Thursday, October 14, 2021

Dualist eliminativism

Eliminativism holds that our standard folk-psychological concepts of mental functioning—say, thoughts, desires, intentions and awareness—have no application or are nonsense. Usually, eliminativism goes hand in hand with physicalism and scientism: the justification for eliminativism is the idea that the truly applicable concepts of mental functioning are going to be the ones of a developed neuroscience, and it is unlikely that these will match up our current folk psychology.

But we can make a case for eliminativism on deeply humanistic grounds independent of neuroscience. We start with the intuition that the human being is very mysterious and complex. Our best ways of capturing the depths of human mental functioning are found neither in philosophy nor in science, but literature. This is very much what we would expect if our standard concepts did not correctly apply to the mind’s functioning, but were only rough approximations. Art flourishes in limitations of medium, and the novelist and poet uses the poor tool of these concepts to express the human heart. Similarly, the face expresses the soul (to tweak Wittgenstein’s famous dictum), and yet what we see in the face is more complex, more mysterious than what we express with our folk psychological vocabulary.

There is thus a shallowness to our folk-psychological vocabulary which simply does not match the wondrous mystery of the human being.

Finally, and here we have some intersection with the more usual arguments for eliminativism, our predictive ability with respect to human behavior is very poor. Just think how rarely we can predict what will be said next in conversation. And even our prediction of our own behavior, even our mental behavior, is quite poor.

The above considerations may be compatible with physicalism, but I think it is reasonable to think that they actually support dualism better. For on physicalism, ultimately human mental function would be explicable in the mechanistic terminology of physics, and my considerations suggest an ineffability to the human being that may be reasonably thought to outpace mechanistic expressions.

But whether or not these considerations in fact support dualism over physicalism, they are clearly compatible with dualism. And so we have a corner of logical space not much explored by (at least Western) philosophers: dualist eliminativism. I do not endorse this view, but in some moods I find it attractive. Though I would like it to come along with some kind of a story about the approximate truth of our ordinary claims about the mind.


Tom said...

This reminds me a little of the writings of various personalists and existentialists. It's filtered into the Catholic world thanks to the writings of Edith Stein and John Paul II, but Martin Buber talks at length about the infinite depths of the Thou and the inexhaustibility of the I-Thou relationship, and while I haven't read Levinas, it's supposed to be a major part of his thought. Interesting to see philosophers coming to similar positions with totally different frameworks, but I guess that's the name of the game.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, it's not surprising in my case: my thinking about persons is very much influenced by a sympathy for personalism.