Eliminative Materialism

Mark Crosby (crosby_m@rocketmail.com)
Fri, 29 Aug 1997 14:17:02 -0700 (PDT)

On August 15, 1997, Eric Watt Forste wrote (Re: complexity and heat,
an analogy in the history of science):

< This takes my thread back to where it derives from, Paul M.
Churchland's work (and not just his) on "folk psychology" and the
possibility (eliminative materialism) that hardly any of the words
that we currently use to describe psychological phenomena have any
actual referents. Psychological phenomena might easily be concrete,
real, physical, computational phenomena *without* having any kind of
one-to-one correspondence with any of the words we currently use to
talk about psychological phenomena.>

I recently read a review of Churchlandís "Engine of Reason" in PSYCHE
(see http://psyche.cs.monash.edu.au/v2/psyche-2-29-dacosta.html) and
started thinking about this again and decided to look up eliminative
materialism. I found a nice overview of the philosophical categories
in Richard Vitzthumís "Philosophical Materialism", a lecture given to
the Atheist Students Association at the University of Maryland,
College Park, on November 14, 1996, available at

<When someone today describes himself or herself as a materialist,
they generally mean they stand somewhere in a spectrum defined at one
end as reductive materialism[3] and at the other end as eliminative
materialism[4]. [SNIP] One promising theory is that networks of
neurons in the brain consist of subsidiary groups of neurons or even
individual neurons that serve as the axes of a multi-dimensional
system of coordinates that can mathematically translate one kind of
value to another kind of value. [SNIP] eliminativists hold that the
theory is so revolutionary and so much more convincing than current
theories of the brain -- for instance, that the brain is basically
propositional and language-oriented -- that it will eventually
displace and replace the linguistic theory, just as the modern theory
of mental disease displaced the medieval theory of demonic possession.
Against them stand the reductive materialists, I among them, who share
their enthusiasm for the new theory but believe that it will
successfully reduce at least portions of the old theory the way
Einstein's relativity successfully reduced Newton's laws of motion.>

<[4] Eliminative materialists contend that minds don't exist, that our
'vague talk' about things like feelings, thoughts, desires, etc, needs
to be eliminated from our vocabulary and replaced with precise
scientific terms referring only to brain states.>

I couldnít disagree more! Vitzthum also states that "eliminativists
and reductionists believe only in physical substances and properties".
Is software *and its usage* simply a "property" of the computer on
which it is running? I think these accounts are lacking a key
concept, organization, which has been well developed by systems
science and cybernetics (cf. Principia Cybernetica). In fact, some
connectionists are beginning to wonder whether they have not been
paying enough attention to system architecture (cf. "Connectionist
Learning: Is It Time To Reconsider The Foundations?" 14 May 1997 post
by Asim Roy at http://neuro.psy.soton.ac.uk/~at/Archive/0026.html)

< [8] Functionalists claim that mental states are functional states
(rather than brain states) which connect input (environmental
stimuli), other mental states (interconnected functions), and output
(behavioral responses) in a cognitive system by means of causal
relations. [Snip] Most functionalists are physicalists [materialists]
in that they hold that only appropriate physical states could serve as
such causal intermediaries. But they... [hold that] mental properties
cannot be identified with physical-biological properties.>

This sounds much closer to my way of thinking about things, except for
"rather than" in the first sentence - I would say "as well as". The
"identified" is key in the last sentence - few complex systems are
reducible to the *sum* of their parts because some parts are dual
purpose, participating as components in several systems, even serving
several functions simultaneously.

Another very useful reference was Lyle Zyndaís metaphysics handout,
"Churchland on Eliminative Materialism" for a 1995 Caltech course at
http://sun1.iusb.edu/~lzynda/handout14.html :

< Churchland argues that functionalism is in fact a reactionary theory
that tries to save an outmoded conception of our mental lives (folk
psychology) by abstraction. Folk psychology is made immune to advances
in neuroscience by postulating that its categories (beliefs and
desires) are only "functional states." According to Churchland, this
is a scientifically illegitimate move, as illegitimate as an attempt
to save alchemy in the face of the new chemical theories of Lavoisier
and Dalton by postulating that its categories were merely "functional"
and not really chemical. >

Well, sure, itís a "scientifically illegitimate move" *if* your
research is aimed *only* at mechanical description! But, is the
scientific method appropriate for guiding all forms of human activity,
such as poetry or sexuality? When it comes to structural descriptions
and engineering research, eliminativism is probably the appropriate
description, especially with major paradigm shifts. BUT, I would
counter that itís a *philosophically illegitimate move* to deny any
sort of functional analysis! I think this is particularly true in the
case of neuroscience (as opposed to chemistry, for example) which is
still in its infancy.

Iím beginning to feel that this eliminative approach advocated by
Churchland reeks of throwing out the baby with the bath water and
leaves us, for example, wallowing for years in the intricacies of
neural net vector processing when there are important architectural
and relational issues that we should also be addressing.

Mark Crosby

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