What Is Eliminative Materialism?

Eliminative materialism (also called eliminativism) is a perspective within the philosophy of mind which advocates for a version of materialism which is absolute in relation to the concepts of mind entities and mind vocabulary. Modern eliminative materialism–the kind of eliminativism that denies that there are any particular types of mental states–is a relatively recent theory, with very little history. The more extreme claims of eliminativism involve disputing the existence of conscious mental states, such as pain and visual perception. Because eliminative materialism is grounded in a claim that common-sense psychology is fundamentally false, arguments for eliminativism are typically arguments against the acceptability of common-sense psychology.

The second component of eliminative materialism is the thesis that folk psychology is deeply flawed with respect to the true nature of the mind/brain. The proper conception of human reason, according to eliminative materialism, is that there is no such thing as mental states, as understood by folk psychology, and the mind is no greater and no lesser than the brain. Simulationist theorists argue that, contrary to eliminative materialisms assumptions, no theories about the mind exist which might someday turn out to be wrong. Modern versions of eliminative materialism hold that our ordinary conceptions of mental states and processes are profoundly flawed, and that any or all of our common conceptions of mental states would find no home, on any level of analysis, in a sophisticated, precise account of the mind.

Its main claim is that the peoples common-sense understanding of the mind (or folk psychology) is wrong, and that some classes of mental states believed by the majority do not exist. It principally claims that our common-sense understanding of the mind (or folk psychology), which eliminativists see as a kind of informalized theory, is not a valid concept upon which scientific inquiry can rest. As a theory in the scientific sense, eliminativists hold, folk psychology must be evaluated according to folk psychology’s predictive powers and interpretive successes as a program for mind/brain investigation. Furthermore, since eliminativism is inherently predictive, different theorists may, and frequently do, make different predictions as to what aspects of folk psychology will be eliminated from our vocabulary of folk psychology.

Patricia Churchlands eliminativism stems from a conviction that, as we continue to pursue our scientific investigation of mind/brain, we might invent an epistemology that will obliterate our present epistemology, which is grounded in folk psychology. In Chapter One of Churchland 1989, several of her arguments for eliminative materialism are based on a claim that folk psychology cannot be integrated into a single framework, that is, contemporary physical science. Patricia Churchland and Woodward argue that the positions taken by Donald Davidson are naturalistic and materialistic, but neither reductive nor eliminative, and that, if correct, psychology cannot be reduced to any physical science. One could challenge eliminative materialism on those grounds, but other philosophers, such as Churchland, have said that eliminativism is often needed in order to open thinkers minds to new evidence and better explanations.

In the context of a materialist understanding of psychology, eliminativism is contrasted with reductive materialism, which holds that psychological states, as commonly understood, actually do exist, and that these directly correspond to physical states in the nervous system. Eliminative materialism (or eliminativism) is the radical claim that our conventional, common-sense understandings of mind are profoundly flawed, and that some or all mental states assumed by our ordinary minds actually do not exist, and do not play any part in the mature science of the mind. Eliminative materialism is a relatively recent (1960s-1970s) idea that some classes of mental entities taken as given by common sense, such as beliefs, desires, and the subjective experience of pain, do not exist. On one hand, they argue, a cognitive science that would eventually provide us with the right account of how minds work would not use terms referring to common-sense mental states like beliefs and desires; such states would not be part of the ontology of a mature cognitive science.

Elitists argue that our common-sense understanding of the mind is fundamentally flawed, and that neuroscience will someday show that mental states we speak about in everyday speech using words such as intentions, beliefs, desires, and loves are not related to anything real. While it is true that eliminative materialism depends on a radical scientific theory of mind developing, a radical theory of the mind can itself rest on us taking seriously the possibility that view might be deeply mistaken. Just as the chemical theories of the late eighteenth century did not attempt to reduce the imaginary notion of phlogiston to its molecular states, but merely to do away with all references to it, so too the whole vocabulary of the psychological theories of popular culture could be eliminated within the framework of a sophisticated scientific theory of the mind.

The eliminativists assertion that folk psychology cannot account for phenomena like mental disorders or a variety of memory processes has become a frequent premises for the objectors, that is, it is simply not folk-psychology’s job to account for such phenomena. Some eliminativists argue that there would be no neurological correlates to many everyday psychological concepts, such as beliefs and desires, and that behavior and experiences could be adequately explained only on the biological level.

To argue that there is any truth value to alchemy, or that a spurious theory can refer, is surely an important shift from folk conceptions of beliefs, one which perhaps pushes this conception toward the eliminativist end of the shrink-and-dismantle end of the spectrum. Another perspective is that because eliminativism presupposes that beliefs, as well as other entities, that one is trying to eliminate, are in fact self-refuting. Since eliminative materialism claims that future studies will be unable to discover the neuronal bases of the different psychological phenomena, it necessarily has to await scientific advances.

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