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Eliminative Materialism, Eliminativism


"Eliminative materialism" espouses the view that our commonsense way of understanding the mind is false, and that, as a result, beliefs, desires, consciousness, and other mental events used in explaining our everyday behavior do not exist. Hence, the language of our "folk" psychology should be expunged, or eliminated, from future scientific discourse.

Two routes have been taken to get to the eliminativist's position. The first and less popular stems from a linguistic analysis of mentalistic language. Paul Feyerabend argues that the commonsense terms for mental states tacitly assume some version of dualism. Insofar as materialism is true, these terms cannot refer to anything in the physical world. Thus they should not be used in discussing ourselves or our psychologies since we are purely physical beings.

The second and better-developed approach comes out of the philosophies of science developed by Feyerabend, David Lewis, Willard Van Orman Quine and Wilfrid Sellars. Two suppositions are important for eliminativism. (1) There is no fundamental distinction between observations (and our observation language) and theory (and our theoretical language), for previously adopted conceptual frameworks shape all observations and all expressions of those observations. All observations are "theory-laden." These include observations we make of ourselves; in particular, observations we make about our internal states. There are no incorrigible phenomenological "givens." (2) The meaning of our theoretical terms (which includes our observational vocabulary) depends upon how the terms are embedded in the conceptual scheme. Meaning holism of this variety entails that if the theory in which the theoretical terms are embedded is false, then the entities that the theory posits do not exist. The terms would not refer.

Two more planks complete the eliminative argument. (3) Our way of describing ourselves in our everyday interactions comprises a rough and ready theory composed of the platitudes of our commonsense understanding. The terms used in this folk theory are defined by the platitudes. (4) Folk psychology is a radically false theory.

In support of this position. Patricia Churchland and Paul Churchland argue that belief-desire psychology wrongly assumes sentential processing; moreover, belief-desire psychology is stagnant, irreducible to neuroscience, and incomplete. Stephen Stich argues that our very notion of belief and, by implication, the other propositional attitudes is unsuitable for cognitive science. Patricia Churchland, Daniel Dennett, Georges Rey, Richard Rorty, and others argue that our notion of consciousness is confused. They all conclude, as do other eliminativists, that folk psychology should be replaced by something entirely different and more accurate, though views differ on what this replacement should be.

Attacks on eliminative materialism generally have come from four fronts, either on premise two, premise three, or premise four of the second approach, or on the eliminativist position itself, without regard to the arguments for it. Premise two asserts meaning holism and a particular theory of reference. If that theory were false, then the eliminativist's second argument would be undermined. There are alternative approaches to reference that do not assume holism; for example, causal-historical accounts do not. If meaning is not holistic, then even if folk psychology were incorrect, the terms used in that theory could still refer, and elimination of folk psychological terms would not be warranted.

Arguments that our folk psychology is not a true theory deny premise three. Here some detractors point out that even if a completed psychology did not rely on the propositional attitudes or consciousness, that fact would not entail that those sorts of mental states do not exist; instead, they just would not be referred to in scientific discourse. Nevertheless, they could still be used as they are now, in our everyday explanations of our behavior.

Others charge that premise four is false; folk psychology might be a rudimentary theory, but it is not radically false. While agreeing that belief-desire explanations or explanations involving conscious events might not be entirely empirically adequate or complete, champions of folk psychology argue that no other theory is either. In addition, our folk psychology has developed over time, is coherent, and its status with respect to neuroscience is immaterial. These arguments are generally coupled with the claim that no other alternative, either real or imagined, could fulfill the explanatory role that the propositional attitudes play in our understanding of ourselves. And until the eliminativist's promise of a better conceptual scheme is fulfilled folk psychology is here to stay. At least some properly revised version of folk psychology would remain.

Lastly, some supporters of folk psychology argue that any eliminativist program would be fatally flawed, regardless of whatever particular arguments are given, for the very statement of eliminative materialism itself is incoherent. In its simplest form, the argument runs as follows: Eliminative materialism claims that beliefs do not exist. Therefore, if eliminative materialism were true, we could not believe it. Therefore, no one can believe eliminative materialism on pain of inconsistency.

Replies to the four sorts of attacks are ubiquitous. However, answering the first three turns on (primarily empirical) issues yet to be settled. Which theory of reference is correct, whether folk psychology is actually a theory, and what revisions are required to make it adequate depend upon facts we do not yet know about ourselves or our linguistic practices.

The last point is more conceptual. In responding to it, eliminative materialists hold that something else will replace "belief," or some instances or aspects of "belief." Call this "schmelief." It is true that eliminative materialists cannot believe that eliminative materialism is true on pain of inconsistency. But, eliminativists maintain, they can "schmelieve it." Defenders of a revised folk psychology answer that, as used in this context, "schmelief" seems to be some other intentional operator or relation, a mere revision of belief. Without better exposition of what the replacement for folk psychology will be (and how it will be radically different), we simply cannot tell what the future holds for our commonsense theory of self: simple revision, peaceful coexistence, or outright replacement.

See also Consciousness; Dennett, Daniel C.; Folk Psychology; Lewis, David; Materialism; Philosophy of Mind; Quine, Willard Van Orman; Reference; Rorty, Richard; Sellars, Wilfrid.


Baker, L. R. Saving Belief: A Critique of Physicalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Boghossian, P. "The Status of Content." Philosophical Review 99 (1990): 157184.

Churchland, P. "Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes." Journal of Philosophy 78 (1981): 6790.

Feyerabend, P. "Mental Events and the Brain." Journal of Philosophy 60 (1963): 295296.

Horgan, T., and J. Woodward. "Folk Psychology Is Here to Stay." Philosophical Review 94 (1985): 197225.

Rey, G. "A Reason for Doubting the Existence of Consciousness." In Consciousness and Self-Regulation, edited by R. Davidson, S. Schwartz, and D. Shapiro, Vol. 3. New York: Plenum Press, 1982.

Rorty, R. "Mind-Body Identity, Privacy, and Categories." Review of Metaphysics 19 (1965): 2454.

Stich, S. From Folk Psychology to Cognitive Science: The Case against Belief. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983.

Valerie Gray Hardcastle (1996)

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