The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Eliminative Materialism

"Eliminative materialism" is the doctrine that mental states do not exist, or, at least, that the terminology of the mental is wrong and should be abandoned.

The first one to point out that the mental vocabulary constitutes a sort of “folk psychology” was probably the US philosopher Wilfred Sellars (“Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind”, 1956). That theory, that has not progressed for millennia, mostly fails to explain and predict behavior, and it is founded on knowledge about human beings that has long been proven false. Folk psychology is not a science.

The German philosopher Paul Feyerabend ("Mental events and the brain", 1963) and the US philosopher Richard Rorty ("Mind-body identity", 1965) denied the existence of the mental.  They claimed that sensations are not brain processes, but the things that we think are sensations are indeed brain processes. The mental is nothing more than a myth.  As the US neuroscientist Paul Churchland argues that our introspection cannot be trusted as our other senses (such as sight and hearing) mislead us about the real structure of the universe: for example, we don’t see or hear elementary particles and probability waves. It is only the vocabulary of our "folk psychology" that refers to beliefs and desires, sensations, emotions, thoughts, etc. We explain people's behavior by using this terminology, which ascribes mental states to people.  In reality, only brain processes exist. In his opinion we should replace the outdated language of folk psychology with the language of neurobiology, just like folk physics was replaced by the more precise language of Newton's physics. Terms such as "belief" and "desire" are as scientific as the four spirits of alchemy.

 Churchland points out evidence that folk psychology is unscientific: 1. it has remained the same since the ancient Greeks (but so did arithmetic, didn't it?); 2. it does not integrate well with the natural sciences (but it has been integrated with computer science by computational functionalism); 3. it is incomplete, as its vocabulary does not apply well to mental phenomena such as sleep and mental diseases (Newton's physics was also incomplete, but that does not mean that the terminology of mass and energy should be abolished).

Churchland denies any validity to "first person" mental life, to consciousness, the self, emotions, etc. He grounds his objection to the fact that there is nothing in the brain that resembles what folk psychology talks about: there are only patterns of neural activity.


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