Materialistic Eliminativism is the philosophical position that denies the existence of “mental states”, proposing to eliminate the explanatory apparatus that has led us to understand “mind” as we have done since the 17th century, and to create another one that takes up again the material conditions of existence.
Although it is a radical proposal, Materialist Eliminativism has had an important impact on the way of doing philosophy and a special repercussion on contemporary psychology. What is it and where exactly does eliminativism come from?
Eliminativism: do mental states really exist?
The “mind” is a concept we use so often that we could hardly doubt its existence. In fact, to a large extent scientific psychology has been dedicated to studying processes such as common sense, beliefs or sensations; derived from a specific and fairly widespread understanding of “mind” or “mental states”.
Already in the 17th century Descartes had insisted that the only thing that we human beings cannot doubt is our ability to think, thus laying the foundation for the development of our current concept of “mind,” “consciousness,” “states of mind,” and even modern psychology.
What Materialist Eliminatorism does is to take up all this again, but to open a debate on whether these concepts refer to things that really exist , and therefore, it is questioned whether it is wise to continue using them.
It is then a contemporary proposal that says that our way of understanding mental states has a series of fundamental deficiencies , which even make some concepts invalid, such as beliefs, sensations, common sense, and others whose existence is difficult to question.
Some fundamental philosophical proposals
Materialist Eliminativism proposes that, beyond modifying the way we have understood the mind, what we should do is eliminate all the explanatory apparatus that has led us to describe it (that’s why it’s called “eliminativism”). The reason: mental states are non-existent things, in any case they would be cerebral or neuronal phenomena , with which it would be necessary to formulate a new explanatory apparatus based on material reality (that is why it is “materialist”).
In other words, Materialistic Eliminativism analyzes some concepts about the mind and mental states, and concludes that they are empty notions because they are often reduced to intentional properties or subjective experiences that do not refer to something that has a physical reality.
From this, a second proposal is derived: the conceptual framework of the neurosciences should be that which explains mental states, because these sciences can indeed refer to material realities.
As it happens in all philosophical currents, there are different nuances according to the author; some say that the issue is not so much the inexistence of mental states, but that they are not well described, so they should be replaced by the concepts that have been suggested in the studies of the brain. In this same sense, the concept “qualia” is another proposal that has put in evidence the gap that exists between the explanations on the subjective experiences and the physical systems , especially the cerebral system.
Finally, Materialist Eliminativism has also raised questions, for example, the question of where the boundaries are between materialist eliminativism and reductionism.
Eliminatoriness has not only been materialistic
Eliminatoriness has had many facets. Broadly speaking, we could see some tints of eliminativism in several of the philosophical and deterministic proposals of the 18th century that questioned concepts also related to psychology, such as “freedom” or the “I”. In fact, materialism itself is already an eliminative stance, while the conditions of existence of non-material elements are rejected.
Usually we know as Materialistic Eliminativism the position that specifically denies the existence of mental states. It is a more or less recent proposal, which arises from the philosophy of the mind and has as its main antecedent the work of the philosopher Charlie Dunbar Broad; but it formally arises in the second half of the 20th century among the works of Wilfred Sellars, W.V.O. Quine, Paul Feyerabend, Richard Rorty, Paul and Patricia Churchland, and S. Stitch. This is why it is also known as contemporary materialistic elimination.
Formally, the term “Materialistic Eliminatoriness” is attributed to a 1968 publication by James Cornman entitled “On the elimination of “Sensations” and Sensations”.
Impact on modern psychology
In its most modern versions, Materialist Eliminativism proposes that our understanding of “common sense”, “mental states” or psychological processes such as desires or beliefs is profoundly mistaken because they arise from postulates that are not really observable, and thus their explanatory value is questionable.
In other words, Materialistic Eliminativism allows to update the discussions on the mind-body relationship (through the formula mind-brain) and to suggest, for example, that beliefs, since they do not have a physiological correlate, should be eliminated or replaced by some concept that does have a physical correlate; and in the same sense there is the proposal that, strictly speaking, sensations are not really “sensations” but are brain processes, so we should reconsider their use.
In sum, from the Materialist Eliminativism the psychology of common sense and the cognitive sciences are questioned . It is not surprising that in the last decades this position has taken a lot of strength, especially in the debates on cognitive sciences, neurosciences and philosophy of the mind. Moreover, this has been a subject of discussion not only for studies of the mind but also for those who analyze the processes of construction and transformation of modern theoretical frameworks.
Without a doubt, it is a trend that has not only put on the table fundamental questions about our way of understanding ourselves and what surrounds us, but from there, makes it clear that the most popular explanations are largely insufficient as well as susceptible to be constantly updated.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2013). Eliminative Materialism. Retrieved April 19, 2018. Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/materialism-eliminative/#BriHis.
- Braun, R. (2008). Philosophical eliminativism and its attack on psychology. Person, 11: 51-67.
- Feser, E. (2005). Philosophy of mind: A short introduction. Oneworld publications: United Kingdom.