Oliver Sacks on the Meaning of Life

Oliver Sacks on the Meaning of Life

“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” I wish to make some comments on this passage from my late friend Oliver Sacks, which I think deserves expansion. He writes these words after listing other good things in his life: love, travel, writing, and reading. But he singles out what follows “above all” for special commendation, even though it might appear banal and entirely generic. Being a sentient being is listed first, as if the most important: merely to be a sentient being is a “privilege”—so much better than not being one. This we share with other animals, which also have the privilege of sentience—the capacity to be conscious of the world and themselves. He must mean the sensuous richness and beauty of the perceived world. We are lucky enough to have this capacity—to be sentient at all. He then adds “a thinking animal”, which needs some unpacking. This is not equivalent to “sentient being” but adds two other qualities (arguably three): thinking and animality. It is a privilege to be a thinker, capable of all that thinking confers, over and above sentience; again many existent things lack this quality. We should feel gratitude for having it. But we are also animals like other animals, thinking animals or otherwise. It is a privilege to be an animal—just like other animals in our animal nature: the vigor, the struggle, the strength, the resilience, the sheer flesh-and-bloodness. An alien species might regard us as a splendid (if eccentric) beast, well worth researching and gazing at. It’s good to be an animal. But it is even better to be a thinking animal: to have these two qualities juxtaposed in us. To be both an animal and a thinker—what a marvelous conjunction of attributes! Isn’t so much of human nature the result of negotiating these colliding qualities? We have to live as both things, as a combination of opposites—or at least uneasy partners. That fascinating duality is what makes us the specific type of conscious living being that we are. Oliver then casually adds “on this beautiful planet”: suddenly we take a step back to contemplate our place in the cosmos. And what a place it is: a jewel, a paradise, and a haven, compared to the grim expanses of space. Our natural home is a thing of interest and beauty. Just think of the other planets we might have lived on—ugly, dull, inhospitable, hostile, and murderous. We are privileged to live on the most desirable piece of real estate in the known universe! And we have the sentience to appreciate it, to love it, to be able to contemplate it. He ends by saying, “that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure”. That is, these elementary facts about human life in themselves are causes for gratitude, whatever the details of your individual life may be. You are already a privileged being just by having these attributes—already blessed, already immeasurably fortunate. And then there is that final resounding tri-syllable that I have intentionally left out until now—adventure. It is an adventure to be a being with the attributes listed: “an unusual, exciting, and daring experience”, as the OED defines the word. How can it not be an adventure if you are a being with sentience, a thinking animal, living out your days on planet Earth? A life of adventure is guaranteed, part of the package. Just by being what we are, in the place we are, life is an adventure and a privilege—given to precious few (nearly everything in the universe that we know of exists without such privilege and adventure). Other animals share some of this largesse (and should be respected for it), but we alone have our special kind of complicated being, which comes to us without lifting a finger—as thinking, feeling, animal beings, existing on an isolated oasis of bounty and beauty. We can all feel grateful for that. We had it pretty good.

Colin McGinn   


The Futility of Reduction

The Futility of Reduction

The idea of reduction is rampant in contemporary philosophy, particularly in relation to the mind. Thus we hear talk of reductive materialism or reductive behaviorism, or of reductionism about the mental. Likewise, though less frequently, we have reductive views of the moral or even the physical (as with reductive phenomenalism). It is supposed that there is a viable notion of reduction and that this notion might be invoked in philosophical theories of various subject matters. Where did this notion come from? Supposedly from science: science is thought to contain examples of successful reduction, these providing the model for philosophical reductions. We are told that pain can be reduced to C-fiber stimulation in just the way heat has been reduced to molecular motion or water reduced to H2O or light reduced to a stream of photons. So we know what it would be to provide a reduction and then the question is whether such a reduction might be true of the mental: it’s just like that. I think this whole approach is mistaken: in fact, there have been no successful reductions in science, and the case of the mind is not analogous to the kinds of cases that have been cited. The notion of reduction has been misunderstood and mischaracterized; there is really no such thing, as commonly conceived. This is actually quite obvious on reflection.

            Consider the standard example: heat and molecular motion. The claim is that scientists have reduced heat to molecular motion. But why use the word “reduced”? They have identified heat with molecular motion, to be sure—they have discovered what heat is. Similarly, astronomers identified Hesperus with Phosphorus, discovering the truth of an identity statement, but did they reduce Hesperus to Phosphorus? That sounds like a strange thing to say. The reason is not far to seek: as the dictionary reports, “reduce” means “make or become smaller or less in amount, degree, or size”, with “reduction” meaning “the action of reducing”. That is, there has to be some sort of elimination to count as a reduction—some removal, some subtraction. Mere identification is not sufficient: that is just saying what something is, not saying that it isn’t after all. In general there has to be an impression of diversity in order to speak of reduction—it has to seem as if there is more than one thing there. If I seem to see two dogs in front of me and form the belief that there are two dogs there, but then discover that I have double vision, I can conclude that there are fewer dogs than I thought: I have reduced the number of things I believe in. But in the case of heat is there any such impression? Am I under the illusion that heat is different from molecular motion—that there are two things here not one? Does it seem to me that heat is not identical to molecular motion—as it seems to me that blue is not identical to red or square is not identical to triangular or space is not identical to time?[1] It does not—heat gives me no such impression, nor do my senses. It is simply that I have discovered an identity and can therefore make a “theoretical identification”: but where is the reduction here? You might say that the sensation of heat is distinct from molecular motion, and that is perfectly true: but no one is claiming that the sensation of heat is identical with molecular motion—only that heat is. If you were very confused, you might suppose that the discovery that heat is molecular motion is the discovery that the sensation of heat is molecular motion, and thus that you have reduced the sensation to its object—got rid of it as an independent reality. But that is simply a gross misunderstanding (“a non sequitur of numbing grossness”): it is heat that is claimed to be molecular motion not the sensation of heat (which might be a brain state or a state of an immaterial substance). The scientist takes this distinction for granted and merely claims to have discovered what heat is—and similarly for water, light, etc. There is no cutting down on what the world apparently contains, because there was no impression that heat isn’tmolecular motion—though there is certainly an impression that the sensation of heat isn’t molecular motion. Who could have thought that it is? Heat is in the object; the sensation is in the subject: there is no impression of identity here. In fact, we can imagine beings that investigate the physical world and have no sensations of heat at all—though they observe what hot objects do in the physical world. These beings can discover that the thing they call “heat” is molecular motion, but there is no question in their mind about the identity of the sensation of heat, which they don’t have. Once we distinguish heat from the sensation of heat we can see that there is no putative and problematic identification of the sensation with a condition of hot objects. All that is happening is that an empirical identification is being made—but there is nothing that is aptly described as reductive going on. In the same way, scientists have discovered that genes are constituted by DNA molecules, but this is not a case of reduction in the ordinary dictionary sense: there was no lessening of the number of things thought to exist. The truth is that putative reductions are always eliminative in the sense that they reduce the number of things apparently contained in the world: this is why the word “reductionism” is typically used pejoratively—because it is a denial of reality to what appears perfectly real. Strictly speaking, we should restrict ourselves to talk of theoretical identification, or maybe constitutive explication. It is finding out what stuff is made of. These are not instances of successful reduction. Perhaps the removal of vital spirits from biology counts as reduction, because it is plausible to say that organisms give an impression of something beyond the merely physical (mechanical, machinelike); but here again it is elimination that is really in question—such vital spirits are declared fictional, i.e. non-existent. It is not that biologists have discovered that vital spirits are in fact identical to mechanical processes; they have discovered that there are no vital spirits. It is really a choice between identification and elimination; the concept of reduction occupies a poorly defined middle ground. It would be better to drop the word altogether, because it conflates identification and elimination. You can discover that Hesperus is identical to Phosphorus, or you can discover that Vulcan doesn’t exist, but there is nothing hovering between these two—say, discovering that Vulcan is reducible to Mars. This is why I say that there have never been any successful reductions (in the contemporary sense) in science—though there have been plenty of theoretical identifications (and some eliminations: vital spirits, phlogiston etc.). The concept of reduction is a misbegotten concept.[2]

            Still, it may be said, we can continue to draw an analogy between heat and pain: both are cases of successful theoretical identification (constitutive explication). We can drop the misguided idea of reduction but retain the benefits of citing scientific precedent. But there is a reason why people so readily invoke the concept of reduction in this connection: for the mind does give the impression that it is not identical to the brain and body. So if it turns that it is, that is tantamount to denying that it has the kind of existence we thought—as with biology and vital spirits. It seems to us that the mind is not the brain—but it doesn’t seem to us that heat is not molecular motion (though it does seem to us that the sensation of heat is not molecular motion). So this would count as a genuine reduction, if it were true. We wouldn’t nonchalantly say, “Oh, it turns out that the mind is the brain, by the way–an interesting discovery perhaps, but nothing to get in a tizzy about”. On the contrary, a tizzy would be fully warranted—because it sure as hell seems to us that this is not the case. It would be tantamount to a deep revision in our ontological assumptions—a dramatic form of eliminativism no less. Things would be different if pain were distinguishable from the sensation of pain, as heat is distinguishable from the sensation of heat: for then we could happily identify pain with C-fiber stimulation while insisting that the sensation of pain is no such thing. But that is exactly what we cannot do, for reasons made clear by Kripke and others: pain just is the sensation of pain—as heat is emphatically not the sensation of heat (Hesperus is certainly not the sensation of Hesperus!). If the sensation of heat turned out to be identical to molecular motion, then we would have a real reduction on our hands—the world would be less populous than we were led to believe—but that is not what anyone is claiming. Likewise, if the sensation of pain turned out to be identical to C-fiber stimulation, that too would pack a reductive punch; but then the pain case is not analogous to the heat case. The crucial point of dissimilarity is that we can’t separate pain from the sensation of pain, as we can separate heat from the sensation of heat. So we have no precedent in science for the kind of identification of mind and body that is being proposed. That would be a type of reduction, unlike the heat case, but then it isn’t analogous to the heat case: in the case of heat we have no qualms about identifying heatwith molecular motion, because it never seemed not to be (though the sensation of heat certainly did). But we have plenty of qualms about identifying pain with C-fiber stimulation, precisely because pain is the sensation of pain. In other words, identifying the sensation of heat with molecular motion would be exactly as revisionary as identifying pain with C-fiber firing. So the heat case affords no encouraging scientific precedent for so-called reductive materialism: the former is not reductive at all while the latter surely is—and hence clearly eliminative. If pain turned out to be C-fiber stimulation, that would be like nothing else that has ever been discovered—a peculiar hybrid of genuine reduction (i.e. elimination) and straightforward ontologically conservative theoretical identification. It may be doubted whether this makes any sense: how could the identity theory be both ontologically conservative and eliminative? It would have to be both reductive and non-reductive: reductive because eliminative, and non-reductive because merely identifying. You can’t have it both ways. This is why nothing in science sets the stage for so-called reductive materialism: the cases usually cited are all cases of non-reductive identification, once we analyze them correctly. They simply identify one physical phenomenon with another (heat with molecular motion, water with H2O, and light with a stream of photons), while being careful to distinguish these things from the corresponding sensations. But this is not what is being envisaged for mind and brain—quite the opposite. Thus there is no precedent in science for what is being proposed—and hence no conferred respectability or antecedent plausibility deriving from that quarter. Worse, the very idea of psychophysical reduction is deeply confused, wavering incoherently between identification and elimination. There is no such thing as non-eliminative reduction—as the very words imply. The idea was foisted on the philosophical community by a misguided analogy to certain scientific discoveries that were never reductive (reductionist) to begin with. The scientist would be within his rights to protest at being called a reductionist: “I am no reductionist, young man—for I abhor such denials of manifest reality—I am merely an honest inquirer who tries to find out what things are beyond their appearance”. Why should it be thought reductionist (or even reductive) simply to say what heat really is: where is the reducing here? There is no lessening, no winnowing, and no rejecting—just finding out what things really are. The project of philosophical reduction is therefore futile: no such thing is possible or desirable. Indeed, it is contradictory under a normal interpretation of terms.[3]            The difficulty is not confined to attempts at psychophysical reduction. Take the doctrine of reductive phenomenalism: the idea (roughly) is to reduce material objects to sense data. But is this merely a case of theoretical identification—are material objects simply identical to collections of sense data? It doesn’t feel like that—it feels more…rejectionist. Why? Because we are under the firm impression that material objects are more than sense data—that they are mind-independent, substantial, and objective. And those impressions are being denied: there aren’t really any objects like that, but only subjective, wispy, mental things. By attempting to reduce material objects to sense data we are denying their essential nature, thus eliminating them from our ontology. The alleged reduction is accordingly felt as disguised elimination: the inhabitants of reality are radically reduced, cut down. We are being offered metaphysical depopulation. But this is not true of standard scientific “reductions”: nothing in our ordinary conception of heat rebels at the suggestion that heat is molecular motion, since there is nothing about heat that can’t be captured in terms of molecular motion (again, distinguishing heat from the sensation of heat). Phenomenalism really is a form of reductionism, precisely because it is tacitly eliminative: it is not merely conservatively explicative—a mere analysis of what we ordinarily believe. It is not just a matter of straightforward identification. But it can’t be both: it can’t be reductive and merely identifying (explicative). Thus the notion of reductive phenomenalism, as normally understood, is inherently confused, even contradictory—unless it is clearly offered as outright elimination. The same can be said of reductive efforts with respect to morality: attempts to reduce values to facts, to put it crudely. If this is offered as merely explicative, it is apt to meet with anti-eliminative resistance: for it feels eliminative, given the way we ordinary conceive of morality. It might, on the other hand, be offered in a frankly eliminative spirit, and then there would be no objection of disingenuousness or incoherence. But if we are told that it is not intended in that spirit, but only as an account of what moral values actually are, we are apt to protest that the real thing is being denied. Why? Because values don’t seem to us antecedently to be identical to non-value facts—they seem like something above and beyond such facts. If this seeming is veridical, then no reduction is possible, because it would involve denying the essence of the moral. Again, the idea of conservatively reducing the moral to the factual emerges as incoherent, since that could not be anything other than disguised elimination. This is not so for the scientific cases, which is why they don’t have an eliminative flavor. So no precedent can be found in them for the kind of philosophical reduction being mooted. The conclusion I would draw from this is that the whole idea of a philosophical reduction is a monster—a mythical monster. So is the philosopher’s idea of a scientific reduction: there is no such thing (except in the rare eliminative sense). Identifications, yes: reductions, no. The real problem with putative reductions is not that they are guilty of reductionism; it is that they are conceptually confused. We can certainly analyze water into its constituent molecules and heat into the dynamic constituents of hot objects and light into its photonic composition, but none of these qualifies as a reduction—they are not at all reductionist. They are more amplifying than reducing. The same is true of philosophical analysis: we can analyze knowledge as true justified belief (etc.), but this is not a reduction of knowledge to true justified belief. The concept of reduction (as opposed to analysis) really has no place in philosophy, as that concept is customarily intended. This is not to say that the mind could not be the brain (under some description), just that it is wrong to speak of this as an instance of “reduction”. And if it is the brain (somehow conceived) this has to be a truth of a quite different order from that found in science as we now have it. The alleged scientific precedents are mischaracterized as reductive, and are not really precedents.

[1] In the case of time, restating everything in terms of space-time is apt to come across as eliminative, since it appears to deny the essence of time, as we normally understand it. We normally regard time as something quite separate from space, clearly so. Anything that denies this is bound to seem eliminative (the same is true of attempts to replace talk of time with talk of clocks). In any case, time certainly seems different from space, which is why the concept of space-time strikes us as revolutionary–however things may be theoretically.

[2] There is another notion of reduction that is sometimes employed—theory reduction. This is conceived as defined over sentences or statements or propositions, not objects or properties: it is a relation between language-like items. The thought is that we can replace one theory with another, thus eliminating the reduced theory in favor of the reducing theory. This is in accordance with the dictionary definition of “reduce”, since we are reducing the number of sentences that need to be included in our theory of the world; the reduced sentences can be eliminated without theoretical loss. But this notion clearly does not entail any reduction of the denoted objects or properties. If we make a use-mention confusion, however, we can find ourselves speaking of the reduction of the entities referred to in a theory. In any case, I am not here addressing the question of theory reduction, which I don’t regard as a solecism.

[3] It is an interesting question whether physical accounts of color qualify as reductive. Are they perhaps the only examples of successful genuine reduction? The matter is controversial but I would say that they are reductive in the proper sense, i.e. eliminative not conservative. This is because our ordinary concept of color links colors constitutively to sense experience, and physical reduction to wavelengths and the like severs this connection. Thus the reductive claim involves denying that colors exist in the ordinary sense (as properties of the surface of objects)—there aren’t really any colors in objects but only color experiences in minds. So the alleged reduction is not really conservative, simply identifying what colors intrinsically are, but tacitly eliminative (which is how it intuitively strikes us). If we insist on incorporating the experiential connection, on the other hand, we deny the possibility of reductive (sic) identification. So, again, this doesn’t count as a successful piece of philosophical reduction: it is either tacitly eliminative or false. I do, however, think that the dualistic leanings of color are less obvious than in the case of the mind: they don’t seem as non-physical, if I can put it simply.


The Puzzle of Empiricism

The Puzzle of Empiricism

Even the most ardent opponent of empiricist epistemology will concede that it is not wholly wrong. It may be that much knowledge is not based on experience, and it is no doubt true that knowledge requires more than mere experience, but surely it is undeniable that some knowledge comes from the senses. Not all knowledge is a priori; some things we can only know by experience. You can only know by means of the senses that the sky is blue or that it’s raining or that all birds have feathers; reason alone cannot assure you of these truths. For the ascertaining of some facts you need to employ your senses; nothing else will do. There is room for debate about what exactly the empiricist doctrine maintains—what is meant by “experience”, and what is it about the senses that is so essential? Do we mean the actual human senses or can we include other non-human senses, real or imaginary? Is it experience as a subjective state of consciousness that is necessary? Thus we might allow for Martian senses different from ours, and we might relax the requirement of conscious experience so as to take in people with blindsight (maybe they can have empirical knowledge and yet never experience conscious sensations of external objects).[1] Perhaps the doctrine should be formulated not in terms of experience as a conscious state but in terms of causal interaction with external objects: there is a type of knowledge which is such that it can only be acquired by causal interaction with the objects of that knowledge. But putting these refinements aside, it seems indisputable that some knowledge is possible only by using the senses; pure ratiocination is never enough. Humans and animals have senses for a reason: the senses are what enable them to know about the world around them—nothing else will do the job.

            It may be wondered how strong this claim is: is it a necessary truth that certain facts can only be known by sense experience (to revert to the traditional formulation)? What if Plato is right about some possible beings that know everything by means of recollection from a previous life?[2] They never experience anything themselves (in this life) but know about the natural world by remembering what their previous life revealed (presumably by experience). Or perhaps there could be beings whose genes encode a lot more information than ours—containing an encyclopedia of knowledge concerning what for us is known by post-natal experience. These beings are simply born knowing that the sky is blue and that all birds have feathers. This doesn’t seem logically impossible. So maybe empiricism is true of us and beings like us but not true of all possible knowing beings. But even these counterfactual possibilities don’t undermine the essential thrust of the empiricist doctrine, because someone had to interact with reality in order to lay down the knowledge in question, either in intergenerational memory or in the genes. There had to be some sort of imprinting of reality on minds or brains, not just a priori cogitation: for surely it is impossible to figure out by reason alone that the sky is blue or birds feathered. You need to have a look. The facts have to impress themselves on your sensorium, shaping your view of things: at a minimum some sort of causal connection is required. The paradigm is vision: the visual apparatus has to be activated by external facts and experiences thereby generated—these being the basis for justified belief. Empiricism is the doctrine that nothing else can act as the source of certain kinds of knowledge. Testimony can supply it, to be sure, but only because at some point someone cast a sideways glance at the world. In short, experience is the root of (and route to) knowledge of the external world. This is a necessary (and indeed a priori) truth.

            Although I have strong rationalist leanings, this at least seem correct to me: there is a large grain of truth in empiricism. Historically, empiricism was set against rationalism and certain forms of intellectual authoritarianism; the latter was perhaps the more powerful motivator. Experience is a better source of knowledge than the Bible, the Church, or Aristotle’s writings. Here the empiricists had an invincible argument at their disposal, though I don’t recall them ever using it, namely that we can only know what is in the Bible, or what priests say, or what Aristotle and his interpreters say, by sense experience. We have to look and see, or listen and hear, in order to find out what these supposed authorities maintain. So even scriptural knowledge is based on personal sense experience (as is true of all testimony knowledge). And surely it is uncontroversial that rationalism is hopelessly implausible if offered as a general theory of human (and animal and alien) knowledge—which is why no rationalist has ever tried to claim any such thing. The question was just whether there is any knowledge apart from sense-based knowledge—for there is surely a great deal of knowledge that is derived from the senses, necessarily so. It is not an unwarranted dogma of empiricism that human knowledge includes sense-based knowledge! On that point we can all agree (accepting the emendations that might be required when we start to explore logical space). 

But that is not the end of the story, because a question remains outstanding: why is this so? What is the explanation of the fact that some knowledge can only be acquired by empirical means? There exists a partition of facts such that one side consists of facts known by pure reason and the only side is known (and can only be known) by means of the senses: but what distinguishes these facts? This is what I am calling the puzzle of empiricism—the puzzle of why it is that certain facts call for sense-based knowledge, as a matter of a priori necessity.[3] Why is it that the fact that the sky is blue is necessarily only knowable by means of perceptual experience? What is it about that fact that makes this so? How does the ontology dictate the epistemology? What makes these facts special in this way? Granted, it is quite true that they can only be known in the empirical way, but what makes this the case—why this restriction on the mode of knowing? It is sometimes maintained, with some plausibility, that mathematical propositions can be known both a priori and a posteriori, but that propositions about the external world can only be known empirically; the former seems like the natural states of affairs, since ontology cannot dictate epistemology, but the latter also seems indisputable. This is puzzling. The empiricist owes us an answer to the question of why fact and knowledge must line up in this way. To put it bluntly, why are some facts such that they can be known only by being experienced? Not all facts have this property (a priori facts), so why do some? Isn’t it strange that the world should have written into it that it can only be known in a certain way? How can it be that God had no degrees of freedom with respect to epistemology when he decided on the ontology of material objects with properties? Experience is not always required for knowledge, so why in this instance? It isn’t as if the facts in question are experience!

            Here is the kind of answer we might hope for: empirically known facts have a different structure from facts known a priori. In the former case the predicate of the fact is not contained in the subject of the fact, while in the latter case it is. The facts differ ontologically, and in a deep and principled way. We can know truths of the a priorikind by recognizing the containment relation between subject and predicate (what Kant called “explicative knowledge”), whereas we have to go beyond the subject to ascertain the predicate in the empirical case (Kant’s “ampliative knowledge”). Now this may or may not be an adequate account of the matter, but I think it is clear that it doesn’t answer our question, since it is obscure why lack of containment should necessarily require knowledge by sense experience. After all, we have the category of the synthetic a priori, so lack of containment is consistent with the absence of an experiential basis. Nothing about an “ampliative” fact entails that it should be knowable only by experience. So there is nothing here about the fact as such that correlates with being knowable only empirically. Nor would it be right to say that the fact is precisely a material fact, unlike the facts of mathematics: for (a) the same points apply to facts of psychology, and (b) there are material-object facts that are known a priori, e.g. the fact that all material bodies are extended, or the fact that Hesperus is self-identical. So we are still bereft of any distinguishing feature that explains the epistemological necessity we are puzzling over. We still don’t know what makes a fact knowable only by means of sense experience. Thus empiricism remains curiously puzzling, though apparently perfectly true.

            An alternative explanation invokes the notion of intelligibility. Some facts are inherently intelligible, it may be said, but some are not. Facts known a priori fall into the former category while facts known a posteriori fall into the latter category. If every fact in the world were internally intelligible, then all knowledge could be a priori; but that is not actually the case. Accordingly, not all facts can be known a priori, and empirical knowledge steps in to take up the slack: it saves the day when the rational faculty struggles with an absence of intelligibility. Thus the senses are our only means of grasping a non-intelligible world—a world of contingency, accident, and happenstance. Empiricism therefore follows from the lack of universal rational intelligibility. The trouble with this explanation is, again, that it is not clear why the alleged contingency of the world should require a sensory faculty to take in its accidental nature. Why couldn’t there be another way to know these non-intelligible facts? What is it about brute facticity that requires the operation of the senses—those specific organs for gaining knowledge? It doesn’t require any specific sense, so why any sense? Does God need senses to know about the world just because it has an accidental character? Also, there can be no denying the centrality of vision in the empiricist outlook; the other senses play at best a subsidiary role. It is difficult to see how we could have acquired our extensive empirical knowledge of reality by relying only on our non-visual senses. So is it that the non-intelligible nature of the world demands a visual sense in order to be known (or at least one analogous to vision)? Thus we derive “ocular empiricism”. But the contingency of the connection here undermines any idea of logical necessitation from fact to faculty. Empirical knowledge is certainly not identical to the experiences that prompt it, but builds upon such experience; the experience triggers the knowledge. But then why couldn’t something else trigger it—as testimony can? As long as it is triggered somehow the knowledge results, so the sense experience seems logically redundant; it isn’t a conceptually necessary condition of having the knowledge in question. Again, the truth of empiricism seems strangely ungrounded—not at all transparent. It is (dare I say it?) mysterious. 

            And there is this further point: sense-based knowledge is far from ideal from an epistemological point of view. So it isn’t some unimprovable type of knowledge that steps royally in to deliver the goods. On the contrary, it is subjective, extremely limited, in need of supplementation, susceptible to skeptical assault, and downright primitive (no doubt deriving from our animal ancestors: it is the way fish know things). Not for nothing are the senses denigrated in comparison to Reason. So empiricism is saying that our knowledge of certain facts is necessarily mediated by a pretty dismal epistemic faculty—poorly designed at best, riddled with error at worst. Why should this be what the objective world demands in the way of methods of knowing about it? Isn’t it rather insulting to the objective facts to say that they are condemned to be known by such a puny and flawed collection of faculties? What if we only had smell and taste to go on—wouldn’t empiricism seem troublingly hobbled? Doesn’t the world deserve something grander, more hi-tech, and more penetrating? At least reason seems to live up to its object, giving real insight into what it makes known, but the senses just graze the surface—couldn’t there be a better way to know the facts in question? Empiricism elevates to the epistemic pinnacle what is in truth a lousy way of learning about the world. Maybe we are stuck with it, just miserably out of luck, but it hardly qualifies as the epistemic be-all and end-all. It is beginning to appear almost paradoxical—not merely puzzling and mysterious—that the senses are the only conceivable route to knowing about the natural world. It is just inexplicably bad epistemic engineering. What is puzzling is that it still seems quite true that we can only know external reality by sense experience. Those facts will grant epistemic access only to the senses as methods of gaining insight into them, for reasons hard to fathom. The undeniable (and large) grain of truth in empiricism thus hides a mountain of mystery.[4]C

[1] There is also the possibility of subliminally acquired knowledge in which information gets in unconsciously. Not all knowledge is acquired by means of conscious experience. 

[2] Plato doesn’t believe that all knowledge arises by recollection, only a priori knowledge does, but we can extend his theory to include a posteriori knowledge too.

[3] We can’t help noticing that empiricism itself is contrary to its own tenets: for how can it be a matter of empirical knowledge that empiricism is an a priori necessity? We might then view total empiricism as self-refuting—which no doubt it is (though this is always a rather cheap objection to a philosophical theory). As Hume would say, where is the impression that corresponds to our knowledge that empiricism is an a priori necessity? In fact, of course, the theory is offered as a piece of (speculative) ratiocinative knowledge in the grand rationalist style. 

[4] Is it that the self-evidence of empiricism, construed in the restricted way suggested, has blinded us to asking why such a surprising thing should be true? It seems so obvious that we can only know that the sky is blue by experience that we forget to enquire into the rationale for this fact. Certainly, the classical empiricists seem quite untroubled by the question, not even raising it (to my knowledge).




We are familiar with the doctrine of behaviorism and with the phrase “behavioral science”, but we are left in the dark about what exactly behavior is. What does it mean to say that the mind is reducible to behavior or that psychology is the study of behavior? One possible answer is that behavior is motion of the body: the body moves like other physical objects and behavior is simply that motion. But this is clearly wrong: the body moves with the earth’s rotation but that isn’t behavior, and a body can be knocked over without that counting as behavior. In addition, psychology could hardly be the study of the body’s motions, since that is already covered by physics—the laws of motion apply to human and animal bodies too. If behavior has anything to do with motion, it must be a more restricted type of motion than that. The natural next thought is that behavior is purposive motion: behavior belongs with action and conduct, both of which imply purpose. The OED defines “action” as “the process of doing something to achieve an aim”, and “behave” as “act or conduct oneself in a specified way”. So action and behavior are goal-directed (“conduct” gets defined as “the manner in which a person behaves”). This accords with ordinary conceptions: we speak of a person behaving loyally, ethically, selfishly, gracefully, greedily, etc. These adverbs all connote purpose, generally motive. They are psychologically tinged, not purely “physical”. All behavior is mind involving: action as it springs from psychological traits or states or processes. This already tells us that behaviorism cannot be a variety of reductive materialism, since the very concept of behavior includes psychological factors. But it still leaves us ignorant of what behavior actually is: is it perhaps something mental expressing itself in the body’s movement? What exactly is the relationship between behavior and movement?

            This is actually an obscure matter, which is perhaps why it is seldom explored. If a person generally behaves thoughtfully, is this always correlated with a certain type of bodily movement? Apparently not, since many types of movement can be deemed thoughtful. It seems reasonable to understand the relation as like what is called “multiple realization”: each episode of movement “realizes” the behavioral type behaving thoughtfully. We can think of the agent as selecting a given type of bodily movement in order to achieve his or her thoughtful aims (likewise, greedy, ethical, loyal, etc.). There is no one type of movement that corresponds to the behavioral type in question. So clearly no reduction of the latter to the former is going to be possible. But still, what then is the behavioral type? It appears to be a higher-order type involving quantification over movement types: behavior is that property of agents that involves a specific aim and which is such that some movement type realizes it. If I behave greedily, I am such that my greedy aim is realized in a specific (though variable) type of bodily movement. The behavior type is thus more abstract than the particular type of movement that realizes it, more tied to its guiding motive. It is like an action plan rather than a specific occurrence, a schema not a concrete event. A well-behaved person is someone whose actions conform to a certain abstract schema—not someone whose body moves in specific ways. If I behave loyally, I conform my movements to a certain principle or ideal or recipe—but what those movements are physically is as may be. I could behave loyally while lying paralyzed in bed so long as I fulfilled certain aims; I might not even be able to blink, but I could still make the right decisions (perhaps conveyed by a brain scanner). You can behave well without even moving your body (thus omissions count as behavior). A person might get out of jail from “good behavior” without ever moving his body in a helpful manner. But generally, there is bodily movement—though not of a fixed type. Movement is more like the means for behaving, whether well or badly; it is not identical to behavior. The very same movements might be performed by an insentient robot and no behavior would have thereby been evinced. So behavior is both mentally tinged and more abstract than movements of the body. This is why we say that someone behaved generously but not that his body moved generously. It is also why we tell someone to behave herself but not to move her body thus and so (a category mistake). This fits with an interesting feature of the dictionary definition: to behave is to “conduct oneself in a specified way”. It is not for one’s body to jerk or twitch or flow or fall—but for one to conduct oneself in a certain way. Behaving is self-conducting—the affinity with a musical conductor is apt. The conductor conducts an orchestra; the agent conducts himself using his own limbs etc. This is the idea of orchestration, control, and purposive order: behaving is conducting oneself so as to achieve a certain aim. And it has a lot to do with social setting: one typically behaves in a certain social context and this requires suiting one’s other-directed movements to one’s aims (like the conductor’s baton). Perhaps the origin of the concept of behavior lies in such social contexts; certainly ideas of comportment, grace, charm, and so on, belong there (behavior towards). This is now a far cry from the project of setting psychology on the road to materialist reduction, but it is what the ordinary concept of behavior actually involves. Behavior as commonly conceived is bound up with good behavior and bad behavior, where this is socially determined; so the concept is normative as well as psychological.[1] It is no accident that the word “conduct” is the preferred term in legal contexts. Action, conduct, and behavior: all three notions are linked to psychological and normative considerations—and all are ontologically more rarefied than concepts for concrete bodily motions (“his arm went up”, “his lips curled”).

            Is it at all reasonable to suppose that the mind is reducible to behavior as so construed, or that psychology is the science of behavior as so construed? At least such claims are not vulnerable to anti-reductive sentiment: we can’t accuse the behaviorist in this sense of omitting the mind altogether, or of being a type of materialist. That would not be much consolation to the behaviorist motivated by a desire to reduce psychology to the physical sciences, but it might give behaviorism a new lease on life—now it can be claimed that behaviorism is non-reductive and psychologically informed. (Wittgenstein’s flirtations with behaviorism might be understood in this way.) Might the mind be explicable by means of this much richer notion of behavior–the kind of behavior we refer to by such locutions as “behave loyally” or “jolly decent behavior, old chap”? Maybe there was always an element of truth in behaviorism; it’s just that actual behaviorists misunderstood their own most central concept (not the first time that has happened). What if performance actually contains competence? What if courageous behavior logically implies the character trait of courage? What if the whole inner-outer dichotomy is misguided? Maybe the mind really is behavior once we allow behavior to extend beyond the realm of mere movement. However, attractive as that may sound, I think it is a forlorn hope. The reason is that behavior must always contrast with something non-behavioral. The deed may be the beginning, but it needs something else to co-exist with; it can’t be behavior all the way down, or from every angle. Compare biology: within biology we have the field of ethology (“the science of animal behavior”), but that is just one department of the subject. There is also biological history (evolution and ontogenesis), anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and genetics—all separate from the study of the behavior of organisms. In particular, animal behavior must be linked to animal anatomy and physiology: behavior comes along with composition and structure, as well as fine-grained functioning. Similarly, in psychology we must consider psychological history (evolutionary psychology and developmental psychology), the structure and fine-grained functioning of the mind, its basic constituents, and its genetic roots. Psychology would simply be missing out on all this if it confined itself to human ethology. From a philosophical point of view, behavior needs an underlying substrate and structure that serves its functional ends: it cannot be free-floating and self-standing. For example, pain behavior needs to be backed by actual sensations of pain, as assent behavior needs to be backed by actual beliefs. It cannot be that pain and belief are nothing more than the behavior associated with them, even when that behavior is characterized in psychological terms. Even if behavior is thoroughly mentally imbued, it is not the same thing as the mental states that give rise to it. Maybe the mental states intrinsically involve behavior, but still they are not just behavior. It is the same with animal behavior: feeding behavior, for example, is functional and even normative (an animal ought to eat), but feelings of hunger are not the same thing as feeding behavior. Behavior is the mind projected outwards, but the mind is not behavior injected inwards. The right thing to say is that behavior and the mind are part of a complete package; specifically, behavior should not be regarded as mentally neutral. In fact, the whole dichotomy of “mental” and “physical” systematically precludes us from grasping what behavior really is. It is really quite an elusive concept, which we vainly try to squeeze into two categories corresponding to the labels “mental” and “physical”.

            Much the same can be said about another concept favored by the self-styled behaviorists, viz. stimulus. Behavior is said to be elicited by a stimulus, but what is a stimulus exactly? It can’t be a physical impingement considered independently of the psychological subject—a stimulus is only a stimulus for a certain type of organism. The organism must be capable of responding to it in a certain way. The ordinary notion of a stimulus is psychologically imbued (OED, “something that promotes activity, interest, or enthusiasm”)—that is, what we find stimulating. This meaning is what makes us respond intuitively to the technical use of “stimulus”—we know quite well what it is to be stimulated by something outside us. But it turns out that this is not really what is intended (though it is traded upon); instead, the notion hovers uneasily between a purely physical meaning and the ordinary psychologically loaded meaning. In the ordinary and proper sense, a stimulus is something that evokes a psychological reaction—so it is defined by reference to the mind. It cannot, then, figure as part of a reductive definition, or as a plank in the materialist edifice. But it would also be wrong to suppose that its psychological meaning enables it to play a reductive role within the realm of the psychological: for stimuli need minds to stimulate—as behavior needs minds to express. What we have here is a tightly knit package of concepts: stimulus-mind-behavior. The concepts of stimulus and behavioral response are mentally imbued not mentally neutral; they are not physically definable. What counts as a stimulus? Answer: that which elicits a mental response.[2] What counts as behavior? Answer: that which contributes to achieving an aim. There is no comfort for materialism in any of this. Both concepts have a role to play in psychology, but neither of them is suitable to act as foundational concepts in a science. It is not that behaviorism would have been good materialist science if it were true; the very concept of behavior is unsuited to play the reductive role assigned to it. It is not that it is clear but inadequate; it is unclear and inadequate (except as part of ethology). The concept of behavior, as behaviorists employed it, is an ill-defined concept, a mish-mash of inconsistent elements.[3]

[1] Of course it is possible to behave in solitude, even perpetual solitude (Robinson Crusoe), but that is consistent with allowing that the concept of behavior is tied to social relations: we extend it to the solitary case, possibly imagining a potential audience. We don’t call reflex movements or involuntary tics “behavior” precisely because they are not subject to social evaluation (they are not cases of behaving badly).  

[2] Again, there can be stimuli that elicit non-mental responses, but this is arguably an extension of the ordinary notion of stimulation, which is tied to the mind.

[3] We can keep on employing the concept of behavior in scientific and vernacular contexts, but we should acknowledge that it is not the concept of something materialistically acceptable. When we speak of economic behavior, say, we are committed to a psychologically loaded concept—and not one that wears its meaning on its face. It is not at all clear what behavior is. Like other psychology concepts an aura of mystery surrounds it.  


American Idiot

Don’t wanna be an American Idiot

Don’t want a nation under the new mania

Hey can you hear the sound of hysteria

The subliminal mind-fuck America

(Green Day)

If you think this doesn’t apply to American universities, you are not paying attention.


An Argument for Nothing

An Argument for Nothing

The philosopher with no name maintains, fittingly, that nothing is real. In pre-Socratic style, he proclaims, “All is nothing”. He is a total eliminativist (going by the code name TE). We could call him a “nothingist”: everything is nothing, according to the nothingist.[1] Not for him Being and Nothingness, but Nothing and Nothingness. TE contends that everything we talk and think about is fiction, pure make-believe; none of it is real. Science deals in fictions all the way down: its quantifiers range over only non-existent intentional objects (like Sherlock Holmes). Attributions of existence made by the unenlightened are simply false. TE notes that many more things don’t exist than do, and that we often make mistakes of existence, and that we have no clear idea what existence is anyway—so why not go the whole hog and abandon the idea altogether? Isn’t everything a bit fictional, a bit made up, even under our current conceptions, so why hang on to anything non-fictional? The OED defines “exists” as “have objective reality or being”, but many attributes of objects are projected or imagined or subjective in some way (color, beauty, solidity, etc.). Objects don’t objectively have these attributes. Maybe all of it—the manifest image, the phenomenal world—is so much projection and fancy, so that objective reality is not part of our actual worldview. Occam’s razor thus recommends ditching the idea of existence in favor of the fictional posit, the useful construct. The world is all appearance without reality. TE is a global anti-realist: all so-called reality is just so much unwarranted reification. We have heated disputes about what really exists—numbers, universals, values, colors, patterns, gods, and other universes; TE proposes that we simply abolish everything, cleanly and decisively. This, he points out, will solve many problems, since if nothing exists nothing is problematic. We won’t need to acknowledge mysterious realities, because nothing is real to start with. “Exists” is a strong word, a committal word, going beyond what we have any warrant for claiming—how can existence ever be verified?—so we do well to dispense with such assertions. What does it even mean to say that something exists? From what impression does the concept derive? Isn’t the ordinary concept essentially pragmatic, signifying something like “what we have reason to care about”? You needn’t worry about unicorns eating your grass, because unicorns don’t exist; but be watchful of tigers, because they assuredly do exist and can do you serious harm. “Exists” means attention-worthy; “doesn’t exist” means not worth bothering about. Why glorify this pragmatic concept as denoting a special kind of objective property and then rack our brains wondering what things really have it and what it comes to metaphysically? For TE the whole idea of existence, as the philosopher understands it, is a crock, a myth–so much philosophical nonsense. Away with existence! We can carry on talking without it, and still do science, and still make useful distinctions according to pragmatic criteria. Nothingism is a liberating doctrine, a way to let the fly out of the fly bottle; it allows us to view the world through a healthier and less discriminatory lens. We got rid of absolute space and time, we got rid of vital spirits, we got rid of gods and fairies, we even got rid of solid lumps of matter—now is the time to get rid of existent things altogether. As a bonus, we will at last have an answer to skepticism: we don’t need to worry that the external world might not exist, contrary to commonsense belief, since we know that it doesn’t exist—we have eliminated this idea from our conceptual scheme. We can still distinguish the serious from the unserious—“reality” from “fantasy”—using pragmatic criteria, but there is no deep question about whether what we believe in really exists. Tables and chairs don’t exist, because nothing does, so there is nothing whose existence skepticism can threaten to undermine. There is no reality whose nature we might not know, there being no reality at all. You can’t fail to know what isn’t there. All in all, the nothingist presents an attractive picture from a problem-solving point of view; we just need to get our minds around it and relax (he says). Admittedly, it takes some getting used to, but isn’t that true of most intellectual breakthroughs? Paradigm shifts and all that. The philosopher with no name has shown up in town with guns cocked, ready to drive out the undesirable elements. He has no time for the Existent Being Boys, those self-important intellectual troublemakers.

            No doubt TE cuts a striking figure (a high plains drifter[2]), but we may wonder whether, despite his self-advertisements, he has any real argument for his startling position. Can he prove that there is nothing? Maybe it would be nice if nothing exists—it would take away our intellectual headaches—but can it be demonstrated that nothing exists? I can imagine a line of argument that might qualify, which I propose to outline. It might seem suspiciously clever, but when has that ever been an objection to a philosophical argument? It goes as follows. We start with a basic principle about knowledge and reality, namely that nothing unknowable exists. Things must be of such a nature that they can be known. If anything exists, it knowably exists–for example material objects must be knowable in order to exist. This leads by a familiar route to the idea that material objects must be somehow reducible to, or essentially involve, sense data (we leave open precisely what sense data are). When we say that a table exists we mean that certain sense data are obtainable—not that there is some noumenal entity whose existence we must blindly postulate. So let us accept that metaphysical position for the sake of argument: nothing yet follows about the non-existence of tables; on the contrary, they exist as robustly as sense data. But now we notice that sense data have an odd epistemology: while they are indubitably known from the first-person perspective, they are apparently unknown from the third-person perspective. And that perspective is as essential to them as the first-person perspective: sense data exist in the shared objective world, as well as being introspectively apparent to their subject. They have both first-person subjective reality and third-person objective reality (they have a basis in the brain and can cause things). But they are epistemologically problematic from the latter perspective, so we need to render them knowable from that perspective. To achieve that objective we reduce them to observable behavior. So far, so good: we have reduced material objects to sense data and sense data to behavior—nothing eliminative yet. We have simply respected our basic principle linking existence to knowledge (if there is no such link, why postulate existence at all?). True, we are being reductionist, but that begs no questions in favor of eliminativism: sense data exist and so does behavior. It is the next step that puts the cat among the pigeons: for we can’t help observing that behavior is an affair of the body, which is a material object. That means that we need an account of it that respects our principle, and reduction to sense data seems the only way to go (or something similar). So we reduce behavior to sense data as of behavior. But now of course we need to explain how these sense data are accessible from a third-person point of view, which we do by reducing them to suitable behavior; and thus the cycle begins again. An infinite regress of reductions ensues. By insisting on our principle–by no means question-begging—we are led to adopt reductionism about the material and the mental; but that leads us into an infinite regress as behavior gives way to sense data of behavior and these sense data in turn need their behavioral expression. We are thus faced with a dilemma: either we reject our principle or we give up on existence. The former option is unattractive, because it severs the connection between existence and knowledge; so we are left with the latter, which abandons the idea that material objects and sense data exist. Since they don’t exist, there is no need to link them to knowledge, so no need to offer reductions of them, so no regress of reduction. Reduction (or anything similar such as “criteria”) is simply not required under the assumption of non-existence. The choice, then, is between nothingness and mystery: for if the objects that allegedly exist are not knowable, they are mysterious—not objects of knowledge. The objects become noumenal in so far as they are declared unknowable. We can try to avoid this result by constitutively linking the objects with sense data (however construed), but that leads to regress once the existence of sense data is considered. In other words, a familiar predicament concerning reality and knowledge turns into an argument for the position that resolves the problem, viz. total eliminativism. TE thus has a colorable argument for the doctrine he recommends on broadly methodological grounds—he can prove what he says would be nice. The doctrine is not only advantageous from a problem-solving perspective; it is also capable of direct demonstration (given some reasonable assumptions). Only a type of mysterianism[3] stands in the way, but nothingism will have no truck with that—it offers us a way of avoiding that epistemological disaster. If the choice is between total mystery and total non-existence, TE urges us to accept the latter. Only rigid adherence to the concept of existence stands in the way of intellectual liberation. We need to cut this concept loose.

            The nothingist applauds our standard anti-Meinongian incredulity, but wonders why we stop there. He thinks we throw the concept of existence around far too freely, and don’t take seriously the problems inherent in it. His recommendation is to dispense with Being altogether: there is no subsistence and no existence. Meinong is wrong, but so is Russell. As the Beatles sang in “Strawberry Fields”: “Nothing is real, and nothing to get hung up about”. We are apt to suppose that the king of France lacks existence and the queen of England has it—but why the distinction? Neither has the peculiar property of existence, though it is true that we have more to fear from the queen than from the king—and that is the only distinction worth drawing between the two. Talk of existence is just so much airy metaphysics, according to TE. Meinong thinks that everything mentionable has Being; we ordinary folks think (like Russell) that some mentionable things have Being and some don’t; TE thinks that nothing mentionable (or unmentionable) has Being–not really, not when you get right down to it. For TE we are closet Meinongians by another name.[4]Co

[1] We have the monist, the dualist, the pluralist–and the nothingist.

[2] See the film of that name starring Clint Eastwood, himself a non-existent being.

[3] Or as we might say “ignorancism”: in either case drastic epistemic limitation is posited. It’s either the unknowable thing-in-itself or nothing at all—two worlds or no world.

[4] I hope it is clear that I am not myself intending to subscribe to nothingism here; I am just trying to give the view a run for its money. I favor the despised mysterian position, but I think the nothingist position is worth thinking about. It is not without argumentative resources. And it is fun to think about.


Philosophical Philosophy

Philosophical Philosophy

Philosophy takes place within a social, political, and intellectual context. There is a surrounding culture or environment. Religion, morality, the arts, the sciences, war, peace, a general optimism or pessimism—all these factors impinge on the way philosophy is practiced during a particular historical period. The factors can vary over time, causing philosophy to vary over time (also place). A given period may be preoccupied with rival political systems (ancient Greece in Plato’s time) or with the advent of natural science (seventeenth century Europe) or with the arts and architecture (Renaissance Italy) or with war and religion (early twentieth century Europe) or with populism and social media (today almost everywhere). Philosophy is apt to be shaped by these preoccupations, leading us to suppose that philosophy is historically constituted: it is the intellectual treatment of prevailing cultural formations. Philosophy is the philosophy of this or that (non-philosophical) area of human endeavor, an essentially second-order activity, so that its content is fixed by the prevailing cultural concerns. It is, in a broad sense, political, using that word widely to connote societal movements and developments: it is politically engaged, politically formed. This is not true of other intellectual domains: physics and mathematics, say, are socially detached, apolitical. They have their own separate identity that transcends passing cultural moments; they occur in history but they are not of history. But philosophy, it may be felt, is inherently historical, and hence political in the broad sense. It feeds off history, societal context, and the affairs of the moment. It was different in ancient times and it may be different in the future; it may even be unrecognizable in the distant future. Philosophy is changeable and fluid, without any solid constant core—like literature, or politics itself.

            I think this view is profoundly mistaken, though I understand its appeal. Philosophy consists of a fixed set of core problems that are invariant over time and social context. These problems have a specific identity that is quite independent of political factors. A typical philosophy curriculum gives a fair sense of them: problems of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, mind, language, logic, aesthetics, etc. I need not list these problems—we are familiar with them. They often take the form “What is X?” where X might be causality, time, space, knowledge, justification, the right, consciousness, reference, necessity, beauty, etc. It is notoriously difficult to say what unites these many problems under the heading “philosophy”, but we know it when we see it: the problems strike us as peculiarly intractable, debatable, puzzling, confusing, and fascinating. We call this quality philosophical, as in “That’s a philosophical question” or “Now you are getting philosophical”. The quality does not normally belong to other types of questions—questions that are factual or empirical or straightforwardly answerable. We are reduced to saying that philosophy is like jazz—you know it when you hear it. It is not easy to define the scope of other disciplines either, but at least we have short adjectives that give some sense of what the subject is all about. What is physics about? Well, there are many branches of physics, quite heterogeneous, but we can say (though not very illuminatingly) that they all concern the physical. In psychology, too, we find considerable heterogeneity and many branches, but at least we can say that they all concern the mental—even though that term covers a wide variety of phenomena. But in philosophy we seem stuck with the adjective philosophical, which is especially unhelpful. We know the quality when we see it, but we find it hard to articulate it with any clarity (it is that quality—whatever it is–that gives rise to a certain sort of intellectual cramp or perplexity or bafflement). I don’t think this difficulty undermines the legitimacy of the subject—after all, philosophy includes pretty much every area of human endeavor—but it makes the question of the nature of philosophy hard to answer. We can say that philosophy is concerned with concepts, but that risks misunderstanding and is surely too narrow as it stands—and isn’t psychology also concerned with concepts? In what way is philosophy concerned with concepts, and to what end? What is the nature of its questions, and what method does it use to answer them?[1] We can reply that it is concerned with concepts philosophically, or that it deals with philosophical questions about concepts, or that it uses the philosophical method to analyze concepts: but this leaves us where we started. It isn’t false to say that philosophy is concerned with concepts—in fact, it is perfectly correct—but it doesn’t give us much to go on. We do better to list the standard philosophical problems and say, “That is what philosophy is”. If you want to know what it is for a question to be philosophical, then acquaint yourself with some philosophical problems: then it will become manifest to you. These problems constitute the subject matter of what we call “philosophy”, and they are independent of time and context. They are self-standing, specific, and timeless. They transcend history.

            How do the problems of philosophy relate to science? I wish to say two things about this: (a) the problems of philosophy are not scientific problems, or pre-scientific problems, and (b) philosophy is itself a science, but of a special sort. With respect to (a) it has often been maintained that philosophy is “continuous with science”—that it does not essentially differ from the accepted sciences. Perhaps it integrates or summarizes the sciences, or perhaps it is just more general but in the same line of business. One often hears it said, particularly by scientists, but not only by them, that the history of philosophy is the history of parts of philosophy splitting off and becoming real sciences—as physics split off from “natural philosophy” to become the science it is, and as psychology is still in the process of doing. This is taken to be a good and necessary thing, as if the splitting off were a step towards intellectual respectability after a shady past. Thus it is assumed that all of philosophy will eventually metamorphose into science, and that what does not achieve this happy transition will be left to wither in peace. I think this view is completely wrong: philosophy is not continuous with science and its history is not a process of peeling off to become science. For philosophy consists of a distinctive set of peculiarly philosophical problems that are independent of cultural context, which includes science. The problem of skepticism, say, is not a scientific problem, and will never become one; nor is the mind-body problem a scientific problem; nor are the problems of ethics; and so on. Philosophy is just a different kind of subject—being concerned with problems of a philosophicalnature. It characteristically wants to know what something is (essentially is), or how a problematic phenomenon is possible (consciousness, free will, a priori knowledge), or how one thing is consistent with another (knowledge with fallibility, contingency with determinism, emergence with novelty). In a very broad sense, philosophy is concerned with logical questions—questions of definition, essence, entailment, and how things fit coherently together. It is about constructing a logically satisfying worldview. It aims to make things rationally intelligible (as opposed to discovering particular facts). It uses reason to make sense of things, and reason is an exercise of the logical faculties (not the sensory faculties). Philosophy is about the logical structure of reality.

            Regarding philosophy in this way, as a logical enterprise, opens the door for a salutary extension of the word “science”. Philosophy is a science—a logical science, a formal science. I like to call it “ontical science” by analogy with “physical science”: it is the general science of being. It is the science of what things essentially are, what their constitutive nature is; this is why definition looms so large in philosophy. What exactly is knowledge, free will, consciousness, moral goodness, necessity, causation, beauty, truth, the self, rationality, and so on? Philosophy approaches such questions in a scientific spirit, employing reason, careful reflection, logical deduction, and theory construction. It is not poetry or mysticism or propaganda or politics. Its results are checkable, rationally debatable, and intended to state the objective truth. One of its methods is the thought experiment—imagining possible states of affairs and asking how a given concept would apply in them. This is a genuine type of experiment—a procedure in which the outcome is not prejudged and which can be repeated by others. For example, imagine a situation in which someone has a true belief but no justification for that belief: does this person have knowledge? We can perform such experiments and obtain inter-subjectively verifiable results (which is not to say they are infallible—but what experiment is?). They can even be described as “empirical” in the sense that we can learn from the experience of performing them. I have discussed this in detail elsewhere and will not repeat what I have already said.[2] The key (and encouraging) point is that there is nothing to prevent us from describing philosophy as a science, though a science with its own distinctive character. It is a science in its own right and will not devolve into another type of science: it is a sui generis science. Just as the formal science of mathematics will never turn into physics or psychology, so the “ontical science” of philosophy will never turn into any other science. Its problems are what they are and not some other thing. Thus we can say that the ahistorical subject of philosophy—that core of timeless philosophical problems—is a science in its own right. It is not “continuous” with other sciences in the sense of being just like them, or parasitic on them; rather, it is a science that belongs alongside the other sciences, an equal member of the club. We have the sciences of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology—and philosophy. Philosophy is “being-in-general science” (an Aristotelian conception). 

            To describe philosophy as a science raises expectations of progress analogous to the progress obtained by the other sciences. But does philosophy make this kind of progress? Doesn’t its lack of comparable progress undermine its title to quality as a science? My reply is that these expectations are prompted more by conversational implicature than by logical (semantic) implication. Strictly speaking, the question of scientific status and the question of scientific progress are logically independent: the former does not entail the latter. Non-science can make progress and science can fail to make progress. You can make progress writing a novel or a biography without those things being forms of science, and some parts of science can be mired in controversy and resistant to progress  (quantum theory, the origin of life, the psychology of creativity). Some sciences are simply more difficult than others; it is really a complete fluke that astronomy has made the progress it has (fortunately light travels very fast and preserves information). The question is controversial but I would say that philosophy has made impressive progress over the last 2,000 years, though large parts of it have not made the kind of progress we see in the other sciences. The reasons for this are debatable, but I think we can agree that central philosophical problems have not yielded to solution in the way many scientific problems have. One possible view is that philosophy bumps up against the limits of human intelligence—that it consists of “mysteries” not “problems”.[3] In philosophy we are mapping the outer limits of our intellectual capacity, which must be finite and specific if we are evolved creatures with limited brains (like all other creatures on earth). We are using our science-forming capacities to do philosophy, as we do in the other sciences (empirical and formal), but these capacities have their necessary inbuilt limits—and philosophical problems tax these limits. This is no detriment to the idea that philosophy is a type of science; it is just an especially difficult type of science. If we imagine beings intellectually inferior to us trying to do physics, we can envisage that they are recognizably capable of scientific thought but their talents do not match our own—maybe they can get as far as Newtonian physics but then their brain engine runs out of gas. Just so there might be beings that can handle philosophical problems better than we can, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t really doing philosophy. Progress is a matter of contingent intellectual capacity; being a science is a matter of the intrinsic nature of the questions. Philosophy, considered as a set of questions, qualifies as a science, even though our capacities in doing it are less than stellar.  Or maybe every possible thinker would stumble over philosophical questions, given their intrinsic character; but that would just show that philosophy is a very difficult science. After all, Newton’s intellect was defeated by the nature of the gravitational force, as he admitted, but that doesn’t mean Newtonian physics isn’t really science. In fact, I would say that nearly all science is confronted by deep mysteries, some possibly terminal, but they can still describe themselves as science. Not all science is successful science.

            Philosophy is particularly concerned to get clear about things, so clarification is a central part of its mandate. It tries to make sense of things by clarifying them. It aims to render the world intelligible. The italicized words here are all redolent of language: words can be clarified, sentences can make sense (or not), and language is intelligible (though not always). This suggests that meaning is central to the philosophical enterprise: the philosopher is a student of meaning. We can understand this in two ways: the meaning of life, and the meaning of language. Both have been thought to come within the purview of philosophy, and properly so. It has even been maintained that philosophy is exclusively concerned with linguistic meaning–that its sole job is to clarify the meaning of words and sentences. “What does it all mean?” might be thought to encapsulate the philosophical quest.[4] The narrow interpretation of this is that philosophy asks what words mean. This is not as narrow as it doubtless sounds, since word meaning brings in extra-linguistic reality, but so formulated the question leaves a lot out. I want to suggest, however, that it captures the essence of the matter: for philosophy is certainly concerned with intelligibility—though not only of language. Philosophy is concerned with the intelligibility of the world. It tries to make intelligible sense of the world by clarifying it. We want, for example, to understand the nature of causation (the thing not the word), so we try to clarify what it involves; perhaps it appears unintelligible to us and we need to restore it to intelligibility (as some have thought regarding causal necessity). We want to clarify its logic (essence, nature) so that it can meet our standards of intelligibility. We can do this by analyzing the word, or we can focus on the thing itself and try to discern its intelligible nature. Either way we are trying to achieve clarity by demonstrating intelligibility. The human mind wants to make sense of things, and philosophy is the tool for achieving this. So philosophy is a sense-making science—a science that aims at clarification, at rendering things intelligible. Sometimes it fails—as with rendering the mind-brain nexus intelligible, or the nature of free action, or a prioriknowledge. Sometimes it delivers respectable results: the analysis of definite descriptions, modal logic, and the nature of the good (though all three areas are not without controversy). The science of philosophy makes progress in matters of clarification; it increases the intelligibility of things. But even when it doesn’t succeed that is its ideal—it is intelligibility-oriented. Language is one domain in which the project of clarification can be applied; our conceptual scheme is another; and the world in general is a third area of potential clarification. Total clarity is the aim of every philosopher (or should be). 

One particularly sharp way in which questions of intelligibility come up is in the shape of the logical paradoxes. These are peculiar to philosophy and vividly illustrate its essential character: philosophy generates them and then it tries to solve them. Philosophy is a paradox-obsessed subject. There are many such: Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, the Sorities paradox concerning vagueness, Russell’s class paradox, the semantic paradoxes, and others. In addition to these we have assorted “puzzles”—kinks in our thinking that resist easy resolution. Many papers begin “The Puzzle of…” Both paradoxes and puzzles threaten intelligibility: they make seemingly straightforward things into confusing and confounding things. To resolve them some clarification is required, but this is not always forthcoming—they can be infuriatingly persistent (puzzlingly so). When paradoxes spread (as with the Sorities paradox) they threaten to undermine the intelligibility of everything. They are the nightmare of reason, and they are particularly disturbing to philosophers: for they threaten to undermine reason from within. What this shows from a meta-philosophical perspective is that philosophy is in the business of securing intelligibility, which is a none too easy thing to do. We don’t even understand how paradoxes arise: is it from our language or our thought or the objective world? And the last thing a philosopher wants is to discover paradox at the heart of his favorite theory (as with Frege’s set-theoretic reconstruction of arithmetic). Paradox is the ultimate philosophical embarrassment.

Philosophy is also a subject of extreme contrasts, and this too is part of its identity. The disagreements within philosophy are vast: idealism versus materialism, Platonism versus nominalism, consequentialism versus deontology, dualism versus monism, realism versus anti-realism, reductionism versus anti-reductionism. These are not just disagreements of detail but of fundamentals. There are even disagreements about whether whole swathes of reality really exist: do minds really exist, do bodies really exist, do moral values really exist? If philosophy is a science, it is a remarkably contentious one. But again, though this certainly sets philosophy apart from other subjects, it is just part of the very nature of philosophical questions: for these questions precisely concern the most fundamental issues about the nature of reality. If a subject sets out to deal with such fundamental questions, we should expect large disagreements to show up—that is just what philosophy is. It isn’t that philosophers as a group are particularly argumentative or stubborn or dim-witted; it is just that the questions inevitably produce these kinds of extreme opposition. That is what philosophy is about—it is the science of deep disagreement. It thrives on lack of consensus. Scientists are sometimes critical of the lack of consensus in philosophy compared to their own fields, but really there is nothing at all surprising here—philosophy is designed to produce deep differences of opinion. This is part of what makes it alive and exciting. It would be terrible—the end of philosophy—if a dull uniformity were to set in. In any case, consensus is not the hallmark of anything deserving the name “science”. What matters are rational methods, objective criteria of cogency, clarity of formulation, and standards of quality.[5]

Can philosophy ever come to an end? What would its end state look like? I think other subjects can, in principle, come to an end, and probably will before humans do. The sciences can end in one of two ways: all the problems are eventually solved, or some are not solved but never will be (at least by humans). There are only so many facts to discover, laws to state, and theories to be confirmed. But I think this is less clear for philosophical science: here it is not clear what the end state would look like. Can we imagine everyone deciding that materialism is true, say, and simply abandoning all other metaphysical theories as so much outmoded philosophical detritus? What could possibly lead to that result? It is not as if any new observations might be made that would settle the matter in favor of materialism. Or could it be settled once and for all whether consequentialism or deontology is the correct moral theory? Such debates seem internal to philosophy, part of what philosophy is. By contrast, disagreements in physics are hardly internal to it: they typically arise from lack of data or failure of theoretical imagination (or are really philosophical in nature). Neither of those diagnoses would seem to apply to philosophical disagreement. If anything could put an end to philosophy, it seems to be beyond our imagination—a literally inconceivable intellectual revolution. We don’t know what it would be for philosophy to end. Neither can we imagine the problems of philosophy being replaced by other problems hitherto unknown to the philosophical tradition: it couldn’t be that all our current philosophical problems are solved but news ones arise to take their place. What could these be? We have a pretty solid grasp of what the problems of philosophy are; it is hard to see how we could have missed a whole range of new problems. So our current problems are the ones that will stay in existence as the centuries pass by, probably never to receive definitive solution (short of a superhuman stroke of genius or a cerebral upgrade of some remarkable sort). Progress will no doubt be made on these problems, as it has been made in the past, but the idea of an end to philosophy seems impossible to fathom. Philosophy is really a very peculiar subject, quite unlike other subjects; the last thing we should do is to try to squeeze it into some other box. And its problems are what make it what it is, these problems having a unique character (“philosophical”). It may be rightly classified as a science (why not so classify it?), but that is not to say much about its inherent nature. Philosophy is about as puzzling as the problems it deals with. Meta-philosophy is as difficult as philosophy, because it is just another department of philosophy.[6]

[1] I discuss philosophy as conceptual analysis in Truth by Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2012).

[2] See “The Science of Philosophy” in Metaphilosophy (Volume 45, Issue 1, January 2015).

[3] I discuss this in Problems in Philosophy (Basil Blackwell, 1993).

[4] This in in fact the title of a book by Thomas Nagel intended as an introduction to philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1987).

[5] The OED gives two definitions of “science”: “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”, and “a systematically organized body of knowledge on any subject”. Philosophy clearly qualifies under the second definition, but it arguably qualifies under the first definition too, once we allow for thought experiments and are not too restrictive about “observation”. For “observe” the dictionary gives “notice; perceive” and “detect in the course of a scientific study”: at a pinch we can make philosophical method fall under these definitions, since it may involve noticing certain things about concepts (or words) and it detects truths in its own way (sometimes called, misleadingly, “intuition”). Thus the philosopher may be said to “observe” (notice, perceive), for example, that knowledge is not just true belief. The operative terms in the dictionary definition are “systematic study” and “systematically organized”: rigor and system are the hallmarks of science. Academic philosophy qualifies; barroom chat does not. 

[6] Discussions of the nature of philosophy are often tacitly normative: the author is recommending a particular approach to the subject rather than simply describing its actual content. I intend my remarks here to be descriptive: this is the nature of philosophy as it has actually been practiced—though I daresay many people will contest my conception of philosophy. I certainly don’t think it is an easy question to answer. 


The Lure of Elimination

The Lure of Elimination

I don’t despise eliminative positions in philosophy. I think they show something important about philosophical problems—that they can drive us to eliminative extremes. The term “eliminativist” is usually applied in the philosophy of mind and in psychology: it is the idea that the mind does not exist, that mental phenomena do not exist, that consciousness does not exist. Not that the mind is reducible to the brain or to behavior, but that there is simply no such thing as the mind: belief in the mind is an error, an illusion, pure mythology. The Greek gods provide a useful reference point: there are no such entities. People used to believe in them, improbable as that sounds now, but that belief was long ago abandoned—it is just so much empty mythology. The mind is like that: mere empty talk. The brain exists, to be sure, but not the mind—neurons yes, beliefs no. Many reasons have been given for adopting this drastic view: the mind would have to be private and unobservable, but nothing in nature is private and unobservable; talk about the mind is a pre-scientific holdover with no place in contemporary neuroscience; the mind is inseparable from the notion of an inner theater, but that notion is incoherent (the infinitely regressive homunculus, etc.); various alleged attributes of the mind cannot be squared with a robust naturalism; there is radical indeterminacy about all things mental. Above all, it is felt that the mind’s existence presents us with serious problems that hamper the progress of science (as the existence of the Greek gods would if they existed); the solution is simply to deny that any such thing exists. If the mind existed, it would be mysterious, deeply so; to avoid the mystery we should deny its existence. Eliminativism is thus the antidote to mysterianism. The thought is that reductionism has failed, and assertions of outright irreducibility are equally unpalatable, so the choice is between irresoluble mystery and getting rid of the problematic subject matter: the eliminativist plumps for the latter position. We need to make a clean break with the past and stride disburdened into a brighter future. We simply dispense with what so troubles us.

            It is possible to extend this outlook into other areas. Thus we can rid the world of spooky moral values by adopting an “error theory” in ethics: there are no such things as moral values, only matters of fact about human (and animal) psychology. Such values would be very mysterious (“queer”) entities with no place in modern science, so we do well to consign them to the rubbish heap of history. In the case of mathematics the specter of Platonism haunts us, but we can avoid that specter by declaring numbers non-existent—we embrace fictionalism about numbers. The number 2 is like Sherlock Holmes: not a real thing. In the case of physics we have a similar option: we can simply deny the existence of what troubles us. For example, we can eliminate Newton’s mysterious (“occult”) action-at-distance gravitational force by appealing only to matter and space in our physical theories. We can also eliminate space and time, as construed by traditional physics, and replace them with physical objects and their relations: hence the relational view of space and the clock-based view of time. Strictly speaking, space and time don’t exist, but there are surrogates for them that can serve our theoretical purposes.[1] We can even get rid of matter if we are so inclined: we deny that there are any solid particulate substances, replacing such talk with talk of fields or energy or mathematical structure. It was always puzzling what this stuff called “matter” really is–why not just jettison it and restrict our theories to more knowable things? Berkeley had already taken this route (followed by Mach) for reasons of his own: he thought the concept of matter to be incoherent and redundant, and replaced it with ideas in the mind of God. Berkeley was an eliminative idealist (not a reductive one): he thought matter was an invention of misguided metaphysicians, so he proposed eliminating it from sound metaphysics. This had the bonus that we no longer needed to fret about the real nature of matter: he removed a mystery by eliminating the thing that gives rise to it. In general, the eliminativist can boast the removal of mysteries by cutting the Gordian knot: we just need to withhold the word “exists” from the problematic subject matter and all our troubles vanish. Russell’s treatment of Meinong provides a sharp paradigm: Meinong’s ontology offends our sense of the real, so we simply deny that such things are really real—translating the sentences that suggest these peculiar entities into sentences that make no reference to anything of the kind. The methodology seems sound and the payoff considerable, so why not let the eliminativist have his way? Isn’t that better than trafficking in the mysterious, the spooky, and the queer? The battle is really between the mysterians and the eliminativists (not the reductionists and anti-reductionists); and the eliminativists have something weighty on their side—the avoidance of ontological strangeness and potential limitations on human intellectual capacity. Nature is not a mystery after all, so long as you are choosy about what nature contains. Only eliminate!

            Historically, eliminativists come in two main types, according as they favor the body or the mind. The materialist type eliminates whatever doesn’t fit into this box—anything mental. The idealist type gets rid of anything non-mental: Berkeley, some positivist philosophers of science, and eliminative phenomenalists. I have never, however, heard of an eliminativist who conjoins the two—someone who denies the existence of mind andmatter. Call this imaginary character TE (Total Eliminativist): TE maintains in his most extreme moments that nothing exists. There are no tables and chairs, no electrons and protons, no organisms, nor anything else of a material nature; but neither are there any experiences, selves, or beliefs, nor anything else of a mental nature. There is nothing mental and there is nothing physical. And there is nothing apart from these either. Everything is fictional—even fictional works (novels, films). Even illusions are fictional. That’s right, TE assures us with a straight face: there is NOTHING AT ALLWhen we ask him what his reasons are for this bold thesis he rehearses a litany of arguments drawn from the history of philosophy—citing Berkeley, Quine, Wittgenstein, Zeno, Sorities, et al. He is convinced that nothing is without taint: everything is mysterious, or worse, if you really open your mind and examine the matter closely. We have struggled to avoid this conclusion for lo these many years, but in TE’s mind it should be accepted at face value: everything is mysterious (or incoherent) so nothing is real. He isn’t worried about self-refutation counter-arguments because (a) these are weak in themselves and (b) he thinks he has arguments showing that everything harbors mystery or incoherence. He might concede at a pinch that there could be something other than mind and matter, so that the world is not completely null—maybe abstract structure, maybe supernatural stuff (neither mental nor material).[2] But his preferred position is the simplest one—complete and total elimination. Occam’s razor is applied across the board, leaving nothing. The big error of mankind has been to believe that anything exists—in reality it is all a complete blank. He points out that logicians have never been able to come up with a satisfactory analysis of “exists”, and that puzzles about the concept of existence are rife. We don’t really know what existence is—so why do we apply the term so liberally? And he has one central contention that he thinks settles the matter: only total elimination can solve the problems that bedevil philosophy and science. We have been trying for centuries to solve these problems, but they all stem from an unquestioned assumption, namely that the things that puzzle us actually exist. Once existence is denied the puzzles recede (“implode” is TE’s preferred word). Fictional worlds contain puzzles and mysteries, but nobody cares about that; well, our world is a fictional world, so it too presents no real problems.[3] For example, there is no problem about mind and body, since there is no mind and there is no body; it just seems like there is a problem because we make the assumption of existence. We are incorrigible “existence-ists”, TE maintains: we love to impute existence to things without thinking too hard about the consequences. In his worldview, nothing deserves that appellation, because there is nothing; and if there is nothing, there is nothing problematic. Nothing is real, so there is nothing to be mystified by. This is TE’s answer to the mysterian: the mysterian is an inveterate purveyor of false existence claims. That is his fundamental error: he is like someone who cudgels his brain over the nature of ghosts and goblins. As a final flourish, TE likes to make the following rhetorical observation: if you are going to take eliminativism seriously in one area, how can you justify not applying it more widely? Fair’s fair: if you are ready to deny mind, at least be open to denying matter; and if you want to get rid of matter, don’t cling so tightly to mind. Be a consistent eliminativist! Just look at the benefits, TE urges: an end to all deep perplexity, a life without intellectual angst. And what has existence done for you lately anyway? You can go on much as before from a practical perspective; you just drop the idea that anything exists. It’s like coming to see that you are a brain in a vat—except that there is no brain, no vat, and no experience.[4] The Greeks were better off without their gods, and we are better off without vital spirits, phlogiston, witches, and ghosts—why not go the whole hog? Can you prove that any of this stuff exists (even the Cogito limps)? Can you rebut the logical paradoxes? Do you have any convincing answer to the mysteries of nature? TE is here to tell you that he has a way out—it’s all a big load of nothing. The so-called real world is just a giant emptiness.

            Now it is not that I am a follower of TE, but I think his existence (!) needs to be recognized. He occupies a distinctive position in logical (metaphysical) space: he describes a possible metaphysical outlook. He deserves to be listened to, respected even. Why not conjoin the two types of eliminativism familiar to us from the tradition? Each of them has something to be said for them, rebarbative as they may at first appear; and there is no denying their power to resolve mystery. We don’t have to be merely partial eliminativists; we can go global. If nothing else, the position has a clear allure—if only for it bracing extremity. Philosophy thrives on the discovery and exploration of new and challenging positions (and weren’t they all at one time new and challenging?). Total eliminativism is just the next logical step once you have dipped your toe into eliminativist waters. For what is there that has notbeen conscientiously denied by one philosopher or another? So we can at least recognize the possibility of a philosopher who puts them all together. He doesn’t favor one kind of existence over another; he indiscriminately rejects all existence. He is the polar opposite of the philosopher who generously accepts all claims to existence, regarding even the fictional as somehow real. Our total eliminativist refuses to accept an intermediate position: he won’t award existence to anything. He doesn’t play favorites; he is a thoroughgoing rejectionist. He has seen the folly of reductionism; he can’t live with unexplained irreducibilities; and he can’t abide mysterianism: so he opts for universal rejection. To me (an old-school mysterian) TE is a congenial interlocutor—I can see where he is coming from. I can appreciate his motivation. I think he has a good grasp of the philosophical landscape, despite his rather drastic conclusion.[5]Col

[1] Of course, these views can be understood reductively, but they can also be proposed in an eliminative spirit. As has often been noted, the line between reduction and elimination is blurred. 

[2] We can define the following type of eliminativism: the natural world does not exist but the supernatural world does. This is the converse of the usual view that eliminates the supernatural in favor of the natural. I can’t cite a thinker who espouses the view in question, though Berkeley is not far off. 

[3] The positivists came perilously close to total eliminativism: in eliminating metaphysics (and with it its problems) they also ran the risk of eliminating science, ethics, and logic (as anything but empty tautology). Once the mental came under suspicion for its third-person unverifiability there wasn’t much left: matter had vanished into sense data, and mind was vanishing into behavior, which, being bodily, was a form of matter, only to emerge as sense data, which disappeared into behavior, and so on. The landscape was steadily denuded, leaving what exactly?

[4] Some may think that denying the existence of experiences is one step too far—surely that is impossible! But TE is not without resources even here: experiences produce the intractable mind-body problem; they will be problematically disembodied if there is no matter; their nature is quite inscrutable; we may be wrong about what they really are. And how can anything be such that nothing about its nature could generate existential worries? Just because we (as we think) infallibly introspect them, how does it follow that they cannot harbor inner incoherencies? How, too, can objective existence ever follow from the appearance of a thing? So even experiences might not exist, according to TE.  

[5] The last hundred years or so has seen a protracted battle between the reductionists and the anti-reductionists, but arguably the deeper battle is between the mysterians and the eliminativists. The mysterians accept the possibility of reductions transcending our cognitive faculties, while denying all existing attempts at reduction. The eliminativists reject mysterianism and all current reductions, holding that there is nothing there to reduce. The eliminativists see themselves as the only viable alternative to mysterianism; the mysterians see themselves as the only bulwark against eliminativism. Reductionism and anti-reductionism don’t work, so the only remaining options are mysterianism and eliminativism. That, at any rate, is my assessment of the situation. (In some moods I feel the theoretical lure of elimination quite strongly, but then I let my reality flood in and the mood passes. And I prefer to be mysterious rather than non-existent.)