Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Consequences of Eliminativism

Eliminative materialists like Stephen Stich and Paul Churchland have proposed a theory of "mind" (mind is in scare quotes because they eliminate its existence; strictly speaking they only have a theory of the brain) that is fascinating, creative, amenable to science, and that challenges the traditional conceptions about the mind. Most significantly, eliminativism proclaims that neuroscience is sufficient to explain the mental life, which has traditionally been understood using folk psychological terms like belief, desire, and intention. While rejecting folk psychology may be most consistent with a physicalistic/scientistic ontology, this rejection of folk psychology has some very strange results.

First, consider the enormous burden of proof that is required to deny that anyone has had a belief, desire, or intention. Lynne Rudder Baker has captured this point soundly in her criticism of physicalism Saving Belief (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1987):
If no one has ever had a belief or intention, it is unclear how to interpret any inscription to be a claim that such-and-such and, in particular, how to construe as meaningful a claim advancing the view that no one has ever had a belief. In the absence of some indication of how meaning would be possible without beliefs or intentions, one who denies that common-sense conception of the mental is akin to a logician who takes the moral of the semantic and logical paradoxes to be that all logic is wrong and just leaves it at that. Or, to use another of David Austin's suggestive analogies, it is as if someone were to write on a blackboard, "The following sentences have no meaning or interpretation," and then, three or four sentences down, repeat that same sentence. We would be entitled to puzzlement. We can hardly assess a claim that takes away everything we possess to understand it. (page 114)
When one considers that it follows from eliminativism that no one believes in eliminativism and there are no beliefs that confirm or deny eliminativism, this consequence of eliminativism can be downright baffling.

The aforementioned consequence of eliminativism is well known. But what other consequences follow from eliminativism? Consider what Stich himself suggests [From Folk Psychology to Cognitive Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1983), 242], "Might it be the case that ordinary folk psychological ascriptions will turn out, quite generally, not to be true? The answer I have been urging is that this is a serious possibility.... If we had to renounce folk psychology, we should probably have to renounce the notions of personhood and agency as well." Baker draws thirteen consequences that follow if eliminativism is true (Saving Belief, 130-32). (1) The ability to predict others' behavior would become inexplicable. Suppose I call you on the phone and invite you to dinner at 7:00 on Saturday--without any beliefs, intentions, or desires, it would be amazing if I actually prepared dinner for you and you showed up. (2) Commonplace interaction among people and what is said about such interactions would become mysterious. (3) Behavior could never go wrong. Without folk psychological concepts like intention, one could never be said to have done something unintentionally or by accident or by mistake. Without any distinction between intentional and unintentional actions, justifying and excusing behavior cannot be sensibly maintained. (4) Almost every explanation that anyone has ever given would be false. (5) There would be no distinction between what we call lying and an honest mistake. (6) Every moral judgment would be false or senseless. (7) Nothing would ever have mattered to anybody. (8) It would be a total mystery why we say the things we do (though not why we emit the noises we emit) and why we give the explanations of our actions that we do. (9) It would be a miracle that we are able systematically to utter truths. (10) Reports of deliberation and decision would be false. (11) What one does would be totally unrelated to what one reports that she thinks she is doing. (12) Most of applied psychology, from market research to the various psychotherapies, would be bogus. (13) The explananda of psychology would become problematic.

Now this, so far, has not been an argument against eliminativism. Thus far, I have only shown that "if elimantivism is true, then these consequences follow." But I think we can turn this into an argument against eliminativism. Since eliminativism entails the denial of numerous facts most people find more plausible than eliminativism itself, we could employ modus tollens on the eliminativist. In other words, eliminativists want to argue that since eliminativism is true, we must reject folk psychology and accept the 13 consequences noted above. I, on the other hand, want to argue that since we cannot accept the 13 consequences noted above, eliminativism must be false.


At 12:25 AM, March 02, 2005, Blogger Clark Goble said...

I'm not fan of eliminative materialism, but I don't think the typical criticisms like the above are that persuasive. After all just because our conceptions are wrong doesn't mean they aren't useful.

To make an analogy I can make a model of many natural phenomena that technically is false but can predict the phenomena sufficient for my needs. So long as I don't think the models are real, what's the problem?

It seems to me that eliminative materialists simply assert that philosophers are taking seriously what are only useful fictions. Thus to criticize it on the basis of no longer being able to utilize notions like beliefs, intents or so forth is beside the point. Someone like Rorty, for instance, might say they have pragmatic utility (in his sense of the term). One just errs if one believes in them.

At 12:25 AM, March 02, 2005, Blogger Clark Goble said...

Whoops. "I'm not a fan of eliminative materialism. . ."

At 11:10 AM, March 03, 2005, Blogger Joshua_Duncan said...

But if folk psychology does a better job of explaining these things than eliminativism then (barring a slam dunk eliminativist argument) isn't it better to choose folk psychology? It seems to me that it would at least be a rational thing to do.

At 11:28 AM, March 03, 2005, Blogger Johnny-Dee said...

Clark, as I understand eliminativists, they are not endorsing that we keep folk psychology around for its instrumental uses. They want to eliminate all folk psychological entities/terms. Note the parallel examples they love to use: choloric fluid, phlogiston, and witches. We don't retain any trace (semantic or otherwise) for these entities because they are explanatorily useless and obsolete. This is how the eliminativists want to treat folk psychology (desires, belief, intentions, etc.) as well.

At 8:51 PM, March 06, 2005, Anonymous Brad Weslake said...


Bill Lycan has a similar, Moorean, argument against eliminative materialism based on its denial of common-sense; he writes:

"Numerous common-sense mental ascriptions, such as that Granny wants a beer and believes there is one under the sofa, are individually more plausible, and always will be more plausible, than are the purely philosophical premises of any argument designed to convince us to the contrary."


Lycan, William G. forthcoming. “A Particularly Compelling Refutation of Eliminative Materialism,” in D. M. Johnson and C. E. Erneling (Eds.), Mind as a Scientific Object: Between Brain and Culture, Oxford University Press, Oxford, forthcoming. [Online]

At 10:24 PM, March 06, 2005, Blogger Dave said...

Great post!! It is in conflicting with such self-evident facts as our own mental states that eliminativism is revealed as truly absurd. I think that a modus tollens refutation of eliminativism can be constructed, but I think you are making are far too modest when you (seem) to want to limit it to showing that eliminativism conflicts with what we find more plausible.

I don't think we merely find our various mental states plausible. We simply know that we have them, and that is the end of the argument. The modus tollens would go like this:

Premise 1: If eliminativism is true, then I have no beliefs, thoughts, desires, feelings or intentions.
Premise 2: But I do have beliefs, thoughts, desires, feelings and intentions.
Conclusion: Eliminativism is not true.

This is a rather bold claim. One might even say it's arrogant. But it is no more arrogant than eliminativism, which purports to tell us that the experiences we all have from moment-to-moment are self-induced illusions based on "folk psychology".

As a final comment, I think you are right about the usefulness of "folk psychology" (FP) in an eliminativist framework. If eliminativism is true, as your argument clearly points out FP is not only a fiction, it is not even a useful fiction. The reality which the eliminativist describes is purely material, without mental states at all. Of what use in describing this reality can FP be?

Thanks again for a wonderful post!

At 6:53 PM, March 08, 2005, Blogger Clayton said...

Like Clark, I'm not a fan of EM, but I'm also not a fan of many of the arguments used against EM (I'll say for the record that the most persuasive I've seen are found in Helen Steward's The Ontology of Mind).

In response to Johnny-Dee, why can't the proponent of EM say this. Some fictions are more useful than others. Frictionless planes are useful for more purposes than witches or phlogiston but even these might be useful in some circumstance for accounting for appearances, otherwise how in the world would people have ever come up with such ideas? When it comes to belief, it is more useful than witch and less useful than frictionless plane. Talk of witches and phlogiston sells books, but it also distracts from the point that for the purposes of serious psychology, we shouldn't believe such things. Figuring out when the guests will arrive isn't a matter of serious psychology.

I'd be interested in knowing what the argument is for Premise 2 of David's argument. Does it appeal to introspective grounds? Explanatory grounds? Both? I actually have a hard time seeing what justification there is for accepting that there are beliefs and that such entities play the role (allegedly) assigned to them by folk-psychology. I think one problem anyone who endorses Premise 2 faces is this: introspective grounds seem like good evidence for Premise 2 but it makes all that much more difficult the justification of the FP platitudes about the causal-explanatory role of belief. Causal-explanatory arguments for Premise 2 might work, but they make problematic any attempt to appeal to identify the occupant of the causal-explanatory role on introspective grounds such we do not have introspective access to the fact that certain states play these roles. I think that the pragmatic self-refutation arguments which Lycan uses (and incidentally have been in use for well over a decade) do not add much to the issue.

At 1:43 PM, March 12, 2005, Blogger Matt Brown said...

I think the majority of these criticisms can be defused by keeping in mind the following:

1) Part of eliminative materialism involves providing an explanatory framework (though this may be in the form of a large promissory note) that is supposed to be superior to folk psychology. So it isn't the case that it simply leaves us in the dark.

2) Eliminativism is compatible with the claim that the prior theory is subtle, sophisticated, and predictively useful in many domains, while nonetheless claiming that it is false (in predictive domains, but more importantly in ontology) and that many of its problems are chimeras (like the worries over the weight of phlogiston, for example).

3) The eliminativist claim that FP is so false as to admit of no reduction to neuroscience is not incompatible with EM's ability to explain the successes of FP where it was in fact successful. You can still explain the success of phlogiston theory from the point of view of the new chemistry.

At 10:34 AM, March 16, 2005, Blogger Johnny-Dee said...

I am not sure EM has demonstrated any explanatory usefulness at all in any of the 13 areas that would need to be eliminated if EM is true. Even if EM does have some utility in explaining these areas, I wonder if EM can explain them better than FP? If FP is a better explanation, I don't see a reason to buy EM.

Second, aren't explanations FP entities? If so, then strictly speaking EM can't have reasons or beliefs that give a better explanation as to why we need to eliminate these 13 consequences. I would argue that we can't live without explanations, and anyone else who gives me an argument or reason or explanation to the contrary proves my point by doing so.

At 2:44 PM, March 26, 2005, Blogger Matt Brown said...

I don't think explanations and reasons are part of FP in the way that beliefs and desires are. The former are part of a language game, the latter are mentalistic entities. You can eliminate the former while keeping the latter.

Even if they were eliminated, that's not necessarily a problem, because the move from FP to EM could be of the form of a paradigm shift rather than a straight argument. Such a shift could nevertheless be a progressive shift, ala Lakatos.

At 2:01 PM, July 20, 2005, Blogger NSNSNS said...

Quine's Eliminative Materialism does not reject folk psychology.
But he shows that for Tom the reference of so-called mental terms such as 'x wants y' are not some mysterious mental entities but the observational events that were paired with the first meaningful utterance of 'wants' that he heard.

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