The Myth of Eliminativism

Tim Morton drew my attention to this post about the demise of the humanities due to neoliberal economic policies grounded in the supposed truth of neurocomputational eliminativism.

I agree with Morton’s appraisal, that the eliminative materialism that seems to be gaining favor among philosophers (like Ray Brassier) offers little in the way of new theoretical accounts of consciousness or practical approaches to ethics, and so functions only to support conservatism. Eliminativists, of course, argue that “consciousness” is only a word, a meaningless vibration of molecules that makes sense to us because we’ve been duped by our habitual use of folk psychological language. In reality, there is no consciousness, only vectors of neural activation. Philosophers may have traditionally sought out the truth with the help of language, whether prosaic or poetic; but, the eliminativists assure us, human language produces only fictions. There is no such thing as consciousness, just as there is no such thing as a sunrise. Truth can only be found, if at all, in numerical relations derived from the computational activity of synapses.

Whitehead’s entire philosophical adventure is an attempt to avoid the “bifurcation of nature” produced by this sort of scientific materialism. Following his way of thinking nature and culture as different aspects of the same creative process, what is to prevent us from conceiving of neural interaction as semiotic in its own right? Human semiosis may be based in the fictional play of signifiers, and to that extent incapable of finally explaining its own conditions of possibility; but neural semiosis is no less messy and interpretive, no less groundless and playful. Semiosis, so far as I can tell, must go all the way down: meaning is not a human fabrication, but a natural phenomenon.

Eliminativism is the worst kind of reductionism, that motivated by the technoscientific desire to predict and control everything for the sake of a more efficient capitalist market. As I tried to touch on in my last post, there is quite literally a world of difference between a mystery and a problem. Consciousness is not a problem that might be solved through some kind of reverse engineering, but a mystery whose very contradictoriness (it cannot be found since it is that which is seeking, even though this very statement unveils much about its nature) constitutes the worldliness of our lives. Without this mystery, there is no world, no meaning, no aesthetic or ethical value. This is not to say, mind you, that eliminativism is a threat to the meaning of human life. It is itself just another mythos, albeit an alienating and destructive one. It is ironic that, just as biologists are awakening to the current anthropogenic mass extinction event, someone like Brassier, inspired by eliminativism, would embrace a logic of extinction as the only valid form of philosophical reflection (I must thank Adam for pointing this out).


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Michael Ledezma says:

    It appears to me that your entire analysis is propped up by a conspicuous absence, namely the definition of being. Eliminative materialism simply restricts being to the register of spatio-temporal phenomena. If these are the criteria for defining what can be said to BE in the proper sense, then of course, it follows that thought, as a non-spatio-temporal entity, along all of its manifold modalities, has no proper being.

    The question then becomes, in what way can we say that thoughts, feelings, sunsets, and other semiotic and qualitative ‘things’ exist? Markus Gabriel has an interesting view on this point, with his analysis of fields of sense. The problem with his thesis however, is when the definition of the limits of those fields becomes contested, since there is no transcendental criterion by means of which we would be able to define those limitsI, those limits being themselves immanent eigenvalues that arise as a result of the very act of defining. So in this case, I would agree that Eliminative materialism cannot function as a meta-language from within language. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that what it is pointing towards is incorrect.

    If the existence of thought has its ground in material neural correlates, which is basically the consensus among all non-dogmatic thinkers, then thought cannot be said to exist outside of, or beyond the physical presence of material entities equipped with sense receptors, such as ourselves. On this account, consciousness is reducible to being a particular mode through which a subset of physical entities relate to other physical entities, this mode of relation being foreclosed to physical entities not belonging to the subset [having sense receptors/having movement be determined in response to sensorially-grounded feedback loops]. Eliminative materialism cannot speak about topics such as ethics because these topics exceed the scope of its sphere of reflection. While the wording ‘consciousness is an illusion’ reeks of philosophical naiveté, I fail to see the difference between saying that consciousness does not exist as a plenitude, and saying that something like ethics has no essence, but is rather a set of contingent manifestations of habits of relation among entities. Saying that consciousness and thought have no being other than in physical entities and their relations is the basis for the argument for the relativization of all ethical systems to a specific place in space and time.

    You make a mistake when you say that “Semiosis, so far as I can tell, must go all the way down: meaning is not a human fabrication, but a natural phenomenon.” The fabrication is not the fact that semiosis is an attribute of the relationality of physical living systems. I don’t think eliminativists would contest that. Rather, it is the content of those relations as representations given to that particular system that are fabrications.

    The fact that I interpret my world is not contested by eliminativism, but only the notion that that interpretation has a being beyond my physical body. This is the problem/mystery of language, and the fact that everything that is given is always given in such and such a way to us, and is therefore representable linguistically. Linguistic representation automatically entails reification and abstraction because of for us, language is coupled with the power of induction, deduction, and abduction.

    When you say “Without this mystery, there is no world, no meaning, no aesthetic or ethical value,” this reeks of value judgment on your part. Why must these things BE? Where does it say that aesthetic and ethic value must exist? They exist ‘for us’ and this is something we can’t escape. When you say “[t]his is not to say, mind you, that eliminativism is a threat to the meaning of human life. It is itself just another mythos, albeit an alienating and destructive one.” you are again imposing a value judgment on a theory not for its veracity, but for the probable social consequences it may have. This was exactly the position of the church against Copernicus and Galileo, and of the synagogue against Spinoza. All of our systems of representing truth are always already a “mythos,” including panpsychism and the like, so this doesn’t really say anything either. The irony here, is not Brassier’s reflection on Nihilism, but the notion that human-induced mass extinction has a value different from one caused by the death of the sun. If such a thing as value exists, it is always ‘for us’ and ‘we’ as both singularities and as a species will eventually cease to be. It may well be of the utmost importance to ensure that as long as we are on this planet we fulfill our self-imposed role as stewards, but this is a value judgment that does not exceed our material existence as interacting things. Why do we care for biodiversity but at the same time eliminate life-threatening bacteria? To reduce suffering presumably? The criterion of suffering reduction is nothing other than a value judgment on our part, because we can do no other than express values in our actions. This is the point. This doesn’t contradict the fact that as purely physical systems we are bound to interact within the constraints of the laws of nature. Finally, the jump from eliminativism as a theory that aims to bound the scope of what IS to eliminativism as the ground of our current neo-liberal predicament is quite the stretch.
    I realize this is an old post, and that your thinking on these topics has probably evolved a tremendous amount over the past 5 years, but seeing as how I don’t have access to those, and I felt that this critique was pretty wrong-headed, I’m responding to this.



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