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Eliminative materialism

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Eliminativists argue that our modern belief in the existence of mental phenomena is analogous to our ancient belief in obsolete theories such as the geocentric model of the universe.
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Eliminative materialism (also called eliminativism) is a view in the philosophy of mind that argues for an absolute version of materialism with respect to mental entities and mental vocabulary. It principally argues that our common-sense understanding of the mind (or folk psychology), which eliminativists view as a sort of unformalized theory, is not a viable conception on which to base scientific investigation. Eliminativists believe that no coherent neural basis will be found for many everyday psychological concepts such as belief or desire and that behaviour and experience can only be adequately explained on the biological level. The most radical claims of eliminativism include the challenging of the existence of conscious mental states such as pains and visual perceptions.


Eliminative Materialism
Schematic overview: Some sciences can be reduced (blue). Theories that are in principle irreducible are eventually abolished (orange).
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Eliminativism maintains that our common-sense understanding of the mind is radically mistaken, and that neuroscience will one day reveal that the mental states we talk about in every day discourse using words such as intend, believe, desire, and love do not refer to anything real. They maintain that it is only due to the inadequacy of our language that people mistakenly think that they have beliefs and desires. Some eliminativists therefore believe that consciousness does not exist except as an epiphenomenon of brain function and some believe that the concept will eventually be eliminated as neuroscience progresses. Consciousness and folk psychology are separate issues and it is possible to take an eliminative stance on one but not the other.

The roots of eliminativism go back to the writings of Wilfred Sellars, W.V. Quine, Paul Feyerabend, and Richard Rorty. The term "eliminative materialism" was first introduced by James Cornman in 1968 while describing a version of physicalism endorsed by Rorty. The later Wittgenstein also provided an important inspiration for many eliminativist suggestions, particularly his attack on "private objects" as "grammatical fictions".

Early eliminativists such as Rorty and Feyerabend often confused two different conceptions of the sort of elimination that the term eliminative materialism entailed. On the one hand, these early theorists claimed, the cognitive sciences that will ultimately give us a correct account of the workings of the human mind will not refer to common-sense mental states like beliefs and desires; these states will not be part of the ontology of a mature cognitive science. But many critics immediately countered that this view was practically indistinguishable from identity theories. Even Quine himself wondered what exactly was so eliminative about eliminative materialism after all.

Is physicalism a repudiation of mental objects after all, or a theory of them? Does it repudiate the mental state of pain or anger in favor of its physical concomitant, or does it identify the mental state with a state of the physical organism (and so a state of the physical organism with the mental state)" (p. 265)

On the other hand, the same philosophers also claimed that common-sense mental states simply do not exist. But critics immediatly pointed out that eliminativists could not have it both ways: either mental states exist and will ultimately be explained in terms of lower-level neuro-physiological processes or they do not. Modern eliminativists have much more clearly expressed the view that mental phenomena simply do not exist and will eventually be eliminated from our thinking about the brain in the same way that demons have been eliminated from our thinking about mental illnes and psychopathology.

Today, the eliminativist view is most closely associated with the philosophers Paul and Patricia Churchland, who deny the existence of most mental phenomena, including beliefs, desires and other so-called intentional states, consciousness and phenomological qualia.

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It is possible to be eliminativist with respect to some of these things without being eliminativist with respect to all, however. Daniel Dennett, for example, is generally considered to be an eliminativist with respect to qualia and phenomal aspects of consciousness without, for all that, being an eliminativist tout court. Dennett believes that propositional attitudes, such as beliefs and desires are dispositional states which we adopt when ascribing intentional states to other humans, computers and non-human animals. Although his view has sometimes been described as instrumentalist, he does not maintain that these dispositions are unreal or that they can be eliminated from the vocabulary of science or the natural languages.

Since the late 1960's, eliminativism has gained a wide variety of adherents and proponents, for example scientific behaviourists. Proponents of this view often make parallels to previous scientific theories (such as that of the the four humours, the theory of medicine, the phlogiston theory of combustion, and the vital force theory of life) that have all been successfully eliminated in attempting to establish their thesis about the nature of the mental. In these cases, science has not produced more detailed versions or reductions of these theories, but rejected them altogether as obsolete. Eliminativists argue that folk psychology is headed the same way. According to Quine, it will take decades before folk psychology is finally replaced by real science.

Arguments for eliminativismEdit

Problems with folk theoriesEdit

Eliminativists such as Paul and Patricia Churchland argue that folk psychology is a fully developed but non-formalized theory of human behavior. It is used to systematically explain and make predictions about human mental states and behavior. This view is often referred to as the theory-theory, for it is a theory which theorizes the existence of an unacknowledged theory. As a theory in the scientific sense, eliminativists maintain, folk psychology needs to be evaluated on the basis of its predictive power and explanatory success as a relativeley sophisticated research program for the investigation of the mind/brain.

Such eliminativists have developed different arguments to show that folk psychology is a seriously mistaken theory and needs to be abolished. They argue that folk psychology excludes from its purview or has traditionally been radically mistaken about many important mental phenomena that can, and are, being examined and explained by modern neurosciences. Some examples are mental disorders, learning processes or memory abilities. Furthermore, folk psychology's development in the last 2,500 years has not been very significant and it is therefore a stagnating theory. The ancient Greeks already had a folk psychology comparable to ours. But in contrast to this lack of development, the neurosciences are a rapidly progessing science complex that can explain many cognitive processes that folk psychology cannot.

Folk psychology retains characteristics of now obsolete theories or legends from the past. Ancient societies tried to explain the physical mysteries of nature by ascribing mental conditions to them in such statements as "the sea is angry". Gradually, these everyday folk-psychological explanations were replaced by more efficient scientific descriptions. Today, there is no reason not to accept an efficient scientific account of our cognitive abilities. If we had such an explanation, then there would be no need whatsoever for folk-psychological explanations of our behavior, and the latter would be eliminated in the same way as the mythological explanations the ancients used.

Another line of argument is the meta-induction based on the disatrous historical record of folk theories in general. Our ancient pre-scientific "theories" of folk biology, folk physics and folk cosmology have all proven to be radically wrong. Why shouldn't the same thing happen in the case of folk psychology? There seems no logical basis, to the eliminativist, for making an exception just because folk psychology has lasted longer and is more intuitive or instinctively plausible than the other folk theories. Indeed, the eliminativists warn, considerations of intuitive plausibility may be precisely the result of the deeply entrenched nature in society of folk psychology itself. It may be that our beliefs and other such states are as theory-laden as external perceptions and hence our intuitions will tend to be profoundly biased in favor of them.

Specific problems with folk psychologyEdit

Much of folk psychology involves the attribution of intentional states (also known as propositional attitudes). Eliminativists point out that these states are generally ascribed syntantic and semantic properties. An example of this is the language of thought hypothesis, which attributes a discrete, combinatorial syntax and other linguistic properties to these mental phenomena. Eliminativists argue that such discrete and combinatorial characterisitics have no place in the neurosciences, which speak of action potentials, spiking frequencies, and other effects which are continuous and distributed in nature. Hence, the syntatic structures which are assumed by folk psychology can have no place in such a structure as the brain. Against this there have been two reponses: on the one hand, there are philosophers who deny that mental states are linguistic in nature and see this as a straw man argument; on the other, those who subscribe to something like a language of thought point out that the mental states can be multiply realized and that functional characterizations are just higher-level charaterizations of what's happening at the physical level.

It has also been urged against folk psychology that the intentionality of mental states like belief imply that they have semantic qualities. Specifically, there meaning is determined by the things that they are about in the external world. This makes it difficult to explain how they can play the causal roles that they are supposed to in cognitive processes.

In recent years, this latter argument has been fortified by the theory of connectionism. Many connectist models of the brain have been developed in which the processes of language learning and other forms of representation are highly distributed and parallel. This would tend to indicate that there is no need for such discrete and semantically-endowed entities as beliefs and desires.

Arguments against eliminativismEdit

Intuitive reservationsEdit

The thesis of eliminativism seems to be so obviously wrong to many critics, under the claim that people know immediately and indubitably that they have minds, that argumentation seems unnecessary. This sort of intuition pumping is nicely illustrated by simply asking what happens when one asks oneself honestly if one has mental states. Eliminativists object to such a rebuttal of their position by claiming that intuitions very often are completely wrong. Analogies from the history of science are frequently invoked to buttress this observation: It may appear obvious that the sun travels around the earth, for example, but for all its apparent obviousness this conception was proved wrong nevertheless. Similarly, it may appear obvious that apart from neural events there are also mental conditions. Nevertheless, this could equally turn out to be false.

But even if one accepts the susceptibility to error of our intuitions, the objection can be reformulated: If the existence of mental conditions seems perfectly obvious and is central in our conception of the world, then enormously strong arguments are needed in order to successfully deny the existence of mental conditions. Those who accept this objection say that the arguments in favor of eliminativism are far too weak to establish such a radical claim; therefore there is no reason to believe in eliminativism.

Quine's strategy for replying to such "introspective" arguments was to show how to account for the activities of introspection and science in appropriately sanitized terms, such as the replacement of "belief" by "dispositions to utter certain sentences in certain circumstances" (1960). Sentences, on this view, are just sequences of certain sounds, and theories just sets of sentences. Introspective claims may be replaced by dispositions to utter certain sentences as a result of physical events in one's body.


Some philosophers such as Paul Boghossian have attempted to show that eliminativism is in some sense self-refuting, since the theory itself presupposes the existence of mental phenomena: if eliminativism is true then the eliminativist must permit an intentional property like truth, supposing that in order to assert something one must believe it. Hence, for eliminativism to be asserted as a thesis, the eliminativist must believe that it is true; if that is the case, then there are beliefs and the eliminativist claim is false.

The reply by Georges Rey and Michael Devitt to this objection relies on deflationary semantic theories that avoid analysing predicates like "x is true" to express a real property. Rather, they are construed as logical devices so that asserting that a sentence is true is just a quoted way of asserting the sentence itself: to say, ‘"God exists" is true’ is just to say, "God exists". This way, Rey and Devitt argue, in so far as dispositional replacements of "claims" and deflationary accounts of "true" are coherent, eliminativism is not self-refuting.


Another problem for the eliminativist is the consideration that human beings undergo experience and hence have qualia. Since qualia are generally regarded as characteristics of mental conditions, their existence does not seem to be compatible with eliminativism. Therefore, eliminativists also reject qualia. This is problematic, since the existence of qualia also seems perfectly obvious. Many philosophers consider the "elimination" of qualia implausible, if not even incomprehensible. They explain that, for instance, the existence of pain is simply beyond denial.

The classical refutation of this objection comes from Daniel Dennett (1988). Admitting that the existence of qualia seems obvious, Dennett states, nevertheless, that "qualia" is a theoretical term from an outdated metaphysic stemming from Cartesian intuitions. He argues that a precise analysis shows that the term is in the long run empty and full of contradictions. The eliminativist's claim in respect to qualia is that it is not obvious that non-tendentious data can be adduced for such experiences regarded as more than propositional attitudes. Influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (especially §§230-308), Dennett and Rey have defended eliminativism with respect to these further phenomena, even when other portions of the mental are accepted.

Efficacy of folk psychologyEdit

Some simply argue that folk-psychology is a quite successful theory. Secondly, some doubt that our understanding of the mental can be understood at all as theory. Jerry Fodor is one of the objectors that believes in folk psychology's success as a theory (1987), since it makes for an effective way of communication in everyday life, that can be implemented with few words. Such an effectiveness could never be achieved with a complex neuroscientific terminology. Furthermore, the eliminativist's claim that folk psychology cannot explain phenomena such as mental disorders or many memory processes has become often the objectors's premise, namely that it is not at all the task of folk-psychology to account for these phenomena.


  • Boghossian, P. (1990). "The Status of Content." Philosophical Review. 99: 157-84.
  • Boghossian, P. (1991). "The Status of Content Revisited." Pacific Philosophical Quarterly. 71: 264-78.
  • Churchland, P.S. (1986) Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind/Brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. .
  • Churchland, P.M. (1981) Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes. Journal of Philosophy 78(2): 67-90. .
  • Churchland, P.M. (1988) Matter and Consciousness, Revised Edition. Cambrigdge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Dennett, D. (1978) The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Dennett, D. (1988) "Quining Qualia" in: Marcel, A and Bisiach, E (eds), Consciousness in Contemporary Science, 42-77. New York, Oxford University Press.
  • Feyerabend, P. (1963) "Mental Events and the Brain" in Journal of Philosophy 40:295-6.
  • Fodor, J. and Pylyshyn, Z. (1984) Connectionism and Cognitive Architecture: A Critical Analysis, Cognition 28: 3-71. .
  • Horgan, T. and Graham, G. In Defense of Southern Fundamentalism in Philosophical Studies 62: 107-134. 1990.
  • Lycan, W. and Pappas, G. (1972) What Is Eliminative Materialism? in Australasian Journal of Philosophy 50:149-59.
  • Quine, W.V.O. (1960) Word and Object. MIT Press. Cambridge, Mass.
  • Rorty, Richard. "Mind-body Identity, Privacy and Categories" in The Review of Metaphysics XIX:24-54. Reprinted Rosenthal, D.M. (ed.) 1971.
  • Rorty, Richard (1970). "In Defense of Eliminative Materialism" in The Review of Metaphysics XXIV. Reprinted Rosenthal, D.M. (ed.) (1971)
  • Devitt, M. & Rey, G. (1991). Transcending Transcendentalism in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 72: 87-100.

Further reading Edit

  • Baker, L. (1987) Saving Belief: A Critique of Physicalism, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Broad, C. D. (1925). The Mind and its Place in Nature. London, Routledge & Kegan.
  • Churchland, P. (1979). Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind. New York, Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.
  • Churchland, P. (1984). Matter and Consciousness. Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press.
  • Churchland, P. a. P. S. C. (1998). Intertheoretic Reduction: A Neuroscientist's Field Guide. On the Contrary Critical Essays, 1987-1997. Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press: 65-79.
  • Fodor, J. (1987). Psychosemantics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Stich, S. (1996). Deconstructing the Mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

External links Edit

es:Materialismo eliminativo

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