Eliminating Common Sense

Eliminating Common Sense

Russell said that ordinary language contains the metaphysics of the Stone Age. Wittgenstein says that philosophy leaves everything as it is. Both were wrong. Ordinary language contains no metaphysics at all, ancient or modern; and advanced philosophy does not leave primitive philosophy alone. The bore in the bar telling you “his philosophy” is contradicted by more expert philosophers, but the house cleaner going about her daily business is not doing philosophy at all. Both Russell and Wittgenstein picture the ordinary person as philosophically engaged, either well or badly; but Joe Six-Pack and Fred Flintstone are not proto-metaphysicians, good ones or bad ones. Ordinary thought evolved far too long ago to be steeped in philosophical reflection. But there is a type of philosophy that prima facie conflicts with common sense (so called)—eliminative philosophy. There are philosophers (thankfully not many) who actually deny that minds exist: they assert that there are no experiences, no consciousness, not even beliefs and desires. There is only the brain, or only behavior. This doctrine is not, on the face of it, an opinion shared by your average Sharon or Sheila, Joe or Jim. So, aren’t these worthy souls in disagreement with their eliminative philosophical coevals? Don’t they talk as if they believe that minds exist—aren’t they “ontologically committed” to the existence of mental states? Don’t they subscribe to a realist metaphysics of mind?

The question is not easy to answer, however. To be sure, they say things like “I believe in ghosts” or “I want some ice cream” or “My back is killing me”: they employ psychological language assertively. But do they believe the negation of what the eliminative philosophers believe? Do they believe that mental states exist in the same sense that elephants or human bodies exist; that such states cannot be eliminated in favor of brain states and behavior; that they are real features of objective reality? Now we are losing our sturdy compatriots—we are stuffing them with thoughts they have never entertained. The eliminative materialist has a set of beliefs regarding the “ontological status” of mental states, to the effect that they have no role in science, that they are outmoded forms of description, that they represent a “museum myth” concerning the human animal. People used to believe in the celestial spheres, phlogiston, and the ether—but now we know better. Mental language will eventually go the way of these outdated ideas. So, do Sharon and Joe reject these claims, holding that mental states should be quantified over, incorporated into cognitive science, treated as entities with causal powers and computational properties? Of course not: they have no developed conception of the nature of the things they talk about (even this formulation might be alien to them). They are not anti-eliminative, convinced realists. They entertain no metaphysics of mind, stone age or contemporary. If the eliminative philosopher starts to expound his metaphysical views, they will look baffled and find an excuse to walk away. The would-be eliminator may deplore their loose talk, but he cannot convict them of cleaving to a false metaphysics. After all, they talk of many things without believing in some associated “realist ontology”: numbers, the time of day, negation and conjunction, fictional entities. So, there is no clash of opinions separating the eliminative philosophers from their commonsensical associates. Of course, if the latter individuals start to theorize about matters philosophical, holding that psychological realism is the only viable doctrine, then we will have a genuine difference of opinion. But many people go through life untroubled by such thoughts: they remain unconcerned about whether the mind is real or not. There is thus nothing in their heads that needs to be eliminated, revised, or otherwise criticized.[1]

[1] It isn’t that they are to be commended for believing what is true, as “common sense philosophers” maintain; rather, they are in the position of agnostics, or simply “indifferents”.

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