Nice Guy Materialism

Patricia Churchland

The April issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine is now published, and it contains a spirited interview by Julian Baggini with Patricia Churchland — you can read it here.  She talks about her new book, Braintrust, but what’s most interesting to me comes near the end, where she explains the birth of eliminative materialism.

‘It’s a position most people know only in caricature, and so they take the straw man version and attack that,’ she argues. The view gets dismissed as something silly like the belief that there are no beliefs, or the denial of the existence of consciousness, but Churchland claims that really nothing is eliminated — the view is about explanation, about conceptual re-organization, not metaphysics.  So why call it ‘eliminative materialism’?

It turns out that Richard Rorty introduced the term ‘eliminative materialism’, so the words were already out there.  Churchland says, ‘We talked about calling it revisionary materialism, and Paul said, look, if we introduce a whole new term here (a) people aren’t going to recognise it, so they aren’t going to read it, and (b) they’re going to say who the fuck are these upstarts, and we will simply be dismissed.  So we thought better to take something that’s recognisable and go with it.  In the end, I think that was a mistake. I’d call it revisionary materialism if I had to do it all over again, I’d call it really nice guy materialism if I had that opportunity, I’d give it a really nice name’.  What’s the actual view?

‘As in the case of fire, which originally encompassed not just burning of wood but what went on in the Sun, and lightning and so forth, it will fragment.  That’s what’s happened with memory … there are all these different memory systems.  We know there are many different components to it, and they are dissociable anatomically ….’ Nothing gets eliminated, exactly, but perhaps explanations of memory can no longer depend on a single explanatory mechanism.  We don’t think of what’s going on in the sun, burning wood and lightning as the same kind of thing … it’s fragmented out in our explanations.  Maybe so too with memory and other mental notions.

The idea is not that consciousness, belief and desire do not exist, and must be (Borg voice) ELIMINATED, but that we ought to revise folk explanations of our mental lives to match up a bit better with our growing understanding of how our brains actually work.  So what do you think about nice guy materialism?

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