July 6, 2022

Patricia Churchland on Brains R Us

Strict materialism is hardly a new idea but there are few scientists who are more daring about taking it to its logical conclusions than Patricia Churchland.


Strict materialism is hardly a new idea but there are few scientists who are more daring about taking it to its logical conclusions than Patricia Churchland, professor emerita at University of California, San Diego. In her latest book, Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain, she argues yet another time that  everything we feel and think stems not from an immaterial spirit but from electrical and chemical activity in our brains.

New Scientist recently interviewed her and asked some challenging questions. Here are a few excerpts:

The implications of neuroscience do not unsettle her: “It takes some getting used to, but I’m not freaked out by it. I certainly understand the ambivalence people have. On one hand, they’re fascinated because it helps explain their mother’s Alzheimer’s, but on the other, they think, ‘Gosh, the love that I feel for my child is really just neural chemistry’ Well, actually, yes, it is. But that doesn’t bother me.”

Philosophical objections are little more than turf wars: “Many philosophers think, hey, we thought we were going to have all the answers, and now you guys are wading in and telling us what knowledge is I think there’s fear of a territorial kind, and rightly so.”

So, we are our brains? “True, we don’t have adequate explanations yet, and it’s important not to overstate where things are. But that’s where the evidence is pointing. Everything we’re learning in neuroscience points us in that direction.”

What about the meaning of life? “Neuroscience doesn’t provide a story about how to live a life. But I think that understanding something about the nature of the brain encourages us to be sensible.” 

Michael Cook
Creative commons
neuroethics
neuroscience