Bill Vallicella on eliminative materialism

The “maverick” philosopher William Vallicella has started a number of entries on materialism, focusing particularly on eliminative materialism. This bears serendipitously on some debate which has been ongoing here. This started with Samuel Skinner in ‘Atheists Should Not Criticize Hitler’, which prompted my reply post, ‘Whence Cometh Value?’, and most recently discussion has been ongoing between Mike, Keith, Rob and myself in the comment thread of ‘Jesse Kilgore commits suicide after reading Dawkins’. The discussion has shifted subtly from the initial thesis that objective morality is unjustified in a non-theistic worldview, toward the thesis that non-theistic views preclude, by definition, any kind of abstracta such as meaning, value, purpose, qualia (pain, pleasure, and other sorts of subjective experiences), and so on. This is essentially the same point of contention around which eliminative materialism hinges, so I’d urge those involved in the debate here to better familiarize themselves with the issues by referring to Bill’s brief primer, ‘Eliminative Materialism Defined’. He concludes, and I think rightly so, that

The fundamental error of the eliminative materialist, then, is to imagine that belief, desire, and other mental states are theoretical posits of a false theory he calls ‘folk psychology.’ This is just nonsense: pain, desire, and the like are immediately given. There is nothing theoretical about them. It is the eliminative materialist who is in the grip of a false theory, namely, the theory that nothing can be real except what the physical sciences posit as real.

The eliminative materialist is engaged in a sensless enterprise: he attemts to prosecute the philosophy of mind while denying the very data of the philosophy of mind. What could be more absurd? Blinded by his scientism, he cannot admit what we all know to be the case: that we believe, know, desire, recollect, expect, fear, etc.

I’ll post updates to this series here when they are published.

6 replies
  1. Keith
    Keith says:

    Two brief points:

    1. Many (and probably most) materialists are not eliminativists, so arguments directed at eliminativism do not necessarily apply to materialism in general.

    2. The eliminativist position is more subtle than typically portrayed. A standard example is that people used to believe that epilepsy was caused by demons. A “demon eliminativist” denies the demons, but not the seizures. There is still a phenomenon to be explained, but the demons themselves no longer require an explanation.

  2. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Hi Keith. Re (1), it’s true that many materialists are not explicit eliminativists. They may even be explicitly identitarian and deny eliminativism. But that doesn’t mean that materialism doesn’t necessarily imply eliminativism, and that identitarianism doesn’t necessarily collapse into eliminativism.

    Re (2), I’m not sure what the analogy is meant to show. I assume that demons are meant to represent the immaterial mind, and seizures are meant to represent propositional attitudes or qualia or whatever. But in that case, you are left affirming the latter as mental, rather than physical events, under a worldview which a priori permits only physical events. And if you try to avoid the problem by explaining qualia as physical events, you either just beg the question, or you really do become an eliminativist about qualia, because qualia aren’t physical events.

    Incidentally, it’s with some irony that I note how you (no doubt unintentionally) misportray the position of those who believe that demons may be correlated with epilepsy. I, for example, believe this because that is what the testimony of the Bible seems to indicate. However, this doesn’t mean that I think demons cause epilepsy as a condition, in any or all cases. Rather, I believe that what appear to be epileptic seizures may be caused, at least in part, by demonic activity. Of course, this doesn’t preclude other causes for those seizures; demons do work through physical means. There are different kinds of causes.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  3. Samuel Skinner
    Samuel Skinner says:

    “The fundamental error of the eliminative materialist, then, is to imagine that belief, desire, and other mental states are theoretical posits of a false theory he calls ‘folk psychology.’ This is just nonsense: pain, desire, and the like are immediately given. There is nothing theoretical about them. It is the eliminative materialist who is in the grip of a false theory, namely, the theory that nothing can be real except what the physical sciences posit as real.

    The eliminative materialist is engaged in a sensless enterprise: he attemts to prosecute the philosophy of mind while denying the very data of the philosophy of mind. What could be more absurd? Blinded by his scientism, he cannot admit what we all know to be the case: that we believe, know, desire, recollect, expect, fear, etc.”

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