Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Eliminative Materialism eliminated: rubbed out or reconstructed?

Broad in his Two Lectures on the Nature of Philosophy (1955) puts the problem in his characteristically clear way. Scientists have two hats or two coats. With the lab coat on:

When they confine their attention to the chemical, physical and physiological facts they are inclined to take the view that men are ‘conscious automata’, i.e. that all our mental states, including processes of deliberating, imagining, reasoning etc, are mere by-products of the brain, which are themselves completely determined by physical and physiological antecedants. But their daily lives and all their professional activities in designing, carrying out, and interpreting experiments presuppose a view which is shared by plain men and which seems prima facie to be incompatible with the ‘conscious-automaton’

It’s fine to hold that there might not have been such a thing as consciousness as Bergson does. One can go on from there to ask: ‘But we have consciousness, what is it for?’but to deny that we have consciousness after using the apparatus of consciousness seems to be wrong-headed. To sanctify that error by baptising it with the intelligible and descriptive title of ‘eliminative materialism’ is to ask for puzzlement and rejection. It would have been much better to choose a sonorous and opaque name such as monistic materialism.

In a recent interview Patricia Churchland atTPM
appears to be having a Prufrock moment about eliminative materialism:
That is not what I meant at all,
That is not it, at all.

Pace Dennett of Consciousness Explained, another disbeliever in consciousness, is this a Stalinist or an Orwellian move? Interesting however.


ktismatics said...

Here's an excerpt from near the end of the interview with Patricia Churchland.

* * *
"So Paul and I thought -- this was in the early years in Winnipeg -- maybe a lot of this folk psychology is going to turn out like that. So just as there is no such thing as impetus, maybe there is no such thing as 'the will'. Well, that's probably true..."

She accepts that part of the reason people have been dismissive of her and Paul's position is that its name is misleading. So why call this eliminative materialism?

"I can tell you why we did that. It was a conscious decision. The expression wasn't new to us. It came from Richard Rorty. Who is Richard Rorty? He was a big gun at Princeton. Who were we? Very little fish in this nothing place in Canada. And we had this very self-conscious conversation, where we said, look, what are we going to do with this? We talked about calling it revisionary materialism, and Paul said, look, if we introduce a whole new term here (a) people aren't going to recognize it, so they aren't going to read it, and (b) they're going to say who the fuck are these upstarts, and we will simply be dismissed. So we thought better to take something that's recognizable and go with it. In the end I think that was a mistake. I'd call it revisionary materialism if I had to do it all over again. I'd call it really nice guy materialism if I had that opportunity, I'd give it a really nice name."

Because really nothing's eliminated at all, is it? It's about the level of explanation.

"Of course. And that was always the idea. It wasn't that real things are going to be eliminated. In the way that impetus fell out, maybe the will will fall out... So I rue the day that we called it eliminative materialism but it was kind of an act of humility, and also a kind of marketing decision."

* * *

I've never read the primary sources so my understanding of the Churchlands' work is largely caricature. However, based on this interview, a reader might infer that, even if the will "fell out" for ordinary folk, it hasn't for the Churchlands.

ombhurbhuva said...

Rebranding hardly matters if the product is the same. The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy has a longish entry on the topic. It was developed further in the 80's from where Rorty brought it by the Churchlands. Generally speaking there’s a 30 year warranty on the 'latest thing’ of the day. I imagine it might fit in with the life cycle of the alpha academics final emergence as a silverback but this is merely an intuition of mine. In any case it (EM) is entering the phase of scorn and contumely. I have always been a consciousness man and I cling to the wreckage of it to the present day.