In the previous section, it was suggested that in order to avoid the problem of representation, an eliminativist should try to express the central ontological claim of eliminative materialism in an anti-representationalistic framework. The way to do so, which I will develop presently, is to adopt a version of the broadly conceived Carnapian approach to metametaphysics and to interpret the central thesis of eliminativism, namely the claim that there are no beliefs, through the Carnapian lens.
There are many competing ways of reading the Carnapian insights into the nature of ontological claims and the debate on how to best interpret Carnapian views on the nature of metaphysics is still ongoing (see e.g., essays in Blatti and Lapointe 2016 for an overview on the recent state of the debate).
For the purposes of the present paper, I shall assume a particular reading of Carnapian meta-ontology. This interpretation has no claim to historical accuracy; its merits should be assessed only on the grounds of its usefulness in shedding light on the issue at hand. This reading has no claim to originality either as it is based on proposals put forward by Price (2009), Thomasson (2015, 2017) and Kraut (2016).
There are two basic tenets of the Carnapian approach to metaphysics as it is to be understood for the purposes of the present paper. The first is a claim that existence questions might be posed and answered in two ways. The first way is to pose an internal question: we adopt a “linguistic framework” and then, by way of empirical (or mathematical) inquiry, decide whether a certain specific object exists. In such a way, we might settle whether there are prime numbers greater than 700 (within the framework of arithmetic) or whether there are dodo birds (within the framework of biology). Such questions, however, are not the ones that metaphysicians are prone to ask: they are rather keen on external questions, which are concerned with the validity of whole frameworks. In such a way, we might try to ask, for example, if numbers exist at all, by questioning the validity of the whole number theoretic framework.
However, for Carnap external questions are not “theoretical” in the sense that there is no way an empirical or mathematical inquiry might allow us to answer them directly. These are pragmatic questions: we decide on pragmatic grounds whether to adopt a certain framework, or whether to discontinue using it. What is important for Carnap is that the decision is “not of a cognitive nature”. Still, it is usually “influenced by theoretical knowledge, just like any other deliberate decision concerning the acceptance of linguistic or other rules” (Carnap 1951).
Carnap sums up his position in the following manner:
“A question like: <<Are there (really) space-time points?>> is ambiguous. It may be meant as an internal question, in which case the affirmative answer is, of course, analytic and trivial. Or it may be meant in the external sense: <<Shall we introduce such and such forms into our language?>>. In this case it is not a theoretical but a practical question, a matter of decision rather than assertion, and hence the proposed formulation would be misleading. Or finally, it may be meant in the following sense: <<Are our experiences such that the use of the linguistic forms in question will be expedient and fruitful?>>” (Carnap 1951).
The second and potentially more exegetically controversial claim of the presently accepted version of neo-Carnapianism is that external questions should be read as being metalinguistic theses. The guiding idea is that when we make an existential claim—understood as an answer to an external ontological question—we are in fact making a normative metalinguistic proposal (this reading of Carnap is pursued by Price 2009, Kraut 2016 and Thomasson 2015, 2017, who bases her ideas also on Plunekett’s 2015 conception of metalinguistic negotiations). According to the picture in question, when we make an existential claim we mention certain terms and decide whether or not to employ them and the associated linguistic rules. The proponent of the negative answer to such a question is proposing not to use a given term, whilst the theorist who opts for the positive answer postulates that we make use of it.
Let us consider the question, asked in the external mode, of whether certain Xs exist. The theorist who answers in the negative makes a claim to the effect that we should eliminate the word “X” from our language and stop making reasoning according to inferential rules associated with the term “X”. A proponent of a positive answer would make an opposite claim that we should retain the term “X” in our language and in the relevant rules of usage.
This general picture might be easily adapted to the case of the debate between the realist and eliminativist about the reality of propositional mental states. This observation was made by Kraut:
“Consider a dispute about the reality of mental events and psychological properties. A Philosopher of Mind, impressed by considerations of explanatory/predictive power and systematic elegance, might wish to deploy a discursive framework that mobilizes the vocabulary and inferential resources of propositional attitude ascriptions. This commitment is expressed in her ontological claim that mental events and psychological properties exist. In contrast, her eliminativist opponent is committed to the adequacy of purely neurochemical explanatory resources, thereby leading him to deny any essential role to belief/desire attributions in adequate explanations of human behaviour. This ontological dispute about irreducibly mental events/properties is configured by Carnap* [i.e. Carnap as seen by Kraut] as a manifestation of conflicting commitments to the adoption of a specific discursive framework: viz., one that gives pride of place to causally efficacious and semantically evaluable internal states (Kraut 2016, 41)”.
Although the reading of Carnap which is pursued by Kraut is not the one I wish to fully endorse here, the general idea that the eliminativist thesis should be given a metalinguistic reading is worth pursuing. According to this proposal, the central eliminativist claim that there are no beliefs should be read as a normative metalinguistic claim that we should eliminate the term “belief” from our vocabulary along with assorted linguistic rules.
Kraut’s reading of ontological debates is, in my opinion, problematic in the context of the issue at hand because he explicitly claims that we should see normative statements as expressions of non-cognitive mental states (this is motivated by his commitment to classical expressivism). However, in my opinion, such commitment might be unwelcome if one wishes to pursue the Carnapian reading of the ontological debate about propositional attitudes. This is because, if one treats ontological claims as normative ones and one considers normative statements to be expressions of psychological stances, commitments or attitudes, then it seems that one must presuppose realism about psychological states in order to be able to make any ontological claim (see Kraut 2016, 54). However, this puts a putative Carnapian anti-realist about psychology in a tight spot, as they must on the one hand assume psychological realism and deny it on the other.
This problem might, however, be easily solved. The talk about “stances, commitments and attitudes” might be reinterpreted in non-psychological jargon because the psychological commitments of Kraut’s version of Carnapianism do not seem to be central to the Carnapian understanding of metaphysical disagreements. The notions of stances, commitments and attitudes might be translated into an inferentialist framework, which, interestingly, is already present in the writings of Price (see e.g., Price 2013, 31–32). In what follows, it will be assumed that external ontological claims, in Carnap’s sense, do not presuppose any substantial psychological commitments (this might go against original Carnap’s intentions, but, as has been said, the aim of the paper is not to provide a historically adequate reading of Carnap, but rather a model of broadly understood Carnapianism to help to solve the issue at hand).
Adapting such version of Carnapianism to the issue of the status of the eliminativist proposal allows the problem of representation to be solved as it frees us of any need to invoke the notion of representation in an explanation of eliminativism. An eliminativist, read in a Carnapian fashion, is someone who makes a normative proposal about the way we talk, and this is consistent with her anti-representationalist assumptions.
A theorist, who argues that there are no vehicles of “original intentionality” and, consequently, no substantial relation of representation between the mind and mind-independent reality, is still perfectly entitled to propose changes in the way we speak, even if these changes involve rejection of certain vocabularies. There is no problem for the eliminativist to make claims about the usage of language as denying that there is anything like intentionality does not amount to the obviously false claim that there are no patterns of linguistic usage. An eliminativist might reflect on the patterns of linguistic use and make reports about such facts. She might also put forward normative revisionary claims about how language should be used. Obviously, the proposal that we should eliminate belief-talk might not be justified by claims about the mismatch between folk psychology and “mind-independent reality”. However, such proposal might be justified pragmatically: an eliminativist is free to argue that changing from the folk psychological to the neuro-scientific idiom in the way we describe ourselves and other people might benefit us in one way or another.
Thus, there seems to be no need for an eliminativist to adopt a substantial conception of semantic notions such as truth or representation in order to be able to put forward the claim that there are no beliefs as this claim simply amounts to the thesis that we should discontinue using the term belief. If the eliminativist thesis is understood in the Carnapian fashion, then the eliminativist is not forced to make any representationalistic assumptions, as her claim is about the proposed changes in linguistic use and not about any word–world relations. In this way, it might be claimed that the problem of representation, which has seemingly motivated many sceptical assessments of eliminativism, is solved. This also shows that there is no deep problem of truth for eliminativism as adopting the deflationary approach to truth is everything that a theorist of eliminativist inclinations needs in order to coherently express the central claim of her theory.
Obviously, adopting a Carnapian approach to metametaphysics does not force anyone to become an anti-realist about propositional attitudes—it only shows that it is possible to do so. Whether it is an advisable option is another issue. Although it is not my aim in this paper to provide a definite answer to the question of whether we should embrace eliminativism (but only to defend the idea that this position might be expressed), some preliminary remarks are in order.
The question “should we eliminate the term belief and the associated inferential rules?” might be understood in two ways. The first is the question of whether we should discontinue to use them in the context of cognitive science. In other words, should we use notions such as belief when we try to construct a respectable scientific theory about the workings of the human cognitive system? The second question, should we discontinue using belief talk in ordinary life?
The distinction between these questions is present in John Collins’s discussion of “meta-scientific eliminativism” (Collins 2007). For Collins, there are two kinds of eliminativism about beliefs and content: he dubs one “futurological” and the other “meta-scientific”. Futurological eliminativism is the view that at some point in history, ordinary people will stop using the term “belief”. The scientific one is the view that mature sciences of cognition will not help themselves to such folk notions.
For Collins, only the second version of eliminativism is plausible. The futuristic one is based on the flawed assumption that showing that a certain concept is defective from the point of view of standards of scientific inquiry would (and should) lead to its elimination from our common parlance. According to Collins, the scientific credentials of a given concept do not determine its use in ordinary life, and it is hard to argue with this conclusion: many, concepts which have been eliminated from sciences like biology and chemistry, are still used in folk contexts.
The issue of whether mature cognitive sciences will use have use for the notion of belief is still an open question as there are important voices arguing for the claim that that folk psychological vocabulary is indispensable in serious scientific research (see e.g., Burge 2010). The issue seems hard to settle given the fact that contemporary cognitive science is still an actively developing field. Still, what might be safely claimed is that, despite the substantial opposition, eliminativism is a viable yet non-obligatory option in this area. Given the state of the evidence, we might grant as much that planning to dispense with folk psychological vocabulary in the scientific context is an admissible option, whereas in the context of folk talk, it remains a rather implausible one.
This conclusion leaves us with two questions: first, is Carnapian eliminativism really justified when applied to the discourse of cognitive sciences? Second, would such possible elimination be enough to make good of the claim that beliefs do not exist, pure and simple? There might be a temptation to say that even if it turned out that belief talk should be eliminated from the scientific discourse, it would be not enough to justify the claim that “beliefs do not exist” if belief talk were retained in the folk domain.
These are complicated issues, and fully addressing them would require a separate study. The present remarks are meant only to show what questions would need to be addressed should one try to actually argue for eliminativism in the Carnapian framework. The aims of this paper are more modest: I have tried to show how one could coherently express eliminativism in this framework, but arguments for actually adopting such an option still to need to be developed and properly assessed.