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?

Leave a comment ?


  1. If that’s what it implies then I’m Ok with it, and probably agree … What I’m more thinking is how funny Patricia is, she is a Nice Girl Philosopher 🙂

  2. I’ll add that Philosophy Bites link to my podcast pile. Cheers!

    I haven’t read the early eliminative papers in a long time, but dusting off my copy of Paul Churchland’s Matter and Consciousness, it does sound a bit more like he’s talking metaphysics — he’s comparing beliefs and desires to caloric, the starry sphere of the heavens, witches. ‘It was finally agreed that there is no such thing as caloric. Caloric was simply eliminated from our accepted ontology.’ I know Paul’s not Patricia, but that does sound metaphyiscal to me, not just elimination at the level of explanation.

    But at the end of the chapter on the mind body problem, he says this, ‘Perhaps we should speak here, more liberally, of “revisionary materialism”, instead of concentrating on the more radical possibility of an across-the-board elimination. Perhaps we should. But it has been my aim in this section to make it at least intelligible to you that our collective conceptual destiny lies substantially toward the revolutionary end of the spectrum.’

  3. swallerstein (amos)

    Thanks for making the interview with Churchland available.

    Here’s another recent interview with her.

  4. The interviewer won me over immediately with ‘kickass naturalist philosopher’ … will read it.

  5. @ James Garvey
    “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.”

    The only explanation for human consciousness, intelligence, rationality, and free will is that there is no explanation. It is a mystery. This is why humans are embodied spirits. This is a difficult theory to grasp because it is paradoxical. It means we understand something because we don’t understand it. It is, however, the answer with the most evidence. Materialism, dualism, and idealism are all bright ideas, but there is no evidence supporting them.

    It is necessary to grasp the difference between the questions: 1) Why is the sky blue? and 2) What is the relationship between the brain and the mind? The first question comes from our senses, but the second question comes from our ability to make ourselves the subject of our own knowledge. The scientific method does a great job of answering #1 type questions. There is no track record of success for #2 type questions.

  6. Dennis Sceviour

    Interesting interview. Here are some observations:

    “the social and the moral were continuous…”

    I agree to this type of reasoning, to which I have alluded before when suggesting that evolution is a function of population change and not of individual change. Many philosophers and neurological specialists look for predictive elements intrinsically in an individual human condition, while ignoring or eliminating extrinsic considerations in their calculations. Then, when the theories and conclusions collapse, they explain away what they missed. Scientific advances have only been after considering extrinsic properties (or I know of no applied science that does not). To me, this is partly what Eliminative Materialism (or Churchland’s Revisionary Materialism) is about.

    “There are so many extraordinary examples of intelligent and problem-solving behaviour animals that you can’t say it’s instinct.”

    I am not sure what Patricia Churchland means by this. Perhaps the word instinct may seem a little vague, but it is not inappropriate. Rather, there seems a need for further definition and meaning of instinct.

    “nothing is eliminated — the view is about explanation…”

    Now that was a mind boggler. If one eliminates an explanation, does the unexplained concept still exist?

  7. David wrote: “It is necessary to grasp the difference between the questions: 1) Why is the sky blue? and 2) What is the relationship between the brain and the mind? The first question comes from our senses, but the second question comes from our ability to make ourselves the subject of our own knowledge. The scientific method does a great job of answering #1 type questions. There is no track record of success for #2 type questions.”

    Its silly to write a paragraph that can be refuted by imbibing a shot of vodka, and observing how altered physical chemistry affects your mind.

  8. The effects of alcohol on the mind proves there is a connection between the mind and the brain. The question humans ask is what is the connection? The four possible answer in order of the least amount of evidence are
    1) dualism (there are spiritual substances)
    2) materialism (the mind is an illusion)
    3) idealism (the brain is an illusion)
    4) it is a mystery.

  9. Thank you for withdrawing your previous comment.

  10. Benjamin S Nelson

    I’ll throw my hat in and recommend Braintrust. The more we inquire into the foundations of trust, the better we are able to tackle some of social science’s toughest questions. Braintrust an enormously interesting research project, and Dr. Churchland tackles it with characteristic aplomb.

    There are, of course, a few problems with the work. I am not altogether convinced that the moral and the social are on a continuum, as she suggests. But these little dark patches in the argument don’t lessen the value of the work on the whole.

  11. James;
    Thanks a lot for this link and this stimulating new information.

    After evolution theory, biologists believed that the great mystery remaining was/is the functioning of the brain, and its understanding is still in its infancy. I completely agree with Churchland that this new information will completely change our views and the concepts we use. I believe that this understanding, how the brain works, will completely change our views, including our philosophical views; I believe this is where the next revolution in our understanding is going to be.

    Appart from the examples cited in the article, i.e oxytocin, there are a long list of old and recent evidence linking the anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, genetics of our brains to many mind functions usually in the field of philosophy.

    I hope that as in other fields, this will result in a uniuque and productive intersection where new fields are created, and where more understanding is brought.

    Great article, thanks

  12. By the way, in Broad’s classification of theoretically possible positions in the philosophy of mind we find one called pure materialism, which is the same as eliminative materialism:

    “(2,22) Materiality is a differentiating attribute, but mentality is delusive. This I will call ‘Pure Materialism’.”

    (Broad, C. D. The Mind and Its Place in Nature. 1925. Reprint, Abingdon: Routledge, 2001. p. 610)

  13. Folk psychology has its foes as well as its friends.

    “Folk psychology has evolved through thousands of years of close observation of one another. It is not the last word in psychology, but we should be confident that so far as it goes—and it does go far—it is largely right.”

    (Lewis, David. “Reduction of Mind.” 1994. Reprinted in: David Lewis, Papers in Metaphysics and Epistemology, 291-324. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. p. 298)

  14. Benjamin S Nelson

    Jim, I think when Churchland says that she regrets the term “eliminative materialism”, it should be taken at face-value. Her position really is better understood as “revisionism”. That is, she thinks that the vocabulary of folk psychology will gradually be eliminated and replaced by a different vocabulary. This new lexicon will coevolve with the discoveries of neuroscience and the like, making them more apt to describe reality. We needn’t eliminate the terms from our vocabulary now (if, for instance, we believe they have predictive success). We just accept that the concepts are only useful fictions that will eventually fall by the wayside.

    We can see some of these developments happening today. For instance, the excellent Yale philosopher and cognitive scientist Tamar Gendler coined the term “alief” as a way of talking about beliefs that are assumed and never actually brought before consciousness. Or (to use a far less illustrious example) in my recent research on joint action I’ve been finding it more useful to use terms like “expectation” and “trust” than “intention” (or “shared intention”).

  15. Jim;

    Does it matter what will happen to folk psychology? I believe the new concepts/ideas will have their own form and create a new language.

    What happened to old physics before Newton? What happened to old biology before Darwin? What happened to old psychology before Freud? We forgot about it and describe our understanding of reality with our new terms and concepts. We only integrated those aspects of the old theory that remained useful/truthful into our current description of the world.

    But how this new paradigm might look like? How are we going to understand ourselves and our universe? What changes are happening right now? Where do they point us to?

    One thing that comes to my mind right now is that the more we grow, antropocentric or egocentric points of view get hit over and over again. The earth is not the center of the universe not even of the solar system; we descend from monkeys and we might not have free will. True knowledge has always been a humbling experience

  16. Richard Marshall also reviewed Churchland’s book:

    I thought it was a long and enjoyable review.

  17. I guess what I’m trying to point out is that there is a large difference between the theory she advocates and the theory of eliminativism.

    Her stated position is not very controversial. e.g., the Lucretian conception of the atom was “eliminated”, in a crude and misleading sense that Patricia Churchland regrets suggesting. Following her lead, it is better to say that the notion of the ‘atom’ has been revised by subsequent notions than eliminated altogether. By contrast, following Paul Churchland’s lead, notions like “phlogiston” or “aether” really were eliminated in the course of inquiry. Those examples suggest expulsion, not revision.

    That’s why I think it might be useful to actually distinguish between the strong eliminativism that is suitable for discussion of the history of the concept of phlogiston, and the weak eliminativism (“revisionism”) suitable for discussion of the history of the concept of the atom. Revisionism admits that folk psychology may turn out to be the direct ancestor to a progressive research programme, while eliminativism insists that folk psychology is a dead end.

    So, uh, I guess I’m saying your (4) has to be split into two.

  18. It should be mentioned that there is a difference between eliminative reduction and conservative reduction:

    “Central to the concept of reduction evidently is the idea that what has been reduced need not be countenanced as an independent existent beyond the entities in the reduction base—that if X has been reduced to Y, X is not something ‘over and above’ Y. From an ontological point of view, reduction must mean reduce—it must result in a simpler, leaner ontology. Reduction is not necessarily elimination: reduction of X to Y need not do away with X, for X may be conserved as Y (or as part of Y). Thus, we can speak of ‘conservative’ reduction (some call it ‘retentive’ or ‘preservative’ reduction), reduction that conserves the reduced entities, as distinguished from ‘eliminative’ reduction, which rids our ontology of the reduced entities. Either way we end up with a leaner ontology. Evidently, conservative reduction requires identities, for to conserve X as Y means that X is Y, whereas eliminative reduction has no need for (in fact, excludes) such identities.”

    (Kim, Jaegwon. “Making Sense of Emergence.” In: Jaegwon Kim, Essays in the Metaphysics of Mind, 8-40. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. pp. 20-1)

  19. “Eliminative materialism is the thesis that our common-sense conception of psychological phenomena constitutes a radically false theory, a theory so fundamentally defective that both the principles and the ontology of that theory will eventually be displaced, rather than smoothly reduced, by completed neuroscience.”

    (Churchland, Paul M. “Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes.” The Journal of Philosophy 78, no. 2 (February 1981): 67-90. p. 67)

    “[W]hat exists only according to some false theory just does not exist at all.”

    (Lewis, David. On the Plurality of Worlds. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. p. 3)

    According to folk psychology, propositional attitudes exist.
    According to Churchland, folk psychology is false.
    Therefore, according to Churchland (more or less implicity), propositional attitudes do not exist.

  20. Jim;

    Thank you for your response. I asked the question does it matter what happened to folk psychology because I felt its destinity should not be the focus of our efforts but what is the new point of view or the new paradigm.
    I believe the destiny of our current concepts on mind, soul, beliefs, free will, agency, knowledge,ethics, and morality are being and will be redifined by new discoveries. The new paradigm/ideas/concepts will probably create/point to a new philosophy. The nature of this philosophy, its main concepts, will in the end determine the destinity of folk psychology.
    Personally, I prefer to focus on what is this new philosophy/science, how it is going to look like. What new concepts/ideas will constitute them. This appears a unique an incredible opportunity to participate in this thought adventure; I feel like relativity or quantum physics is going to be discovered, and I thank this site and its members for connecting me with some of the though leaders of this movement. For example, the discussions on free will on this site had been great as well as your article on the multiverse and nothing.

  21. swallerstein (amos)


    I’ve seen philosophy defined as the study of what matters.

    If that is the case, there is a lot of room for philosophical debate and conversation.

    “What matters” is not eternal nor timeless nor “objective” nor derived from Reason or natural law, but it seems to be something that we can talk about and that is worth talking about, and that while conversations about “what matters” , in order to matter, cannot contradict scientific findings, science, as far as I know, can tell us very little about what does matter.

  22. swallerstein (amos)

    Hello Jim:

    People would justify, explain and examine their values and options (tastes?).

    The old stuff about the examined life being worth living, although we could also talk about whether the examined life is worth living….

    Given that most values and options (what you call tastes) are not examined in normal life, examining them seems like a big step for me, but actually, examining our values is a pleasure in itself.

  23. It’s a pity about the name eliminative materialism, too clear and descriptive for philosophy. You need something sonorous and opaque like materialist monism, a tricky key that you have to push all the way in, retract a bit and then the door will open. Rebranding may be too late.

  24. Talking Philosophy Blog « New Evangelist, David Roemer - pingback on May 11, 2012 at 10:23 am

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