Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Interview: Patricia Churchland, The Really Nice Guy Materialist

Julian Baggini interviews neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland in The Philosophers' Magazine, Issue 57, 2nd Quarter 2012. I rather enjoyed her low opinion of Sam Harris's faux neuromorality.

Her most recent book is Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality (2011) - the paperback comes out September 1.

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Interview: Patricia Churchland, the really nice guy materialist

Julian Baggini


Julian Baggini interviews Patricia Churchland.

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“Brian McLaughlin wrote the entry on consciousness for the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Consciousness. He said the Churchlands don’t believe in consciousness. And it was so interesting because we had studiously avoided saying any such thing about consciousness. So I phoned Brian after I read this and I said, ‘Well, what the fuck?’”


Interview by Julian Baggini

Read most introductions to contemporary philosophy and you might spot something odd. In amongst the carefully drawn pen-portraits of the discipline’s current leading lights are two little cartoon caricatures, there to demonstrate Cicero’s claim that “There is nothing so absurd that some philosopher has not already said it.” In the best cartoon tradition of the Flintstones and the Simpsons, these characters are known simply by their family name: the Churchlands.

Patricia and Paul Churchland’s comedy double-act is not based around funny one-liners, although as I discovered when I caught up with her in Madrid, Patricia is an often very funny conversationalist. The laughs come from the position for which they have become famous: eliminative materialism. Most people who have heard about it believe this entails the denial that we have any thoughts, feelings, emotions or perceptions at all. Churchland recalled one all-too typical example of how this misconception gets around.

“Brian McLaughlin from Rutgers wrote the entry on consciousness for the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Consciousness. He said the Churchlands don’t believe in consciousness. And it was so interesting because we had (a) studiously avoided saying any such thing about consciousness and (b) had some actual ideas worked out with Rudolph LlinĂ¡s in NYU, who was a physiologist, about what might actually be involved in the brain. So we were, to use the old vocabulary, identity theorists about consciousness. So why would we deny the existence of one of the relata?

“So I phoned Brian after I read this and I said, ‘Well, what the fuck?’ And he said ‘Well, you’re eliminativists,’ and I said, ‘But Brian, have you ever read anything of ours when we say that?” She pauses. “‘Well no.’ And he was very gracious and said ‘I’ll take it out of the next edition,’ which he did.”

Churchland puts some of this down to the sociological fact that “we were these funny little nobodies in this backwards, nothing place in Canada, and I was working in neuroscience, and people thought that this just made for wonderful combination, where really all you had to do was laugh at it, and it would go away.”

We cleared up these misconceptions later, but given how widespread they are, you can understand the trepidation felt by many at the thought of Patricia tackling the issue of morality head-on. But her recent book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality defies such expectations, due largely to the fact that the answer to the question implied by the subtitle is very far from everything. This contrasts starkly with what many see as the scientific hubris of Sam Harris in his recent The Moral Landscape.

“Sam Harris has this vision that once neuroscience is much more developed then neuroscientists will be able to tell us what things are right or wrong, or at least what things are conducive to well-being and not. But even if you cast it in that way, that’s pretty optimistic – or pessimistic, depending on your point of view. Different people even within a culture, even within a family, have different views about what constitutes their own well-being. Some people like to live out in the bush like hermits and dig in the ground and shoot deer for resources, and other people can’t countenance a life that isn’t in the city, in the mix of cultural wonderfulness. So people have fundamentally different ideas about what constitutes well-being.

“I think Sam is just a child when it comes addressing morality. I think he hasn’t got a clue. And I think part of the reason that he kind of ran amuck on all this is that, as you and I well know, trashing religion is like shooting fish in a barrel. If Chris Hitchens can just sort of slap it off in an afternoon then any moderately sensible person can do the same. He wrote that book in a very clear way although there were lots of very disturbing things in it. I think he thought that, heck, it’s not that hard to figure these things out. Morality: how hard can that be? Religion was dead easy. And it’s just many orders of magnitude more difficult.”

What Churchland believes science can do is describe the “neural platform” for ethics. What does she mean by this? It’s perhaps made clearest by looking first at what sits on top of that platform. Moral problems, says Churchland, are essentially “constraint satisfaction problems”.

“For many of the social problems that people have to address, problems of scarcity of resources or what have you, they have to come together, and negotiate, and figure out an amicable solution so that they can carry on. And sometimes those solutions work out fairly well in the short run, and then they have to modify them so they can work out in the longer run. I conceive of that as problem-solving, aka reasoning. And I don’t think neuroscience has anything to say about those things.”

What it does have something to say about is the neural basis which makes such problem solving possible. This “neural platform” is “the basis for sociality, it’s the circuitry in place that makes us want to be with others, that makes us sometimes sacrifice our own interests because we want to be with others, and feel pain when we’re excluded or when we’re ostracized, enjoy the company of others, enjoy the feelings of satisfaction when we co-operate. All those things are the platform. And out of the platform emerges very different social practices, and they’re influenced by many things. History is of course one, but there’s also the ecological conditions. So we can see that certain social practices amongst the Inuit are different from social practices amongst people who are living in Polynesia, and that’s at least partly owing to the fact that life is really, really, really hard in the Arctic.  
Read the whole interview.

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