Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Eliminative Materialism

Patricia Churchland interviewed on the idea.

Clicking, will take you to the sound file. To visit the site, Philosophy Bites, an excellent repository of interviews with philosophers of all stripes, talking on all sorts of topics, see the link over in the blog roll, or click here.

The interview is somewhat puzzling. Listen and consider this question:

Does Churchland maintain that all, most or some things to which we refer with 'folk psychological' terms such as 'will' 'belief' and so on are in fact not really there, but only appear to be there?

Consider this analogical case: Phlogiston was a concept of a sort of fluid that flowed in and out of objects giving rise to thermal phenomena, but it turned out there was no such fluid. We discovered that things were like this: Observed from a macroscopic distance, the true microscopic phenomenon, kinetic motion of atoms and molecules, gave the appearance of a flowing fluid of some sort, but that was all there was to it; appearance, not reality.

Churchland at some times during this interview seems to claim that concepts such as will and memory may suffer a similar fate. Why does she say this? Because, following the analogy, we are learning a great deal about the microscopic phenomena that accompany mental phenomena.

But does it logically follow from this undeniable biological fact that such possibilities of radical illusion exist, i.e., does it follow from the data she presents that there really are no such things as acts of volition or memories or beliefs?

It is true that we use the term 'memory' to cover a whole host of mental phenomena, from 'remembering' how to ride a bike to 'recalling' what was for breakfast. That is undoubtedly true, but does it in any way follow from this that there is no such thing as memory going on? In so far as we access information previously laid down, even if it is a matter of fact that such information access is a brain process, this is nevertheless an exercise of memory is it not?

It is also undeniable that an aspect of certain of the processes we indiscriminately tag with the term 'memory' is that they are subjective experiences, first person phenomena. When I recall now what I ate or drank this morning, that episodic memory is first person. The fact that it is also a neural process does not subtract one iota from its reality. It is real in so far as I experience it. I cannot be mistaken about the having of that experience, even if I can be mistaken in the memory. This Cartesian point is unassailable. And, you do not have to be a 'ghost in the machine' dualist to admit this.

Now, mixed up with this talk of dispelling 'folk' appearances or illusions is much talk that just sounds like a good dose of respect for the findings of neuroscience, a chastisement of philosophers for poo-pooing that research in favor of conceptual analysis. In so far as that kind of arm chair theorizing goes on (I believe not as prevalently now as in the past) the advice is well taken. But, I don't think you need to go to the length of swallowing the strange, and deeply counter intuitive pill that is coated with this 'candy.' One can respect the science and still maintain that memories are after all, real things.