A critique of Paul Churchland's materialism, Part 1

A critique of Paul Churchland's materialism, Part 1

Last year I wrote what I thought was a very funny post on Paul Churchland and witches. No doubt not everyone will recognize its comic genius. At any rate, in a new series of posts on Churchland (that will not necessarily be uninterrupted by posts on other subjects), I want to offer some criticisms of the case that he makes for materialism in Matter and Consciousness.

Before I do that, however, I would like to comment on a minor issue in that previous post. Toward the end of it I wrote: “before putting out the next edition of Matter and Consciousness I suggest that [Churchland] do some research on contemporary Wicca.” (In case you didn’t get it, that was supposed to be one of the funny parts of the post.) Well, I now see that a new edition of Matter and Consciousness did appear in 2013. I was using the second edition of 1992. Does Churchland take the same line on witches in the new edition? I’ll have to check it out.

Now let’s get to Churchland’s materialism. As many people know, Churchland styles himself an “eliminative materialist.” This technical label is easily explained. Churchland is a materialist because he doesn’t think that there is anything else to reality except matter. He’s an eliminative materialist because he wants simply to throw out–eliminate–our ordinary ways of talking about ourselves (”folk psychology”) instead of trying to make it fit with what we “know” about human beings from neuroscience.

Churchland’s eliminative materialism, however, is irrelevant to his case for materialism simpliciter. It’s a further step that he takes once he establishes (or tries to establish) that we human beings are just bits of matter. So, for the rest of this post we can leave aside the “eliminative” aspect of Churchland’s materialism.

What I’m calling Churchland’s case for materialism are the arguments that  he makes against dualism in Chapter 2 of Matter and Consciousness. They constitute a case for materialism because, as Churchland sees it, if they are successful, then dualism is false and materialism is ipso facto true.

Churchland makes four arguments. Here’s how the first one runs:

1. Faced with two competing hypotheses, we should prefer the simpler one, i.e., Ockham’s razor is “a principle of rational methodology.”

2. The dualist hypothesis (= DH) is less simple than the materialist hypothesis (= MH).

3. If DH brought us some explanatory advantage that MH did not, then we could ignore Ockham’s razor in this instance.

4. But DH brings us no explanatory advantage over MH.

5. Thus…

Churchland admits that this is not a conclusive argument for materialism. The reason he gives for its inconclusiveness is that “neither dualism nor materialism can yet explain all the phenomena that need to be explained.” This is a strange admission. Does Churchland mean that (a) materialism simply cannot fully explain what needs explaining? Or does he mean that (b) it can’t do it now but may at some point in the future?

If Churchland means (a), wouldn’t he have to give up materialism? Surely he can’t mean (a). He must mean (b). But, of course, this would make his a less than confident materialism. In any event, he would still need to supply an argument for (b), something which he doesn’t do. In the absence that argument, we can dismiss (b) as arbitrary.

It should also be noted that premise 4 is question-begging. Churchland says that materialists claim this but he offers no defense of it.

So, we can plainly see that with his first argument Churchland fails to establish the truth of materialism, and he himself admits this.

I’ll take a look at the second argument in Part 2.