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On Eliminative Materialism

By Edited Jan 14, 2016 0 2

Materialism is a fascinating topic because it is a belief that is typically misconstrued by those holding to a belief in dualism of the mind and body, and an understanding that comes from sources that would be associated with folk psychology (the church and other archaic sources of knowledge). While it is debatable as to what purpose we serve (if any in particular) if a materialistic perspective is true, the idea that one may be moral-less if they do not believe in a mind/soul in any exclusive sort of way is very flawed; and in the least ignorant. With that said, there are multiple positions held by materialists (though they all may intersect in some ways) which add depth to their argument. Eliminative materialism is a particularly intriguing form of materialism because it explains how foolish common beliefs are. Undoubtedly, objections have arisen that beg the question of whether or not eliminative materialism can even be fathomed without some mental properties.

In the case of eliminative materialism, materialists of this philosophy of mind propose the idea that classes of mental states and common-sense understanding of the mind are inherently wrong, and that these things simply do not exist. It would appear that eliminative materialism views the functionality of the universe to be far more complex (though, seemingly more simple is some ways) than how it has been described since ancient times. This complexity is found when one considers the potential for all of our qualia to be contained within the algorithm of the physical world, yet simplicity is found as well in the fact that there is only a physical plane of existence. The ideas developed over time by society, particularly through powerful groups (such as the church in particular) who once held the "key" to knowledge and enlightenment for those poor peasants unable to read, write, and exist without fear of how the "unknown" world functions were sensible in their time. Concepts of the subjective mind and qualia were (and still are) easy to grasp, though this simplicity may not necessarily properly explain how the universe truly works.

Furthermore, the definitive qualities of many words (such as belief and desire) that seemingly explain mental concepts are simply inaccurately defined; as they presume that there is some basis in the external, mental world mutually exclusive of the physical realm. The eliminative materialist's position then would suppose that these so-called mental processes could be explained appropriately using strictly physiological ideas. Folk psychological concepts tend to only examine simple ways of explaining things, without taking into consideration the complexity of the physical system. For example, many "mental" occurrences could potentially be explained by neurological events; though awareness of the physical body on the neurological level may very well be impossible without the right tools for examining the brain. With the growth of human understanding throughout the Scientific Revolution and so on, it is hard to fathom why an individual would adhere to archaic constructs that explain how the "mind" and universe work.

One issue that is prevalent in any philosophy of the mind as it relates to materialism is the unknown. A common argument to refute this made by a materialist is to indicate that anything we do not know can, with time, be explained physiologically. In short, this is exactly how eliminative materialists understand the relation between present psychological language and future physiological language. It would seem that one fundamental quality of materialism is a need to redefine terms we understand psychologically (or with a supposition that mental states exist in such a way that is separate from the body) in light of new evidence found in the physiological realm. As a psychology major, the concept of the mind is one that intrigues me deeply; especially because I do not believe in the mind in a sense that it is in any way separate from the physical body. However, I would not deny that there are experiences brought about by misunderstood (or simply not understood) physical processes on a neurological level. In addition to this, psychology intrigues me because it often is not concrete (there are multiple theories of how the brain works, for example) in a way similar to philosophy. If a psychologist adheres to a dualistic worldview philosophically, they will very likely be attracted to psychology that examines the functionality of an individual being as being composed of matter and non-matter. The reality is that how a psychologist perceived the brain and potential "mind" (however one defines mind in this case) is how he/she will treat a patient. There are psychologists who will treat a patient as if their mind is superior to their body, and therefore they will focus on treatments that have less to do with the body and more with the mind. Similarly, there are psychologists who will focus exclusively on the body as if all problems can be associated with the physical.

As I examine the eliminative materialists' understanding of the relationship between psychological language and physiological language, I cannot help but feel that it is not so much a problem with the denotation of words such as belief and desire; but the connotation. Unfortunately, as language is discussed and becomes increasingly complex; it seemingly becomes more prone to be used in such a manner that reduces any opinion to either neutral at best, or a fallacy at worst. What one presumes about the universe is how one will connotatively perceive words. As the short article "The Mind-Body Problem" indicates on page 47, "..all observation occurs within some system of concepts, and our observation judgments are only as good as the conceptual framework in which they are expressed." This indicates that we make observations (see words on a page, for example), analyze them, and make judgments regarding them based on our knowledge of the world we exist (or believe we exist) in.

A part of the language problem is a rising concern regarding qualia. However, how one is able to have subjective experiences can only be explained by giving options for a thinker to choose from: qualia through strictly material sources, qualia through functional sources, qualia through mental sources, or qualia through a mixture of these. Due to the nature of philosophy and the limit of human knowledge as we read and consider multiple points of view, there is no way to concretely say that one opinion or another is any more or less likely; except for our own selves subjectively. I am not choosing neutrality; I am just acknowledging that there are unknown values that should not require an alteration of the definitions of words so as to justify one's stance (materialist or otherwise). The reason for this is simple. A dualist could adhere to the same logic as the materialist and insist that future psychological language may reasonably lend supporting evidence for why there is a mutually exclusive mind/soul separate from the physical body. If one thing is close to certain, it is that language is limited and we may never be able to fully comprehend the functionality of the body; or perhaps the functionality is so simple that we may not need to search any more. If the materialist's stance is true, everything may just be physical without us having concrete evidence of this. In the same, if the dualist's stance is true; perhaps the mind does exist in the simplified manner described by the ancients.

As highlighted in the reading, there are three primary objections to eliminative materialism. The first argument is essentially an argument for qualia, in that if one introspects themselves; they will undoubtedly realize "the existence of pains, beliefs, desires, fears, and so forth" (The Mind-Body Problem, 47). The second argument attempts to find incoherence in the eliminative materialist's position. In a similar fashion as the first argument, the second argument seemingly implies that for an eliminative materialist to make a sound argument for eliminative materialism; they must utilize qualia that would make their judgment sound. The statement of the eliminative materialist's point-of-view is only meaningful and valid if it is the expression of a certain belief, intention, and knowledge. The final criticism discussed in the reading is that eliminative materialist's imagine too much to be eliminated. Those critics seemingly agree that some amendments to "common knowledge" and folk psychology may very well be needed, however a grand overhaul of these concepts to the extent of all things trickling down to a materialist's point of view seems unimaginable and simply a romanticized idea brought about by materialists themselves. This argument is seemingly an argument for neutrality on the issue of the mind and body.

As far as I am concerned, these arguments do little to damage the eliminative materialist's argument. The first criticism does nothing when an eliminative materialist can defend his/herself by saying, "Qualia is simply brought about by physiological processes, and to assume ideas such as beliefs and pains are indicators of a mind exclusive of the body would be to assume too much when they may very well be brought about by nothing more than the physical." What is unfortunate about this argument is that it is intriguing in the same way that folk psychology is intriguing. It is easy to understand and without much analysis seems to make a lot of sense. The second criticism is essentially the same as the first, though it is made by playing with the wording of the eliminative materialist's argument. It ultimately brings us to the same reply as the first criticism. The final criticism seemingly holds the most weight, because it requires materialists to acknowledge the same uncertainty faced by dualists with regard to the unknown. Ultimately, though, this argument fails because it is an argument of neutrality and complacency more than an argument made to dismiss the materialists' point of view.

As a final evaluation of all the arguments made for and against evaluative materialism, there is little that truly caught my attention in any concrete way. Most of the arguments were dumbfounded and hold little ground on their own. They seemingly chose the neutral road, which is the easiest to make an argument for. However, as a materialist myself I felt the argument for eliminative materialism was very understandable and sensible. Too long have individuals adhered to easy explanations of how things work in the name of feeling comfortable. Unfortunately, after this initial argument is made; the concern related to language fails because language is used by individuals on many sides of the belief spectrum, and can be skewed in such a way that it may cause an argument to appear to be reasonable; though it may indeed be false.



Nov 6, 2010 4:11pm
Looks like someone is back to writing articles again... :)
May 20, 2012 8:48am
It looks as though you are arguing against dualism more than arguing for eliminative materialism. As you said, there are many varieties of physicalism that do no suppose something as extreme as eliminative materialism, and it looks like you are advocating physicalism in general. Take your response to the first criticism:

"Qualia is simply brought about by physiological processes, and to assume ideas such as beliefs and pains are indicators of a mind exclusive of the body would be to assume too much when they may very well be brought about by nothing more than the physical."

The eliminative materialist wouldn't say that qualia and subjective epxeriences are products of the physical, they would say that they do not exist at all and thus require no explanation. This passage sounds more like a general physicalist saying "You dualists do not need to assume something non-physical. It is all in the brain".

My sympathies are with materialism just so you know, but I am not convinced by the eliminative materialist's scheme here. I think that clearly we exist and have experiences, but this is just a byproduct of a monistic world, not suggestive of a dualistic one. The eliminativist to me, sounds like she just wants to pretends the problem does not exist at all, focusing on third person schema, or an "everywhere without a view" with no regard to how such thoughts are made.
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