Patricia Churchland and Neuroscience

At peace with my brain 

Patricia Churchland interviewed by Graham Lawton  ::  New Scientist, 30 November 2013  ::

Summary and review of the above interview

pschurchlandIn this interview, it is apparent that the philosopher, Patricia Churchland, has moved on to occupy the neuroscience territory. As part of the group of 1990s thinkers that directed consciousness towards what some might argue to be its present cul-de-sac, in which sensible people are inhibited about discussing any connection between consciousness and the fundamental level of the universe. Churchland seems to have gone along with the science-lite but philosophy-heavy approach of the period. This appears to have been justified by functionalism which believed that the specific structure of the brain was not important, all that was required was any system that reached a particular complexity. Moving into modern times, Churchland rightly acknowledges the immensity of the strides in neuroscience since the 1990s, likening them to the discovery that the Earth went round the sun; still others have compared these discoveries to the time when Galileo turned his telescope on the mountains of the Moon.

Annexation of neuroscience

From there Churchland moves boldly to annex neuroscience as a support for her existing concepts. In doing so, she does not abandon the rather patronising tone that 1990s consciousness writers tended to address their readers with. We are told that coming to terms with the neural basis of who we are can be rather unnerving. In other words, we are not fellow enquirers into consciousness, but learners at a lower level, and if we should attempt to disagree that would simply prove that we are wrong. In the assessment of the implications of modern neuroscience, the reader might again feel somewhat patronised. Churchland isn’t freaked out by neuroscience, or perhaps not by what she takes to be neuroscience, but by implication less well instructed readers might be, and here she condescends to understand their ambivalence.

Neurochemistry and consciousness

Love for your child is just neurochemistry. It doesn’t bother her, she says and implies that lesser students must eventually struggle through to accept this position. But what we really see here is a lack of the curiosity that originally drove science, but now falters in what may be a declining age of science. Certainly neurotransmitter chemicals such as oxytocin are involved in the process. However, the curious and the classic scientific mind would have asked why chemicals which are not seen as producing or being involved with consciousness in the rest of the universe produce or are involved with it in the brain.

The interview continues with further assumptions. It is accepted that consciousness and decision-making don’t yet have satisfying neural explanations, but we are told that everything we’re learning in neuroscience is pointing in a direction that explains things in what we can take to be classical mechanical terms where the conscious experience is unimportant. And yet if we bother to read the modern material we see the exact opposite with the need to explain why unusually energetic concentrations in the brain flip us into consciousness, and what sort of common currency could resolve decision-making between diverse or conflicting rewards and punishments. Churchland does touch on decision-making and the related issue of self-control in the latter part of the interview but fails to discuss how the conflicts or comparisons of decision-making might be resolved.

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