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Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves [Kindle Edition]

Patricia S. Churchland
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (84 customer reviews)

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Book Description

A trailblazing philosopher’s exploration of the latest brain science—and its ethical and practical implications.

What happens when we accept that everything we feel and think stems not from an immaterial spirit but from electrical and chemical activity in our brains? In this thought-provoking narrative—drawn from professional expertise as well as personal life experiences—trailblazing neurophilosopher Patricia S. Churchland grounds the philosophy of mind in the essential ingredients of biology. She reflects with humor on how she came to harmonize science and philosophy, the mind and the brain, abstract ideals and daily life.

Offering lucid explanations of the neural workings that underlie identity, she reveals how the latest research into consciousness, memory, and free will can help us reexamine enduring philosophical, ethical, and spiritual questions: What shapes our personalities? How do we account for near-death experiences? How do we make decisions? And why do we feel empathy for others? Recent scientific discoveries also provide insights into a fascinating range of real-world dilemmas—for example, whether an adolescent can be held responsible for his actions and whether a patient in a coma can be considered a self.

Churchland appreciates that the brain-based understanding of the mind can unnerve even our greatest thinkers. At a conference she attended, a prominent philosopher cried out, “I hate the brain; I hate the brain!” But as Churchland shows, he need not feel this way. Accepting that our brains are the basis of who we are liberates us from the shackles of superstition. It allows us to take ourselves seriously as a product of evolved mechanisms, past experiences, and social influences. And it gives us hope that we can fix some grievous conditions, and when we cannot, we can at least understand them with compassion.

Editorial Reviews


“Marvelous…A trustworthy guide, [Churchland] gives comfort not by simplifying the research but by asking the right questions.” (Jascha Hoffman - New York Times)

“Patricia Churchland may be the world’s leading neuro-philosopher today, but she also hails from humble beginnings in rural Canada. And that plainspoken farm girl, that second self, is on full display in this beautiful, unpretentious, enchanting exploration of mind, morals, and the meaning of life.” (Owen Flanagan, author of The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World)

“It is hard to conceive of a better guide to this difficult terrain than the MacArthur-award-winning Ms. Churchland…[She] writes with surpassing clarity, elegance, humor and modesty.” (Abigail Zuger - New York Times)

Touching a Nerve is like a refreshing, bracing prairie breeze blowing away the cobwebs and obfuscation of so much philosophy and neuroscience. It is dazzlingly clear, down to earth, and often funny.” (Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby: What Children)

“Bold, deeply insightful and biological to the core, with a warm and soothing touch of humanity.” (Joaquín Fuster, author of The Prefrontal Cortex)

“Engagingly written, Touching a Nerve takes the reader on a spellbinding journey into the workings of the human brain and the relevance of neuroscience to our daily lives. It will interest anyone who thinks that good philosophy needs be grounded in good science or who is simply curious about how understanding the brain can help us make sense of the human condition. A terrific read!” (David Livingstone Smith, author of Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others)

“Churchland creates a compelling narrative to further the idea of the self as brain… Through her examples, we can all come to understand our actions and intentions more clearly.” (Moheb Costandi - Scientific American)

About the Author

Patricia S. Churchland is a professor emerita of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship for her work in neurophilosophy, she lives in San Diego.

Product Details

  • File Size: 1102 KB
  • Print Length: 305 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (July 15, 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00AV7JV8E
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  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #187,550 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
125 of 145 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Sympathetic academic philosopher's review August 1, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
My appreciation of Patricia Churchland's latest book can be explained through an analogy.

Imagine two kinds of philosophers. One believes that reality consists of the supernatural and the natural. The second type of philosopher believes that reality consists of natural events.

The first offers arguments for taking the supernatural seriously, writing books calling it a "hard problem" that should be addressed. When the second type of philosopher denies this, the first type of philosopher calls that "reductionism." The first type of philosopher typically goes further, arguing that the sciences likely never will give adequate accounts of the supernatural. Sometimes the first type of philosopher even goes so far as to claim that the sciences cannot give an adequate account of natural events. Either way, the first type of philosopher is likely to consider philosophy an alternative to science, to consider it the business of philosophy to explain that which the sciences supposedly cannot explain.

In contrast, the second type of philosopher doesn't take the "hard problem" of the supernatural seriously, and typically believes that dualistic accounts of the supernatural and natural just interfere with our understanding of important topics such as the nature of the self, mortality, morality, and free will. This second type of philosopher considers it wiser to acknowledge the limits of our natural explanations than to turn to such supernatural speculations, and considers it the business of philosophy to identify where this line between the explained and the unexplained currently rests. Given the available evidence, what can we say about the nature of the self, mortality, morality, war, free will? And what are the limits of that knowledge?
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60 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow, what a book. July 3, 2013
Being a young aspiring experimental psychology graduate with a minor in philosophy, I find the work of Patricia Churchland refreshing. A philosopher who actively works in the psychological sciences!? Astounding! About time philosophers with questions about the mind actually look to the experimental results instead of philosophizing in an office chair (no disrespect, most philosophers are brilliant and ask interesting questions, but I feel their method of answering them is unsatisfactory).

Turning to this book specifically, it is marvelously written. It's amazing that she can churn out a very academic text like Neurophilosophy (which despite its age is still worth reading in my opinion, at least the second two thirds of the book) but then write a book like this a layman with no detailed experience in philosophy of mind or psychology can thoroughly enjoy. She interweaves her experiences growing up in a small farm town in rural Canada with the scientific information or philosophical questions she presents, which creates a very comfortable and personal atmosphere in the book. It's very conversational in tone.

It treats a lot of the classical philosophical questions such as, "Is there such a thing as a soul?", "Is there an afterlife?", "What is morality, really?", "Is free will real?", and "What is consciousness?". She also touches on some scientific problems such as the relationship between genetics and aggression and genocide. She definitely comes down on the skeptical of evolutionary psychology side. For instance, she disparages the idea that certain conditions in the past may have (very much unfortunately) favored genes which may build brains predisposed to participate in genocidal actions in certain conditions.
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33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase

An academic philosopher who can write! Who knew?!

Years ago as I staggered away from the final exam of my one and only college philosophy course, I made a promise to myself: If it ever came to it I would chew off my own arm at the shoulder rather than read even one more paragraph produced by a professional philosopher. What is it with these people? I can excuse bad writing from a scientist. But how can people for whom words are a primary tool of their profession produce such abominable writing?

The Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman once observed that if you could not explain something in a way that a college freshman would understand then you can’t really claim to understand that thing. This deserves to be enshrined as law and be chiseled into the marble lintels framing every entrance to every ivory tower on the planet. Under it in parentheses you might also add, “Yes, philosophers, this means you, too.”

Patricia Churchland can show them the way. You ought to read “Touching a Nerve” if for no other reason than to experience the novelty of having a doctorate of philosophy in philosophy (as it were) write in a clear and accessible style about difficult philosophical concepts and walk away actually feeling like you have a grip on those concepts. Delicious.

And the concepts themselves? Probably going to revamp, revitalize, reshape and generally revolutionize a couple millennia’s worth of thinking about the mind. Her central idea: Philosophers of the mind had better start studying neuroscience or their entire discipline will be kicked to the curb by the folks with MRIs and EEGs.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book.
Glad to see someone taking on the subject of the soul. I,'ve never thought there was this something that could sneak into your body and slip right out once you croak. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Hugh Gannon
3.0 out of 5 stars Illusions
Claiming that free will is an illusion is an interesting view. What is not an illusion?
( Put 3 stars because some choice was required to make a comment. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Dr. Malcolm Currie
1.0 out of 5 stars the author just does many speculation and nothing useful.
Dissappointed, the author just does many speculation and nothing useful.
Published 2 months ago by Mehmet Sirin Ozdas
5.0 out of 5 stars I woould recommend to anyone curious about conscienceness
A very interesting survey of current research on thinking and the brain. I woould recommend to anyone curious about conscienceness
Published 3 months ago by Ken
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book for the layman
Excellent book for the layman. There are some technical parts that I had to muscle my way through, but it was well worth it. Read more
Published 3 months ago by James R. Cook III
3.0 out of 5 stars interesting material; dull writing
she's a much better thinker than a writer. thus the book contains what might be interesting material, dully presented. Read more
Published 4 months ago by J. Klugman
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't be afraid of the truth
As an introduction to this book about the brain, I will quote another recent read - Time Reborn by Lee Smolin: “By the problem of consciousness I mean that if I describe you in all... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Herve Lebret
4.0 out of 5 stars Great nerve touching
Overall a very good book which emphatically asserts that we are based on a wet piece of meat in our skulls. Read more
Published 5 months ago by sully
3.0 out of 5 stars Barely 3 stars!
Enjoyed the read ‘Touching a Nerve’ by Patricia Churchland which seems an honest, thoughtful, intelligent not to mention common sense approach to a variety of issues related to the... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Dave
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
very good book
Published 6 months ago by Shango
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More About the Author

I am Professor of Philosophy (emerita) at the University of California, San Diego, and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Research. As a philosopher, I focus on the interface between traditional philosophical questions (what is knowledge, where do values come from) and new developments in neuroscience and genetics. I call this sort of interfacing "Neurophilosophy" and my 2011 book (Braintrust) links morality with the brain and its evolution. My newest book is Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain (2013).

My husband, Paul Churchland and I work closely together, which is fortunate because at first, most philosophers dismissed our work as "not real philosophy". Mark Churchland, our son, and Anne Churchland, our daughter, are both neuroscientists (at Columbia and Cold Spring Harbor respectively). Our golden retrievers, Duff and Farley, distribute a lot of fur about and swim whenever they get the chance. It is hard to say how smart they are, but they are excellent models for attachment and bonding.

An extended interview can be found on The Science Network: and on Philosophy Bites

You can see Pat interviewed on The Colbert Report January 23 2014.

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