Eliminative Materialism

Status: Ghostwritten
Style: Academic
Client: Academic journal

Common sense psychology; or what is also known as folk psychology is a central topic in the philosophy of mind. It relates to two important questions in this area:

(a) The mind-body problem

(b) The problem of other minds

The mind-body problem looks at the relationship between the brain and consciousness. The most prominent of attitudes towards this problem are either monist or dualist. Of the many dualisms of philosophy, the mind-body dualism is a matter of great debate; not surprisingly as it entertains the concept that the mind is a completely different entity to the body. In simple terms, the problem of other minds asks; how can we know that other people have minds if the only empirical evidence we have is watching the behaviour of others? The problem may beg the question; is behaviour itself enough to prove the existence of the mind of a third party? Folk psychology brings a unifying and simple solution to many of the topics in philosophy of mind, and in problems such as those above. In theory, by using folk psychology we are able to predict each other’s behaviour by starting with an intelligent insight into their desires and beliefs, or their propositional attitudes. If I were to observe someone who desires to drive into town, and they believe they have their car keys in their pocket and their car in the driveway, I can predict that they will drive into town. If we are observing empirically when we make these predictions, it is known as the theory-theory, or for our purposes here ‘FP’.

  Eliminative materialism is the thesis that folk psychology is false, and will one day be demolished. The eliminative materialist thinks that folk psychology is purely inadequate, and seeing as it is an empirical theory, it is possible that its ontology is merely an illusion. Folk psychology is after all, just a theory. “Not only is folk psychology a theory, it is so obviously a theory that it must be held a major mystery why it has taken until the last half of the twentieth century for philosophers to realize it.” (Churchland, 1981, p4)

  The eliminative materialist may say; empirical theories can be tested, and if a theory is found to be inaccurate, it should be scrapped, and replaced by something more satisfactory. The same should be applied to eliminative materialism. Plus, scientific research shows a strong connection between what we think of as mind states and brain states, which appear to demonstrate that it is in fact the brain that causes your behaviour. Therefore it seems that we need to reduce our folk psychology to that of neuroscience. The argument held by the eliminative materialist is that it cannot be reduced due to the falsity of folk psychology. It must be demolished and replaced altogether. The eliminative materialist argues that the propositional values like beliefs and desires do not actually exist, and that there will be no evidence to be found scientifically for them in the future.

  It was Paul and Patricia Churchland who introduced the common version of eliminative materialism. Paul Churchland states that one day a new neuroscience will have no need for beliefs, or propositional attitudes. He demonstrates that once accepted real theories are now shown to be false, such as the luminiferous ether and phlogiston. As an example, Stich, in his 1996 paper uses witches to demonstrate this point. “Once upon a time, witches were widely believed to be responsible for various local calamities. But people gradually became convinced that there are better explanations for most of the events in which witches had been implicated. There being no explanatory work for witches to do, sensible people concluded that there were no such things.” (Stich, 1996, p2).

  The argument for eliminative materialism therefore has two premises; (a) folk psychology is a theory (b) folk psychology is wrong.

“Eliminative materialism is the thesis that our common-sense conception of psychological phenomena constitutes a radically false theory, a theory so fundamentally defective that both the principles and the ontology that theory will eventually be displaced, rather than smoothly reduced, by completed neuroscience.” (Churchland, 1981, p1)

  Eliminative Materialism is an odd and counterintuitive theory, and there are a number of arguments against it. The most apparent one is the self-refutation argument. The self-refutation argument claims that if the eliminative materialist asserts that there are no such thing as beliefs or desires, then he cannot hold the belief that there are no beliefs, and can have no desire to make the claim. If eliminative materialism is true, beliefs do not exist. No one can believe eliminative materialism if there are no beliefs. This makes the theory irrelevant, and it entails that eliminative materialism is false, and is in essence, self-refuting. The argument therefore supposedly shows that you cannot assert eliminative materialism without proving the falsity of eliminative materialism.           

  In her 1988 paper, ‘Cognitive Suicide’ Lynne Rudder Baker argues against eliminative materialism. She concludes her introduction by stating that if the eliminative materialist wants to throw out folk psychology, they had better think of a better model. “Thus, anyone who urges that the common sense conception is eliminable incurs a considerable debt; he must show either that the functions served by the common sense frame work may be served by the common sense framework may be served in some other way or that those functions are themselves dispensable.” (Baker, 1998: p1)

  Baker asks how eliminative materialism can be asserted if there are no beliefs. Unless it can be shown how there can be assertion without belief, then the thesis has not been shown to be assertible. Churchland rebuts the self-refuting claim by proclaiming that in fact the argument is invalid. He says that the expression of states would be meaningless. “unless that string is the expression of a certain belief, and a certain intention to communicate, and a knowledge  of the grammar of the language, and so forth. But if the statement of eliminative materialism is true, then there are no such states to express. “(Baker, 1998: p2) He illustrates his point by raising an example of the anti-vitalist. If the anti-vitalist denies vital spirit, he is self-refuting. He says that if this was in fact true, there would be no vital spirit and they wouldn’t be alive to make the assertion. If he is not alive then the statement is meaningless. Baker points out that in this analogy however, the anti-vitalist does not deny that he is in fact alive, but offers a new description of what it is to be alive. Instead, the eliminative materialist does not offer a new description or concept of beliefs; he is downright denying them altogether.  “He is denying that anyone has beliefs; the parallel to an eliminative materialist would be anti-vitalist who held that dead men make claims. Therefore the silliness of the argument against anti-vitalism has no bearing on the argument against eliminative materialism.” (Baker, 1998: p3)

  1. Chastain in 1988 responds to Baker in the defence of the eliminative materialist, and in reply to the argument that if eliminative materialism were true, it could not be assertible. He says that the best way to show if something is assertible is to assert it. According to Chastain, there is no need to account for how, without belief, there can be assertion - it simply does not exist. “I now do so: no sentence of the form ‘S believes that P’ is true; furthermore, the phrase ‘believes that’ does not designate any relation between a human being (or other organism) and a proposition; and no noun-phrase of the ‘S’s belief that P’ ever names any state property of anything.” (Chastain, 1998: p1) Chastain says that the eliminative materialist does not need to offer a different account of assertion that allows for a lack of beliefs, he simply needs to assert it. In the truth of eliminative materialism, the term belief would be meaningless; the idea of believing would be empty and irrelevant. “If what he has asserted is true, ‘belief’ is an empty word, a term that designates nothing, or speaking loosely, no one has ever believed anything, because there are no beliefs, and there is no such thing as believing.” (Chastain, 1998: p1)

  To sum up the two latter arguments, Baker is claiming that it is the assertion of eliminative materialism that proves its falsehood. Chastain argues that eliminative materialists don’t have to illuminate the meaning of the assertion; it simply needs to be asserted. If we are to agree with Chastain, the assertion argument shows that eliminative materialism does not need beliefs, and therefore the self-refutation argument does not imply the conclusion it sets out to.

“Since folk psychology is false, and it’s so-called ‘propositional attitudes’ or ‘attributions’ of content do not exist, the gross cognitive error that Baker describes does not involve things ‘appearing’ to be the case, when they are not the case, for there is no such thing as ‘appearing.’ The gross cognitive error involves uttering, and being disposed to utter, lots of false sentences containing the terms of folk psychology.” (Chastain, 1998: p2)

  I feel that Churchland fails in defending eliminative materialism against the self-refutation argument by using the anti-vitalist analogy. As Baker pointed out; the anti-vitalist does not deny that he is alive, but instead offers a new description of what it is to be alive. The eliminative materialist on the other hand denies beliefs altogether.  I think therefore the analogy is invalid.

While it is a reasonable argument, and does raise potential problems for eliminative materialism; such as the weakness of Churchland’s anti-vitalist response, it does not show the falsity of eliminative materialism as a stand-alone argument. It has not exposed that assertions are now invalid, as demonstrated by Chastain. With assertion remaining, there can be the assertion of eliminative materialism, removing the need for beliefs and desires, and thus rendering the argument meaningless.



  • Baker, L.R – Grim, R,H. and Merrill, D.D., eds, 1988. Contents of Thought, Tuscon: University of Arizona, pp.1, 12-17, 183 and 185-7.
  • Baker, L.R – Grim, R,H. and Merrill, D.D., eds, 1988. Contents of Thought, Tuscon: University of Arizona, pp.26-8 and 187.
  • Chastain, C. – Grim, R,H. and Merrill, D.D., eds, 1988. Contents of Thought, Tuscon: University of Arizona, pp.20-2.
  • Stich, S.P., 1996. Deconstructing the Mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.91-114.
  • Churchland, P.M., 1981. Eliminative materialism and the propositional attitudes’, Journal of Philosophy, vol. 78, no.2, 67-90