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Saturday, June 02, 2012

A Five-Sentence Refutation of Eliminative Materialism

Bob Murphy noted that Christopher Hitchens claims to have disproved the existence of God in ten minutes. Well, I haven't viewed it, because if I want to watch and listen to a bloated, blithering drunk ramble on for ten minutes, I just go talk to myself in front of the bathroom mirror for that long, thank you. But, in the meantime, I can eliminate eliminative materialism in far less than ten minutes. Here goes:

Over at Ed Feser's blog, godinpotty defines eliminative materialism as follows: "Yes, physics is a complete description of reality, other descriptions are mere illusions that you might need to use for your pathetic human life..." (I think this is a fair definition, and it comports with others I have seen, although obviously "pathetic" is merely adding color here, and not part of the "meat" of the theory.)

This is an obviously incoherent position. It holds that:

1) The only things that exist are those things described by physics; and
2) Any ideas humans have that other things exist (morality, love, anger, hate, beauty, spirit, free will, etc.) are only illusions.

So assertion 2 of this theory demands the existence of something called "illusions." And illusions are not anything that is described by physics. So assertion 2 requires the existence of something assertion 1 says does not exist.

QED: Eliminative materialism is nonsense.

7 comments:

  1. I'm not quite sure I get this - if physics can claim an explanation for human existence (which it does, probably reasonably so), then doesn't physics explain our perceptions about the world and the ideas we conjure up?

    In other words, the problem with eliminative materialism seems to be that it doesn't do materialism justice.

    I don't usually think of myself as being a "materialist", but in practice I suppose I probably am. But I think materialism often gets dumbed down. If you were to tell a most materialists that they think morality is an illusion they'd probably protest that you're confusing morality in general with your particular just-so story about what morality is and where it comes from.

    I, like godinpotty, am probably more of an emergentist and I am guessing that a whole lot of materialists that you might consider "elminative materialists" would are actually emergentists with a chip on their shoulder.

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  2. "I'm not quite sure I get this - if physics can claim an explanation for human existence (which it does, probably reasonably so), then doesn't physics explain our perceptions about the world and the ideas we conjure up?"

    No, thoughts and perceptions are categorically excluded from physics. That is precisely what drives some people to eliminative materialism: they realize this, and, given their belief that physics is a complete explanation for reality, they are driven to deny thoughts and perceptions really exist.

    "I am guessing that a whole lot of materialists that you might consider "elminative materialists" would are actually emergentists with a chip on their shoulder."

    Well, I try to let people tell me whether they are eliminative materialists or not. There are many people who explicitly declare that they are, quite apart from my considerations.

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  3. Think of it this way, Daniel: physics is an abstraction from experience. Such an abstraction cannot be the cause of experience! It would be like thinking the airplane map on your seat TV caused the island you see down below you!

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  4. If you read "illusions" as a shorthand for "Things people think exist, but don't", then the contradiction evaporates.

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    1. No, Watoosh. That would mean thoughts exist, but in eliminative materialism, they don't. (They are "an illusion.")

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  5. Gene,

    Wouldn't the existence of mathematics refute materialism in general? I thought that this might be so, but I'm a little embarrassed to find that some philosophers are trying to reduce mathematics to observable objects! This strikes me as incredible; me writing the number '1' and describing things in terms of 'oneness' isn't the same thing as the concept of one. If I draw a bird, it isn't thereby a bird - it's just a representation of it.

    Still, it would seem as though very smart people believe this. It's hard for me to think that this argument has no basis if some (supposedly) smart philosophers are arguing over it.

    What is your take?

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    1. Yes, I think it does, and so do many mathematicians.

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