Monday, April 18, 2011

Patricia Churchland's science of morality

> It all began with a very adorable vole...

I've got a new post up at Rationally Speaking about what neuroscience can tell us about morality. I'll have more to say when I make it to the final chapter of Churchland's book (where she talks about religion). Here's the beginning:
A few weeks ago I went to a talk by philosopher-turned-neuroscientist Patricia Churchland about her new book Braintrust. The talk begins with the moderator turning to a packed audience in Columbia’s Havemeyer Hall and asking quite pointedly: “With a show of hands, can science tell us right from wrong?” 
Only about four hands go up. 
“All right,” he says, beckoning Churchland to the stage, “let’s see what you all think afterwards.” 
Presumably Churchland is about to change a few hundred minds on the science of morality. But as she proceeds through her lecture, it becomes increasingly clear that even she wouldn’t answer the moderator’s question wholeheartedly in the affirmative. She is providing the “yes” to another question, something more like “Can science tell us about right and wrong?” While the question is slightly less interesting (because it seems so obvious) her answer is fascinating. 
It all begins with me. Ok, not me, but the self. Each one of us is equipped with a neural circuitry that ensures our own self-caring and well-being — values in the most fundamental sense. As Churchland likes to say “we’re all born with systems that are very deep in the values business.” Neurons in the brainstem and hypothalamus monitor the inner state of our bodies to keep us alive; they also cause us to run from predators or eat when we’re hungry. Without these life-relevant feelings we wouldn't survive very long, let alone reproduce. 
The next step is to move from self-caring to other-caring. In mammals, this shift occurs not by some radical new engineering plan, but by slight adjustments to the neural mechanisms that are already in place. Modifications to the emotional, endocrine, stress and reward/punishment systems motivate new values, namely, the well-being of certain others. It’s as if the “golden circle of me” expands to include offspring, mates, friends and eventually even strangers.
The rest of the post is here.

Image: manual crank, flickr. com 

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