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« Jeff McMahan on Vegetarianism | Main | Susan Wolf on Meaning In Life »

June 19, 2010



Pat Churchland thinks that we should get rid of or modify our "folk psychological" beliefs and replace them with neuro-biological findings.

I think one problem with what she proposes is quite simply that it's so reductive, and a theory of psychology based solely on neurological findings would leave so many things out of the picture, from the economy, to the cultures to which humans belong, to other institutions, etc.

Is it really the case that all the (important) influences that work towards constituting a human being are neurological ones? Can't it also be said that humans are in part constituted by their social relationships, the roles they play, the institutions they take part in, the collective goals they take part in? After all, Pat Churchland is not just a slab of brain, but someone recognized by her students and colleagues as an adherent of a specific position in philosophy, namely materialism. She has certain beliefs towards philosophy and science which unite her with other people who share her beliefs.

I agree with Churchland that our "folk psychology" is problematic and needs in part to be revised, but why think that neurological findings are the only relevant resources we can draw on to do the revision? Are humans just cerebral slabs of mush, or are they instead creatures embodied in particular bodies, particular places, at particular times? Moreover, why think that neurobiological structure is the only kind of structure there is (as Churchland's reductive approach requires)?


Perhaps an equally important problem with the eliminative approach that the Churchlands advocate is that it totally ignores the role of material culture in human experience. Bruno Latour puts it well when he says that it is "impossible .. for a reductionist scientist to be reductionist! In the laboratory of the most outrageously eliminativist white coats, phenomena proliferate : concepts, instruments, novelties, theories, grants, prices, rats, and other white coats. Reductionism is not a sin for which scientists should make amends, but a dream exactly as unreachable as to be alive and having no body." (

Latour's point strikes at the heart of eliminative materialism: even the very practice of science, which involves all kinds of actors, serves to refute Churchland's materialism.

Ethical Ape

What a staw man, JenK!
Did you even listen to the episode?
Churchland argues that by eliminating the bits of folk psychology that don't map reality in as much detail as scientific descriptions do, the human experience will be enriched.
I think having descriptions such as attention deficit syndrome or obsessive compulsive disorder allow us to engage more compassionately with each other that folk-psych posits such as 'weird', 'odd' or 'possessed'.

Mark Linsenmayer

Churchland talks a bit more about eliminative materialism, and much more on the neural basis for ethical behavior, on this new episode of The Partially Examined Life:

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