Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Perugina and eliminative materialism

If you’re familiar with the ‘Baci’ candies – chocolate truffles manufactured by the Italian brand Perugina – you know that each truffle is wrapped into a tin foil together with a note that contains some cheesy quote about love or something similar. As Perugina website says, ‘these love notes are inseparable from the brand itself, that’s been passing on messages of love, affection and friendship since Baci Perugina was founded in 1922’.

Every note is full of words like love, heart, soul, etc. Just to give you an idea, here’re a few examples: ‘Friends are those with whom we do not fear to open our hearts’ Aelred of Rievaulx; ‘Love is a force that overcomes all obstacles’ Augustine of Hippo; ‘Let’s sin together, it’s good for the soul’ Vladimir Mayakovsky; ‘Love is what allows you to mend your wings and reach happiness’ Plato.

Quotes so cheesy that they instantly induce a gag reflex – what a brilliant thing  to put on a chocolate packaging! But jokes aside, the phenomenon of Perugina illustrates how wide-spread and taken for granted the numerous concepts from the area of folk psychology – or, common-sense psychology – really are.

Terms like love, heart, or soul – I remember how I didn’t like the lessons of literature in school just because the teacher tended to interpret everything through the lens of these exact words, the concepts I could never entirely relate to. Growing older I learnt that a good antidote to any BS spreading via mainstream discourse is the fundamental philosophy. Or, sometimes not so fundamental. The area in the philosophy of mind called eliminative materialism emerged in the 70s – its main advocates, Paul and Patricia Churchland, claim that our perception of mental states is practically false, and many concepts produced by it would soon be discarded in light of the developing neuroscience. The very existence of these concepts has to be revised, and it’s very likely that many of them will be rendered outdated.

Churchlands have a point. So far the evidence in support of eliminative materialism has been growing. In the past century we’ve been moderately successful at eliminating many outdated concepts from the public discourse. God is dead, and no one treats the concept of sin seriously. Heart is no longer viewed as the organ that controls our emotions – they’re now attributed to hormones and the neural system. What’s the current take on love? It’s nothing more interesting, but the nature’s trick to force humans into population reproduction. Mind and consciousness? Just a bundle of sensory perceptions.

But eliminative materialism goes even further, and targets such concepts as thought, desire, hate, belief, joy, intention and other terms related to human mental states. What constitutes the bulk of folk psychology, and is being propagated on school literature lessons will soon be properly examined by cognitive science. Churchlands claim that many of these terms will fail to find an equivalent in the physical world – or, scientifically speaking, a neural basis, or neural correlates located in the brain.

Once again, just like the concept of phlogiston (substance allegedly responsible for fire combustion) was discarded and eliminated by modern chemists, and the concept of luminiferous aether (a medium for the propagation of light) – by modern physicists. Similarly, the idea of being possessed by demons was eliminated from the modern psychopathology. Development of science has clearly liberated us from folk physics and folk chemistry. Same way the advanced neuroscience will eventually rid us of the folk psychology.

As Paul and Patricia Churchland write: ‘Why should we suppose introspection to be infallible when our perception is so clearly fallible in every other way?’. Even though it might seem obvious to us that we have a mind, a soul, a subjective experience (aka qualia), it might be as wrong as the seemingly obvious perception that Sun revolves around the Earth. Poorly defined, nothing more than an introspection illusion driven by peculiarities of our language.

For instance, take the common-sense concept of a thought: a thought is considered to be a linguistic expression that has the same structure and syntax as a statement in the language. According to neuroscience though, what we perceive as a thought actually correlates with spikes in activity of large regions of the brain, scattered, parallel and distributed. This process has more to do with vector-to-vector computation and parallel processing rather than with linguistic sentences. The example that Churchlands use in one of their essays is about a man from a primitive tribe who first got an idea to define a thought, and due to the lack of better terms called it an unspoken sentence. Since then, this definition was taken for granted – it had at least some explanatory value, which was better than nothing. This example shows that psychology is just an empirical theory, and even though it might have some explanatory and predictive power, it’s not a guarantee of its factual truthfulness.

Anyway, even if a thought is proven to be an illusion, mind and soul – for sure are. So if Perugina wants to undertake a more credible approach to its notes on love, soul and happiness, it should rather print the quotes like the ones below. Something about the soul? As Daniel Dennet said, ‘Soul is made of neurons. It’s made of lots of tiny robots. And we can actually explain the structure and operation of that kind of soul, whereas an eternal, immortal, immaterial soul is just a metaphysical rug under which you sweep your embarrassment for not having any explanation.’ Thoughts on love and happiness? Should be clearly interpreted through the lense of biology. As Joe Quirck wrote, ‘Genes aren’t designed to make us happy. They design us to make more copies of themselves’. Perugina should stop musing on the outdated notion of romantic love as it’s clearly not something that should be strived for: ‘How much needless despair has been caused by a series of biological mismatches, a misalignment of the hormones and pheromones? As a species we’re pathetic that way: imperfectly monogamous.’ – wrote Margaret Atwood. Doesn’t sound like something that desirable anymore.

Anyway, I genuinely hope I’m not the only person out there who can get seriously triggered by chocolate truffles.

I write about cats and theories. About the blog »