Friday, December 15, 2006
What Does Eliminativism Claim?
The standard introductory argument for eliminativism, from Paul Churchland, is an argument from the history of science: some putative entities from older theories get reduced (Zeus's thunderbolts = electrical discharges), while others are eliminated (forget the clunky phlogiston example. The heavenly spheres don't survive modern astronomy. Students can at least get that). And so traditional (intentional, belief/desire) psychology is a theory, and subject to revision (thus "The Theory Theory"). So far eliminative materialism is not a theory of its own, it's an historical cautionary: don't just assume that the traditional categories of intentional states ("attitudes") will survive material analysis. But what is the idea here really? Either the idea is that there are some attitudes of the same kind as beliefs, desires, hopes, fears, etc., that will be eliminated in the light of neuroscience, maybe even some of those but not others. This I think is incoherent: surely the attitudes are kinds of behaviors? People aren't going to behave differently (at least not much) when neuroscience is more advanced; our understanding of the etiology of the behavior might be different. No, eliminativism is an all or nothing thing, and the thing is content itself. It may be that there is an alternative to the representational theory of mind. It may be that after a maturation of neuroscience we understand thought without attributing semantic properties to mental states (or to anything else) at all. That's the materialist intuition behind behaviorism, the one that persuaded Wittgenstein and Ryle. Mental content must be washed out of an authentically materialist psychology (and semantics must be washed out of an authentically materialist linguistics). The only coherent form of eliminativism is the claim that material analysis will eliminate intentionality altogether, not only as a problem for philosophy but as a phenomenon. And at that point, if it turns out that this kind of eliminativist materialism prevails, the traditional categories of belief/desire psychology will be: still standing, used just as they always have been.