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A Materialist's Misgivings About Eliminative Materialism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Jeffrey Foss*
University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, V8W 2Y2
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I‘m a materialist, and not too embarassed about it. It would be nice to have a knock down argument to defend materialism, but not having one, I instinctively fight off idealists, dualists, skeptics, or whatever, with the same punches and feints used by materialists from time immemorial. Like, say, the snide observation that a material like liquor gets even my idealist friends drunk, or that the senile dualists I have known don't seem at all to consist of ageless minds trapped in aging bodies. I will not resort to ad baculum, because all non-materialists I‘ve known, of whatever stripe, act as though tampering with their bodies is the same as tampering with their very selves.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1985

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1 If I admitted, e.g., the existence of a red after-image, then because ‘red’ is not part of the proper vocabulary of physics, I had to explain the redness of the image while restricting myself to the vocabulary of physics. In other words, redness had to be reduced to physics. Thus materialists face the problem confronting anyone attempting an intertheoretic reduction, the problem denoted by the word ‘incommensurability.’ Materialistic reductions involve using terms such as ‘red,’ which terms must have been made to disappear or fit to disappear before the reduction is to be counted a success. It should be pointed out that though incommensurability is a thorny problem for reductions in general, it does not amount to logical inconsistency or incompatibility, and thus does not prove reductions impossible in general. Intertheoretic mappings need not be neat, one-one, or even one-many, linkages of concepts via ‘bridge-laws,’ along with linkages of things via transtheoretic identities. Instead, the reducing theory must be able to generate a potent image of the reduced theory with respect to the latter's domain. This is spelled out in much more detail by C.A. Hooker in his ‘Towards A General Theory Of Reduction,’ Parts I, II, and III, Dialogue 20 (1981): 38-59, 201-36, 496-529.

2 Rorty, Richard, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979) 117Google Scholar

3 Hiley, David R., ‘Is Eliminative Materialism Materialistic?.’ Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 38 (1977-78), 327Google Scholar

4 Feyerabend, Paul K., ‘Comment: Mental Events and the Brain.’ Journal of Philosophy 60 (1963) 295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Feyerabend does argue strongly for materialism in ‘Materialism and the Mind Body Problem.’ Review of Metaphysics 65 (1963):49-66, without, however, espousing eliminative materialism. His work there is the demolition of certain (then popular) objections to materialism, but with methods quite independent of eliminative materialism. In ‘An Attempt at a Realist Interpretation of Experience.’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. 1957-8, new series, he makes some cursory comments on pp. 164–5 which may be seen as precursors to eliminative materialism, but not as eliminativism as such.

5 Quine, W.V., ‘On Mental Entities’ (1952), reprinted in The Ways of Paradox (New York: Random House 1966) 208–15Google Scholar

6 Quine, W.V., Word and Object (Cambridge, Massacusetts: M.I.T. Press 1960) 256Google Scholar

7 Rorty, Richard, ‘Mind-Body Identity, Privacy, and Categories', Review of Metaphysics, 19 (1965): 2554Google Scholar

8 Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 120-1. Here Rorty is concerned with corrigible reports of pain (or whatever), though the point he is trying to make concerning ontology is quite general, and would apply to incorrigible reports as well, should there be such.

9 Churchland, Paul M., ‘Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes,’ The Journal of Philosophy, 78 (1981): 6790, 67.Google Scholar

10 Churchland, P.S., ‘Mind-Brain Reduction: New Light from the Philosophy of Science’, Neuroscience 7 (1982) 1044–5CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

11 P.M. Churchland, ‘Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes,’ 74-5

12 Ibid, 90

13 Ibid.; see especially 83-4.

14 P.S. Churchland, ‘Mind-Brain Reduction,’ see especially 1044-1045; quotation 1046

15 Churchland, Paul M., and Patricia Smith Churchland, ‘Functionalism, Qualia, and Intentionality,’ Philosophical Topics 12 (1981), 121–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16 Ibid., 128

17 Ibid.

18 Consider for example what they say about pain on pp. 125–6 of ‘Functionalism, Qualia, and Intentionality', or what Churchland, P.S. says in her ‘Consciousness: The Transmutation of a Concept.’ Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 64 (1983) 8095.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

19 It should also be pointed out that P.S. Churchland does not recommend the wholesale abandonment of folk psychology.

There is no question of shelving folk psychology until there is a better theory to replace it with … neuroscience needs to make use of prevailing folk psychological concepts in order to climb its way to a position where it can kick the ladder out from under. Pure bottom-up physiology would surely be pure exasperating folly.

Not that she is saying that there is any truth or insight contained in folk psychology – it has only a pragmatic, heuristic role to play ('Mind-Brain Reduction.’ 1045-6).

20 P.S. Churchland is quite explicit about drawing lessons from the philosophy of science in her ‘Mind-Brain Reduction: New Light from the Philosophy of Science,’ 1041-4. Feyerabend, P.K. is also quite explicit about it in his ‘Mental Events and the Brain,’ Journal of Philosophy 60 (1963) 295–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

21 Churchland, Paul M., ‘Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes,73.Google Scholar

22 Churchland, P.S., ‘Mind-Brain Reduction,’ 1045Google Scholar

23 Ibid.

24 I am in agreement with the criticisms of mentalese marshalled by Churchland, Patricia Smith, ‘Language, Thought, and Information Processing,’ Nous 14 (1980) 147–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar For a presentation of a pro-mentalese theory, see Fodor, Jerry, The Language of Thought (New York: Crowell 1975).Google Scholar

25 The ‘takes to be in/accurate’ and ‘wants to be accurate’ in the above formulation leave intact the ‘attitude’ involved in any ‘propositional attitude’ while dispensing with the ‘proposition.’ Having an ‘attitude’ towards a representation state is not, I think, one bit less intuitive than having an attitude towards a proposition or sentence. However, I realize that the ‘attitude’ itself is a neural process or state. These ‘attitudes’ may be given a dispositional characterization at this time along the following lines: a representation state is believed iff it is acted upon in the appropriate circumstances; a representation state is accurate if its possessor acts to make the world correspond to his representation under the appropriate circumstances, etc. A very long digression would be required to flesh out these schemas; instead, see my ‘A Rule Of Minimal Rationality,’ cited below, or Churchland's, P.M.The Logical Character of Action Explanations’, Philosophical Review 79 (1970) 214–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

26 Paul M. Churchland, ‘Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes,’ 73-4

27 As P.M. Churchland puts it,

FP's explanatory impotence and long stagnation inspire little faith that its categories will find themselves neatly reflected in the framework of neuroscience

on p. 75 of his ‘Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes.’ There is no doubt that this is seen as a serious charge. However, see below.

28 I have outlined the virtues of folk psychology in ‘A Rule of Minimal Rationality: The Logical Link between Beliefs and Values.’ Inquiry 19 (1976) 341-53.

29 See, e.g., Churchland's, P.S.A Perspective on Mind-Brain Research: The Journal Of Philosophy 77 (1980) 198206;CrossRefGoogle Scholar or ‘Brain States: by Wilkes, Kathleen V., British Journal For The Philosophy Of Science 31 (1980) 111–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

30 Nagel, Thomas, ‘What It Is Like To Be A Bat,’ Philosophical Review 83 (1974) 443–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

31 The most noteworthy account of whole-system functioning is the metric tensor network theory proposed by A. Pellionisz and R. Llinas. For an outline of their theory and a bibiliography, see ‘Space-Time Representation In The Brain. The Cerebellum As A Predictive Space-Time Metric Tensor,’ Neuroscience 7 (1982) 2949-70. See also Andras J. Pellionisz, ‘Brain Theory: Connecting Neurobiology to Robotics. Tensor Analysis: Natural Coordinates to Describe, Understand, and Engineer Functional Geometries of Intelligent Organisms’ Journal of Theoretical Neurobiology 2 (1983). no. 3. It is interesting to note that in this theory, a very strong and clear meaning is given to the notion that there are representations in the nervous system of the external (or even of the internal) world. Roughly speaking, the representation is the invariant maintained through a series of tranformations of a neural state-vector by a series of metric tensors; see especially the first work listed above.

32 Some eliminative materialists (Michael Stack, in conversation, and Paul Churchland, both in conversation and in correspondence) try to shift the burden of proof to the reductive materialists in this way: they say, ‘We both agree that materialism (let's call it thesis M) is true. You believe that folk psychology, F, is true, at least in part. Your reductive materialism, therefore, commits you to M &: F, whereas my eliminative materialism commits me merely to M. So the a priori probability is in my favor, since a priori the probability of p is greater that the probability of p &: q in general. Therefore, the onus is upon you to defend your commitment to F, in addition to your commitment to M. So, my commitments are less extensive than your own.’ The proper reply to this is that the eliminative materialist is really committed to M &: ‘F, which has the same a priori probability as M &: F. Therefore the onus is no more upon the reductivist to defend folk psychology than it is upon the eliminativist to attack it.

33 Churchland, P.S., ‘Mind-Brain Reduction,’ 1046Google Scholar

34 Lucretius, On Nature, translated by Russell M. Geer, Library of Liberal Arts, Bobbs-Merrill, 1965, 359-60.

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