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Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality Paperback – August 26, 2012
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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
From the Inside Flap
"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 ofHuman: 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 ofDescartes'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 ofOur 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 ofBeyond 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 ofThe 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--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
Introduction: Science and Ethics
What is moral? Why should we be moral? How should we be moral? And, most significantly, where did morality come from? These questions have dominated philosophy for over two thousand years. When surveying the history of philosophy we come across various ethical theories, from Plato’s and Kant’s position that ethical behavior must be grounded in reason, to Hume’s claim that it is connected to sentiment and overall human nature, to morality as having super mundane origins or invented as a way to control the masses. While the various philosophical theories of morality have offered interesting perspectives, what they lack (certainly understandable for their times) was a brain based explanation of morality. Today, we can for the first time in history attempt to answer these profound questions of morality with not just arm chair philosophical speculation (or, in some cases, religiously fueled doctrines) but with a modern scientific understanding, specifically drawing research from neuroscience, evolutional biology and genetics, and experimental psychology. Patricia Churchland in her 2011 book Braintrust does just that.
Brilliantly written, Churchland starts off her text with the “trial by ordeal” scenario of medieval times. When, for instance, an accused witch was placed in turbulent water the innocent, it was believed, would drown, while the guilty would survive, only to be hauled off to be burned at the stake. The author points out that as a young student hearing about this in her history class, she could not help but feel how unfair and “wrong” it all seemed. The sense of right and wrong appeared to be instilled within her, but Churchland wonders where did this sense come from? Was it culturally determined? While such questions may have intrigued her through her young adult life she confessed here that in her career as a philosopher she shied away from the topic of morality since most moral explanations, both past and contemporary, were simply grounded in “opinion.” This even included the naturalistic theories of Aristotle and Hume. However, this all changed when she approached the topic from the position of the biological sciences. With new developments in neuroscience and an informed understanding of evolution what was once puzzling and out of reach, that is the origins and purpose of moral systems, began to gain clarity.
In the opening material of the book, Churchland addresses that some are uncomfortable connecting the insights of science with morality, extrapolating David Hume’s is-ought distinction (that an “is” does not imply an “ought”) to mean that science should stay out of moral concerns and not venture into “scientism.” Yet, Churchland rejects this interpretation and contends that it actually misrepresents Hume’s position. She explains: “That you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is” has very little bearing so far as the in-the-world problem solving is concerned.” Instead, much like E.O. Wilson’s consilience concept where the disciplines build upon each other, she suggests that science along with all of the humanities develop a scaffolding of knowledge to better grasp the subject at hand. In terms of ethics, we will have a much fuller understanding of it when we embrace the insights of the many disciplines, science definitely included.
Evolutionary and Ethics:
To begin with, evolution offers us profound insights about the origins of morality. According to Churchland, its roots may be connected to animal sociability. When animals live together and help each other the chances for survival are stronger than those living on their own. Thus, nature may select for social behavior traits over individualistic ones, and over time this many lead to the restructuring of the brain and neural anatomy. That sociability and morality seem to be connected can be supported with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) data. When one is asked to reflect on a social task or a moral one, fMRI research shows activity in the same part of the brain. Churchland points out “a 4 dimensional scheme for social behavior that is shaped by interlocking brain processes, namely: caring for offspring, mate, kin and kith; recognizes the psychological state of others with the benefit of predicting other’s behavior; problem-solving in the social context; and learning social practices, often by imitation.”
Imitation is an important social trait and Churchland addresses why. As we imitate the other we are telling them, albeit unconsciously, that we are friend and not foe. This may lead to a more amicable relationship with the other, as one is perceive “like me.” The act of imitation can be found in other species as well. Churchland shares with the reader how her new pups imitated her old dog, Max, by not going in the sand traps or putting greens while on walks on the near-by golf course. These young dogs, without any formal training, copied the behavior of their elder dog friend.
The author clearly rejects an anthropomorphic view that only humans have the building blocks of morality. Nonhuman mammals (and some species of birds) display sociability and problem solving, and these are ingredients to morality. The writer asserts: “That all non-human mammals have social values is obvious; they care for juveniles, and sometime mates, kin and affiliates; they cooperate, they may punish, and they reconcile after conflict.” Declaring them amoral is misrepresenting the complexity of morality, she says. This line of thinking seems to fit well with the research of primates by Frans de Waal, a primatologist and ethologist. Primates, he confirms, demonstrate reciprocity, fairness, conflict resolution, consolation and empathy.
Neuroscience and Ethics:
Furthermore, Churchland extensively investigates the latest research in neuroscience and how it interplays with evolutionary view of morality. In a bottom up approach to morality she clarifies her overall thesis thusly: “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 the network as a backdrop, learning and problem-solving are recruited to managing one’s social life….cooperation and trust are sensitive to oxytocin levels.”
Certain neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically oxytocin and to some degree vasopressin, appear to play a key role in promoting attachment and bonding, caring for others, and pro social behavior in general. Though the hormone oxytocin, produced by the hypothalamus and stored in the pituitary gland, is known to play an essential maternal role in childbirth and breastfeeding, according to the latest research, it does more than that. It reduces social anxiety, bonds mates and friends, and helps develop trust.
Perhaps one can think of “caring for the other” (Peter Singer suggests this is what ethics is all about) as actually arising out of an extension of the parent-child bond. And perhaps empathy for the plight of others may arise out of fear of separation from such a bond. In other words, caring for the well-being of offspring, of which oxytocin plays a role, may have been extended out beyond kin and mate to kith and even strangers. Think of a circle which at the center is the parent-child bond but a circle which can widen to encompasses others, and not only in one’s social group or species but perhaps other species as well (and some might argue the planet itself). Many ethical philosophers have argued that expanding the circle of compassion is what morality is all about.
Though often accused of being a pure reductionist, Churchland is keen to point out here that she is not. Instead of reducing morality down to a chemical within the brain (some have referred to oxytocin as the moral molecule), she acknowledges that “the platform is only a platform; it is not the whole story of human moral values.” Morality, she confirms, arises within complex cultures which needs to be considered. And she continues to add that despite the plethora of evidence that our physiology plays a powerful role in morality, one must be careful not to exaggerate claims of innate capabilities, inherent genes for morality, or the role of mirror neurons without deeply scrutinizing such research. In other words, evidence matters.
Intriguingly, such evidence that oxytocin performs an important part in sociability (and one can argue morality) is found in the study of praire voles when compared with montane voles. Praire voles have a high level of oxytocin and a density of receptors for this bio-chemical when compared with montane voles. Praire voles are social, monogamous, bond for life, and care for their young (even the males do). Montane voles, on the other hands, are the opposite—they are promiscuous, the males do not guard their pups, and in general these animals are fine to be left alone. When animals with low oxytocin are given high doses of it, their attachment behavior appears to change, matching that of the praire vole. That animal sociability is connected to brain states seems evident.
Further evidence of the fundamental role of oxytocin was illustrated in the text when Churchland summarized the results of many thought provoking experiments, whose experimental design was based on game theory. In order to evaluate the oxytocin hypothesis, subjects in these “trust” game experiments were given nasal oxytocin. The general goal in these studies was to see if administering oxytocin to subjects increased one’s trust level (and sociability) to the other. On the whole, the various experiments proffered statistically significant data, substantiating the claim that oxytocin, along with other neuro peptides and an intricate neural circuitry, is an essential hormone that helps establish a neural basis for morality.
In a recent Ted Talk, Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist, also discusses research on oxytocin, and he too agrees how it plays a significant role in developing trust, empathy and sociability. He adds that improper nurturing, abuse, or high levels of testosterone can reduce it and discloses that 5% of the population does not seem to release it. But if one with a normally functioning brain state wishes to experience a surge of oxytocin daily, which Zak contends can lead to a burst of happiness, here is a simple prescription he proposes: 8 hugs a day.
As a word of caution, Churchland does warn that the neurobiological understanding of the relationship between this neuro peptide and trust could possibly lead to cases of abuse, as oxytocin could be sneakily released into the air to manipulate trust from the unknowing consumer. Yet, on the other hand, awareness that such manipulation can exist may help curb it in the first place, as societal rules can be put in place to prevent it.
A Prescription: Eudaimonia and Compassion
Even though morality from a neuroscientific perspective is not grounded in absolute truths, this does not mean that “anything goes” either. As the Greeks suggested, eudaimonia, translated as flourishing or living well, is (or perhaps should be) our general focus. Perhaps one can add to this the simple idiom “play nice.” Though Churchland’s goal is mainly descriptive, there seems to be a slight prescriptive assumption (and not just a purely objective agenda) that expanding one’s circle of compassion may be beneficial to the organism and the world it finds itself in. This makes sense considering that the author herself is part of the pro social world in which she philosophizes and writes.
The message of compassion found in a biosocial view of morality is also supported in the work of psychologist George Boeree. He suggests that there are three main instincts for morality: kin selection and parental responsibilities; attachments to mates; and sympathy for those in the “in group” which expands (or at least should) to the universal. Those who expand sympathy/empathy to others are happier he contends. Highlighting the connection between happiness and compassion, he writes: “The great value of this biosocial view of morality is that it removes the issue from religious and philosophical debate and places it squarely in the realm of the pragmatic. Without denying the inherently subjective nature of our goals as human beings, we may be able to agree that one reasonable goal is the maximizing of happiness. The question is then how do we educate people to understand that it is in all our best interests to nurture our innate tendencies toward compassion.”
Throughout the reading, two past philosophers who Churchland consistently acknowledges as corresponding with her overall philosophical view of morality are Hume and Aristotle. Hume offered “considerable insight” with his understanding that the “roots of morality are in our nature” (and not reason). And Aristotle hit the mark when he rejected a “Platonic Heaven” where absolute moral truths reside and instead placed morality in the realm of the practical. Now, in current times, we can add to their insights brain research and this makes all of the difference. Instead of shying away from the topic of morality, as she did in her early days, Churchland has taken on morality as one of her main philosophical subjects.
Altogether, Braintrust is a marvelous book on a modern approach to morality. Just as Churchland advocates eliminative materialism to our folk psychology, so too does Churchland seem to promote an Ockham’s razor approach to this branch of philosophy. She shaves away an outdated and untestable view of morality and in its place presents morality in a modern and enlightened perspective.
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.