I have several times remarked that, on the most popular modern doctrine of matter – that it is dead stuff – eliminative materialism is the only consistent sort. If the universe is nothing but dead stuff, it is impossible for us to be alive, or therefore conscious. You can’t assemble a living conscious mind out of nothing but dead stuff. Thoroughgoing, consistent materialists, who have the courage of their convictions, forge ahead and, on that basis, deny the reality of consciousness.
There are few such.
There are of course some problems with eliminative materialism. In the first place, it insists that there are no conscious minds such as those that confide in eliminative materialism. In the second, because eliminative materialism is not itself composed of dead stuff, on its own terms it has no concrete existence.
On eliminative materialism, there’s no such thing as eliminative materialism, and no one exists to believe or disbelieve it.
So it can’t be true. It can’t even be wrong. It cannot be meaningfully asserted; so it cannot be meaningful.
The most popular modern doctrine of matter must then be false. That realization opens up a fun discussion, but it isn’t the discussion I’m interested to have right now. I’m more interested to pick at the intellectual urge that motivates the move of modern minds toward materialism (as modernity misconstrues it), and then to eliminative materialism. I take EO Wilson, that genial sweet mind, to be a type of such moderns. In the dust jacket précis of his book Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies, he writes (with, no doubt, no little help from the marketing guys):
Asserting that religious creeds and philosophical questions can be reduced to purely genetic and evolutionary components, and that the human body and mind have a physical base obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry, Genesis demonstrates that the only way for us to fully understand human behavior is to study the evolutionary histories of nonhuman species.
What struck me about this sentence was that no immaterialist or supernaturalist out there would suggest that the human body and mind do not have a physical base obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry, or to the causal order of our cosmogony. If a thing happens in our universe, well then, one way or another, it simply must conform to the laws of physics and chemistry of our universe as they have so far been expressed in its history, no matter how difficult it might be for us to discern how.
I have not yet read Wilson’s Genesis, and may never do so. But I have read several of his other books with great pleasure and admiration (Amazon knows this, and so suggested the book to me). From them, I know the cast of his mind well enough to wager that, despite the characteristic generosity and nobility – and, indeed, beauty – of his expressions of his basic presuppositions, he thinks nevertheless that there is in the end nothing but an aimless scurrying of dead pebbles. He takes the fact that what happens in our universe must obey the laws of physics to be a demonstration that what happens in our universe must be nothing more than what we can express by formulations of the laws of physics.
This is to mistake the fossil for the living form of which it is the record. It is to assert that there is nothing but fossils. It is the dead skeleton of eliminative materialism, draped in the gorgeous costume of something richer, wilder and more lively – and more true – that Wilson, being an honest and careful natural historian, cannot overlook, cannot resist, cannot but love. But, as we have seen, that doctrine is autophagous.
Wilson loves the subject of his work. On eliminative materialism, there is nothing in it to love. It is, rather, just dead stupid meaningless shit.
Consider then the proper opposite, the negative of eliminative materialism. It is, not amaterialism or immaterialism, but illiminative materialism.
It is, simply, the notion that the formalized Laws of Nature do not rule out such sorts of entities as cannot be by them formalized, but rather that they specify the basic degree of order that the activities of any such entities must in our world reliably express.
To take just one example: Newton’s Laws of Motion do not mean that the angels are not responsible for the ordination and urgence of events in our world. They rather express in formal terms the way that those angels – if they exist – must effect that ordination and urgence, so that we observe that their way everywhere evident in what happens under their ministrations. Would an angel concerned above all in his administration of his particular cosmic domain to obey the Lógos of our world – and of himself – arrange the affairs thereof in such a way that in it F ≠ ma? Of course not.
The good order of the universe, then, is just what we should expect the angels to generate for us.
That the stars move in the goodly, orderly way Newton discovered that they do in fact move does not mean that the angels are not moving them.
The discovery and formalization of that good order does not of course demonstrate the existence and activity of the angels in its pervasive realization. But it does certainly allow for them. It gives room for the angels. Whether they exist or not can then be a subject of other further researches.
So likewise for other sorts of entities that eliminative materialism rules out from the get go; such as animals, consciousness, agency, meaning, purpose, and – not least – philosophical doctrines like eliminative materialism.
Such is illiminative materialism.
Eliminative materialism rules out other sorts of entities than dead pebbles: ex + limine, limit, ablative of limen, threshold. Illiminative materialism rules them in, without sacrificing a jot or tittle of the Natural Law, or anywise relaxing its rigor: in + limen.
Eliminative materialism throws the baby, the bathwater, the basin, and then itself out over the threshold and into the outer darkness that beyond the pale yawns ever and insatiably ravening. Illiminative materialism allows us to bathe the baby and then drain away the dirt, to wrap and swaddle the babe and rock him by the fire, humming a lullaby.
Illiminative materialism does imply a different and more expansive notion of matter than moderns have so far generally felt comfortable. But that is neither here nor there; for so, likewise, after all, does quantum physics, which we have discovered to be true.
The bottom line: on eliminative materialism, there can be no such thing as eliminative materialism. On illiminative materialism, there can.
On eliminative materialism, there is no such thing as materialism of any sort. It cannot be true – or false, or meaningful, or anything at all.
On illiminative materialism, minds can exist and consider eliminative materialism. It can be a really existent and efficacious doctrine. It can be false. On illiminative materialism, we can understand eliminative materialism, and see that it must be wrong; must be meaningless; must be not even wrong.
On eliminative materialism, we can’t understand, at all.
As between the two notions, then, illiminative materialism is the more true.