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.) 

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