Nondualism in Western Philosophy: a Series of Pointers (4/11)

Photo by Daniel Parent

This is a series of pointers to how the Western approach can assist with one’s self-inquiry. It is less a historical survey, and more a collection of Western views that might serve as tools for inquiry, along with suggestions on how these tools might be used. Every week we will publish one new article on this topic in a total of eleven articles.

The Myth of Jones: Eliminative Materialism
“Eliminative materialism” does intend to discard the mental model in favor of the physical. It argues that commonsense or “folk” psychology, which speaks of mental states, beliefs and feelings, is simply mistaken about our cognitive processes. Folk psychology’s most important terms simply do not refer to anything, according to eliminative materialism, whereas terms for brain states and brain functions have verifiable referents.

Eliminativists take advantage of the philosophical momentum provided by Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) and Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989). In The Concept of Mind (1949), Ryle comes down on the physical side of traditional Cartesian dualism. He examines mental concepts, attempting to show how they invariably appeal to the actions and interactions between physical bodies.

What we are really talking about, he argues, is bodies, not minds. The notion that there is a “ghost in the machine” or a conscious inner controller directing our actions, Ryle calls a “category mistake.” To think that anger is truly a state of mind is just such a mistake, because the only real category is a body – a body which at the moment happens to speak loudly, move quickly and unpredictably. These are observations about bodies, not minds.

The eliminativist view is an alternative to what could be called the spectator view of the mind. The spectator view is the one that most denizens of the modern industrial scientific world grow up with. It posits an inner spectator within the theater of the mind. This spectator regards all sensory input, feels feelings, thinks thoughts, contemplates alternatives, makes choices and utters speech. This spectator’s job is to accurately represent the outer world in thought, and communicate it accurately to others.

The spectator view is one of the main barriers to nondual understanding. According to this view, the spectator is metaphysically distinct from that which it observes (the world). Inner is cut off from outer, and most everyone, after acceding to the notion of the inner observer, proceeds to identify with it. Eliminative materialism accepts most of the observations that folk psychology accepts, but does away with the dualities between inner and outer, subject and object, and seer and seen.

One of the most subtle and cogent presentations of eliminative materialism comes from Wilfred Sellars.

If bodies exist and minds do not, then how did the notion of mind arise in the first place? This is just what Wilfred Sellars tries to account for in his subtle and influential Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (1956).4 Sellars tells a fascinating story called the “Myth of Jones.” Jones is one of our “Rylean ancestors.” Jones and his neighbors can do things and move and communicate, but they do not have or cannot recognize anything called experiences or “inner episodes.” When they talk about what they do, the language is phrased in terms of publicly observable characteristics. Sellars develops the myth by having Jones attribute the same physical states to his neighbors when they are silent and still as when they are talking and moving. To do this, Jones postulates inner states and thoughts and a controlling entity to his neighbors. After a while, talking in terms of states and inner controllers becomes comfortable and efficient, and voila! It’s as though the Ryleans had minds all along!

Early eliminativists might have gotten a boost from Ryle and Sellars, but the most recent weapon in the eliminativists’ arsenal is probably neuroscience. Paul and Patricia Churchland, in a series of publications including Paul’s paper “Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes” (1981) and Patricia’s book Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind/Brain (1986) develop the overall argument that neuroscience is a much more rigid and reliable guide than folk psychology. Further neuroscientific research, they say, will show us what we are really talking about when we use those unreliable folk psychological terms such as ‘beliefs’ and ‘emotions’. Some day, say the Churchlands, we will be able to eliminate such talk.

Daniel Dennett is a well-known prolific writer who could be seen as a “soft eliminative materialist.” In Consciousness Explained (1991) he does not so much try to negate mental phenomena as argue that they do not depend on a unitary mind. He combines neuroscience with philosophy and psychology in an attack on the spectator theory of consciousness. The spectator theory is another Cartesian legacy – the spectator is a unified inner observer who is aware of ideas being projected in a sort of theater of the mind. Dennett tries to eliminate this unitary observer with a kind of functionalistic artificial intelligence view, in which mental states are the software for the hardwiring of the brain.



4. Sellars’s book requires some technical background in modern philosophy. Some of the same views are made by B.F. Skinner in his last publication, The Origins of Cognitive Thought(Skinner 1989).

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