Joanna also asked:
Is it possible that Eliminative Materialism may turn out to be correct?
Eliminative materialists believe that in a theoretically adequate description of the 'mental life' of a
human being, it would not be necessary to make reference to such things as thoughts, feelings,
sensations. These items would be eliminatedin favour of a description of the physical processes
going on in a person's body and brain when they utter sounds which we would interpret as a
statement such as, 'I am thinking of Paris', or 'I have a pain in my elbow.' The thought about Paris, the
elbow pain, do not exist. We merely talk about such things under the erroneous belief that they do
exist, the way people talk about witches and UFO's.
Some will find that a totally incredible theory. The same criticism has been applied to it as was once
levelled at behaviourism, that it is only possible to believe it by 'feigning anesthesia'.
How could such a theory conceivablybe correct? How could it turn outthat we were wrong in thinking
that our thoughts, feelings and sensations are real?
The continued interest in the 'I know I'm different from a zombie' argument (see my response to
Jason's question in the previous set of questions and answers) shows that there are those who reject
point blank the idea that eliminative materialism could turn out to be correct. Nothing, they say, could
ever make us accept a conclusion that so patently clashes with our actual experience.
I am no friend of eliminative materialism, but I fear that such protests are nothing more than empty
rhetoric. There are lots of things we cannot imagine because our imaginations are not up to the task.
We think we have exhausted all the possibilities, but we haven't. Our minds are fixed on a picture, a
certain way of seeing things, but that picture turns out to be simply wrong.
Eliminative materialism is much championed at the moment and it is thought probable that it is true,
but it does have problems. The first problem is how will we know it is true. Even if scientists find brain
states purporting to be sufficient for a mental state, the sceptical problem of other minds arises. If
scientists were able to programme a brain with cognitive functions and computational ability, we could
not assume even on the basis of behaviour that this was sufficient for phenomenological states which
are the subjective view we have of the world. This is an epistemological problem, but points to the
second problem which is that the eliminative materialist is not able to say anything about
consciousness. The concept of the mental is that it is essentially conscious and consciousness is
non-physical, and so for an eliminative materialist, consciousness may as well not exist.
The third problem is the representational content of intentional states. Intentional states, such as
beliefs and desires, are defined in relation to ways in which the world is. World-relatedness is
necessary if beliefs are to perform their function of guiding behaviour by disposing us to behave
appropriately in the world. Possession of beliefs also dispose us to form new beliefs, but if these are
not related to the world, they will fail to perform their function. If beliefs are stored in a subject's brain
and identified with physical states, they may not represent the world at all. It is true that the brain has
cognitive functions, but concepts and intentional states are essentially related to what is in the world.
Take perception: Just look around you. Is a brain state sufficient for this?