features of how the representation is constructed can mislead as to what is represented. Treating aspects of psychological discourse in the same way as fiction in these respects, whilst not directly related to anti-realism, does impact on which psychological states we should believe in when, and what we should take them to be like. The type of mental fictionalism I end up with has affinities with projectivism.

Dan Hutto "Mental Fictionalism and the Hard Problem of Content"

There appears to a hard problem of content. It does not seem possible - using existing, standard naturalistic resources - to explain the sorts of mental content that are frequently invoked as posits in a wide array of sciences of the mind (Hutto and Myin 2013). For some this motivates a revisionary programme that seeks to develop non-representational approaches to mind and cognition. Fictionalism offers attractive way of retaining the explanatory value of talking of mental representations without taking it literally, and thus without having to pay for such talk metaphysically. Building on Sprevak (2013) this paper gives critical attention to the question exactly what kind of explanatory work talk of mental contents might be doing if it is not construed realistically. While no argument is advanced against fictionalism in science generally, it will be argued that in this case there is reason to suspect that talk of mental contents may not even have predictive value it is often construed as having.

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The conference organisers would like to thank the Scots Philosophical Association, British Society for the Philosophy of Science, Mind & Language, the Mind Association, and the University of Edinburgh for their financial support.