The Eliminative Materialism of Paul Churchland and Alex Rosenberg

Eliminative materialism is the only real materialism. This is official BQTA doctrine (not necessarily endorsed by all contributors). To get to true materialism, everything that is not material must be eliminated. This would include not only ghosts and spirits, angels and demons, but also immaterial mental states.

Most philosophers (and all scientists) claim to be materialists, but still have mental states in the picture. “Non-reductive Materialism” is a form a dualism– the very thing materialism is created to avoid. If in your theory mental states are identical to brain states– just are brain states– then two things became one thing. Mind and body became body. That’s fine. Mind is eliminated. Only body is real. Few have the courage to go there.

Two who do have the courage to go there and fly in the face of common sense are Alex Rosenberg and Paul Churchland. Churchland was the subject of a blog post by Dan Kaufman, and Rosenberg recently wrote a piece in 3am Magazine “Is Neuroscience a Bigger Threat than Artificial Intelligence”. 

Kaufman taught Churchland’s famous 1981 paper “Eliminative Materialism and Propositional Attitudes” in his Philosophy of Psychology course.  “Propositional attitudes” is a philosophical term that covers mental states like beliefs and desires. Kaufman gives us a nice rundown of Churchland on his blog The Electric Agora: 

In the philosophy of mind, apart from sensations, with their perplexing “qualia”,  intentional states, the so-called “propositional attitudes,” have proven materialism’s biggest headache.  Materialism’s greatest hope, functionalism – and particularly its computational variety – ran into trouble with the propositional attitudes by way of the Chinese (or at least, one of their Rooms), and disputes over the status of the folk psychological explanations into which they figure – Science! Bad science! Not science! – threaten to see them “eliminated” altogether.  Hence the star of this edition of Course Notes, Paul Churchland, who has made it his mission to get us to believe that there are no beliefs.

Churchland calls our common sense view about the mind “folk psychology” and argues that it represents an unsuccessful theory of the mind unchanged for thousands of years. In particular, it has been unaffected by the scientific revolution of the 17th century. The analogy is to physics, which before Galileo and Newton amounted to “folk physics.”

Folk psychology’s historical arc is a story of contraction and stagnation.  Human beings used to offer intentional explanations for everything in nature (here, Churchland is referencing primitive, animistic accounts of weather, the movement of water, etc.), but now such explanations are only applied to human activity, and they really are no different from or better than they were in Aristotle’s day.  (8) Finally, all the other sciences in which human beings are an object of study are converging on a common picture of human nature, in non-intentional terms, a picture in which folk psychology has no place.

Churchland’s view isn’t simply that intentional explanations are of limited use or that folk psychology will eventually be eclipsed by other sciences.  It’s that there are no intentional states at all.  No beliefs. No desires.  The situation with folk psychology, he thinks, is much like it was with the caloric theory of heat, according to which it was the presence of a fluid inside bodies (caloric fluid) that determined their temperature.  Of course, we now know that temperature is equal to mean molecular energy, and not only was the caloric theory discarded upon this realization, but the caloric fluid as well.  We think there is no such thing.

This inference from the falsity of a theory to the non-existence of its ontology presumes a Quinean account of ontological commitment, according to which what exists is a matter of what our best scientific theories quantify over.


Thinking that science is the best arbiter of what exists is not a bad idea, but does it really require us to believe that mental states like beliefs and desires do not exist? How can we have a belief that there is no such thing as belief? It’s difficult to believe! This is what Galen Strawson has recently called the silliest notion of all time. Kaufman agrees and offers some criticism of his own.

BQTA contributor Rick Lenon, M.D. thinks that materialism must be true, but he doesn’t want to eliminate mental states.

RL: I try to think about an alternative to materialism, and there is nothing there. I had science so thoroughly drummed into me in formative years, that I simply don’t think in terms of explanations that don’t assume a physical basis.  In medicine, there’s lots we don’t understand, we know we’ve often been wrong; but everybody agrees that there is an explanation out there.  Don’t understand how qualia happens in meat?  Add that to the list. 

Showing that a theory is false does not always result in the elimination of its subject matter. Kaufman points out that “the rejection of epicycle theory in astronomy did not lead anyone to conclude that there are no stars or planets.” Stars are not attached to celestial spheres, but stars do exist.  Heat is not caloric fluid, but there still is heat. Why must we reject the existence of mental states, even if folk psychology is proven false by neuroscience?

Basically, all human responses are determined by unconscious processes.  First of all, consciousness itself is a construction of preconscious processing.  Consciousness does not construct itself.  (The homunculus does it, Gregg…. ).  Touch a hot stove by accident, withdrawal happens way before “Because it was hot.”  Argue with you wife, you will interpret your behavior during the event; maybe your interpretation will have elements of truth, maybe not.  But it will never be exhaustive.  Exhausting, but not exhaustive. 

An event occurs.  You come up with an explanation.  Next time it happens, your response will be influenced by that interpretation, and by effects on you that never became conscious. 

GNS: Science often advances by reducing a phenomenon to an underlying physical stratum. Heat is reduced to molecular motion. Caloric fluid is eliminated. Typical good science. As far as physics is concerned, there is  nothing to the idea “heat” but molecular motion. The feeling of warmth we have in the presence of molecular motion is a mental state left out of the reduction. So how should we understand our feeling? Is it an unreduced immaterial mental state? Rick might say that a feeling is produced by underlying neural processes. So what is the relationship between the material neural processing and the immaterial mental state? And how can processing produce anything other than more processing?

Here’s the problem. Materialism requires that everything be material. So feelings, consciousness, meaning and everything else must be material. Feelings, consciousness, and meaning must be proved to be something like molecular motion. Not “a construction of processing”—whatever that means. They must be material stuff.

Otherwise, science is left with a form of dualism. Preconscious processing constructs something which is not just more processing: consciousness. This is what even good scientists like Francis Crick, Sean Carroll and Rick Lenon don’t see. Carroll wants to see consciousness and meaning “emerging” from material nature. That’s dualism. Lenon has consciousness “constructed” by processing. That’s dualism. Consciousness cannot merely be produced by the material or mysteriously emerge from it. Consciousness must itself be something material. But what?

The brain. What else could it be? So consciousness is reduced to the brain and its functions. Brains are straightforward material objects. We thought we had two things: brains and consciousness. Turns out we have only one: brains. Materialism requires that there is nothing to consciousness other than brains. Consciousness as a separate entity is eliminated.

And that gets us to the eliminative materialism of Churchland and Rosenberg.

Which of course is insanely implausible.

Rosenberg is currently arguing in 3am Magazine that neuroscience poses a threat to our self understanding:

We’ve built our cultural, legal and political institutions on this theory that people’s actions are caused by choices made rational in the light of their beliefs and their desires….

But here’s the problem: the theory of mind we all carry around with us and use every day has no basis in what neuroscience—Nobel Prize winning neuroscience—tells us about how the brain works. Neuroscience has revealed that the theory is quite as much of a dead end as Ptolemaic astronomy. It’s been around for such a longtime only because it was the predictive device natural selection came up with, in spite of being fundamentally mistaken about how things were really arranged.

Eric Kandel, John O’Keefe, May-Britt and Edvard Moser, won Nobel prizes in 2000 and 2014 for experiments that showed exactly how the brain records information. Their work revealed it doesn’t do it in anything like the way the theory of mind says it does—in statements that represent the way the world is (beliefs) and ones that represent the way we want things to be (desires). This research program began with HM, the patient famous for being unable to acquire or store beliefs because of a lobotomy that went wrong and destroyed his hippocampus. The irony of this research is that it ended up showing that no ones’ brain acquires, stores, and uses information in the form of beliefs and desires….

But conscious experience is continually shouting out that belief/desire psychology is exactly how the mind does work. Introspection all by itself seems to refute the notion that we don’t have beliefs and desires with content that represent what we want and what’s available to attain our wants.

Alas, ever since Freud, psychologists have diagnosed the illusions, delusions and confabulations in the mind’s eye and the mind’s ear, in the flow of experiences, feelings and sensations passing through consciousness. The theory of mind is just another one of these illusions, useful for survival and success in the Pleistocene, but a blunt instrument of limited predictive and explanatory power. It emerged out of the more fundamental mind-reading ability we share with other species and used to track predators and prey, threats and opportunities. That undoubtedly inborn ability combined with our unique gift, language, to generate the theory of mind. By colonizing consciousness, spoken language turned it into a monologue of silent speech, tricking us that the meaning of spoken words is given by thoughts’ content when its just silent sounds passing through consciousness. Neuroscience shows that that in our brains the neural circuits neither have nor need content to do their jobs.

What Rosenberg calls “the theory of mind we all carry around with us and use every day” is a lot like what Paul Churchland calls “folk psychology.” Mythology that has no more reality than alchemy. 


Does science really refute folk psychology?

What would be the consequences if it did?

BQTA contributor Carter Gillies thinks that Wittgenstein is relevant here, and that Eliminative Materialism effects its own reductio ad absurdum.

CG: Wittgenstein showed us that it is a mistake to ascribe the meaning of words to some sort of conscious content. We don’t need the debunkings of brain science to show us that. If meaning does not simply happen inside people’s consciousness, it also doesn’t happen inside their brains. Or as Dan Kaufman has put it occasionally, our selves are NOT our brains. What science can explain is not extended to every possible thing that matters to us, and mattering to us is also not simply something that happens inside our brains. There is a wider playing field where mattering occurs. Same as meaning, it turns out.

It seems there is a lot of time that can be wasted on the scientistic ramblings of folks like Rosenberg. There are alternatives, and they are right in front of our noses. Whatever science does right, it doesn’t do all the things that count for us as right. It is not an exhaustive account of what matters to human beings. If science aims at fidelity and universality, there are other sorts of fidelity that matter which are inextricable from the social network and social ontology. 

If physicalism only offers the headaches that people like Rosenberg make hay with, then maybe there is something wrong with looking at the world scientistically. Scientism goes off the rails when it even imagines that everything interesting can be reduced to some form of science. Bollocks, I say! That arrogance is insufferable and unwarranted.

GNS: Carter brings back fond memories of Leon Wieseltier on The Atheist Guide to Reality:

the worst book of the year, a shallow and supercilious thing by Alex Rosenberg. The book is a catechism for people who believe they have emancipated themselves from catechisms. The faith that it dogmatically expounds is scientism. It is a fine example of how the religion of science can turn an intelligent man into a fool…

Wieseltier’s rant doesn’t go beyond insisting that of course there are mental states and scientism is insufferably dogmatic.

Of course, Churchland is controversial and Rosenberg even more so. Most professional philosophers would probably agree with Carter that not everything can be reduced to some form of science. The problem is to explain exactly why not.

How do we know “there is a wider playing field where mattering occurs”? Is that just a feeling we have? Feelings are not a reliable guide to reality. If we step outside science, how do we find a reliable guide to reality? What are the “alternatives right in front of our noses”? Getting beyond inspirational talk about human values is not so easy. And inspirational talk, as nice as it sounds, is not reality either.

It’s easy to underestimate the power of the ideas that lead toward Materialism.

Instead of “scientism”, let’s try “naturalism”:

David Papeneau in SEP:

Reality is exhausted by nature, containing nothing “supernatural”, and the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of reality, including the “human spirit”.  The great majority of contemporary philosophers would happily accept naturalism as just characterized—that is, they would both reject “supernatural” entities, and allow that science is a possible route (if not necessarily the only one) to important truths about the “human spirit”. For better or worse, “naturalism” is widely viewed as a positive term in philosophical circles—few active philosophers nowadays are happy to announce themselves as “non-naturalists”.

If science is not the ultimate arbiter of what is real and what is not, what is? Religion? Art? Culture? Tradition? Our feelings? The point of science is find a road to reality better than any of those.



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