Sunday, March 20, 2011

Patricia S. Churchland's "Braintrust"

Patricia S. Churchland is professor emerita of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute. Her books include Brain-Wise and Neurophilosophy. In 1991, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality, and reported the following:
The main idea of Braintrust, wrapping page 99, fore and aft:

In the evolution of the mammalian brain, circuitry for regulating one’s own survival and well-being was modified. For sociality, the result was that the ambit of me extends to include others -- me-and-mine. Offspring, mates, and kin came to be embraced in the sphere of me-ness; we nurture them, fight off threats to them, keep them warm and safe. My brain knows these others are not me, but if I am attached to them, their predicament fires-up me-ness circuitry, motivating other-care that resembles self-care. Oxytocin, an ancient body-and-brain molecule, is at the hub of the neural adaptations sustaining mammalian sociality. Among its many roles, oxytocin decreases the stress response, making possible the friendly, trusting interactions typical of life in social mammals.

An additional evolutionary change crucial for mammalian sociality/morality is an enhanced capacity to learn, regulated by social pain and social pleasure. Social benefits are accompanied by socials demands; we have to get along, but not put up with too much. Hence increased capacity for impulse control and judgment -- being aggressive or compassionate or indulgent at the right time -- is also hugely advantageous.

Conscience, from this perspective, is the feltwork of powerful intuitions about what is proper and right, anchored by attachments and the urge for social life, and tuned to social practices that are learned by imitation, trial and error, and imagination. Different ecological niches will yield different ways life, possibly reflected in diverging ideas about birth and death, about marriage and religion.

Social problem-solving, including policy-making, is an instance of problem-solving more generally, and draws upon the capacity to envision consequences of a plan. Improving upon current practices and technologies -- moving from copper to iron, moving from divine right of kings to elected councils -- is distinctive in humans. Rules tend to come in when group-size expands, or when social life becomes so complex that disagreements must be negotiated. Families may have unarticulated but closely followed practices about when to deviate from the truth, but in settling who chops the wood and who milks the cow, rules are stated to prevent squabbling. Unlike other mammals, humans have developed highly complex language, and astonishingly complex cultures. This means that our sociality, and consequently our systems of ethical values, have become correspondingly complex.
Read an excerpt from Braintrust, and learn more about the book and author from the Princeton University Press website and Patricia S. Churchland's website.

--Marshal Zeringue