Eliminating Elimative Materialism: At what cost the truth?
Do you have a mind? The simple common-sense answer would of course be yes. But wait! That’s not what science tells you. No, you actually DON’T have a mind! It’s just your brain playing tricks on you. What you think is your mind is merely the result of certain neurons in the brain firing little charges of electricity. You insist you do have a mind? Get real, science, neuroscience in particular says otherwise. The mind IS the brain. Believe science or you’re a Witch-hunter from the Salem Witch Trials.
Does this argument make any sense? Well, to some it does. Paul Churchland is unapologetically supportive of this view of the mind-brain problem. In his article “Eliminative Materialism” he argues that there will not be any other way to explain exactly what the mind is, and that eventually, materialism will eliminate all remnants of the view that the mind is not 100% the brain. I don’t accept this argument however, and I think that neuroscience will not succeed at killing off the mind. My thesis is that we should bury eliminative materialism not only because it does not have a good chance at explaining the mind, but also because it threatens society in dire ways.
What are the arguments for eliminative materialism? Firstly, Churchland claims that there will not be any successful theory that accommodates the existence of the mind which is apart from the brain:
“…the one-to-one match-ups will not be found, and our common-sense psychological framework is a false and radically misleading conception of the causes of human behaviour and the nature of cognitive activity.”
Here Churchland argues that there will never be any discoveries that serve to reconcile our common-sense understanding of the mind, or folk psychology, and neuroscience. However, he contradicts himself later when he says “there are vastly many more ways of being an explanatorily successful neuroscience while not mirroring the structure of folk psychology.” First he says that there will never be any discoveries, next he admits that the possibility of these match-ups being found does exist, however slim they may be.
Churchland goes on to claim that this understanding of our minds we possess is a very misguided and false way of looking at the mind-brain mystery, and that folk psychology fails rather miserably to explain many phenomena associated with the mind that is very familiar to us:
“So much of what is central and familiar to us remains a complete mystery from within folk psychology. We do not know what sleep is, or why we have to have it…We do not understand how learning transforms each of us from a gaping infant to a cunning adult, or how differences in intelligence are grounded. We have not the slightest idea how memory works, or how we manage to retrieve relevant bits of information instantly from the awesome mass we have stored. We do not know what mental illness is, nor how to cure it.”
Yes, it is true that folk psychology cannot explain sleep, memory or learning. Yet for Churchland to claim that neuroscience is able to explain these phenomena is misleading, because neuroscience cannot explain them either. While neuroscience enables us to learn about the brain, it does not explain the above-mentioned phenomena of the mind. Knowing about something and explaining something are not the same. In his article “The Mysterious Flame”, Colin McGinn uses Thomas Nagel’s animal phenomenology to argue this point. This argument states that although we spend years and years studying everything there is to know about the brain of a bat, we would have no inkling of what it would actually be like to be a bat. We would have no idea at all what it feels like to flit about in the night, navigating via echo-sounding. Thus, McGinn concludes:
“We could know all about the bat’s brain as a material system, but that would not give us knowledge of what it is like to be a bat…it would not give us complete insight into the bat’s consciousness. Thus, knowledge of the brain does not amount to knowledge of the mind”. When it comes to phenomena such as experiencing pain and emotions, folk psychology admittedly doesn’t do a good job. So how about neuroscience? The answer is “neither does neuroscience”. All neuroscience has been able to do so far is to explain which parts of the brain are active when we experience things such as pain and when we feel emotions such as anger and desire. It does not explain these phenomena at all. Explaining what happens and what it is are entirely different things. In fact, McGinn addresses very issue when he argues:
“What makes the concept pain different from the concept C-fiber firing is precisely that the two concepts express distinct properties, so we cannot say that these properties are identical. The appearance of pain cannot be reduced to C-fiber firing…but appearances are what the mind consists of. So the mind cannot be reduced to the brain.”
Hence, on an intellectual level, the arguments for eliminative materialism are not convincing. More than that, I think that we should stop eliminative materialism in its tracks because it holds dire consequences for the world. What do I mean by this? Let us suppose that eventually, the truth is discovered and it is revealed that there is no mind, only the brain and electro-chemical changes. What are the implications of this discovery? I believe that the implications are dire and harmful to human well-being. In reducing the mind to the brain, one would also reduce things such as faith, emotions and even talent to mere firing of neutrons. It would beggar society greatly!
Let us now imagine that we are in a world where the mind has been disproved, as Churchland would have it. That means that religion is merely a construct of our brains; certain neurons firing certain frequencies created Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, etc. We hence have no soul. We are nothing but physical matter, and once the body dies, it’s over. There is no heaven to look forward to, because heaven is just a construct of our brains. God, gods, and goddesses do not exist. So now let me pose a question: where would we humans go for comfort? Imagine the aftermath of September 11 without religion to comfort the grief-stricken and distraught people of America. Think of the disillusionment people will experience when they realize that life is only about fulfilling one’s wants; no higher calling exists. The fact is that we humans need something to believe in. Why take it away for the sake of a cold hard truth that leaves us desolate? At what cost is the truth obtained?
I suppose that even the notion of comfort would be called into doubt as well, because like everything else, comfort is merely the brain’s response to experiences by firing neurons and causing chemical changes. But wait, if that were the case, it would mean that eventually, we would learn how to duplicate the exact processes that take place when we are comforted. It doesn’t stop here either. All our emotions could be duplicated as well. How amazing! I predict that the next hugely successful therapy would be “Comfort Clinics”. Feeling sad and heartbroken? No worries, head over to your nearest Comfort Clinic and we’ll fix you up in no time! A few electrodes here and there, an injection or so, and voila! You’re happy again.
Even our ways of learning would not be spared. Talent would become an obsolete word, because no one needs it anymore. If one were lousy at something, all it takes is a few chemicals to remedy it. Take the arts for example. All we need to do is to find out which neurons make an artist or a musician and stimulate them. Anyone could be a Picasso! I can envision a new version of the Do-It-Yourself Kit: the “Make-Yourself-Into-Something-You’ve-Always-Wanted-To-Be Kit”! Be an artist instantly without the hassle of going for hours of art lessons every week! In the end, the uniqueness of each work of art would be compromised. Since everyone can paint like Van Gogh, there won’t be anything special about his art anymore. What would be the point of music and art then?
In conclusion, I don’t believe that it is really worth it to beggar ourselves socially and culturally for the sake of a truth leaves us cold and impoverished. Let us now grab our shovels and bury eliminative materialism so that we can remain rich without the dreadful and unnecessary truth.
Churchland, Paul. (1984). “Eliminative Materialism.” In Matter and Consciousness.
Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 43-49.
McGinn, Colin. (1991). “Consciousness – Still Unexplained After All These Years.”
In The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World. Oxford:
Blackwell Books. pp. 1-29.