Eliminative Materialism

Materialists try to reduce the mental to the physical. The assumption is that a science of the mind must be exclusively from a third-person point of view. For example, behaviorists attempted to talk about the mental exclusively in terms of third-person observable behavior or dispositions to behave. Similarly, physicalists sought to identify the mental with the physical, so that a mental state—a belief, for instance—is reduced to a physical state, such as a neural one. Sophisticated physi- calists allowed for multiple realizability so that mental states could be realized in different types of physical states. Perhaps a robot could have mental states that were identical to circuitry states, or an alien could have mental states identical to its brain states. Lastly, functionalists sought functional relations that would explain mental life. But these tactics are problematic because mental life fails reduction to third- person phenomena.

Pain is not reducible to behavior. I can act as if I were in pain, without being in pain. Think of a gym member who grimaces and lets out a series of grunts as soon as that person touches some weights—well before lactic acid has accumulated. If behaviorism were right, the person would be in pain, but not his Spartan buddy who, during an intense workout, shows no signs of pain despite having torn muscle fibers saturated with stinging lactic acid.[1] Nor is the Spartan’s experience of pain reducible to torn muscle fibers, lactic acid, C-fiber stimulation, or any other physical structures. Any such third-person account leaves out the first-person experience. The same is true of the functionalist account of pain. To say the Spartan’s pain is a matter of functional patterns does not work, because the experience of pain is not captured by such patterns. The materialist reduction is unsatisfactory because the first-person experience is ignored. But materialist reductions of mental states, such as intentions and beliefs, are also problematic.

To so-called eliminativist philosophers, it seemed that the mental might never allow for materialist reduction. How could that be? Could there be a science of the mind, in that case? Yes, said these philosophers, but the science of the mind should not start with reducing the mental to the physical; it should start instead with what we know from science. We should start with scientific facts about the brain and work our way up from basic neuroscience to a new theory of psychology. As we do so, we eliminate whatever cannot be reached at the level of psychology. This may seem like a radical move, but our understanding of the top mental level is unscien- tific—a kind of folk psychology—said these eliminative materialists. Let us look closer at the account of this position given by cognitive scientists Paul Churchland (1942—) and Patricia Churchland (1943-).[2]

  • [1] Hilary Putnam makes a more thorough critique of behaviorism, also involving Spartans, in hisarticle “Brains and Behavior” (Putnam 1975, p. 332).
  • [2] See the chapter “Folk Psychology” in Churchland and Churchland (1998), the paper “EliminativeMaterialism and Propositional Attitudes” in Churchland (1981), and “Could an Electronic MachineBe Conscious” in Churchland (1995) for Paul Churchland’s more detailed account of eliminativematerialism and consciousness.
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