just a thought…

Does anyone else notice how (some of) the online scientific-realism contingent is basically becoming the reformed Calvinism of continental philosophy? This may reveal a bit of ‘naivete’, but are we really back at the place where continental philosophers need to take too seriously questions of determinism and eliminitivism? If the determinist are right, then almost all of the work in recent continental philosophy falls out the window, so one should either find one of the sub-groups within contemporary anglo philosophy who rejects free will. And as for eliminitivism, as I understand it, weren’t the Churchlands basically disregarded by the anglo philosophy world years (and years) ago? I confess I wasn’t studying philosophy a decade ago, and am only familiar with bits and piece of the literature, but speaking with people who were around then, and do know the literature, they seem astonished when they find out young Continental philosophers are taking this stuff seriously again.

I’m just not sure what motivates someone to ‘do’ philosophy if theories such as determinism and eliminativism are right? If there is no such thing as a freely existing subject…then shit…count me out.

(sorry for the micro rant)


7 thoughts on “just a thought…

  1. Nick says:

    I think this is a really good question – but I think it also ultimately points to the importance of these discussions. Neuroscience is very seriously encroaching upon these types of philosophical issues, and continentals have mostly been turning a blind eye to it. And a lot of anglo stuff I’ve read has been rather naively simple.

    I don’t know where eliminativism presently stands in the anglo literature, although I’d love to hear from anyone knowledgeable on it. I asked an analytic friend of mine a while ago about it, and he suggested about the same as your friends have. But I’ve never heard why eliminativism isn’t a stronger position in anglo philosophy. I can see, as an affront to common sense, why it would never intuitively be popular, but I wonder how people have grappled with the actual arguments for it. From what I’ve heard, the anglos trying to secure a spot for free will haven’t been convincingly successful either (merely redefining free will down to some meaningless minimalism), so what’s left?

  2. michaeloneillburns says:

    Thanks for the response Nick. re:eliminativism, you’re right, it would be really good to hear about why it isn’t a strong position, in detail. My supervisor has brought this up to me before, and I’m pretty sure he knows the anglo field pretty well, so I’ll try to get some more specific leads on why this position isn’t taken seriously. I think maybe trying to search for some critical articles in regards to Churchland may be a good starting point, but who knows…

    Now, I’m pretty sure you’re much more familiar with the literature than I, but aren’t people like Malabou, Searle, and to an extent Adrian Johnston using research in neuroscience to argue for freedom from the level of neurons? I haven’t read his work, but I think Davidson has some ‘seminal’ paper on neural events that holds a similar position. So not to say that these few examples ‘end the debate’, but it does seem like continental philosophy at least has the possibility of interacting with contemporary science while being able to hold onto an account of freedom. I know that in the works of some of the authors I mentioned before, I was struck with the feeling that they were describing a sort of Kierkegaardian/Badiouian subjective freedom but on the neural level.

    But once again, I’m just dipping my toes into this literature, so am curious to hear more.

  3. Nick Srnicek says:

    Yeah, it’d be great if your prof could shed some light on it, or point to some articles to check out! I just read the wiki on eliminative materialism and I have to say that none of the critiques seem all that convincing. (Of course, this is Wikipedia, and not an detailed philosophical argument; but still.)

    I’ve only read Malabou’s short book, What Should we do with our Brain?, and it struck me that it mostly assumed freedom at the neurological level. Or more specifically, it equated freedom with the plasticity of the brain – the ability of neurons to change connections and shift patterns over time. But this, to me, seems entirely consistent with a deterministic view of the world, where it’s simply the environment responsible for the shifting neural patterns. Plasticity is necessary but not sufficient for freedom.

    Johnston, from what I’ve seen, falls into the same problem, but I know him and Malabou have some work coming out that will hopefully develop these ideas in more detail.

    And Searle, I haven’t read much of either – only a short (and hopefully not representative) lecture by him. It struck me as sort of a naive view of freedom that didn’t really grapple with any of the hard questions about neuroscience and freedom.

    So while I think there are people who are trying to combine the two, it’s not clear to me that anyone has done a convincing job yet (assuming it’s possible!) That does remind me though, one of my favorite books on the topic is Neurophilosophy of Free Will by Henrik Walter. It seems to me that his idea of ‘natural autonomy’ is plausible, and it fits in nicely with Deleuzian/DeLandian dynamical ontologies.

  4. Alex says:

    I can’t remember my own Philosophy of Mind training, but I do seem to recall there being no really good knock-down argument against eliminativism. But there are, of course, whole books in the analytic literature going against this position – Deconstructing the Mind
    by Stephen P. Stich is among the best, I am informed, because he used to be a eliminativist, but changed his mind. But here are three important ones off the top of my dome. I’m going to ignore the EM is self-refuting one, because I think Brassier has handled that baby pretty well.

    1. EM assumes certain things, certainly in Mr Churchland’s ideas that are not true about science – ie the idea that there is such thing as even a possibly completed neuroscience misunderstands science and that whole “beaming info to each other” thing is pure utopian nonsense.
    2. Folk psychology is not a rival theory. Wittgenstein filleted this one way back with his Remarks On Fraser’s Golden Bough with regard to religious belief, and the boring old religion is a pre-scientific theory idea that was popular at his time (and now).
    3. Neuro-plascity.

    But your intuition, as we talked about two years ago, is spot on. If anything, with all due respect to those working on it, it sometimes shows off the “fadism” of continental philosophy, which despite the fact I am a partisan for continental philosophy, is it’s worst aspect.

    The Neurophilosophy of Free Will sounds fascinating though.

  5. doctorzamalek says:

    First, I agree with Nick that we shouldn’t really speak of a backslide if we speak of continental philosophy taking scientific realism seriously. There has never really been a point in the history of continental philosophy when it took the natural sciences seriously, so it may as well start now. And note, I say this as someone who is 100% opposed to eliminativism and even most reductionism. Phenomenology, which I adore for other reasons, is useless in its attitude toward the sciences and toward realism. And that’s what makes someone like Brassier so refreshing, since he can speak the two languages at once (natural science and continental thought).

    As for this part: “And as for eliminitivism, as I understand it, weren’t the Churchlands basically disregarded by the anglo philosophy world years (and years) ago?” I don’t think this is the right picture, as though the Churchlands were an earlier stage in analytic thought now left behind. Rather, the mainstream “philosophy of language” types in analytic thought have always hated the Churchlands, and that’s remained fairly constant.

    I find the Churchlands refreshing. You can learn a lot from all of their books, and they are a nice tonic for the atrophied reality muscles that all continental end up with otherwise. But that doesn’t prevent the Churchlands, and Metzinger, from being too aggressively dogmatic and far too quick to ridicule anything that doesn’t fit neatly into their theories. Materialism in general is not a good idea, I would say.

  6. doctorzamalek says:

    Here’s another way I would put it… Paul Churchland recommends “eliminative materialism”. This strikes me as a contradiction in terms. If you are committed to the eliminability of any theoretical construct, then why is materialism sacrosanct? Why isn’t materialism ripe for elimination? This always seems to verge on a religious faith of the sort that Churchland would mock mercilessly when it takes different form in others.

  7. Nick Srnicek says:


    “Why isn’t materialism ripe for elimination?”

    I wonder if you’d agree that this is what Brassier is doing? Laruelle resolutely refuses to accord a concept to matter, and Brassier extends this into the ‘being-nothing’ of the real. Hence there’s no fundamental materialist level, discernable by either science or philosophy. Rather than an eliminative materialism, Brassier would be more akin to an eliminative nihilism.

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