Eliminativism, Cosmopsychism, and Concluding Remarks

  • Jiri BenovskyEmail author
Part of the SpringerBriefs in Philosophy book series (BRIEFSPHILOSOPH)


The no-self view eliminates the self and it thus eliminates the combination problem involving subjects, but a more general eliminativism is needed if one wants to answer all versions of the combination problem. Cosmopsychism is a brand of monism which mirrors panpsychism. It then has to face the mirror versions of the combination problems. In this chapter, I discuss how these mirror views compare to each other.


Chalmers (2016, §6.1) says: “Wholesale eliminativism about subjects is not easy to stomach, especially for someone who is serious about phenomenal properties. These properties are defined as those characterizing what it is like to be a subject. And however they are defined, as properties they presumably need bearers, which might then be taken to be subjects.”

But, as we have seen in the preceding chapters, the no-self view does not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We have seen that, when dual-aspect-pan-proto-psychism is combined with an adequate view of mineness, understood as a first-order, non-relational, primitive and unanalysable aspect of experiences, we can avoid the hard combination problem, while providing an account of continuity, unity, and subjectivity, without the need to postulate a reified subject understood as being a bearer of experiences. In this way, dual-aspect-pan-proto-psychism can also avoid a possible threat of brute emergentism—if no self is needed, no explanation of how it emerges from (proto-)mental aspects of fundamental entities is needed either.

More generally speaking, one can be a dual-aspect-pan-proto-psychist without embracing a more general brand of eliminativism. That is, one can endorse the no-self view, while accepting the existence of brains and toothaches. But then, even if the easy combination problem is solved (see Chap.  4, §1), and even if the hard combination problem concerning subjects is solved (by embracing dual-aspect-pan-proto-psychism combined with the type of no-self view defended in the previous chapter), there still is the general hard combination problem—which is a problem for everybody—concerning the relation between macro entities and the fundamental entities they are made of. The problem is not harder for the one who believes that these entities are phental, rather than material. Dialectically speaking, the dual-aspect-pan-proto-psychist is not in a worse position than everybody else. Indeed, this kind of a combination problem is just the well-known old problem of composition. This is where eliminativism comes in as being the only genuine solution to all types of combination problems, including this one. In “Eliminativism, objects, and personsthe virtues of non-existence” (2018, Routledge), I defend a general full-blown eliminativist worldview (including the no-self view as well), and this is not the place to provide that defence again.1 But the core idea is really very straightforward: we can eliminate the combination problem, by eliminating (the need for) combination. That is, I prefer to say in this case, we should eliminate composition. In this way, the slogan goes: “no (macro) objects, no worries”. Again, this general view requires a thorough defence, but one that I cannot repeat here. But it is worth mentioning here that eliminativism is not bound to endorse the view that there are ‘simples arranged X-wise’. Indeed, eliminativism is typically put as the view that there are no tables but that there are simples arranged tablewise. But eliminativism is well compatible with different types of fundamental ontologies, including gunk ontologies (see Benovsky 2018, Part I, Chap. 4), as well as with the idea that the fundamental entities are properties rather than simple micro-objects (see Heller 1998, 2008). As Le Bihan (2013, 2015) argues, it would be a mistake to think that the eliminativist has to say that the fundamental entities (those that are ‘arranged X-wise’) have to be particles. Indeed, according to a standard reading of quantum field theory there are no persisting particles, since the number of particles does not remain constant through time and they should rather be understood as excitations of fields (see also Le Bihan and Barton forthcoming2). The point I want to highlight here is that the ‘simples’ that the eliminativist relies on can be of various kinds indeed (perhaps fundamental properties, perhaps excitations of fields, or something else)—relevantly to our current debate, they do not need to be understood as simples in the sense of material particles. Eliminativism itself is simply silent on the choice of the fundamental ontology, and it is compatible with many different options. The fundamental entities can very well be understood, relevantly to our purpose, as fundamental proto-phental properties (for instance). In the eliminativist’s spirit, one can then say that there is no (phental) toothache, but that there are proto-phental fundamental entities arranged toothachewise. Exit the combination/composition problem.


Cosmopsychism is a brand of monism which mirrors panpsychism. The monist idea (careful: monism should not be confused here with dual-aspect monism) is that the basic building blocks of the universe are not micro fundamental entities, but rather ‘they’ are the one and only biggest entity—the universe itself. The point is thus to think about the universe not in a bottom-up way where it is built from tiny building blocks, but rather to conceive the universe as being itself the (only) basic entity. When combined with panpsychism, we get then the idea that the universe itself is fundamentally conscious. In short, we get here a top-down approach, instead of a bottom-up approach. My toothache (let us say, leaving eliminativism aside for a moment, that it exists), under cosmopsychism, is to be derived from the one and only fundamental universal consciousness (instead of being a result of an arrangement of micro fundamental components). To understand this proposal better, let us have a closer look at what monism is—indeed, there are two main variants of monism, relevantly different.

It may seem that monism is in strong opposition to eliminativism since according to monism the world exists (it is, indeed, the only thing that exists), while according to eliminativism the world does not exist—in the eliminativist’s view, there merely are fundamental entities arranged worldwise. But perhaps the disagreement is here much less important than what it may look like. Indeed, both views agree that there are no chairs, no trees, and no human bodies. The eliminativist will say that there are fundamental entities arranged chairwise, treewise, and bodywise, while the monist will say that the world is locally chair-ish, tree-ish, and body-ish. In this sense, the two views agree on the most central issue: there are no ordinary macroscopic objects. Thus, instead of being deadly enemies, the two views seem to mirror each other (Schaffer 2007; Le Bihan 20163 discuss the idea that the two views might be equivalent).

To be more precise and to get clearer on what monism is here and on how it relates to eliminativism and to panpsychism, it is important to make a distinction between two brands of monism: priority monism and existence monism. The first brand of monism is recently defended by Schaffer (2010, 2014), and this is a view that’s quite different from eliminativism. As all brands of monism do, priority monism claims that only one object exists—the universe. But there is an important subtlety here. Indeed, according to priority monism only the universe exists fundamentally speaking, but it has parts. The parts of the universe are not fundamental, but they exist: the standard way to put this is that they exist in a derivative sense. Priority monism thus endorses two ways of existence, the fundamental and the derivative, and provides a hierarchical ontology view. I am not sure that I understand what derivative existence is supposed to mean, and I think that I can only understand one sense of existence. But this is not the place to object to priority monism, rather the point I want to emphasize here is that this is very different from what eliminativists say. In the eliminativist view, there is only one way of existing, and there are no composite objects—so, there is no relation of composition, unlike under priority monism where there are relations of parthood (that is, relations of decomposition).

Existence monism is the type of monism which mirrors eliminativism. This brand of monism also claims that there exists only one object, the world, ‘the blobject’ as Horgan and Potrč call it (see Horgan and Potrč 2000, 2008, 2012), and that’s it. This object has a complex structure and is locally varied (say, locally tree-ish), but this does not mean that it has parts, not even derivatively. Existence monism, like eliminativism, does not endorse any kind of notion of derivative existence nor any kind of relation of composition/decomposition. In order to be able to talk about ordinary objects like chairs or trees, like eliminativism, existence monism uses a paraphrase strategy (“The universe is locally chair-ish”). Existence monism, unlike priority monism, then genuinely mirrors eliminativism, from the functional point of view (I’ll leave open here the question whether these two views are perhaps merely terminological variants4).

With all of this in mind, especially existence monism, let us come back to cosmopsychism. Cosmopsychism is a view that mirrors panpsychism and it is then not a surprise that it inherits the mirror of the combination problem. As Chalmers (2016, §5.2) puts it: “These views have to deal with a reverse version of the combination problem, which we might call the decomposition problem. How does macroexperience give rise to microexperience? For example, how does a single subject give rise to multiple dependent subjects? How do macroqualities yield microqualities, and how does macroexperiential structure yield microexperiential structure? These problems seem just as hard as the original combination problem.” Can we appeal here to similar—mirroring—solutions to those we have been able to use in the case of panpsychism?

When it comes to the easy combination problem (see Chap.  4, §1), we can. Instead of a view of how smaller (but still macro) experiences can combine to give rise to a rich and complex experience, such as the one you have when you enjoy a gastronomic meal, we’ll have the same or very similar view about the relationship between more or less complex local aspects of the universe. The explanation is available in terms of composition or in terms of decomposition, in a similar way.

When it comes to the hard combination problem—the general one—as we have seen, it is a problem for everybody except for the eliminativist; indeed, it amounts to the old problem of composition. The priority monist is in the same boat as everybody, since it recognizes the existence of macroscopic objects like tables or trees, even if only derivatively. The existence monist, on the other hand, can have a strategy that is very close to the eliminativist’s indeed. Thus, existence monism combined with panpsychism can provide a version of cosmopsychism which could, at least in principle, use the same kind of resources as eliminativism (in a mirroring way), to face this version of the combination problem. If the cosmopsychist adopted here a dual-aspect monism strategy, she could then explain the relationship between the one macro phental entity (the phental universe) and its phental local aspects in a similar way the eliminativist provides an account of the (non-existent) toothache in terms of fundamental phental elements arranged toothachewise. Under this version of cosmopsychism, there are no (phental) toothaches, but the universe is locally phentally toothache-ish.

What about the cosmopsychist who would not want to embrace eliminativism about toothaches? This type of cosmopsychism could either be a version of panpsychism combined with priority monism (instead of existence monism) or a version of cosmopsychism combined with realism about tables, toothaches, and the like. We have seen in the case of dual-aspect-pan-proto-psychism that it can work even without the need of embracing a full-blown general eliminativist view. The crucial step here was to adopt pan-proto-psychism instead of panpsychism, to avoid the subjects-summing problem. Cosmopsychism alone would be in the same trouble as standard panpsychism: how would a single subject—the universe—give rise to a lot of smaller subjects, such as ourselves? How could one point of view divide into multiple smaller points of views? The problem here is as deadly as in the case of standard panpsychism. Can the cosmopsychist adopt then the same strategy as the standard panpsychist and embrace cosmo-proto-psychism? In short, can cosmomentality be a protomentality? That is, can the universe itself be understood as being merely proto-mental (proto-phental), and as not being conscious—but in such a way that it can be locally such that there are local conscious experiences?

We are so accustomed to think of micro small fundamental building blocks to give rise to bigger richer structures that it is hard to think the other way around. In short, the bottom-up strategy is just much more natural than the top-down approach. However, if one grants the pan-proto-psychist the idea that proto-phental constituents can give rise to phental entities, and if one accepts the monist’s idea that it makes sense to say that there is only one object—the universe—that has local aspects that are X-ish, then I do not see any knock-down argument that would prevent cosmo-proto-psychism to work in the same (that is, mirror) way as pan-proto-psychism (both, of course, under dual-aspect monism). However, for the same reasons, I do not see any advantage to being a dual-aspect-cosmo-proto-psychist rather than a dual-aspect-pan-proto-psychist. Perhaps, at the end of the day, these two views are merely terminological variants. If so, that would be a welcome result, since what really matters is this: (i) dual-aspect monism, (ii) the ‘proto’ component in both views, and (iii) the no-self view—these are the three crucial steps that need to be taken in order to have a well-behaved solution to the mind-body problem and the combination problems, whether in the case of panpsychism or cosmopsychism. Perhaps only by habit, or perhaps for aesthetic reasons, I like best the explanatory power and elegance of bottom-up dual-aspect-pan-proto-psychism.

Sam Coleman does not have in mind exactly the same view I do, but about panpsychism he says, in a poetic but relevant way: “It has been said that austere reductive physicalism is suited to those with a taste for desert landscapes. Still, from the panpsychist perspective such physicalism, along with dualism and emergentism, all seem committed to discomfitingly abrupt ontological inclines—spots where the material landscape of a sudden manifests mentality, having just previously shown not the least sign of doing so. On these views consciousness irrupts onto the scenery unexpectedly, in sharply jutting outcrops. Panpsychists might then be described as those theorists with a taste for only gently graded landscapes. They decline to scale the sheer slopes of sudden mentality” (Coleman 2014, p. 23).

Indeed, one of the virtues of dual-aspect-pan-proto-psychism is to avoid emergentism, where mentality pops out into existence ‘at some point’, in a sudden and very-hard-to-understand way. This combination of various views and arguments—namely, dual-aspect monism, pan-proto-psychism, the no-self view, and a view of subjectivity based in the notion of mineness—provides a picture that, although it is made out of these different elements, gives rise to a general worldview that is elegantly simple and uniform (Eliminativism is then the optional cherry on the cake, allowing for a complete solution to all variants of the combination problem). Granted, in some places, the answers provided here rely on a primitive notion—for instance, mineness is taken as being a primitive notion of first-order non-analysable subjectivity. But this and the other primitives are plausible ones, and if we take them on board, we can end up with a general ontological picture of the universe which provides an understanding of the relation between mind and matter following quite naturally from it—the mind-body problem is then not that hard any more. The powerful simplicity of the view lies in the idea that the universe and its fundamental components are phental, and that there are no sudden irruptions of mentality or of a self. There is no difference in kind between the realm of the micro and the realm of the macro, and no sharp discontinuity between them. Perhaps, rather than a desert landscape, it’s like watching a calm ocean—it moves and its surface is not perfectly flat, but it’s smooth and gently flowing. In short, although not bearing a very elegant name, dual-aspect-pan-proto-psychism, is a very beautiful view, and that’s perhaps the best reason to endorse it.5


  1. 1.

    Various well-known versions of eliminativism can be found—sometimes under the label “nihilism”, which I take here to be a synonym—in Unger (1979), Van Inwagen (1990), Merricks (2001), and Heller (1990, 2008). Korman (2015) provides an excellent critical discussion.

  2. 2.

    As they put it: “According to quantum field theory, the basic units seem to be excitations of fields, and several problems appear for an ontology of particles in this context. For instance, the number of field excitations seems not to be constant through time and, therefore, if we want to identify particles to excitations of fields, we must accept that the number of particles within a physical system is not constant through time” (Le Bihan and Barton forthcoming).

  3. 3.

    Eliminativism about ordinary objects can be an aspect of a top-down view of the universe in which what is real is the cosmos, or the stuff. Here, ordinary objects are substituted by proper parts of the cosmos, the stuff or spacetime, resulting from a mereological relation of decomposition […]. Let us call this position ‘top-down eliminativism’. Eliminativism can also be construed as a bottom-up approach. According to bottom-up eliminativism, objects are substituted by collections of mereological simple entities, resulting from a relation of composition. […] Actually, I believe that bottom-up and top-down eliminativisms are two faces of the same coin: the two views are different descriptions of the very same universe (Le Bihan 2016, pp. 2155–2156, my italics).

  4. 4.

    In the conclusion of Benovsky (2018), I discuss this in more detail.

  5. 5.

    See “Meta-metaphysics” (2016, Springer) where I defend the view that aesthetic properties of metaphysical theories are crucially relevant for theory-choice.


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© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of FribourgFribourgSwitzerland
  2. 2.University of NeuchâtelNeuchâtelSwitzerland

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