Tag Archives: Patricia Churchland

Reports from the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop

The workshop I described in Moving Naturalism Forward took place – with a few amendments. A half day was lost because of the super storm Sandy. And medical issues led to Patricia Churchland, Lisa Randall, and Hilary Bok cancelling at the last minute. Pity – I was looking forward to all those contributions.

Turns out that the workshop basically centred on discussions and not presentations. I think these will be fascinating, considering the calibre of the scientists and philosophers present. And the fact that there are clear issues of difference between many of them.

Videos of the discussions should be up in the near future at the Moving Naturalism Forward website.

Until then we have reports about the workshop from three of the participants to go on with:

Sean Carroll‘s first report is up on his blog Cosmic Variance:
Nudging Naturalism Just a Bit Forward
He intends to post more in the coming days – probably about three.

Massimo Pigliucci has posted three reports on his blog Rationally Speaking
From the naturalism workshop, part I
From the naturalism workshop, part II
From the naturalism workshop, part III

And Jerry Coyne has post the power-point presentation he used on his blog Why Evolution is True:
My presentation on Free Will
He also has posted a summary of then workshop:
Moving Naturalism Forward: my summary, and a comment on Carroll’s assessment:
Sean Carroll assesses the Stockbridge workshop

In a nice little twist Jerry collected signatures from the workshop participants on the title page of a copy of his book Why Evolution Is True. In his post Loosen those wallets he undertakes to sell this with “every penny” going Doctors Without Borders?

That’s quite a souvenir.

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Pat Churchland on the science of morality

A few months ago there was a flurry of attention around Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape and lectures he gave around the time of its publication. A lot of it critical – but not all.

I thought the value of this book is that he did take on the problem of moral relativism in a way that religious moralists have been unable to. I think his contribution was valuable for that.

But, people seem to be ignoring a better book recently published on this subject. This is Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. I highly recommend it as being very sensible and enlightening. it also will answer some of the questions readers might feel Sam Harris was unable to.

I have written before on this book and some of Churchland’s talks. However, I think a recent podcast will be very useful for those following this subject. It’s from The Partially Examined Life (Episode 41: Pat Churchland on the Neurobiology of Morality (Plus Hume’s Ethics)). The discussion is with  Mark and Dylan Casey who are relatively knowledgable on philosophy so Pat’s arguments are quite deep. However, even non-philosophers will get a lot from the discussion. It’s 1 hr 45 min long but you can  Download the podcast (96.1MB)

There are three points I wish to make on the content of the podcast:

1: Is consciousness over-rated?

Pat Churchland devoted little of her discussion to the unconscious, or subconscious, aspects of human morality. The conscious aspects are important to understanding social rules and lawmaking, and to understanding how humans set up moral societies. But at the day-to-day and personal level our instincts and intuitions are critical. We operate largely in the automatic mode.

I am sure Pat acknowledges the important role of the subconscious, it’s just that in this discussion it was not really covered.

2: What do we mean by “right” and “wrong”?

I would love Pat to delve into this aspect more deeply. She does divorce the concepts from any absolute or objective meaning, particularly a divine one. At the same time she is not adopting a purely relativist approach. I feel sure that she would accept that while morality is not objective, it does at least have a objecitve basis in the facts of situations and in human make up. Particularly in the human brain.

However, most people do feel there is something special about saying something is “right” or “wrong”. It feels absolute or objective. We are not just expressing an opinion.

Personally, I think this is part of our evolved moral intuitions. We have evolved to operate in an automatic mode – we just don’t have time to apply reasoning and logic to every moral situation we face. Consequently there needs to be some sort of emotional/intuitional feeling about our possible responses and decisions. We need to feel that we are doing the correct thing. That it is “right.” Or that something we find disagreeable or repugnant is “wrong.” Emotionally, not logically. Churchland does describe in her book how these intuitions can evolve naturally from the interests of living organisms.

So we have these strong feelings/emotions of “right” and “wrong.” So strong, and  partly because they are automatic, they can at times seem external. It is no accident that cartoons will often portray our conscience as a little being sitting on our shoulder and advising us. That is what it feels like.

So I can see why many people will argue that our concepts of right and wrong are objective, presented to us externally (and therein we get the leap of logic to divine beings and divine commands). But we can see the intuitions of “right” and “wrong” are really evolved. Not objective or absolute. And, capable of changing over time as society changes or more information is required. This is quite consistent with an objectively based morality.

3: Pat is really more helpful than Sam

I found Pat’s comments on Sam Harris’s book far more critical than I have heard from her in the past. They are friends so her criticisms are not a personal attack – they are the evaluation of a philosopher and neuroscientist. Consequently her criticisms are far more relevant than those made by theological critics. We all know what is driving them, and that is why their critiques usually have no value.

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Answering questions on morality

I want to spend a few posts answering some of the questions commenters have raised on my science of morality articles here and at the SciBlogs syndicated version (Open Parachute@ SciBlogs). See, for example, Foundations of human morality.

Those articles represent my thinking as a result of the New Science of Morality  Seminar (see The new science of morality, Is and ought and A scientific consensus on human morality) and the Great debate “Can Science tell us Right from Wrong?” (See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this debate and workshop). Effectively I have tried to integrate the psychological approach of the Edge seminar with the more philosophical and neurobiological approach of the Debate. The reflection was also stimulated by reading books by Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape), Patricia Churchland (Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality), Jonathan Haidt, Marc Hauser, Matt Ridley, Stephen Pinker and others.

I have been very thankful for the discussion the articles generated. It’s a great way of developing one’s ideas. Finding flaws, looking for alternatives. Even when the disagreement is a result of misunderstanding, realising where one’s arguments need clarifying or better explanation is very useful.

I do not doubt the discussion has significantly contributed to evolution of my ideas in this area.

Questions from a religious apologist Continue reading

More on the science of morality

I think we may be seeing the beginning of a new wave of popular science books on morality. Sam Harris‘s The Moral Landscape got wide coverage and sparked several high-profile debates on the subject (see The new science of morality, Is and ought, A scientific consensus on human morality, Waking up to morality, Can science shape human values?, Telling right from wrong?, Telling right from wrong?, and Craig brings some clarity to morality?).

Now we have Patricia Churchland‘s new book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. This came out at the end of March and I got my copy the other day. I have just read Chapter 1 and 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.

I hope it sells well. Churchland doesn’t have the high public profile that Harris has. But she 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.

I just hope some fire and brimstone Christian apologists attack the book (as with Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design). That would help get it noticed!

It’s also very readable – always important in a popular science book.

Continue reading

Science and morality – a panel discussion

This is the panel discussion at the Great debate “Can Science tell us Right from Wrong?” (See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this debate and workshop).

The panel includes Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, Patricia Churchland, Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Peter Singer and Roger Bingham. They respond to questions from the audience (and the size of the audience for such a subject is heartening).

Their interaction is useful as it helps to overcome any misunderstanding any participant may have had about others points of view. Its a useful supplement to the individual presentation I have posted during this week (see Telling right from wrong – unreligiously, A philosopher comments on science and morality and A physicist comments on science and morality).

This video is 42 min long.


TSN: The Great Debate Panel, posted with vodpod

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A philosopher comments on science and morality

Here’s another video from the Great debate “Can Science tell us Right
from Wrong?”
(See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this
debate and workshop).

It’s the presentation by Pat Churchland. She is a philosopher who gives qualified support to the concept that science can tell us right from wrong. Its interesting because she does spend some time discussion issues which probably concern many people about this suggestion. Things like the possible arrogance of such decision making and the fact that scientific knowledge is not absolute. Her presentation, which is only 13 min long, also outlines the origins of human morality.


TSN: Patricia Smith Chuchland, posted with vodpod

Patricia Smith Churchland is a Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. She is also an adjunct faculty member at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Her research focuses on the interface between neuroscience and philosophy. Her books include “Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy,” ”Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain and On the Contrary: Critical Essays, 1987-1997,” with husband Paul M. Churchland. Her newest book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality,” is due out in spring 2011.

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