reductionism vs eliminativism

I was listening to a lecture given by Shaun Nichols on Determinism and free will. He was giving an example of how we sometimes learn new things about some entity that so radically changes our understanding of it that we end up dismissing its existence all together. Then there are other things which, although learning something new about it, we don’t dismiss their existence. The example he gave of the latter case was of whales. We used to think that whales were a species of fish. Eventually, we learnt that this is not true, that whales are a species of mammal. But we don’t say that whales don’t exist. He gave an example of the former case too: witches. We used to believe in witches. When we learnt that witches were really women practicing what was called “witchcraft” but really had no demonstrable effect, this altered our view so dramatically that we ceased to believe in witches all together.

I’m going to call the former approach - where we preserve our beliefs in the existence of the entity/phenomenon in question - the reductive approach, and the latter one the eliminative approach.

So my question for this thread is as follows: when do we use the reductive approach and when the eliminative one? When should we do one or another? Why would we do one over the other?

Why, for example, did we not keep our belief in witches but simply change the preconceptions we have of them? For example, that witches don’t actually have any supernatural powers but are simply women who like whipping up new potions of exotic ingredients in the hopes that it might have some kind of helpful (medical?) or harmful effect on the consumer? Or that they are schizophrenics who believe they have magical abilities to cast spells on others or are somehow in communion with spirits or a supernatural netherworld. We could believe that without believing in anything supernatural, and we wouldn’t have to say that witches don’t exist.

Is it just a matter of utility? Do we decide to dismiss the existence of something only when such a position proves useful to us, and maintain its existence otherwise? Or do/should we look for some kind of objective truth standard - that is, something by which we can reasonably say that, in some circumstances, it is true that such-and-such thing doesn’t exist, but in other circumstances, it is false that it doesn’t exist?

Is it just a matter of semantics? Does saying, for example, that whales don’t exist because we originally defined whales as fish hold true under certain semantic considerations, but under different semantic considerations, saying that whales don’t exist doesn’t hold true (because the actual referents are still there)? In that case, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but different ways of talking about the same idea (namely, that we held erroneous assumptions about the thing in question).

This question has a lot of bearing on many philosophical issue. The one at hand in the lecture I was listening to was about the existence of free will. The question was over whether we should dismiss the existence of free will en lieu of persuasive considerations in support of determinism, or should we simply alter the definition of “free will” in order to suit those considerations (as the compatibilists do). Another is the question of mind and brain. Some would like to say that, in light of twentieth century findings in the neurosciences, the old metaphysical cartesean concept of mind refers to something that doesn’t exist, and we therefore ought to say simply that only the brain exist and there is no mind. Others, on the other hand, would like to say that “mind” still refers to something that exists, but we were wrong to assume it was something seperate or independent of the brain, that mind and brain are one thing and so both exist interdependently.

So I guess another way of putting the question is as follows: can anyone think of a set of reasonable criteria to decide between the two approaches? When is it more appropriate to be reductive and when is it more appropriate to be eliminative?

i have a belief in witches; my friend is one. truthfully.

how we re-evaluate a preexisting idea based on new information will likely always depend on the magnitude of the new information’s change upon our earlier conceptions. most people probably think of whales as fish, even though they might know that whales are mammals… and it is equally easy to just “recategorize” whales as mammals, rather than fish, without losing the meaning of what a whale is in the first place.

conceptual categories are constantly changing. those people who rigidly cling to these categories and try to resist change for the sake of a faked mental consistency, purpose and self-esteem will tend to dismiss new information completely before letting their paradigms change; people who are open to reinterpreting their ideas, however, will likely just either add or subtract data from the ideal-category itself upon learning new information; in order to completely RENAME or RECATEGORIZE the content itself, would require a relatively large or ‘powerful’ new information, in that it completely destoys the old concept in its preexisting form, and thus ONLY a new categorization is possible… like, say we learned that whales were actually just images generated by a brain-hologram device that a certain species of dolphins have in their heads, and that whales are not even real… this would destroy the concept of “whale” completely, and we would eliminate it from our paradigm; however, clearly, these sorts of re-categorizations are pretty rare in life, unless youre a VERY thoughtful, VERY perceptive and VERY open-minded, intellectually-honest individual who constantly strives to see the world anew at every moment.

i personally aspire to this, and can say that even though i dont achieve it nearly as much as id like, there have indeed been many concepts and ideas which i have completely used an “eliminativist” approach on, in that i either removed the category completely, or redefined it in a profound, novel way. this can generate anxiety and self-doubt, and there are reprecussions to your overall ideation and paradigm when this happens, but i think that in the end its worth the pain and temporary confusion caused, as long as your recategorizations remains consistent empirically and logically with the world, and with your overall belief-set itself… i.e., completely new (eliminativist) approaches SHOULD cause other related ideas and concepts to also be radically reexamined, and possibly thown out altogether. in this way, as long as the paradigm overall remains non-contradictory on a conscious level, then the eliminativist approach to recategorization is a positive force, also assuming that one is sufficiently perceptive, aware, thoughtful and rational to sustain this sort of drastic change without losing his grip on reality itself…

It seems wee have simply learned more about whales and witches. We don;t need a new name for whales. For “whale” is simply the name. As you say, we still think they exist.

Witches are, at first glance, another matter. I think it’s more difficult to generalise about witches. I not sure they all have claimed that anything supernatural was ever in play. Most witches don’t just wave a wand. I think it’s not a very good example. I also think Shaun should speak for himself when he says we don’t any longer believe in them.

the person i know who is Wiccan has a Book of Shadows and casts spells all the time. they also pray to pagan and zodiacal gods. and when spellcasting, she uses a glass of enchanted water, candles, a talisman, a pentagram, and her book of shadows. im not saying it works, im just saying that there are still “witches” as we commonly understand them, today.

And that’s fine. You don’t have to agree that “we no longer believe in witches”, just so long as you understand that when (or if) one disbelieves in witches, he is being eliminative.

Gib I like your line of thinking. I’d like to see this distinction fleshed out a little more.

gib - I’m still not sure I follow. What is the demonstrable effect of thinking whales are mammals as opposed to fish? The whale doesn’t change. That is, there is no demonstrable effect on whales. And whales don’t then produce different demonstrable effects that are different than before.

I guess I’m stuck on the labels. But I’m trying to think this through and I’m getting stuck somewhere.

Maybe if I gave my own example. Ghosts. There was a time that I could have believed in them as supernatural entities. Now, I think that it’s possible for them to exist only as physical entities - they could behave the same way, and be observed the same way, but I cannot believe that they are nonphysical. So, you could say that I don’t believe in ghosts, but you could say that i do. Is this relevant to your examples?

I don’t think you fail to follow. I think you fail to realize that what you’re offering here is one possible answer to the question I’m posing. You seem to suggest that so long as the referent still exists, then we ought to be reductive. But if you allow me to challenge that, let’s say that one saw some flashing lights in the sky one night and concluded that they were aliens visiting Earth. Later, he learns that the flashing lights were really some kind of military experiment, or it was a meteor burning in the atmosphere. In that case, the referent would still exist (i.e. the lights in the sky were real and caused by a real object), but he would have to admit he was wrong to believe in aliens.

As for what effect comes from changing the way we think about whales or aliens, or that we believe in them or not, there really isn’t much of one - not on the referent at least. Being reductive or eliminative really has little effect on what’s in fact true about the referent or that it exists or not, but it can have a strong effect on how we approach it or what we do in response to it. To see that, forget the whale example (it’s not helpful). Think about the mind/brain problem. For example (to use a stupid one), suppose a philosopher of mind wished to convince others that mind doesn’t exist, that the old cartesian idea of a metaphysical substance that parallels the brain is false. So he takes the eliminative approach. Following up with that, another philosopher argues that pain, being a mental phenomenon, doesn’t exist. Therefore, it’s okay to pillage, rape, and slaughter people.

It would be nice if we could have a robust standard by which to show the eliminativist approach taken here is misapplied, and so it’s wrong to say that people don’t feel pain. Not that without such a standard, it would be impossible to do so, nor even difficult by any stretch (you could charge him with equivocation for example), but it might make philosophy more “efficient” (for lack of a better word) at dealing with debates of this sort.

Yes, it’s a perfect example. And as you can probably see, such a position (that ghosts exist) could be used by some to support certain religious beliefs. Spiritualists could then say “See, we weren’t wrong to believe in ghosts; we just held a few misconceptions about them”.

I dunno. Aliens would have supposedly caused the lights, but the light were not, i your example, supposed to be the aliens themselves.

What are we eliminating but a bad idea? There is no referent for mind to begin with.

Here’s the thing - I think you have to be an essentialist for this to mean anything.

Most people are essentialists, though. So I guess I get it.

For a reductive materialist there is. The mind is the brain.

Ah, Reductive materialism.

I guess I’m not one of those. Because for me, “mind” is a metaphor only.

I doubt that. “Mind” is a metaphor only in a paralogical sense, unless you are approaching the subject from a strictly scientific point of view, with scientific goals and assumptions. If “mind” meant “brain” we would use the words interchangeably. If I insulted you, would you say I hurt your brain?

I wouldn’t say you hurt my mind.

So what does an insult hurt? Why does it hurt?

You’re talking about amotional reactions. The presence of these does not imply “mind”.

What, to you, is it a metaphor for? The brain?

How about; you have brain, the thing, and mind, the activity, you know, like legs, the thing, and walking, the activity. Therein lies the metaphor.

gib - Usually. I don’t use the word much, myself.

Just out of curiosity: is a metaphor not also a reference to what it stands for? For example, if I say “he’s a chip off the ol’ block”, I’m not actually refering to chips or blocks but to sons and fathers. So even if ‘mind’ is a metaphor, does it not refer to something real?

Yeah, but the word is uses differently by different people. Descartes, for instance, connects it to soul. Hegel is referring to some sort of instance of some sort of collective unconscious. To make up one’s mind is merely to decide - it refers here to ego, I suppose - but the ego that is in control of the will - an idea that I don’t subscribe to. It’s a vague term.