Explain and critically evaluate Eliminative Materialism

In his paper, Eliminative Materialism and the propositional attitudes, Paul Churchland argues that since folk psychology, or common sense[1] as he also refers to it, is an essentially false and inadequate theory for the explanation of human behaviour, it should thus be eliminated from our general conception of knowledge and displaced with what he terms a ‘completed’ form of neuroscience[i].  For Churchland, since propositional attitudes – attitudes that appear to demonstrate the relationship between our mental faculties and propositions in the outside world; such as desiring certain things, intending something or even believing in things that appear factual – are adopted by this erroneous form of common sense, it is reasonable to suggest that such feelings, intentions or desires do not explicitly exist and are as a result, an inherent illusion.


This essay will argue against Churchland’s thesis for elimination of mental states.  The first part of the paper will explain Churchland’s position on Eliminative Materialism, while the second part will critically evaluate his thesis by arguing against his position in a number of areas.  Namely his belief that common sense is a theoretical entity similar to that of other physical theories and hence are similarly falsifiable.  That common sense does not aim to explain in the same light of these ‘harder’ theories.  That his argument for elimination – that because common sense has a history of failing to explain natural phenomenon therefore it fails to explain our mental processes in the form of propositional attitudes – is inherently flawed.  The last argument will focus on Churchland’s thesis that a ‘completed’ form of neuroscience will ultimately triumph over and above our minds by pointing out some philosophical problems with the notion of ‘complete’.  The paper will conclude by suggesting that firstly, there is no dire need for the elimination of common sense, and secondly that the notion of a completed neuroscience as its replacement is not only problematic, but also deceptive.




Churchland’s position for eliminative materialism is essentially this: since our notion of common sense has constantly failed to explain natural phenomena since the dawn of time, it must be eliminated from our conceptual view of the world. To support this rather radical claim, Churchland uses historic examples.  For instance, he writes that our primordial ancestors typically saw the world as ‘animated’ by spirits or souls, which to them meant that various aspects of nature contained certain kinds of spiritual personalities, such as the wind knowing anger and the seas rage[ii] – all of which have been refuted now.  He also contends, without any examples, that our common sense hasn’t much change since the time of the ancient Greeks and since their ideas about the world, mind, body etc. have been largely refuted with our modern day scientific theories and tools, this further provides more evidence supporting the need for the elimination of common sense in general.  Indeed, the general consensus nowadays is that the on-going progress of scientific development is paving the way for a more accurate, more factual and more truthful description of the world that is over and above the primitive explanations adopted by common sense.  As for some examples: biological evolution as an explanation of our origins; relativity in terms of the nature of time and quantum physics in terms of matter – common sense could no way provide us with such fruit in comparison.  But what is more worrying for Churchland is that this same erroneous common sense is applied to explain our inner mental faculties when we introspect.  For example common sense tells us that we have desires that need to be fulfilled, be it love, friendship, or employment.  It also confirms whether the sky is blue, whether we feel happy or sad, excited or nervous – these are known as propositional attitudes, attitudes we tend to adopt willy-nilly.  But since this is the same common sense that has a history of failing to explain natural phenomenon, why should it be trusted as a fruitful explanation of our own internal cognitions?  It simply can’t be trusted.  Therefore, common sense is, according to Churchland, a totality unreliable, coarse, and inadequate theory for explaining not only natural phenomenon, but also our own personal thoughts and feelings.  It might provide us with an idea of say time, but this can not be compared to the more accurate and indeed better scientific theory of relativity.  Essentially because of this inadequacy, Churchland is in favour for its total removal as an explanatory theory, as Churchland claims: ‘Any theory that meets this description must be allowed a serious candidate for outright elimination’[iii].  Hence, the Eliminative materialists position is one that is in favour for eliminating mental forms of cognition, be it desires, intentions, or other propositional attitudes all together.  Since their history has always been debunked by scientific understanding, their successes heavily outweighed by their failures, and faced with an abundant choice of accurate scientific theories to choose from in order to explain mind-like behaviour; for example modern day neuroscience, organic chemistry and physiology, the thought that we can explain mind-like behaviours through common sense propositional attitudes is not only futile but, and in the words of Churchland, an inherent illusion[iv].




Indeed, there are number of issues one can raise against Churchland’s thesis, namely the assumption that common sense aims to explain human behaviour on a level similar to scientific theories.  Indeed, in one sense we use propositional attitudes to help with our normal day to day lives by explaining why such and such occurred, or by explaining our own inner cognitive thoughts and feelings.  If we see someone’s behaviour change under a certain context, we try to explain why that behaviour occurred.  Likewise, if we have the desire to eat pasta for example, our common sense, or some form of automatic process appears to tells us so.  But in no way do we form our beliefs because they are an inherent part of some kind of structure, or theoretical entity called ‘folk psychology’.  Thoughts, desires and other intentional content are resoundingly mine and subject to the complex relationship between brain and environment.  Indeed, I might be wrong with my judgment – maybe I do not desire eating pasta when I see a plate of sushi, maybe I mistake someone’s cries for sadness when in fact they are cries of joy, but neither do I intend to form my propositional attitudes in the same way as scientific theories attempts to explain natural phenomenon, nor am I aiming for a universal truth, a law, or an all-inclusive aspect of knowledge that is completely accurate and that holds true for everything in the world.  For these are characteristic of scientific theory building, and not exclusively part of our everyday common sense psychology.


But Churchland hastily concludes that ‘not only is folk psychology a theory, it is so obviously a theory that it must be held a major mystery why it has taken until the last half of the twentieth century for philosophers to realize it’[v].  Churchland is convinced that there is an inherent relationship between how mathematical and physical theories are structured and developed, and the way common sense is adopted, firstly that they both take into account quantities – physical quantities that are expressed in symbols in physics, and mind-like quantities expressed through common sense.  Just as how we denote x having a mass m, when x suffers a net force f, this implies that x will accelerate at f/m[vi]Similarly, Churchland believes that propositional attitudes such as x believes that p, and x believes that if p then q, then baring confusion and distraction, etc., x believes that q can be quantified in similar vein.  And secondly, that they are both predicate forming: that is to say that they are both, implicitly or otherwise, seeking to achieve a result that is either affirmed or denied.


But how can common sense notions be quantified as a theoretical structure in the same way as other empirical theories when such ‘entities’ do not explicitly exist in the same way as some physical theories hold their entities to exist?[2]  What exactly does it mean to say that desires, intentions and beliefs in my mind have empirical content?  Daniel Dennett asserts that these attitudes are private forms of ideals that outline what it means to have such content in the first place, ideals that do not resemble anything ‘objective’[vii].  Humans are, rightly or wrongly, rational beings and go about their daily lives making decisions and forming propositional attitudes all the time.  It is in a sense what makes being a human human[viii].  Hence it is difficult to see what relationship exist between inner thoughts and desires and so called objective empirical theories that attempt to explain natural worldly phenomenon, such as Ficke’s law for example.  Nevertheless, this is not to say that they are totally independent from each other.  Indeed there might be a relationship between the two, but only to the extent that both require a ‘mind’ of some sort to get them to function and explain phenomenon in the first place.  On the other hand however, one can argue that even empirical theories are not immune to the subjectivity of their inventor’s own ‘common sense’.  Consider Einstein’s ‘greatest mistake’ when he chose to rig his equations to suit his idea that the Universe was static instead of expanding for example.  Churchland might object to this argument by suggesting that science eventually triumphed over this ‘slight’ error, as Einstein’s ‘common sense’ notion that the universe didn’t have a beginning was eventually corrected by further calculations that inevitably led to the Big Bang theory.  But still, this doesn’t rule out the possibility that all our modern day scientific theories are, at root, embedded with some form of common sense.


But despite these points, Churchland dogmatically insists that common sense is unavoidably false and needs to be instantly replaced.  I do not doubt the erroneous assumptions common sense makes when questioning natural phenomenon in the world.  Indeed, in most cases it is extremely likely that common sense makes false claims to knowledge regarding such phenomenon.  in any case, Churchland seems to argue that since common sense psychology fails to hold the explanatory power physical theories are blessed with, and since propositional attitudes are a product of such common sense, then our belief in having actual desires and intentions are resoundingly false as well.  But this argument seems to make a magical ‘leap’ from the premise that because common sense, a, fails to explain naturally occurring phenomenon, and since this same a contain certain values used to describe mental cognitions, then it is this a that is undoubtedly false and needs replacement.  Churchland’s logic seems to assume that there is a universal form of common sense that functions to explain both natural phenomenon and mental cognitions.  And because we know that modern day science has refuted common sense in terms of explaining the world, it must, therefore fail to explain mind-like thoughts.  To support his claim, Churchland provides many ‘examples’ asserting the failure of common sense to explain:


‘the nature and dynamics of mental illness, the faculty of creative imagination, or the ground of intelligence differences between individuals.  Consider our utter ignorance of the nature and psychological functions of sleep, that curious state in which a third of one’s life is spent.  Reflect on the common ability to catch an outfield fly ball on the run, or hit a moving car with a snowball.  Consider the internal construction of a 3-D visual image from subtle differences in the 2-D array of stimulations in our respective retinas.  Consider the rich variety of perceptual illusions, visual and otherwise.  Or consider the miracle of memory, with its lightening capacity for relevant retrieval.  On these and many other mental phenomenon, FP [folk psychology] sheds negligible light’.[ix]


All these, Churchland presumes, will be explained perfectly when neuroscience reaches ‘completion’.


However, I do not see why common sense fails to explain the ability to catch a ball or throw snow at a moving car.  These examples, at least to me, seem automatic and commonsensical.  A ball is thrown at me, I position myself and catch it.  I see a car moving at a certain speed and direction, I take aim and throw snow at it.  What is not to be explained here?  Indeed this type of explaining does not satisfy Churchland.  Instead he is seeking answers whose origin lie embedded in a more complex materialistic realm; he wants to know the inner mechanisms involved in throwing and catching a ball; he wants a complete neurological understanding of memory, sleep, mental illness and of all the other examples he cites above.  Indeed in dealing with the micro world of neurons and atoms it is obvious that common sense fails to explain anything here – we simply can’t adopt it at this level, but this does not mean it is Inherently faulty.  Furthermore, why should we feel that this natural limitation, implies that the adoption of propositional attitudes are false too?  Where is the connection? Just because it fails to explain the ‘unseen’ it doesn’t mean it fails to explain our inner mental states.  Thus there is a gap in Churchland’s argument by assuming that since our common sense cannot explain how memory works, then it fails to also explain our propositional attitudes and as a result should be eliminated.


Still on the other hand, and as Martin Davies points out in his chapter on ‘the philosophy of mind’[x], ontologically what is it that needs to be eliminated?  If I desire that p or I feel that p what does it mean to say that these desires or feelings should be eliminated?  Indeed, it is only through introspection that one comes to the general conclusion that one desires or feels a certain inclination to do something.  So is Churchland saying that ultimately a completed form of neuroscience will eliminate our tendency to speak of such propositional attitudes? Or is he saying that this perfect theory will eliminate the actual internal states of our cognition, hence prohibiting them to produce such thoughts in the first place? Either way, whether he is espousing the desire to eliminate psychological thinking or the actual internal states still doesn’t fully justify what is actually eliminated.  We might have a rough idea which area, or areas, of the brain go on to produce thoughts that are common sensical, but no way are we in a position to isolate the actual neural network and the associated nodes and processes that make the idea of elimination a viable option.  Indeed, how does Churchland intend to stop people, both lay and academic, to use common sense even if one day a completed form of neuroscience proves successful?  Either way one looks at it, the more untenable elimination of propositional attitudes are.


Indeed, such mental states are not just displaced by any old form of materialism, it will instead be drastically displaced by a ‘completed’ neuroscience.  Churchland contends that this perfected form of neuroscience will come about in the future and hence radically highlight all our problems and provide answers to them.  Yet, this is but another assumption based on mere speculation.  To put it into perspective, this is a bit like saying that the elimination of social class and the monetary system will fare better for all humanity when the long struggles of Marxist economic theory is finally synthesized by a perfected form of Communism.  When will this occur?  How will it come about? If it does come about, how will we know we have reached the end of progress?  It is as if Churchland foresees a completed form of neuroscience as a form of utopia by asserting that the telos of scientific research ends in such completion, which will inevitably affirm that the notion of mind is meaningless.  Indeed, this seems theoretically pleasing, but is it actuality tenable in practice?  At this point in time it is an impossible question to answer since it is impossible to know the limits of scientific enquiry.  What is actually meant by a completed neuroscience is neither defined nor explained by Churchland, so it is impossible to come to some sense of what completion entails for him.  From the sounds of it however, it seems to represent the highest point in our knowledge, the peak of the mountain, so to speak.  Neuroscience is perfectly completed, all truth attained, no question left unanswered.  It is the crème-dela-crème of explanation.  Churchland, thus, declares that the ontology of the ‘mind’ is but a mere materialistic entity in the shape of neurons while our thoughts are just puffs of air with no meaning attached to them.  But this seems absolutely ridiculous since any idea of materialism requires a mind to actually come to know this in the first place.  Eliminative Materialism, therefore, tries to refute what itself uses to explain.


Is common sense, then, so bad that it needs to be totally replaced by a far right system of complete elimination?  Indeed, without common sense how can one refute common sense and aim to replace it?  Yet, it seems paradoxical bordering contradictory that Churchland is even considering coming to a scientific position that aims to completely eliminate common sense ideas in the first place since he, like the rest of us, adopts them when the moment arises.  I am sure that when Churchland feels hot his common sense will tell him to put the central heating down, likewise I am pretty sure that the desires he experiences himself are similar to the way other people experience desires also.  It matters not as to whether such experiences are scientifically real[3].


Two conclusions can thus be drawn from Churchland’s thesis.  Firstly, that it is not absolutely necessary to eliminate the use of propositional attitudes as a form of common sense.  The notion that they aim to explain phenomenon in the same way as physical theories isn’t necessarily the case, even considering it a theory can also be called into question since it doesn’t totally resemble other physical or mathematical theories.  Indeed, Churchland is correct to point out how wrong common sense has been in the past when considering the nature of the world, but this should no way necessarily imply that it de faco fails to explain our use of propositional attitudes.  Secondly, the idea of displacement by a completed neuroscience is too radical a notion to take seriously since not only is it impossible to imagine such a telos, it is also difficult to envisage an end of scientific progress.  Churchland’s thesis for the elimination of propositional attitudes then is not only undoubtedly far fetched, but resoundingly mind-less.

[1] The rest of this paper will therefore adopt common sense instead of ‘folk psychology’.

[2] Even this is debatable, for some theories in science hold certain entities to exist even though no one has ever observed them, for example electrons, neutrons and protons.

[3] indeed real is a philosophically challenging  notion.

[i] Churchland, P (1981) Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes. Journal of Philosophy (LXXVIII, 2, February 1981)., pp.67- 90

[ii] ibid. p. 74

[iii] ibid. p. 76

[iv] ibid p. 73

[v] ibid. p. 71

[vi] ibid. p. 70

[vii] Dennett, D., Intentional Systems, Journal of Philosophy, LXVIII, 4 (Feb. 25, 1971) pp. 87-106

[viii] This would be to interpret folk psychology under a functionalist perspective.  Indeed, this raises philosophical problems regarding functionalism in-itself.  However functionalism will not be discussed further in this essay.  However, if the reader be interested a number of writers have engaged with this theory of mind such as D. Armstrong, A Materialist Theory of the Mind, London: Routledge, 1993)

[ix] Churchland, op. cit., p. 73

[x] Davies, Martin, 2003, The Philosophy of Mind. In Grayling. A. C (Ed) Philosophy 1: A guide through the subject, (p. 273).  Oxford: Oxford University Press



Filed under Philosophy

2 responses to “Explain and critically evaluate Eliminative Materialism

  1. Beautifully Corrupt

    Loving your creative thinking and your writing style! I love to read your posts, especially ones about society as I feel that I agree on your perspectives of things. Can’t wait to read more!


    • Thank you very much for your comment! I’m glad my writing appeals to you. Modern day society with all its quirks has always struck a chord within me – a chord that has always carried the same message; namely that : ‘something feels inherently wrong about the direction it’s taken and indeed has taken’.

      I will certainly update my blog in the coming weeks. I am currently travelling to Iran for a few months so I will create a separate sub topic and write about my experiences there.

      Stay tuned!



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