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Years ago I concluded that eliminative materialism was self-refuting. It seemed a pretty obvious logical point and I was surprised not to find it 'mainstream' in philosophy books and sources. Then I spotted a few books or quotes in which this point had been made before.

I would like to find more arguments and quotes from philosophers, specifically about the idea that "eliminative materialism eliminates (invalidates, contradicts) itself."

This is because any theory about the human mind (such as eliminative materialism) is itself a product of the human mind, and therefore if a theory about the human mind states that the human mind is an illusion, then it logically follows that this theory itself must be an illusion.

Do you know if this self-contradiction in eliminative materialism has already been spotted and described by other people, for instance philosophers or scientists?

Three examples follow.

The materialist cannot reduce human consciousness to some material phenomenon without thereby manifesting the power that human consciousness holds to understand matter. -- Francis Jeanson, Le problème moral et la pensée de Sartre

Materialism seeks the primary and most simple state of matter, and then tries to develop all the others from it; ascending from mere mechanism, to chemistry, to polarity, to the vegetable and to the animal kingdom. And if we suppose this to have been done, the last link in the chain would be animal sensibility - that is knowledge - which would consequently now appear as a mere modification or state of matter produced by causality. Now if we had followed materialism thus far with clear ideas, when we reached its highest point we would suddenly be seized with a fit of the inextinguishable laughter of the Olympians. As if waking from a dream, we would all at once become aware that its final result - knowledge, which it reached so laboriously, was presupposed as the indispensable condition of its very starting-point, mere matter; and when we imagined that we thought matter, we really thought only the subject that perceives matter; the eye that sees it, the hand that feels it, the understanding that knows it. Thus the tremendous petitio principii reveals itself unexpectedly. -- Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 1

According to Wikipedia, the philosopher Mary Midgley states that the idea that nothing exists except matter is self-refuting because if it were true neither it, nor any other idea, would exist, and similarly that an argument to that effect would be self-refuting because it would deny its own existence.

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    It's the Heart Sutra all over again.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 29, 2023 at 13:40
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    An eliminative materialist will say, "I don't believe in EM," which sounds self-undermining because others will say, "I believe in ~EM," "and we are done," but the person who makes pro-EM statements will say, "No, you don't believe ~EM either, because there are no beliefs." And the EM proponent does not say, "I believe that there are no beliefs." A stronger problem for EM is that we who use the word "belief" can adapt it to phenomena that the EM proponent asserts (brain states, say) so that "belief in belief" is trivially justified (or trivially rejected, as the case may be). Jul 29, 2023 at 14:55
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    Could we say that Eliminative Materialism 'eliminates' its own assertion? It works a little too well. A theory which screams: "This theory is false!" and slams the door.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 30, 2023 at 15:35
  • Indeed, any theory that makes no room for the reality and effectiveness of ideas, is shooting itself in the foot.
    – Olivier5
    Jul 31, 2023 at 8:00
  • I'm not sure I understand. You say an EM advocate can't even talk about his own ideas because of EM. Isn't that just a point in favor of EM? The world is so material that any discussion of higher order principles / ideas is a non-starter, even for the materialist. That seems perfectly coherent, if bleak, to me. Sep 19, 2023 at 1:51

4 Answers 4

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You misunderstand what eliminative materialism is

Schopenhauer never spoke of it, and your quotes from Francis Jeanson and Mary Midgley are about materialism, not eliminative materialism.

How do I know Schopenhauer never spoke of it? Because eliminative materialism is a modern theory. The term was introduced by James Cornman in 1968. Schopenhauer was born a hundred years too early to comment on it.

Eliminative materialism is not just materialism. You can be a materialist, believing nothing exists except physics, and not be an eliminative materialist.

Eliminative materialism is not the belief that we can "eliminate" the soul from our theories of the world. That's already included in materialism. Eliminative materialism instead says that we can eliminate certain aspects of folk psychology, such as propositional attitudes or the feeling of pain.

A materialist who is not an eliminative materialist would say that we do feel pain, and there is a neural basis for pain, and the pain is the result of the neural basis. Such a materialist would say that we do hold propositional attitudes, and there is a neural basis for propositional attitudes. An eliminative materialist would disagree on these points.

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  • @Olivier5 It's not my definition, it's the definition. Also, if you believe in souls and want to call yourself a materialist, it's going to confuse people. Most would call that dualism. Plenty of mind-body dualists would say the mind affects matter (just as you do), without saying the mind is material.
    – causative
    Jul 30, 2023 at 8:04
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    Oops, I deleted my original reply. Sorry, new here... You are welcome to use your own definitions but beware of imposing them on others. The only orm of materialism that is not self-refuting is one that accepts the reality of ideas. Otherwise, you have an idea that refutes all ideas including itself.
    – Olivier5
    Jul 30, 2023 at 8:09
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    @Olivier5 Materialism typically does accept the reality of ideas, but says that the ideas are entirely dependent on material things. They aren't an independent class of object; to say a person is having an idea is just a sort of way of summarizing what's happening among the neurons. In a similar way, a materialist could accept the existence of chairs, but only as a way of summarizing what's happening among certain atoms making up the chair.
    – causative
    Jul 30, 2023 at 8:17
  • It means very little to say that one accepts the existence of chairs "only as a way of summarizing what's happening among certain atoms making up the chairs". We are always summarizing, when we speak, even when we speak of atoms. I could say: "When I speak of atoms, it is only as a way of summarizing what's happening among certain neutrons, protons and electrons making up the atom."
    – Olivier5
    Jul 30, 2023 at 8:41
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    Any particular reason to chose the atoms as the "real real" level, rather than the particles atoms are made of, or the quarks that make up particles?
    – Olivier5
    Jul 30, 2023 at 8:47
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The Schopenhauer quote illustrates the nature of this objection, but also the nature of the response by EM advocates.

EM is just the application of absolutist reductionism to psychology. EM was not a new idea, it appeared early in the 20th century in the principle of scientific realism. If you take reductionism to be absolute, then NOTHING at higher levels than the reduced parts is "real". No animals, people, chairs, trees, mountains, planets, ecosystems, or continental drift. OR minds. All of these higher level items, phenomena, etc. are only shorthand used by our neurology to process our complex world, in which the only real things are elementary particles and the laws that govern them.

The objections to EM therefore are the objections to scientific realism's universalizing of reductionism. They constitute claims that there are real things happening, causal things happening, on the higher tiers of phenomena. The objections to EM are therefore part of a suite of arguments to take either scientific pluralism, or strong emergence seriously.

This set of arguments has recently won the day among philosophers of science, who now are in a near consensus that universal reductionism is not true. See section 5 of the SEP article on scientific reduction.

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  • Sure thing: reductionism is generally a very bad idea, other than as a working hypothesis. To consider a particular level of organization of reality (say, the atomic level) as real, and the others as non-real strikes me as absurd. The structuralists already proved that idea wrong. However, my question was about the contradiction inherent to eliminative materialism, and about whether this contradiction has been pointed out by others in the past. Anything comes to mind?
    – Olivier5
    Jul 30, 2023 at 7:37
  • @Olivier5 reduction is not at all a bad idea. It is immensely useful and powerful. UNIVERALIZING it is the bad idea. Holism, and emergence, and pluralism all are alternate and sometimes more useful paradigms. As causative pointed out, abstract objects are a problem for ALL materialists not just EM. And that problem is why materialists have mostly thrown in the towel and become physicalists, and accept abstract objects exist in at least some sense. A lot of philosophy focusses on logic problems, but a better way to look at it is a Popperian falsification of materialisms claims.
    – Dcleve
    Sep 18, 2023 at 12:08
  • I think that naïve, eliminative materialism (excluding compatibilists, that is) suffers from a logical contradiction, and for me that is enough to kill the whole idea. As for Popper, he knew the importance of not contradicting oneself, and was of course a great believer in the importance of ideas and in the existence of minds. He wasn't a fool.
    – Olivier5
    Sep 20, 2023 at 9:20
  • @Olivier5 In multiple replies on several recent related questions your logic argument has been refuted as incorrect. We humans seem to mostly understand via experience as an intermediary but that is only mostly so — not all our understanding is conscious or rational. So by Popperian critical test your claim fails. Meanwhile EM and Delusionism advocates have realized their challenge to define understanding in a new non standard functional way, and have done so when they make their provocative claim. The better (and scientific) response is that their redefinition is much less USEFUL!
    – Dcleve
    Sep 20, 2023 at 14:22
  • Don't confuse your wishes with reality. My logic is impeccable, even though you might not be able to understand it.
    – Olivier5
    Sep 20, 2023 at 14:29
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Your argument is an intriguing one, but I believe it involves a misunderstanding of eliminative materialism. The critique seems to rest on a confusion between 'mind' as we commonly understand it and the 'mind' as a neurological phenomenon.

Eliminative materialism does not argue that the 'mind' in its entirety is an illusion. Rather, it posits that our commonsense, or 'folk', understanding of the mind is incorrect. It challenges the existence of 'beliefs', 'desires', 'fears', etc., as we commonly understand them, not the existence of mental phenomena per se.

The fact that eliminative materialism is a product of human cognition does not invalidate it. It simply means that our understanding of cognition needs to change. The predictive and explanatory power of a theory does not depend on whether it is a product of the very thing it tries to explain. After all, we use quantum mechanics to understand particles, even though quantum mechanics is a product of human cognition, not of particles.

Furthermore, the quotes you provided seem to conflate materialism with eliminative materialism. Materialism is a broader philosophical position asserting that everything that exists is physical, or dependent on physical substances. Eliminative materialism, on the other hand, is a more specific claim about the nature of mental states.

As for the claim that an idea can't exist if only matter exists - this is a misunderstanding of what 'matter' means in a contemporary scientific context. We're not dealing with the old notion of matter as 'dead' or 'inert'. Modern physics has shown us that matter and energy are interchangeable, that matter exhibits complex behavior at the quantum level, and that matter can process information, as in the case of computers. If a complex arrangement of matter like a brain can process information, why can't it generate ideas?

In sum, the self-refutation argument seems to misinterpret the claims of eliminative materialism and misunderstands the nature of matter as we now understand it. The challenge for eliminative materialism is not to escape self-contradiction, but to provide a better account of mental phenomena than our current folk psychology does

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  • Thanks for a detailed answer. Irrespective of whether I defined "eliminative materialism" correctly, at issue is what gets to be "eliminated" in any form of world view, including various types of materialism. In particular, the issue is the status that one's prefered metaphysics give to ideas (including scientific and philosophical theories). Since there is an obvious reflexivity here, inasmuch as a philosophical or scientific theory about the human mind is itself a product of the human mind, whatever status such a theory endows to the product of the human mind would apply to itself.
    – Olivier5
    Jul 30, 2023 at 14:54
  • As for: "The challenge for eliminative materialism is not to escape self-contradiction, but to provide a better account of mental phenomena than our current folk psychology does", why the focus on "folk psychology"? Whatever that means, because there are many folks on this planet and I see no reason to assume they all share the same psychology. Why not deal with scientific psychology instead? Like Freud, Bateson, etc?
    – Olivier5
    Jul 30, 2023 at 14:59
  • Well, as I got that, Churchland (main developer of this) thinks that a lot of the stuff studied in psychology comes from everyday ideas we have about how the mind works. Even scientific theories, like those from Freud, are based on these everyday ideas which Churchland thinks are mostly wrong. For example, he questions whether things like beliefs and desires really exist. Instead of using these everyday ideas, he offers to use what we're learning from brain science to understand how the mind works.
    – user66933
    Jul 30, 2023 at 16:13
  • [Quote]For example, he questions whether things like beliefs and desires really exist. Instead of using these everyday ideas, he offers to use what we're learning from brain science to understand how the mind works. – Apricotie Hunt[/quote] Does he also question whether questions exist? Or only answers? :-) And when he "offers" his ideas, does he not believe in them?
    – Olivier5
    Jul 30, 2023 at 16:57
  • When Churchland questions the existence of beliefs, he's not saying he doesn't believe in anything. Rather, he's arguing that what we call "believing" might not be a good description of what's actually happening in our brains when we think we believe something. So when Churchland "offers" his ideas, it's not that he doesn't "believe" in them. But he proposes them as hypotheses about how the mind works that he thinks are better supported by the evidence from neuroscience.
    – user66933
    Jul 30, 2023 at 17:29
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I found another reference to the same idea in the Avant Propos of Merleau-Ponty's PoP (second para mainly):

All my knowledge of the world, even my scientific knowledge, is gained from my own particular point of view, or from some experience of the world without which the symbols of science would be meaningless. The whole universe of science is built upon the world as directly experienced, and if we want to subject science itself to rigorous scrutiny and arrive at a precise assessment of its meaning and scope, we must begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world of which science is the second-order expression. Science has not and never will have, by its nature, the same significance qua form of being as the world which we perceive, for the simple reason that it is a rationale or explanation of that world. I am, not a ‘living creature’ nor even a ‘man’, nor again even ‘a consciousness’ endowed with all the characteristics which zoology, social anatomy or inductive psychology recognize in these various products of the natural or historical process—I am the absolute source, my existence does not stem from my antecedents, from my physical and social environment; instead it moves out towards them and sustains them, for I alone bring into being for myself (and therefore into being in the only sense that the word can have for me) the tradition which I elect to carry on, or the horizon whose distance from me would be abolished—since that distance is not one of its properties—if I were not there to scan it with my gaze.

Scientific points of view, according to which my existence is a moment of the world’s, are always both naïve and at the same time dishonest, because they take for granted, without explicitly mentioning, it, the other point of view, namely that of consciousness, through which from the outset a world forms itself round me and begins to exist for me. To return to things themselves is to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks, and in relation to which every scientific schematization is an abstract and derivative sign-language, as is geography in relation to the country-side in which we have learnt beforehand what a forest, a prairie or a river is.

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  • Thanks for the Merleau Ponty quote. I've taken the liberty of formatting with blockquotes. Please check and revert it if it's not your intent
    – Rushi
    Jul 30, 2023 at 15:32
  • It's Vivekacudemani 515 all over again.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 30, 2023 at 16:01
  • Thanks for the formating. How do I do this?
    – Olivier5
    Jul 30, 2023 at 16:54
  • If you click on edited <some date time> below the question you'll see the changes highlighted. Note edited is different from the line above which is something like Share Edit Follow Flag. Note also you didn't tag me like this@rushi. So I didn't get any indication you had asked a question. So you should tag the person you're specifically talking to
    – Rushi
    Aug 5, 2023 at 12:46
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    @Rushi Thank you, that's very useful.
    – Olivier5
    Aug 5, 2023 at 13:38

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