What is "eliminative materialism"? What difficulties What is "eliminative materialism"? What difficulties does it face? Are they insuperable?

Eliminative materialism is a branch of the materialist school of philosophy of mind. Materialism is the view that the mind is explainable by the physical functions of the brain, as opposed to dualism, which claims that something more is necessary to encapsulate the mind, and idealism, which rejects the existence of physical matter in favour of mental substance alone. Materialism is currently the most popular theory of mind in philosophical circles, probably due to the many recent advances in psychology, neuroscience and computing. Seeing a computer run a program that can talk can seriously shake the belief that something non-physical is required for intelligence, since language and intelligence seems so inextricably linked. However, some form of dualism is the common view amongst most people, mostly due to some form of religious view, either due to personal belief, or simply cultural background. Some form of dualism seems to be present in all the major religions, if not explicitly describing a mind as separate from the body, at least describing some sort of non-physical aspect to human existence, generally termed 'soul' or some similar substance.

Eliminative materialism is in total agreement with most materialist doctrines in the basics of the mechanics of mind workings. It asserts that mental states are totally explicable in terms of brain functions, and it only requires sufficient advances in neuroscience to enable us to determine the exact nature of all of the components of the human mind. Thus, along with most materialist theories, it tends not to propose its own theories about how the mind works, but rather watches eagerly over the research fields of advanced neuroscience, artificial intelligence and psychology, looking for explanatory theories to incorporate into a unified theory of mind. This may sound like a negative appraisal, but it is merely a scientific method of discovering the nature of mind. Rather than theorising about the nature of the mind and setting out to prove this, materialists are collecting all the scientific data available in order to try and form a cohesive theorem. Indeed, many of the researchers in the aforementioned fields are in fact philosophers, or have become so. The lines between all the fields in these areas have become very blurred.

So, the basis for eliminative materialism is that of all materialist theories, the facts about the mechanics of the brain. Where eliminative materialism differs from the other theories is in how it expects these mechanics to match up with our mental states. Most other theories assert that we will discover certain patterns of activity that relate to certain types of mental states, although how successfully we can generalise these states is a topic for much debate. Reductive materialism would argue that only minor changes are necessary for us to be able to match up brain activity to current psychological terms. Eliminative materialism would contest this, suggesting that our current conception of mental states is incompatible with what we will find within the brain. Further, our current framework for explaining the links between mental states and physical actions is utterly wrong. If we are to have any hope of discovering the match up of mental and brain states that materialists desire, then we need to totally re-evaluate what we mean by mental states. Eliminative materialism does, in fact, seek to 'eliminate' folk psychological terms from our vocabulary, since it asserts that they are simply misleading.

Folk psychology is the label applied to our explanations of the links between actions and their mental causes. Thus, according to folk psychology, when someone says Ï want some chocolate" it is because they are in a mental state of desiring chocolate. Emotions and all intentional mental terms are all part of folk psychology. Eliminative materialism seeks to do away with all these terms, claiming that they are completely inaccurate descriptions of the reasons for our actions. Quite what eliminative materialists would seek to put in place of folk psychology is unclear, but the general response seems to be a 'wait and see', based upon psychological and neuroscientific research.

Materialism has many problems to overcome before it becomes accepted by many people. The first problem is the problem of introspection. When we turn our thoughts inward, we do not perceive a network of nerves transmitting electrical pulses and neurohormones circulating through the brain, we perceive an inner mind, possibly a mind's eye. How is it that we can be so deceived? A dualist would say that we are in fact not deceived, that we really do have this mind that is not made up of nerves and the like. However, this option is closed to the materialist. One of the responses to this involves comparing our inner sense to our external senses. No-one would seek to claim that our external senses are infallible, and thus, by analogy, it can be argued that our inner sense is unlikely to be totally accurate. Perhaps the reason why we cannot perceive the network of nerves that our mind exists in is because we do not have high enough definition in our inner sense, thus we can see only the 'coarse' effects of the nerve impulses, i.e. the feelings and mental states.

The next problem is one that is the essential distinction between materialists and dualists. A dualist may well ask how it is possible to reduce the functions of the brain to physical reactions, no matter how complex. To them it is totally unfeasible, whereas to the materialist, it seems perfectly feasible, even if a full explanation will only be available in the distant future. This is the essential dividing line. Materialists see no problem in holding this theory, dualists cannot see how it can possibly be coherent. This is perhaps a gap that will never be bridged until scientific knowledge of the brain progresses to its endpoint, and it is conclusively proven one way or the other whether brain functions can or cannot explain all of the functions of the mind.

Assuming eliminative materialism can overcome these problems that are applicable to all materialist positions, it then has to face another barrage of problems specific to its specialised differences from other materialist doctrines. The first of these is the sheer incomprehensibility of denying folk psychology. This is something that we all use continuously, both on ourselves and on those around us. It is the only way we have of predicting how people will act, and of judging our own behaviour. Should it prove to be a bogus concept, what will it mean for our actions? Will they have to change in order to match up with this new theory? It seems that all our actions are in fact inextricably linked in with our psychological explanations of them. One could even argue that if folk psychology had no meaning to begin with, it has come to contain meaning through the altering of our behaviour to fit in with it. We cannot simply do something without any reason at all, it simply is not possible for us. We must do something because we desire to do it, or because we believe it to be the thing to do, no matter the theoretical meaning of these terms, they have definite practical application to our own world. Eliminative materialists have a simple response to this argument. Put simply, we are incapable of being objective about this, so we are not really qualified to make an informed decision. As we have stated in the opposition to the theory, everything that we do is inextricably linked in to our folk psychological framework, so how can we expect to understand something that pertains not to be compatible with this framework, whilst trying to use the framework to understand it? This seems to be something of an insoluble problem, since the eliminative materialists have no alternate theory to put forward, so anyone trying to stand outside folk psychology has nothing to cling to as a starting point. The only answer given is the repeated materialist refrain of "We have to wait for science to advance sufficiently". It seems that possibly the best thing to do would be to suspend the debate until science has answered it for us. Should it fail to do so, the argument goes to the dualists by default, and the onus will then be on them to provide an explanation of their 'mind mechanics', something which they have yet to do too.

It seems that the problems facing eliminative materialism are no more serious than those facing any other materialist doctrine, and the answer to those are now well established. Materialists are either waiting on scientific research to prove their case, or are doing the research themselves to prove their case, so it seems that the best thing to do is reserve judgement until the expert witnesses are ready to testify. While none of the problems facing materialism seem fatal, none of the arguments for it seem definitive either, so we are left in a sort of limbo, awaiting proof of some kind.


P. Churchland, Matter and Consciousness J. Cottingham, Western Philosophy: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997) G. Graham, Philosophy of Mind Hofstader and Dennett, The Mind's I (Singapore: Penguin Books, 1981) Smith and Jones, Philosophy of Mind

File translated from TEX by TTH, version 2.92.
On 24 Mar 2002, 23:49.