Saturday, March 1, 2008

Two Senses of "Eliminativism"

Any number of theories of mind might be described as "eliminativist," but there are two very different senses of that term depending on the theory on offer. "Operational" theories of mind such as behaviorism and functionalism are eliminativist in the sense that they deny the existence of non-physical, Cartesian minds (or at least the need to refer to such entities in order to do psychology). In general materialist theories are eliminativist in this sense (by definition materialism eliminates the non-physical). More specifically, behaviorism, for example, eliminates internal symbols, or mental representations (that's really what is most significant about behaviorist approaches). If we redefine "Cartesian" to mean representational models of mind, this type of elimination also turns out to be a feature of materialist theories in general. Wittgenstein understood this, and he also extended the point to philosophy of language: there can no more exist semantic properties than there can be intentional properties, both must turn out to be figurative language at best. The other sense of "eliminativism" is the one promoted by Paul Churchland. This is the claim that the traditional categories of intentional states ("beliefs," "desires," etc.) will not survive the maturation of neuroscience. But materialism does not necessarily imply this. A behaviorist sees the traditional categories as categories of behaviors, and the reductive materialist sees them as categories of physical states. The problem of multiple realizability, an essential motivation behind the development of functionalism, is predicated on the ineliminative nature of the categories, in fact. I think that Churchland makes the mistake of assuming that psychological predicates must refer to states that are "in the head" one way or another, while Wittgenstein understands that the key is to see that psychological predicates necessarily refer to public phenomena (and note that the Churchlands disdain Wittgenstein in their disdainful way; they don't grasp him). In fact the eclipse of representational models of mind would not entail the elimination of the traditional intentional categories. I doubt that they are eliminible at all. They pick out basic features of persons. They are not part of a theory. Meanwhile I doubt that there are anything like symbols (or language) in the head, the current vogue for representationalism notwithstanding.

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