Critique of Eliminative Materialism of Paul M. Churchland Essay

A Critique of Eliminative Materialism of Paul M. Churchland

In Matter and Consciousness, Churchland traverses through the complex web of the development of dualistic and materialist strands of philosophy in locating the process in which the mind works. Churchland initiates a discussion of Dualism, and begins his study with Descartes. He goes on to enlist the various forms of Dualism including Popular dualism and property dualism, and also puts forward the major strands of opposition to this form of philosophy, which proposes the basic cleavage between the mental faculty, which it locates in a cognitive space outside immediate physical impulses and material intervention.

Churchland then arrives at materialism as the probable way of defining the position of the mind. Through a thorough discussion of the materialist views including Reductive Materialism and Functionalism, Churchland finally arrives at Eliminative Materialism as the best possible way to define the mental process and ascertaining the location of the mind within phenomena.

Eliminative Materialism uses the fundamental tenets of materialism, but takes it away from the deduced physical impulses as the only process of explaining the mental process. Eliminative materialism attributes all modes of determining the mental process, including dualism as well as the existing modes of materialism, to the current psychological framework, or ‘folk psychology’ that is available as the only hermeneutic tool to an understanding of the functions of the human mind. Identity Theory and Functionalism fail because there is no one-to-one match ups between psychological states and brain states: an impulse can be realized in a multitude of ways. (Blackman 7) To quote Churchland:

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Our common-sense psychological framework is a false and radically misleading conception of the causes of human behavior and the nature of cognitive activity. (Churchland 43)

‘Folk Psychology’, according to Churchland, is a failure, and has led to a subsequent failure in analyzing the process of human thought. Neuroscience, according to him, has laid open the various shortcomings, limitations and misinterpretations of ‘folk psychology’. According to Chuchland, it was not quite believable that folk psychology would get its theory of mind right at the very first go, because it did move through trial and error in all other instances, like theories of motion, the nature of fire etc. Churchland opines that all observation occurs within some system of concepts, and it takes a complete reworking of the conceptual framework to actually arrive at a proper location of the mind in philosophy.

The biggest criticism against ‘eliminative materialism’ however has been its eliminating tendency itself. By excluding all acceptable modes of philosophical and psychological methodologies as palpable tools to locate the mind within matter, eliminative materialism almost takes the ground off its own feet. Eliministivism thus, is accused of being inherent at a most basic level: by expressing a belief that it has no belief and by reducing the claims of identity theory on primarily linguistic level, it itself but takes the help of language to express itself.

However, the biggest and most potent opposition to eliminative materialism comes from a different source. They come from the arguments from introspection. One can ‘look inside and see pains, beliefs, desires, fears etc.’ Similarly, the denial of the basic sensory datum as the starting point is another criticism against the theory. Churchland’s opposition to this objection is noteworthy. He invokes the fact that folk psychology has routinely misguided the study of mental states. Churchland says:

The fact is, all observation occurs within some system of concepts, and our observation and judgments are only as good as the conceptual framework in which they are expressed. In all three cases –the starry sphere, witches, and the familiar mental states –precisely what is challenged is the integrity of the background conceptual frameworks in which the observation judgments are expressed. (Churchland 47-8)

Even if we accept Churchland’s claim that ‘all observation occurs within some system of concepts’, even then there seems to be a qualitative difference between mental states like pain, and the external bodies that Churchland talks about, like spheres and witches. We can here invoke the differences between the ‘innere Beobachtung’ or inner observation and ‘inner Warhnehmung’ or inner perception as put forward by Brentano in the Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint.

The obvious difference between visual and mental data is obliterated by placing the two experiences on the same platform. It is a visual data, which the medieval man is interpreting on the basis of a false and presently outmoded theory. However, a conceptual framework can in no way be applied for an inner datum. Therefore, Eliminative Materialism can be accused of ignoring the obvious, basic sensory datum: without which the vary basis of the philosophy of mind cannot be developed.

The basic sensory datum, ‘pain’ for example, is not a product of conceptualization, as Churchland states, but is rather the ‘raw material’ for conceptualization. To apply Hussserl’s theorizing of ‘ein reeller Inhalt’, one can say that the pain is not something outside the subject which needs to be subsumed to a concept, but a content of the consciousness itself. ‘It is not a product of conceptualization…but a material or object of conceptualization’. Therefore, Churchland’s stance of conceptualizing even the most basic sensory datum – can be questioned.

Eliminative Materialism, as propounded by Churchland, has also been accused of its Kantian-Sellarsian presupposition, that inner data is as much in need of categorical interpretation as the data of the outer sense. The question therefore arises as to why is it necessary to apply neuroscience to categorize something that is not categorized at this level.

Works Cited

Blackman, Reid. ‘The Ontological Problem (The Mind Body Problem)’. Paul Churchland, Matter and Consciousness.

Churchland, Paul M. Matter and Consciousness. Revised edition. MIT Press: 1988.
Vallicella, William F. ‘Paul Churchland on Eliminative Materialism’.


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