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Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality Hardcover – March 20, 2011

4.2 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Winner of the 2011 Award for Excellence in Biology & Life Sciences, Association of American Publishers

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2012

"[Patricia Churchland] finds that morality is all about empathy. . . . Churchland is also 'biological' about morality, seeing it as an adaptation that our brains have evolved in order to cement social ties. With a series of examples, she rejects the idea that morality is a set of rules and codes handed down from on high, without which we would all behave badley."--Matt Ridley, Wall Street Journal

"Churchland's discussion puts . . . areas of research prone to over-interpretation into much-needed perspective. . . . In my view, by illuminating the biological foundations on which caring, cooperation and social understanding are based, and by arguing against simplistic views about innateness and divine ordination, Churchland has delineated the conceptual space still to be navigated concerning which actions are morally right, how we come to those decisions, and how we justify them."--Adina L. Roskies, Nature

"Churchland provides an important service in Braintrust by applying recent scientific research to moral concerns."--Richard S. Mathis, Science

"Intriguing. . . . The puzzle that concerns [Churchland] above all is whether morality can be explained or justified by science."--Margaret A. Boden, Times Higher Education

"Churchland's superbly written, dense-with-thinking book is fiercely alert to what can and cannot justifiably be inferred from modern science. She is a brilliantly precise (and often slyly funny) demolisher of exaggerated claims (both in popular literature and research papers) about the hormone oxytocin, mirror neurons, 'genes for' behaviours, 'innate' capacities, or the functions of particular brain structures. The nuggets that survive her skepticism form the suggestive scaffolding of her own hypothesis: mammals came to regard their young as part of themselves (so recognizing the babies' distress or hunger), and then widened this 'me-and-mine' concern to extended family and others."--Steven Poole, The Guardian

"Churchland, by insisting that morality is neither an innate instinct nor an abstract system, but rather a tough, practical problem posed by our instincts, is bringing together the best in both neuroscientific and philosophical thinking."--Josh Rothman, Boston Globe's Brainiac blog

"What is morality? Where does it come from? According to neurophilosopher Patricia S. Churchland in her book Braintrust, morality originates in the brain. She argues that over time the human brain evolved to feel social pain and pleasure. As humans evolved to care about the wellbeing of others, they also developed a sense of morality."--Victoria Stern, Scientific American Mind

"Churchland guides the reader through lucid, well-articulated explanations of subjects like oxytocin's effect on an individual's hormonal makeup, brain changes over time, and relevant gene research, tying these neuroscientific elements together with more social science oriented areas like cooperation, trust, and rule creation. . . . In bringing together aspects of philosophy and neuroscience, Churchland presents a persuasive argument that morality is not shaped solely by religious or social forces but, instead, also draws on hormonal triggers, genes, and brain evolution. This influential work is likely to be a valuable resource for anyone seeking to gain a fresh, exciting perspective on an oft-discussed area of philosophy."--Elizabeth Millard, ForeWord Reviews

"I feel this will be an important book. In many ways it will probably complement The Moral Landscape because it deals clearly with some of the critiques made of Sam's approach. Particularly those made by scientists and non-religious philosophers. . . . [Churchland] is eminently qualified to cover the subject as a philosopher with a special interest in neuroscience. And the time is ripe for this sort of coverage."--Ken Perrott, Open Parachute

"The book is about: morality, fairness and the source of both. But don't expect tight definitions of either term, let alone a didactic treatise on human evolution. Instead, sit back and let Churchland run her ideas past you. She's so chatty you'll never guess the University of California, San Diego, philosopher is associated with a school of thought called eliminative materialism. (Don't ask. Even a philosopher friend was fuzzy on the details.) She's just plain interesting."--Leigh Dayton, Australian

"[Churchland] has been best known for her work on the nature of consciousness. But now, with a new book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality, she is taking her perspective into fresh terrain: ethics. And the story she tells about morality is, as you'd expect, heavily biological, emphasizing the role of the peptide oxytocin, as well as related neurochemicals. . . . Hers is a bottom-up, biological story, but, in her telling, it also has implications for ethical theory. Morality turns out to be not a quest for overarching principles but rather a process and practice not very different from negotiating our way through day-to-day social life."--Christopher Shea, Chronicle Review

"The account of the nature and origins of morality that Churchland sketches here is thoroughly naturalistic and thoroughly grounded in the sciences. But it is also humanistic. . . . For [Churchland], although the capacities that make us moral are the products of evolution and can be explained in detail by neuroscience, the content of morality is very importantly the product of human culture."--Neil Levy, Philosopher's Magazine

"Patricia Churchland makes a compelling case that morality is woven into our brains, anchored in the neurobiology of attachment and bonding. . . . This smart, lucid and often entertaining book will give any curious mind a good overview of how the brain learns to distinguish right from wrong."--Ferris Jabr, New Scientist

"Churchland's eloquent prose offers a guided tour to recent work at the crossroads of neurology, cognitive psychology, genetics, and evolutionary biology, highlighting their rich, and occasionally surprising, implications for social phenomena. As such, the book will appeal not only to students but also to a wider audience who might be keen to attend to a reliable, constructive, scientifically grounded, and clearly unfolding narration about human life."--Anthony Hatzimoysis, Metascience

"Braintrust is a well written and informative book--its strength, and bulk, consists of the amalgamated empirical research on social behavior and Churchland's empirical speculation on the role of oxytocin in the evolution of morality and social decision-making."--Anton Petrenko, Philosophy in Review

"This empirically based, superbly argued text by Churchland undoubtedly will ruffle many feathers. . . . Churchland eloquently defends the naturalization of morality, inviting readers to reconsider such normatively significant notions as empathy, caring, and trust in light of new understandings of the role of oxytocin and other hormones, possibilities inherent in mirror neurons, and distinctions between various forms of psychopathy and normal behaviors. Additionally, she tackles head-on deeply rooted philosophical challenges that are motivated by the famous is-ought fallacy or embedded in more traditional moral theories such as consequentialism or deontology. Though Churchland's approach is cautious, it is convincing."--Choice

"Patricia Churchland opens a can of contemporary ethical conundrums with deftly explained and richly annotated neuro-physiological evidence. Braintrust is a welcome addition to the interdisciplinary literature bridging the chasm said to exist between 'is and ought,' epitomized by the Natural Fallacy."--Stanley Shostak, European Legacy

"Clearly written and pleasant to read, Braintrust is recommended for all readers who are interested in the relevance that the behavioral sciences might have in shedding light on human morality and in the way in which morality is culturally and historically molded to satisfy our everyday needs."--Daniele Macuglia, Quarterly Review of Biology

"Researchers interested in cooperation, moral psychology, and empirically-informed metaethics could happily and rewardingly immerse themselves in Braintrust."--Benjamin James Fraser, Biology and Philosophy

From the Back Cover

"This is a terrific, clear, and finely sensitive account of human moral and social behavior and its neurobiological--and decidedly secular--underpinnings. Patricia Churchland once again leads the way."--Michael S. Gazzaniga, author of Human: The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique

"Few areas of science are as relevant for the future of humanity as the science of morality, and few scholars are as prepared to comment on its current status as Patricia Churchland. She has exactly the right background to carve out an original approach to the problem, and the skills needed to lead the reader to solid new facts while being merciless with exaggerated claims and sloppy thinking. Braintrust is vintage Churchland, only better."--Antonio Damasio, author of Descartes's Error

"In its search for the origins of morality, this book deftly balances philosophical questions and an understanding of how the brain actually works. It is a rare combination, and extremely fruitful. Churchland roots morality firmly in the social emotions rather than in some abstract principles, yet shows us how and why these principles nevertheless emerge."--Frans de Waal, author of Our Inner Ape and The Age of Empathy

"Churchland takes us on a thrilling journey from molecules to morals. We learn how brain chemicals implicated in orgasms also underlie ethics. But Churchland resists biological reductionism--along with the rigid rules of religion and philosophy--and compellingly argues that morality is culturally crafted to meet the demands of human life."--Jesse Prinz, author of Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind

"This superb book is the ideal answer to those who doubt that neuroscience, experimental psychology, and behavioral studies of nonhuman animals can ever tell us anything valuable about human morality. Written with elegance, subtlety, and deep learning lightly worn, this is one of those rare books that will enlighten and fascinate novices and experts alike."--Paul Seabright, author of The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life

"Braintrust is a tour de force, a take-no-prisoners deconstruction of the fictions of ethics based on pure reason or intuition, and a sustained defense of what, at our best, we are already doing--using our brains to flourish in complex social and natural ecologies."--Owen Flanagan, author of The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World

"This is a groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of how morality is related to our biology and evolution. It is also a unique and valuable bridge between neuroscience and philosophy."--Ralph J. Greenspan, Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind, University of California, San Diego


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (March 20, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 069113703X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691137032
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #727,124 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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.Read more ›
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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.
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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.
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