Normativism and Mental Causation by Justin Thomas Tiehen, B. A. Dissertation

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6.4 Eliminativist Functionalism

Again, though Kim entertains the disjunction identity theory, he never commits himself to it. Another option he entertains is eliminativism about mental properties. Kim’s flirtation with eliminativism is meant to be of a piece with his claim, quoted above, that “what happens with M, what we say about the status of M, doesn’t really matter.” It doesn’t even matter if M is eliminated outright from our ontology, by Kim’s lights, so long as every instantiation of M is identical to an instantiation of Pi for some i. Just as we asked above regarding the disjunction identity theory, though, we can ask now whether any form of eliminativism will license such property instantiation identifications. If there really isn’t any such thing as the property M, then how can we identify instantiations of M with instantiations of physical properties that really do exist?

It may be that the sort of eliminativism Kim has in mind is one that looks just like the disjunction identity theory except that it operates with a sparse conception according to which only natural properties properly qualify as properties. The idea would be that the disjunction identity theory is roughly correct, but we don’t call things like (PH or PM) “properties.” If this is how he is thinking of eliminativism, it would explain why Kim regards the difference between preserving mental properties within our ontology (by identifying them with disjunctive properties) and eliminating them outright as something that is not nearly as deep as it might initially sound. However, I want to offer Kim an alternative form of eliminativism, one that seems to accord with much of what he says while differing enough from the disjunction identity theory that it may offer some non-trivial advantages over it.


When we speak of property instantiations a scope distinction can be drawn. Compare the following two things.

(i): (My favorite property) instantiations

(ii): My favorite (property instantiations)
If I have no favorite property then there will be nothing to which (i) refers. However, even if I don’t have a favorite property there may be certain property instantiations I like a lot, instantiations which are my favorites. If so, then (ii) will refer even while (i) fails to do so. On analogy, consider the following distinction.

(iii) (Mental property) instantiations

(iv) Mental (property instantiations)
If there are no mental properties, then (iii) will fail to refer. However, just as in the relation between (i) and (ii), (iv) could successfully refer even while (iii) fails to do so. That is, there could be mental (property instantiations) even if there were no mental properties to be instantiated. Here is one way this might work.

Typical functionalisms attempt to provide accounts of the nature of mental properties. However, a functionalism that bypassed mental properties entirely and instead focused directly on mental property instantiations – that is, on mental (property instantiations) – seems coherent. So for instance, instead of trying to say what pain is, this alternative functionalism would try to say what pains are. More specifically, it would specify pains as follows: something is a pain just in case it is an instantiation of some property whose instantiations are typically caused by tissue damage and whose instantiations typically cause wincing. Just as I can have favorite property instantiations without having a favorite property, proponents of this alternative functionalism will maintain that there are pains even though there is no such property as pain, no property common to all pained entities. Call this view eliminativist functionalism.

I do not know of an author who has explicitly advanced this form of eliminativist functionalism. Realizer-state functionalists have occasionally objected to the idea that there is any viable form of functionalism that licenses the (token) identity of mental and physical events without licensing the identity of mental physical properties.228 However, the arguments they have advanced do not touch the present proposal, for they operate on the assumption that any form of functionalism which eschews property identities will make no appeal to properties at all. Eliminativist functionalism as I have described it unabashedly appeals to properties however. It just doesn’t appeal to mental properties.


The eliminativist functionalist will agree both with the disjunction identity theorist and with the realizer-state functionalist on which events are pain for all possible events. So then, how does her view differ from these other two views? Unlike the disjunction identity theorist, the eliminativist functionalist is not committed to holding that disjunctive properties like (PH or PM) are causally efficacious. Thus, unlike the disjunction identity theorist we’ve been considering, she can reject the (DPIP) and the thesis that some unnatural properties are causally efficacious. Unlike the realizer-state functionalist, the eliminativist functionalist can agree with the vast majority of philosophies of mind by denying that there is any such thing as pain-in-humans or pain-in-Martians. Of course, she won’t deny that PH and PM are real properties. What she denies is just that these physical properties are mental properties. There are no mental properties of any sort, on her view.


Eliminativist functionalism does not face all the same problems that realizer-state functionalism and the disjunction identity theory do, but it does have one major problem in common with these views. Eliminativist functionalism denies the existence of mental properties; a fortiori, it denies the existence of natural and multiply realizable mental properties, just as the other two views do.229 Why this is a problem is what I will try to explain in Chapter 7.

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