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This review is from: Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 26, 2011 1:42:15 PM PDT
Todd I. Stark says:
Very helpful review, thank you. I feel as if you did justice to both what the author is saying about morality and what she is deliberately avoiding saying, and that was particularly helpful.
In reply to an earlier post on Apr 28, 2011 1:09:16 PM PDT
Thanks for a great review and the many references to continue the party.
Posted on Oct 10, 2011 9:40:42 AM PDT
Abdul J. Khan says:
Love the comment!
Posted on Jun 13, 2012 11:50:19 AM PDT
Robert Root says:
When I saw this book, I hoped that there would be a Grayson review. Sure enough, there it was, and no surprise it was at the top of the list. You really do seem to be a constant reader, and your thoughtful reviews I am sure are helpful to more of us than you realize.
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