Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism: analyzed, subsumed and explained
by Albert P. Carpenter
In the first of two parts, Paul Churchland’s thesis of Eliminative Materialism in the Philosophy of Mind will be introduced, analyzed and discussed leading to the identification of two theses embedded in one: Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism. These will then be subsumed by Occam’s sword. In part two, a second sense of Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism will be presented based on the distinction between the quantitative and qualitative laws of matter and energy. These theses will, also, be subsumed by a second variant of Occam’s sword. Finally, Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism will be interpreted as epistemological theses with a metaphysical explanation to be found in the laws of matter and energy.
Eliminative Materialism in the Philosophy of Mind
It is not the purpose here to provide an overview of the origins or history of Eliminative Materialism (see the entry for ‘Eliminative Materialism’ at wikipedia and the article by the same name at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) nor will its merits be debated. Rather, it will be stated as formulated by Paul Churchland, analyzed and discussed. Further, the evidence in support of each will be provided and evaluated.
As espoused by Paul Churchland, Eliminative Materialism is the thesis that Psychology is a theory of ours and others mental phenomena and one that is so flawed that it and its ontology of pain, fear, and joy, etc. will be replaced by a completed Neuroscience (and [presumably] its ontology of neurons, …etc.) (Churchland, 1981).
There are actually two theses embedded in Eliminative Materialism as stated above. The first is that Psychology will be eliminated (negative thesis) and second that Neuroscience will replace it (positive thesis). The first is called Eliminative Materialism because it subtracts from scientific ontology by making discoveries of entities that do not exist. The second will be termed Multiplicative Materialism because it adds to scientific ontology by making positive discoveries in the Neurosciences of entities that actually exist.
In a subsequent article, Paul and Patricia Churchland cite the following cases in support of Eliminative Materialism of other theoretical and ontological eliminations from the history of science:
1) ” The phlogiston and the phlogiston theory of combustion
2) The caloric fluid and the caloric theory of heat
3) The rotating crystal spheres of Ptolemaic astronomy
4) The four humors of medieval medicine
5) The vital spirits of premodern biology
6) The luminiferous aether of pre-Einsteinian mechanics [electromagnetism?]“
(Churchland and Churchland, 1998).
Each instance above constitutes a case of negative discovery, where (and though never discerned with absolute certitude we nonetheless in practice decide that entities do not exist) we found and determined that each entity in question above does not exist (consider also the negative results of the Michelson-Morely experiment with regards to the aether). They were subsequently subtracted from the ontology of scientific discourse. Note, also, that this is an epistemological change not an ontological one in the sense that nothing has been subtracted from the world.
In an analogous way there is considerable evidence from the history of science in support of Multiplicative Materialism. Consider the following discoveries:
1) The four moons of Jupiter by Galileo Galilei in 1610
2) Microorganisms by Anton van Leeuwenhoek in 1675
3) Uranus by William Hershel in 1781
4) X-rays by Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen in 1895
5) Electron by J. J. Thomson 1897
6) DNA by Crick and Watson in 1953
(Hellemans and Bunch, 1988).
Each instance above constitutes a positive discovery, where it was found that an entity does exist. It was subsequently added to our collective scientific ontology. Here again this is an epistemological change not an ontological one. Nothing has been added to the world as a result of the discovery.
Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism in Ontology and Epistemology
While Paul Churchland sees Eliminative (and Multiplicative) Materialism as thesis (es) in the Philosophy of Mind, the evidence in its (their) support suggests that it (they) reach beyond the scope of that field and extend more generally into the relationship between epistemology and ontology.
In both cases, (Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism’s) nothing has been created or destroyed (in keeping with the explanation for Occam’s sword that the conservation laws represent). There is in this sense a zero sum ontological net loss/gain in the above instances of discovery (both negative and positive). This gives the erroneous impression that ontology is static and entities are merely to be cataloged.
Part 2 will be concerned to provide evidence of ontological net gain (positive) and loss (negative) when the qualitative laws of matter and energy are applied to Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism. This will give rise to a dynamic ontology and as in Part 1 a dynamic epistemology as well.
When the two senses of Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism are subsumed by the two variants of Occam’s sword, then the relationship between ontology and epistemology will become clearer because at that point the quantitative and qualitative laws will be identified as the explanatory basis for the epistemological principles of Occam’s sword. This will result in the complimentary relationship that holds between epistemology and metaphysics.
The Subsumption of Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism (in the first sense)
It is possible to bring Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism under two principles:
1) Unnecessary entities are to be eliminated.
2) Necessary entities are to be multiplied.
The term ‘necessity’ will be understood to mean not ‘explanatory necessity’ in a theory, but rather as evidential necessity by discovery. Thus entities are to be necessarily eliminated for which there is no empirical evidence and entities are to be necessarily multiplied for which there is empirical evidence.
It will be noted that the formulation of these two principles is based on the rhetorical distinction between exhortation and dehortation. Therefore, the above principles are the exhortive version of the dehortative principles that:
1) Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.
2) Entities are not to be eliminated beyond necessity.
These latter are readily identifiable as the first two principles of Occam’s sword. Thus, Occam’s sword (as a set of epistemological principles) subsumes Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism (in the first sense).
These principles can be restated as:
1) Entities are not to be multiplied for which there is no empirical evidence.
2) Entities are not to be eliminated for which there is empirical evidence.
1) Entities are to be multiplied as they are discovered.
2) Entities are to be eliminated as they are not discovered.
Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism (in the second sense)
As stated above and as thus far conceived both Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism conform to the conservation laws of matter and energy (in the quantitative sense). We will now consider cases where entities are created and destroyed.
Ontology is not static. Consider the following list of entities:
1) Dell Inspirion 1570 (computer)
2) Apple iOS (smart phone)
3) Nissan Leaf (electric car)
4) Sousa chinensis (Indo-Pacific dolphin)
5) Taodium distichum (bald cypress)
6) Panthera Parduc (panther)
These are all entities that exist now but did not at one time or another exist in the past.
Now consider this list:
1) Tyrannosaurus Rex (dinosaur)
2) Pteranodon Stenbergi (pterodactyl)
3) Utasusaurus hataii (Ichthyosaur)
4) Aelipile by Heron of Alexandria approximately A.D. 100 (steam power)
5) Su Sung’s “Cosmic Engine” built at Khaifeng in A.D. 1090 (water clock)
6) Antikythera computer 1st century B.C.
(James and Thorpe, 1994)
These are all examples of entities that existed in the past but do not now exist.
In each instance above there is/was a net gain/loss in our ontology as matter and energy is transformed from one form into another.
There are laws that explain this ontological dynamism. They are the Qualitative Laws of Matter and Energy (see the qualitative and quantitative distinction in Nolan, 1997).
1) Matter and energy can be qualitatively created.
2) Matter and energy can be qualitatively destroyed.
Here the term ‘qualitative’ refers to the kinds and forms that matter and energy assumes as a function of its transformations.
In this sense, while it is empirically verifiable that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed quantitatively it is equally empirically verifiable that matter and energy can be created and destroyed qualitatively.
This gives rise to Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism in the second sense in which entities are eliminated from the ontology of science as they are destroyed and multiplied as they are created.
The Subsumption of Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism (in the second sense)
As with the first sense of Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism there are principles that subsume the second sense as well. The exhortative version is:
1) Entities are to be multiplied as they are created.
2) Entities are to be eliminated as they are destroyed.
Or in the dehortative version:
1) Entities are not to be eliminated that have not been destroyed.
2) Entities are not to be multiplied that have not been created.
Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism in the Philosophy of Mind (revisited, reevaluated and revised)
For over two thousand years language masked the neurodynamics of brain function. Beginning in 1981, that theory was challenged by Paul and Patricia Churchland and the underlying physical phenomena was and has been exposed. How, if at all, does Multiplicative Materialism, and the subsumtion of Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism impact Paul and Patricia Churchland’s original thesis in the Philosophy of Mind?
For one thing it strengthens their claims by showing, in a deeper sense, that Eliminative Materialism (and Multiplicative Materialism) in the Philosophy of Mind are local applications of the universal principles of Occam’s sword which in turn derive their explanation from the quantitative and qualitative laws of matter and energy.
Now Paul Churchland’s thesis of Eliminative Materialism can be restated as:
1) Psychology is a theory of the mind.
2) The mind is an immaterial entity (following Descartes).
3) There are no immaterial entities.
4) Therefore, the mind does not exist and as it goes so goes Psychology and its ontology.
and his thesis of Multiplicative Materialism can be stated as:
1) Neuroscience is a theory of brain function.
2) The brain is a material entity.
3) Only material entities exist.
4) Therefore, it and its ontology will replace Psychology and its ontology as is in keeping with a materialist metaphysic.
What we are left with is the on going theory of the brain and its functioning, but is that enough? In the next section, I will offer a new interpretation of the Churchland’s theses based on recent work by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson among others (also working in the Philosophy of Mind). For the brain is not an isolated entity, but exists in and is coextensive with the body which is itself embedded in the environment.
There is much that is novel to Eliminative Materialism in this article and it may take some time to absorb. Among the original ideas expressed here are:
1) Multiplicative Materialism as the complimentary thesis to Eliminative Materialism
2) Occam’s sword and its introduction into the discussion on Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism
3) The subsumptive role Occam’s sword plays in in regard to Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism
4) The Qualitative and Quantittative distinction and its application to;
a) Occam’s sword
b) Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism.
In addition, all of the subsumtive principles (i.e. Occam’s sword) stated above for both senses of Eliminative and Multiplicative Materialism are epistemological principles, while the laws of matter and energy both quantitative and qualitative serve as their explanatory basis and are thus their ontological counterparts.
This has the effect of integrating epistemology and metaphysics such that the first principles of each are interdependent in a complementary relationship.
It should also be stated that the second set of entities that have been discovered i.e. the moons of Jupiter etc. could have just as easily been incorporated into the latter list of entities that have been created through the processes of the transformation of matter and energy. The distinction is merely meant to be illustrative.
1) Beers, (2003);
2) Carpenter, Albert; P. (2012); Occam’s sword URL=http://occamsword.wordpress.com
3) Churchland, Paul (February 1981); Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes, Journal of Philosophy 78, no. (pp. 67-90).
4) Churchland, Patricia and Paul Churchland (1998); Intertheoretic Reduction: A Neuroscientist’s Field Guide in On the Contrary: Critical Essays 1987-1997, The MIT Press, ambridge.
5) Clark, Andy (1997); Being There: putting brain, body and world together again, The MIT Press, Cambridge.
6) Hellemans, Alexander and Bryan Bunch (1988); The Time Tables of Science, Simon and Schuster, New York.
7) James, Peter and Nick Thorpe (1994); Ancient Inventions, Ballentine Books. New York.
8) Johnson, Mark and George Lakoff (1999); Philosophy in the Flesh, Basic Books, New York.
9) Nolan, Daniel (1997); Quantitative Parsimony, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 48 (3): (pp.329-343).
10) Reddy, Michael, J. (1979); The Conduit Metaphor in Metaphor and Thought, ed. Andrew Ortony. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
11) Wilson, Robert A.and Lucia Foglia; Embodied Cognition, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). URL=
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