141 of 148 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Caution Is the Order of the Day
Not since I read Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini's book, What Darwin Got Wrong (which, although this puts me in the minority, I happened to have enjoyed), have I been witness to such a comprehensive and thorough debunking of what passes for mainstream science. Sadly for me, Professor Churchland managed to slay several of my favorite thinkers pet projects:...
Published on March 17, 2011 by Amazon Customer
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Do not waste your time
I believe that neuroscientific part book is written fairly well. However I'd like Churchland to elaborate more on neuronal networks. I think it would made her argument stronger and easier to understand.
On the other hand all philosophical stuff in the book is horrible. She utterly failed to defend possibility of naturalizing ethics. Moreover, she told almost...
Published 13 days ago by Mateusz
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141 of 148 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Caution Is the Order of the Day,
Not since I read Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini's book, What Darwin Got Wrong (which, although this puts me in the minority, I happened to have enjoyed), have I been witness to such a comprehensive and thorough debunking of what passes for mainstream science. Sadly for me, Professor Churchland managed to slay several of my favorite thinkers pet projects: Jonathan Haidt [The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom], Giacomo Rizzolatti [Mirrors in the Brain: How Our Minds Share Actions, Emotions, and Experience], and Marco Iacoboni [Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others]. What's more, Professor Churchland excoriates the likes of Immanual Kant, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls and Peter Singer, to name a handful. And she does all this with science and logic on her side. She states from the beginning that, "My aim here is to explain what is probably true about our social nature, and what that involves in terms of the neural platform for moral behavior. As will become plain, the platform is only the platform; it is not the whole story of human moral values. Social practices, and culture more generally, are not my focus here, although they are, of course, hugely important in the values people live by. Additionally, particular moral dilemmas, such as when a war is a just war, or whether inheritance taxes are fair, are not the focus here."
Professor Churchland begins, rightly so, from the source (i. e. the brain): "The hypothesis on offer is that what we humans call ethics or morality is a four-dimensional scheme for social behavior that is shaped by interlocking brain processes: (1) caring (rooted in attachment to kin and kith and care for their well-being), (2) recognition of others' psychological states (rooted in the benefits of predicting the behavior of others), (3) problem-solving in a social context (e.g., how we should distribute scarce goods, settle land disputes; how we should punish the miscreants), and (4) learning social practices (by positive and negative reinforcement, by imitation, by trial and error, by various kinds of conditioning, and by analogy). The simplicity of this framework does not mean its form, variations, and neural mechanisms are simple. On the contrary, social life is stunningly complex, as is the brain that supports our social lives." She goes on to state that, "The main hypothesis of this book, that morality originates in the neurobiology of attachment and bonding, depends on the idea that the oxytocin-vasopressin network in mammals can be modified to allow care to be extended to others beyond one's litter of juveniles, and that, given that network as a backdrop, learning and problem-solving are recruited to managing one's social life. One might predict, therefore, that cooperation and trust are sensitive to OXT levels. This raises an important question: can changes in OXT levels affect human cooperative behavior?" (The answer is yes.) She surveys, in nine brilliant chapters, the real roots of human morality; "Depending on ecological conditions and fitness considerations, strong caring for the well-being of offspring has in some mammalian species extended further to encompass kin or mates or friends or even strangers, as the circle widens. This widening of other-caring in social behavior marks the emergence of what eventually flowers into morality." There is also great discussion of the roles that genes, mimicry, and neurological disorders play. A great companion piece to this book might be V. S. Ramachandran's book, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human.
In conclusion, Professor Churchland has written what amounts to both a critique of current trends in moral philosophy as well as a foundation for further research. Indeed, I found Churchland's compact book applicable to a great many issues, such as: resource scarcity [Living within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos], how the brain makes predictions and performs valuations [Your Brain Is (Almost) Perfect: How We Make Decisions], behavioral economics (and the games they play: Ultimatum, Dictator, and Trust) [Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life (Economic Learning and Social Evolution)]. By the time she reaches Chapter 9: Religion and Morality, I thought it was simply a bonus - "Morality seems to me to be a natural phenomenon - constrained by the forces of natural selection, rooted in neurobiology, shaped by the local ecology, and modified by cultural developments." I love this book. To be sure, you gotta love anyone who makes positive examples out of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
77 of 84 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Skeptic's Skeptic,
This review is from: Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality (Kindle Edition)
Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality by Patricia S. Churchland
"Braintrust..." is the latest book from self proclaimed neurophilosopher Patricia S. Churchland, a fitting term for the accomplished author and philosopher. This book is about answering questions regarding moral values from a neuroscientist's point of view. Churchland uses a scientific sound approach to not only seek such answers but to tell us what we don't know about the brain and its relation with morality. This 288-page book is composed of the following eight chapters: 1. Introduction, 2. Brain-Based Values, 3. Caring and Caring For, 4. Cooperating and Trusting, 5. Networking: Genes, Brains, and Behavior, 6. Skills for a Social Life, 7. Not as a Rule, and 8. Religion and Morality.
1. An accessible, well-written and well-researched book.
2. The Churchland name might as well be synonymous with neuroscience. Mrs. Churchland an accomplished philosopher herself is married to renowned neuroscientist Paul Churchland and has a son and daughter who are also neuroscientists. As a philosopher and with the aforementioned background, she has the best tools to write such wonderful books.
3. Great use of the most current scientific evidence and theories to answer the aforementioned profound questions. Many scientific studies spread across this book.
4. Great use of illustrations.
5. Professor Churchland is a skeptic's skeptic. What she does best is keeping science grounded to the facts. Scientists are human too and even they commit the fallacy of jumping to conclusions. Professor Churchland throughout the book states specifically when she feels that is the case and does so with compelling scientific evidence. By far the strongest suit of this book.
6. The importance of oxytocin in the evolution of mammalian brains.
7. The neural platform for morality established. Excellent.
8. Once again, mere speculations are put in their proper place.
9. The dynamics of cultural evolution.
10. The importance of oxytocin (OXT) and vasopressin (AVP) in the female mammalian brain.
11. Honestly, where would we be without evolution?
12. The interesting mechanisms of mate attachments.
13. You gotta' love bonobos.
14. The relations between genes and behavior, a many-to-many proposition.
15. The following statement captures one of the recurring themes of this book, "Speculations are of course useful in inspiring experiments, and are not to be discouraged. The point is, I prefer not buy into one, or be asked to, until some results bear upon its truth."
16. Moral claims hammered unmercifully.
18. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in the same book? Get out of here.
19. Mirror neurons in a totally different light.
20. What we know about intentions.
21. Some studies debunked.
22. Why we like imitation.
23. The Golden Rule in detail, interesting and unique take.
24. Consequentialism and utility.
25. A reality based morality.
26. Moore's theory debunked. Another one bites the dust.
27. "Whatever it is that makes something good or just right is rooted in the nature of humans and the society we make, not in the nature of the gods we invent." Excellent quote.
28. Extensive notes and a thorough bibliography.
29. Links work great, thank you Kindle.
30. An overall good read.
1. The book did an awesome job of telling us what we don't know about the brain and its relation to morality. I just felt it didn't do enough to tell me what we do know. It's the main reason I didn't give it five stars.
2. Oh I wanted so badly to have Professor Churchland go after the soul. The appetizer she provided was delicious but I wanted the entree.
3. I wanted more conviction on the things that we do know. A little more passion.
4. The book can be a little dry at times, especially when caught up in game examples.
In summary, I gained a lot of valuable knowledge from this book but I clearly wanted more. Neuroscience is indeed a very young field and there is so much more that we need to learn. Churchland clearly objects to scientists jumping to conclusions without meeting the burden of proof. At the other side, she makes it clear that morality is biologically based and uses current scientific studies to back her arguments. An important book indeed.
Recommendations:, "The Brain and the Meaning of Life" by Paul Thagard, "Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique" by Michael S. Gazzaniga, "Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality" by Laurence Tancredi, "The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values" by Sam Harris and "The Myth of Free Will, Revised & Expanded Edition" by Cris Evatt.
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A FANTASTIC BOOK!,
If you truly want to understand morality, you could not do better than to start with this book.
I've always had problems with philosophy. I read one school's literature, and it seems to make sense. Then I read the debunking of the first school by another school, and that makes sense too, although there always seems to be something that leaves me groping. I never realized before I read Dr. Churchland's book that what has been bothering me all along is that many previous approaches to philosophy haven't been grounded on any real understanding of how the brain actually works.
I've been especially fascinated over the years by whether there is an innate sense of human morality. I've found previous approaches to this issue to be unsatisfactory--based on simplistic, unrealistic experiments that didn't start from "first principals"--that is, how the brain is structured an organized. Dr. Churchland's careful explanation of the anatomy and chemistry of the brain, how that anatomy and chemistry might support moral issues, was marvelous science writing--simple, direct, and marvelously to the point.
Some of her points are particularly important, and worth noting here:
* The moral cases of the world are typically resolved by constraint-satisfaction. (pg 184)
* Unhitched from the neurobiology of sociality and social learning, conscience, as a metaphysical entity with moral knowledge, loses its footing.( pg 193)
* There is no moral heaven where platonic truths reside.(pg 181)
* Counting on rationality to underpin morality is mistaken. (pg 175)
* The claim that essentially all societies espouse the Golden Rule is misleading. Some societies have the negative version, where we are asked NOT to do harm; the other is a positive version--a "do gooder" rule that urges us to go out and do for others that which we think is good--which can sometimes have alarming consequences (pg 171)
* In general, decision-making is a constraint-satisfaction process and when it goes well, we say that rationality has prevailed. (pg 23)
If you are interested in moral issues, or want to see important philosophical issues treated in a unique and enlightening new way, you could not do better than to read this marvelous book.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Where do morals come from?,
Review of "Braintrust. What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality", by Patricia S. Churchland
The question of "where morals come from" has exercised philosophers, theologians and many others for millennia. It has lately, like many other questions previously addressed only through armchair rumination, become addressable empirically, through the combined approaches of modern neuroscience, genetics, psychology, anthropology and many other disciplines. From these approaches a naturalistic framework is emerging to explain the biological origins of moral behaviour. From this perspective, morality is neither objective nor transcendent - it is the pragmatic and culture-dependent expression of a set of neural systems that have evolved to allow our navigation of complex human social systems.
"Braintrust", by Patricia S. Churchland, surveys the findings from a range of disciplines to illustrate this framework. The main thesis of the book is grounded in the approach of evolutionary psychology but goes far beyond the just-so stories of which that field is often accused by offering not just a plausible biological mechanism to explain the foundations of moral behaviour, but one with strong empirical support.
The thrust of her thesis is as follows:
Moral behaviour arose in humans as an extension of the biological systems involved in recognition and care of mates and offspring. These systems are evolutionarily ancient, encoded in our genome and hard-wired into our brains. In humans, the circuits and processes that encode the urge to care for close relatives can be co-opted and extended to induce an urge to care for others in an extended social group. These systems are coupled with the ability of humans to predict future consequences of our actions and make choices to maximise not just short-term but also long-term gain. Moral decision-making is thus informed by the biology of social attachments but is governed by the principles of decision-making more generally. These entail not so much looking for the right choice but for the optimal choice, based on satisfying a wide range of relevant constraints, and assigning different priorities to them.
This does not imply that morals are innate. It implies that the capacity for moral reasoning and the predisposition to moral behaviour are innate. Just as language has to be learned, so do the codes of moral behaviour, and, also like language, moral codes are culture-specific, but constrained by some general underlying principles. We may, as a species, come pre-wired with certain biological imperatives and systems for incorporating them into decisions in social situations, but we are also pre-wired to learn and incorporate the particular contingencies that pertain to each of us in our individual environments, including social and cultural norms.
This framework raises an important question, however - if morals are not objective or transcendent, then why does it feel like they are? This is after all, the basis for all this debate - we seem to implicitly feel things as being right or wrong, rather than just intellectually being aware that they conform to or violate social norms. The answer is that the systems of moral reasoning and conscience tap into, or more accurately emerge from ancient neural systems grounded in emotion, in particular in attaching emotional value or valence to different stimuli, including the imagined consequences of possible actions.
This is, in a way, the same as asking why does pain feel bad. Couldn't it work simply by alerting the brain that something harmful is happening to the body, which should therefore be avoided? A rational person could then take an action to avoid the painful stimulus or situation. Well, first, that does not sound like a very robust system - what if the person ignored that information? It would be far more adaptive to encourage or enforce the avoidance of the painful stimulus by encoding it as a strong urge, forcing immediate and automatic attention to a stimulus that should not be ignored and that should be given high priority when considering the next action. Even better would be to use the emotional response to also tag the memory of that situation as something that should be avoided in the future. Natural selection would favour genetic variants that increased this type of response and select against those that decoupled painful stimuli from the emotional valence we normally associate with them (they feel bad!).
In any case, this question is approached from the wrong end, as if humans were designed out of thin air and the system could ever have been purely rational. We evolved from other animals without reason (or with varying degrees of problem-solving faculties). For these animals to survive, neural systems are adapted to encode urges and beliefs in such a way as to optimally control behaviour. Attaching varying levels of emotional valence to different types of stimuli offers a means to prioritise certain factors in making complex decisions (i.e., those factors most likely to affect the survival of the organism or the dissemination of its genes).
For humans, these important factors include our current and future place in the social network. In the circumstances under which modern humans evolved, and still to a large extent today, our very survival and certainly our prosperity depend crucially on how we interact and on the social structures that have evolved from these interactions. We can't rely on tooth and claw for survival - we rely on each other. Thus, the reason moral choices are tagged with strong emotional valence is because they evolved from systems designed for optimal control of behaviour. Or, despite this being a somewhat circular argument, the reason they feel right or wrong is because it is adaptive to have them feel right or wrong.
Churchland fleshes out this framework with a detailed look at the biological systems involved in social attachments, decision-making, executive control, mind-reading (discerning the beliefs and intentions of others), empathy, trust and other faculties. There are certain notable omissions here: the rich literature on psychopaths, who may be thought of as innately deficient in moral reasoning, receives surprisingly little attention, especially given the high heritability of this trait. As an illustration that the faculty of moral reasoning relies on in-built brain circuitry, this would seem to merit more discussion. The chapter on Genes, Brains and Behavior rightly emphasises the complexity of the genetic networks involved in establishing brain systems, especially those responsible for such a high-level faculty as moral reasoning. The conclusion that this system cannot be perturbed by single mutations is erroneous, however. Asking what does it take, genetically speaking, to build the system is a different question from what does it take to break it. Some consideration of how moral reasoning emerges over time in children would also have been interesting.
Nevertheless, the book does an excellent job of synthesising diverse findings into a readily understandable and thoroughly convincing naturalistic framework under which moral behaviour can be approached from an empirical standpoint. While the details of many of these areas remain sketchy, and our ignorance still vastly outweighs our knowledge, the overall framework seems quite robust. Indeed, it articulates what is likely a fairly standard view among neuroscientists who work in or who have considered the evidence from this field. However, one can presume that jobbing neuroscientists are not the main intended target audience and that both the details of the work in this field and its broad conclusions are neither widely known nor held.
The idea that right and wrong - or good and evil - exist in some abstract sense, independent from humans who only somehow come to perceive them, is a powerful and stubborn illusion. Indeed, for many inclined to spiritual or religious beliefs, it is one area where science has not until recently encroached on theological ground. While the Creator has been made redundant by the evidence for evolution by natural selection and the immaterial soul similarly superfluous by the evidence that human consciousness emerges from the activity of the physical brain, morality has remained apparently impervious to the scientific approach. Churchland focuses her last chapter on the idea that morals are absolute and delivered by Divinity, demonstrating firstly the contradictions in such an idea and, with the evidence for a biological basis of morality provided in the rest of the book, arguing convincingly that there is no need of that hypothesis.
Mirrored from the Wiring the Brain blog: [...]
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Churchland thinks!,
Reading widely this summer in books relating neuroscience to ethics, I am simply wowed by Churchland's book. She has sent me to references I would otherwise have missed; her summaries of the research of others is brief and to the point; as some other reviewers have quoted her texts, it is clear that some degree of literary elegance graces her pages. She writes well, because she thinks well, and, if you want a great summary of the interface between neuroscience and morality, you will not find a better book
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An introduction to neurophilosophy,
This review is from: Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality (Kindle Edition)
I'm giving Braintrust 5 stars despite feeling that the book ended abruptly, without Churchland making a really clear link between caring and morality. My own thinking is that fairness underlies morality as much as caring, and fairness also has a neurobiological foundation. Churchland does accomplish quite a bit in this short book (50% of the Kindle version's content are notes, bibiography, and index).
In particular, she effectively refutes systems of morality based on absolute rules, rules with exceptions, universals, and innateness. Either the proponents of those approaches don't meet Churchland's evidenciary bar, or the wheels of their arguments simply fall off, as she says. To be fair, Churchland's evidentiary bar is set pretty high. E.g., she is not as enthusiastic over mirron neurons' contribution to empathy as its proponents are, preferring to wait for more evidence first. This is actually a refreshing change from all those book authors, unfortunately including many psychologists, who take a good idea based on a limited sample and then extrapolate it to cover all of human behavior regardless of culture, gender, or age.
Some of the book gets into pretty detailed brain anatomy and functioning. But it's still possible to pick up the gist of the arguments without being a neuroscientist. And the parts of the book that are less techincal are fairly clear. E.g., she discusses Kant's view of reason without expecting the reader to be familiar with Kant.
I like this book enough that I will likely read it again to pick up anything I missed the first time. It's a really worthwhile contribution to the subject of morality.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What Neuroscience Tells us about Morality--Not!,
This review is from: Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality (Paperback)
"Morality seems to me to be a natural phenomenon--constrained by the forces of natural selection, rooted in neurobiology, shaped by the local ecology, and modified by cultural development." So Churchland summarizes this book. I am totally in sympathy with this view, which Churchland supports with clear and logical argument supported by copious notes and references. Churchland's own formulation of human morality is not original and subject to some dispute. For instance, she grounds human morality in empathy/compassion as it develops in the family. There is no evidence, however, that human family life is very different from that of many other species, including several primates and many passerine birds. The notion that the capacity to cooperate with strangers, which is surely a foundational element in our success as a species, flows from empathy and compassion as generated in the family is almost certainly wrong. For plausible alternatives, see E. O. Wilson's book The Social Conquest of Earth, not to mention many papers and books mentioned on my web site, as well the work of Sarah Hrdy and her colleagues on cooperative breeding. Churchland knows this material well and refers to it in later chapters, but does not consider these perspectives to cast doubt on her empathy/compassion story.
This book rates high for its cogency and transparency in presenting and critiquing the literature on the sociobiology of morality, but the title is misleading to the point of being false advertising. Neuroscience may in the future tell important stories concerning human morality, but in its current state, it can do no more than asserting that this or that portion of the prefrontal cortex lights up under this or that situation of moral choice. I do not understand why we should care what region lights up under what conditions. Of course, if the disgust region and the contempt region seem to be the same, this might suggest some evolutionary pathway through which disgust (a non-social emotion shared with many omnivorous mammals) becomes contempt (a social emotion shared with few if any other species). But to say that Churchland's insights flow from her understanding of neurobiology is quite far-fetched. Indeed, the most important contribution of her training in neuroscience is to deconstruction popular interpretations of recent brain discoveries, such as the notion that human mirror neurons explain human theory of mind. This is very useful material indeed.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Morality as a basic survival tool,
Dr. Churchland reviews a lot of literature and research to develop her evolutionary view of how human ethics came about. The final chapter sums it up nicely. In order for us to be protected we must belong. Hormones like oxytocin, vasaopressin that sustain the mother-child bond remain in our systems to cause affiliation to similar kin and kind. Constraints on gratification are necessary for communities to survive. Pain and pleasure create a reward/disincentive feed-back loop that leads to better problem-solving against natural and peer adversity. Then this is translated into neural paths and networks and genetically and culturally reinforced and reproduced.
She seriously disputes both Kant and world religions who clain there are innate rules and Divine commandments that are revealed. She argues that it cannot be because many of our favorite "rules" often conflict with one another e.g. "Charity begins at home" vs "Love your neighbor as yourelf ", or "Do not lie' vs "Unkindness is wrong". We are always deciding which has the better claim--right here, right now. We do want things both ways--to teach our children not to kill and yet go off to be heroes in a "just" war. She and this reader conclude that morality is a "natural phenomenon, constrained by the force of natural selection, held in neurobiology, shaped by local ecology, modified by cultural development" --p.191 .
What is not convincing about Churchland's effort is her neuroscientific evidence.It is neither new nor compelling--more a philosophical argument than a scientific treatise.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Informs Important Philosophical Discussions with Neuroscience,
This review is from: Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality (Paperback)
This book serves as a rare and invaluable source of interconnected insights that inform important philosophical discussions with strictly relevant, well organized neuroscience. The stated intent of this consistently brilliant, MacArthur Fellow author is to elucidate the concepts of ethics and morality by proposing interactions between four specific brain processes: caring, recognition of others' psychological states, problem-solving in a social context, and learning social practices. The hypothesized framework is well-supported and new, and its originality is apparent because Dr. Churchland routinely justifies her motivations for expanding on the book's topics in a way that helps us realize their importance as well. It helps that she doesn't strictly separate her four processes of interest into corresponding chapters but instead develops her hypothesis by progressing through shared themes and sub-points. She starts by introducing the relevance of her hypothesis, then gives background on the evolutionary constraints on moral behavior and then on the evolution of caring, followed by discussions about cooperation and trust, and once she's disseminated all this information, she discusses the limits of current scientific knowledge and moves on to speculate about the neuroscience of social living, finally reaching an excellent synthesis of her ideas into a "more traditional philosophical form," concluding with a description of religion in terms of morality and trust. Her effectiveness is due in part to her careful, logical organization of different discussions that makes it easy to see the relationships between them as well as a clear, controlled cohesiveness.
Reading this book is like finding yourself in the presence of an intuitive, startlingly wise person and being lucky enough to hear a coherent, well-researched, magnificent monologue that must have resulted from years of inquisitive and analytical thinking. Indeed, Dr. Churchland has previously written numerous books that combine neuroscience and philosophy. I have read Neurophilosophy and Brain-Wise in search of something more along the lines of Braintrust, and I can tell that on some levels, this book has been years, perhaps decades in the making. Just the reference list alone is a goldmine. I imagine that Dr. Churchland was waiting to write a book about morality until she had developed a wholly coherent and cohesive proposition, something that is missing or insufficient from a frustrating number of popular neuroscience books but is fully expected of philosophers. Dr. Churchland is both a philosopher and a neuroscientist, and I strongly suspect that this is her magnum opus so far.
I remember being wide-eyed and hooked just by the first few pages of the introduction. My goodness, I did not expect to see Hume's "is vs. ought" distinction, an idea that I believe is incredibly important in moral philosophy, described as "the dunce's error of going from an is to an ought," but Dr. Churchland gets into some far more important and less obvious ideas about the "is-ought" distinction later in the book. In any case, as Dr. Churchland interestingly defends Hume's seemingly ironic naturalism, she dismisses the importance of pointing out "the dunce's error" to dismiss science's role in moral philosophy because doing so fails to be useful for solving real-world "constraint satisfaction" problems, which require prioritization of different values and rules rather than straightforward deductive reasoning. Her main point is to justify the value of science in philosophical discussions about morality, and this is the first example of her helpfully systematic habit of painstakingly defending the topics and directions of her discussions.
While you are reading Braintrust, Dr. Churchland's amazing poignancy and coherency will sometimes lead you to understand her train of thought so well that you can predict it, so her in-depth analyses and fully complete descriptions might seem drawn-out. However, such comprehensive communication is difficult to achieve, particularly when it's about the mind. Appreciating that gave me trust that I was in the hands of a skilled writer who reflects on her work. Dr. Churchland is an expert who doesn't make the somewhat common mistake of overselling isolated pieces of information without focusing enough on supporting their relevance to existing and important discussions. In this sense, I would compare Braintrust to a Malcolm Gladwell book, except instead of being a journalist armed with only intellect and inquisitive tenacity, Dr. Churchland contributes further by demonstrating a wealth of knowledge about neurotransmitters, hormones, and evolution. This gives her a wide variety of puzzle pieces that she can link into her arguments however and whenever she wants. Her background knowledge strengthens the book's organization and depth by saturating her discussions with rich, appropriate facts and examples that systematically inform and enlighten.
The bulk of the book is about the neural and evolutionary basis for our values, and it is organized in such a way that allows the reader to learn not only about empathy but also the practical utility of it. Dr. Churchland seems to view psychopaths the same way I do: as rivals, specific opponents. If we believe concepts like love and empathy are important and worth defining, then it is useful to firmly and descriptively distinguish ourselves from psychopaths, but it is simultaneously useful to try to learn from their successes, for they are often adept at tasks requiring traits like shrewdness, dispassion, and dexterity that we as a society prize and reward for perfectly pragmatic reasons. This tension of ideas is about the importance of empathy. I believe that although empathy is not always the most useful or applicable feeling, it is the feeling with the widest range of utility, and anyone who agrees with me should read this book. Dr. Churchland masterfully discusses the neural processes that create empathy, the questions that neuroscientists, geneticists, and other scientists are currently asking, and the ways in which caring, trusting, and cooperating form and influence the way we think about moral problems.
My favorite chapter, "Not as a Rule," really gets to the essence of morality by transitioning from the discussions about values in prior parts of the book to a discussion about rules. This is where scientific theory meets "moral theories" like the Golden Rule, where neuroscience meets the thirst for philosophical answers. Incidentally, I prefer a negative version of the Golden Rule that says something like "do not do unto others as you would not have done unto yourself," and I was glad to see this idea discussed. In this chapter, which is the one that is in a "more traditional philosophical form," the spotlight splendidly illuminates utilitarianism, case-based reasoning, and the categorical imperative. These are discussions that are invaluable for people who have been moved by the importance of empathy and the impermanence of so-called truth. Perhaps most importantly, this chapter explains why the existence of an is-ought distinction prompts Dr. Churchland to defend the relevance of science in the "normative project," which is the goal of identifying "the rule(s) that would be accepted by all rational persons." Her proof of science's applicability to moral philosophy supports my belief that if one's goal is to improve our understanding and descriptions of the world, then observations supported by the senses have an even wider range of applicability than logic.
The chapter on religion is the shortest, and I do wish she had explored this topic further. It is a natural conclusion for the book because written dogmas are powerful social motivators. I like that she included important discussions about conscience and morality. Considering her large number of critical examples, I was surprised by how humble she is. I had hoped that she would defend much stronger opinions, perhaps with a call for banding together under specific rules and values, but there are certain positions she does originate. The concluding section is superb, bringing us back to David Hume and stating that "the earlier chapters of this book can be seen as providing only the details, many newly discovered, to round out Hume's considerable insight."
Throughout this book, Dr. Churchland's value is not that she can explain highly complex information; it's that she knows which information to present, how to organize it informatively, and how to methodically explain its relevance to broader discussions about morality. This book is not a chore! It is a necessity, yes, but it is also straightforward, direct, and a downright delight to experience. My enthusiasm is of course subjective, but I can objectively say that Braintrust contributes neuroscience knowledge to well-known philosophical discussions. I can confidently recommend this book both to those with a shyness for technical learning as well as to those who have a fervent appetite for it.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Does Neuroscience Vindicate Ethic of Care?,
Patricia Churchland's "Braintrust" is, as most books on the scientific basis of morality are, a work on metaethics. Her concern in this book is almost exclusively to show how neuroscientific literature can add to the question of where our moral instincts, and the whole business of morality, come from. It is only in the second to last (and a bit of the last) where she discusses even whether or not science can get into "normaative ethics" (how should we act, etc?).
And what are the findings? Well, as others have noted, Churchland is very admirable in acknowledging that all is not known yet, and that there are still areas where research is inconclusive. But all in all, she suggests that our moral instincts are shaped by an evolved attachment to care for "kith and kin" (mostly kin, "kith" being a term for close non-relatives). Namely, the chemicals vasopressin and oxytocin seem to play a large part in creating or aiding moral sentiments like trust, willingness to cooperate, and yes, our care for others. Those, for instance, who "take a whiff" of oxytocin before playing a trust game (in a lab) tend to trust more, play fairer (by egalitarian standards), and cheat/defect less. (She is cautious that we shouldn't overreact to this by suggesting that creating a more moral society could be achieved just by giving us all extra oxytocin/vasopressen, as these two chemicals have other effects as well, and it is questionable whether simply enhancing our trust and cooperation would make us more moral, as there are times that morality demands we do not cooperate, etc.)
Churchland also goes over the idea that moral instincts, like empathy, may be aided by our ability to construct a "theory of mind." In order to empathize with you, I need to have an idea of what you are thinking and feeling, which I can only do if I have some way to guess at it (the more accurate the better). Churchland is not as warm on the idea that mirror neurons and the capacity they give us for imitaition holds the answer as to why we empathize with others. (The story is that mirror neurons allow us to imitate others and, in imitating others - even mentally - we evoke in ourselves the emotion we'd normally feel when performing that action.) The problem is that i can feel empathy with others even when they are doing something I've never done (falling off of a skateboard, say) and I can feel empathy for someone (maybe a character in a novel) who is not stimulating my mirror neurons to imitate.
While Churchland certainly recognizes that our capacity for imitation and ability to reasonably ascertain what others are thinking play a definite part in why we are moral, she goes back to the idea that our evolved instincts toward caring for "kith and kin" seem like the decidedly bigger part. (After all, even if I understand what you are feeling, and even empathize with it, I still have to be motivated to act accordingly, and THAT is the essential ingredient of morality!)
The latter two chapters, to be honest, came somewhat out of nowhere and I am not sure they fit well with the rest of the book. In the second to last chapter, Churchland discusses whether science can do more than describe where moral sentiments come from and actually speak to normative concerns about how to live morally, etc. She suggests it can, but largely, this consists in her arguments, against G.E. More, that going from "is" to "ought" need not commit the naturalistic fallacy. I had wished she'd handle some of the subjectivist arguments like those of J.L. Mackie or Gilbert Harman, because I don't think that simply arguing that one is not committing the naturalistic fallacy is sufficient to argue that one can get from facts to normative statements without a huge leap. Churchland very vaguely writes, in a way similar to Harris in The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values) that science can contribute to discussions about morals by discovering more and more facts about what constitute's human well-being. Agreed. But all that is being done in that case is the garnering of facts that will allow people to make their own moral conclusions from those facts. (She does admit that there are cases where all the facts in the world will not really give us any clear-cut reason to decide the issue one way or other.)
The last paragraph deals with morality and religion, and will likely be one of the more controversial. Theists already have a tendency to assume that morality is dead without god, and Churchland sets out to prove them wrong. Well, really, she just invokes Plato's Euthyphro to argue that there are too many reasons why "god said it" is not a satisfactory answer to "why do x?" First, people can and do disagree on what god said; next, there is a question of whether x is moral because god said it (meaning it is still somewhat arbitrary) or whether god endorsed x because it is good; third, even if we say that "god said do x," we'd still need to give some account of why those who don't accept that god should do x, as presumably they should. Etc. Etc.
In the end, Churchland very much ends up vindicating an ethic of caring, though this is nowhere made explicit in the book. Works like Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, Second Edition, with a New Preface have postulated that our moral intuitions are grounded in the idea of caring for those we love, and particularly our offspring. And very much like Churchland, authors like Noddings are very skeptical of trying to find the foundation for morality in reason rather than emotion, and finding some universal and neutral categorical moral rules. (Another book making very similar arguments is Richard Taylor's Good and Evil (Great Minds Series).
I find Churchland to be very mesaured in her argument and wise in her conclusions. Morality almost surely has emotional roots, and trying to find categorical and neutral moral rules that encompass all of our ethical intuitions may ultimately be attempting what can't be done. (Probably, it is just one more example of the human propensity to create simple heuristics to conserve cognitive energy.) Her writing is pretty clear (though it is a work that demands careful attention), and her bibliography is impressive, for those who want to do some future research. My big complaints are that I don't think Churchland demonstrates why science can jump into normative ethics, and that I wish she'd have discussed what (if anything) makes her argument different from "care ethic" authors like Noddings. (Maybe for another edition, if you are reading this, Dr. Churchland.)
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Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality by Patricia S. Churchland (Paperback - August 26, 2012)