12 July 2006

Eliminative Materialism, as described by Paul Churchland, is a rather simple theory of mind. It has two basic premises: 1)that a completed neuroscience will be able to explain all mental events and activities in strictly neurological terms, and 2)that the way we currently describe mental events and activities is part of another, unwitting, theory of mind––folk psychology(FP)––which ought to be discarded in favor of this completed neuroscience. This completed neuroscience, he grants, is quite a distance in the future, but based on the rapid progress the field has made since its inception, he sees no reason that it should not eventually be able to map all neural activity in the brain, explain all behavior with reference to it, and predict future behavior from it.

Given these conditions, we will know all that there is to know about the "mind," and we will know it within a framework that makes no reference to mind, but only to the structure and activity of the brain. Yet while Churchland is probably correct about both of these premises, his conclusion does not necessarily follow. While it may not be the best theory for describing the "mind," to discard FP would be a terrible mistake. Questions need to be raised as to whether we can, and should, replace folk psychology, and about the consequences such a move would have.

Churchland calls the way we currently describe mental events and predict or explain behavior––in terms of beliefs, desires, feelings, and other mental states––a theory of mind, and names it folk psychology. It is a theory, no matter how fundamental it may seem, precisely because it plays an explanatory and predictive role, and because it posits the existence of theoretical entities(in this case, beliefs, desires, feelings, and other mental states) to explain and predict. These two things are what all theories do: they try to explain things or make predictions, and they identify theoretical entities to explain what they find. Folk psychology is, however, according to Churchland a poor theory, and he gives solid reasons for rejecting it. The first is that while it has been somewhat successful as a theory of mind, it has also had many failures. He agrees that it has been a predictive theory of human nature, but points to the many things a successful theory of mind would explain which FP fails to: mental illness, creativity, the functions of sleep or memory, for example. These faults do not prove FP false, but make it worthwhile to consider the possibility of other, more powerful, theories.

The history of folk psychology lends credibility to this possibility: it has not changed or grown in the recent past and shows little promise of future growth. FP used to include inanimate objects as intentional beings, or beings that could refer to or think about other things; only post–Socratic philosophy has limited this status to higher animals. Yet even since this limitation has been assumed, FP has neither made progress in explaining the things it originally could not, nor shown that it will be able to explain them in the future. If FP were a perfect theory, it might not need to evolve; yet with the mysteries mentioned above, this stagnation is unacceptable. Since FP is to be considered a theory, it must be categorized as a degenerating one. It is because FP fails to mesh with more recent and more accurate knowledge of how the world works that it holds no promise. Theories in overlapping domains, such as biology, chemistry, and physiology are well established and accepted as providing an accurate picture of development, and can already explain some things in the mental field better than FP. These theories are also part of a growing and dynamic physical explanation of the world. FP stands apart from them, and cannot be reduced to them, because it explains things in terms of the mental, not the physical(which, however, assumes the falsity of FP: mental terms may refer to the physical; he has not shown this to be false). It is being left behind, Churchland says, and needs to be replaced by a strictly neurological system of reference.

This is his case for regarding folk psychology––and thus the way we look at the world––as a theory of mind, and not an especially good one. This assessment is highly contested; we will, however, assume it to be accurate, and grant Churchland his main argument. We will also grant that neuroscience will advance to the point where it is as accurate and efficient as Churchland predicts it will become. We will grant that, as Churchland says, folk psychology, as a theory of mind, should be replaced. The next question is whether it can be replaced. The neurological work needed to make neuro–speak(Churchland's Eliminativist language) available, will take many years, and what are we to do in the mean time? We may "realize" that our mental terms are part of an inaccurate system––though only those subscribing to Eliminative Materialism will admit this––but what other terms do we have to describe "mental events" until neuroscience reaches that stage? And if even Eliminativists are forced to use mental terminology until that point, how can they expect those who don't subscribe to Eliminativism to make such a jump when it can justifiably be made? Folk psychology is, after all, a working theory, one which has worked well enough for the past few thousand years. How would we be convinced, even if the language of a completed neuroscience were an option, to give it up? But these are just rhetorical questions. Churchland would probably say that no paradigm shift comes easily, but many of them have come. Previous shifts, however, have involved the way we view the world, the objective, physical world, while this one asks us to change the way we see ourselves. This kind of shift is very different from earlier ones. Yet we must ask if the paradigm shift Churchland advocates––from the belief/ desire/ feelings explanatory–predictive framework of FP to a neurological one, making no reference of "mental states"––can take place. This does not seem likely. Not only can it not take place because the basis for such a framework is not available, in terms of our understanding of neurology, but because the human brain is not capable of the activity it would require. Granting that the root of what we perceive as mental activity is actually neurological brain action, which it almost certainly is, when we introspect we do not see neurological activity. We see, instead, the results of that activity: thoughts, thought patterns, and sensations. Our brain is not able to make distinctions at such a fine level; the neurological level is simply too minute or too fundamental to be noticed. It is questionable whether we even have the sensory mechanisms this would require. So instead of direct observation of neuronal activity, we have a perceptual dualism: brain activity is seen and understood as "mental" activity, as learned from folk psychology. If we thus lack the mechanisms to make neuro–speak possible, it is impossible to adopt neuro–speak. Churchland, however, seems to feel that we do, indeed, have the ability to notice our own neuronal action––yet gives no indication of what the mechanism that would allow this observation is; perhaps it is merely our great mental adaptability. Yet he may still insist that our increased knowledge of the physical world will change our perception of it. Which is reasonable. Yes, Eliminativism could even conceivably succeed to a point at which instead of learning the folk psychology framework, we learn that what is now called a certain feeling is activity in such–and–such an area of the brain, and so on, from the moment of birth: we never hear mental vocabulary, and grow up using the neurological framework Eliminativism suggests. This is possible, in spite of the earlier objection about introspection: we cannot currently see the brain activity that causes our behavior, yet we ascribe(inaccurate?) causes to it; under a neurological framework, we still will not be able to see the brain activity, but will know that brain activity(and approximately what brain activity) is the cause. This could conceivably happen: Eliminativism, and consequently neuro–speak, may become possible in this form. Even if this were to become possible, however, it would have undesirable, and unacceptable, consequences. An Eliminativist would probably ask what makes this world view of folk psychology so special, except the fact that it is our world view. To this, we must respond that that is precisely what makes it so special, and bite the bullet.

Folk psychology is a world view we have spend our entire evolutionary existence using, and everything we have done has been a part of it. Jerry Fodor, in 'Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind', even wonders if giving up FP is a "biologically viable option." The completed neuroscience may give us more accurate understanding of our physical selves, but it would render much of our language, and thus our literary culture, nonsensical. Mental language and the resultant literary tradition are too entrenched in our culture; aside from being very much a part of what human beings do everyday, they are the basis of our social structure, and it would be impractical, if not impossible, to replace them with a cold, but accurate, neurological language. Even if we could live with the cold linguistic consequences of a neurological framework("Darling, you stimulate this particular section of my brain"), as Rorty's Antipodeans do, instead of FP, though, it would be a mistake to adopt it, because it would, at one fell swoop, do away with the entire literary cultural heritage of the human race, by making it inaccessible to all in the new, neurological, framework. If there are no mental states in their conceptual schemes, how could they possibly relate to works about mental states? And humanity has worked too long building this cultural tradition, based on exploring and explaining our inadequacies, to throw it away for something that replaces one of these inadequacies with the ability to make ourselves perfectly understood. We are a race of imperfect beings; our history shows this, and to deny it or limit access to documentation of it by making it obsolete, would be foolish: it may even lead us to make the same mistakes(using neuro–speak) again. Even if our knowledge of neurology were perfect, it would be more representative of humanity to let us keep the inaccurate language we grew up with.

Perhaps, however, the choice will not be ours to make. Perhaps the completed neuroscience will come, bringing with it the neuro–speak Churchland advocates and proving the language of mental states and folk psychology inaccurate. But its being available does not mean that we must use it––only that we must recognize its availability. Yet it may be that once available, neuro–speak begins to trickle down from the sciences where it will be developed and used, into educated conversation, everyday life, and finally replace the folk psychology framework altogether. If this happens, though, it will be a gradual process instead of the drastic and immediate change Churchland seems to advocate. There is no reason, except accuracy, that we should abandon the language we now use, as long as we use it knowing that it is not truly accurate––yet there may be no way to avoid doing away with it. While it seems that the language of neuroscience would not be needed in most situations––it would seem most important in the medical and psychological fields, where true understanding of the brain would be useful and applicable to helping people, and the rest of us need nothing more than a general understanding that "mental" activity is neurological––the trickle–down theory might actually work in this case: could a language based on something other than the best knowledge available(in this case, FP) have any power, or would it merely be a formality, taken seriously only by scholars? However, given the problems inherent in Churchland's position at each stage of its progression toward this, it does not seem likely that neuro–speak will reach this stage. If this were the case, though, language and literature would not simply be discarded, but would make less and less sense to readers, who could relate less and less to the world view held by the authors––much the way Dante's nine circles of hell or Hilton's Shangri–La require us to suspend belief, instead of accepting them as part of the way the world is. Were this to happen, creativity would certainly find an outlet in the new framework, making use of the best knowledge available as authors are wont to do, and resigning the current culture, along with Spencer and Milton, to academia for unless one is willing to adopt and take seriously another framework or world view, one cannot experience literature in its full power, and if the Eliminativist world view came to be accepted, the power of our literature would be lost. If this happens, there is probably nothing we can do to stop it. This does not mean, however, that we should encourage it as Churchland does. The tradition is too valuable a store of knowledge about humanity, her development, and her problems to go gentle into that good night.


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