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BRAINTRUST: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality

BRAINTRUST: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. Patricia S. Churchland. xii + 273 pp. Princeton University Press, 2011.

Robert J. Richards at American Scientis: In Braintrust, Patricia Churchland, a philosopher at the University of California at San Diego, seems intent on advancing a project comparable to Darwin’s through the application of the most recent science, as the subtitle of her book suggests: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. Readers may, however, decide instead to stick with that old-time evolution.

Churchland does not think that moral behavior can be reduced to any special kind of activity, as Darwin believed; rather, in her view, the term “moral” hovers over a variety of social behaviors, behaviors that might attract the same term but vary considerably across different cultures and individuals. Such behaviors, she argues, are not usually governed or motivated by explicit rules but are constituted by habits and emotionally guided decisions. She seeks to understand those habits and emotionally fed values as consequences of our neurobiology. She thus undertakes in several chapters to lay out the terrain of the brain, its regions and functions, and the kinds of hormones important for fertilizing the flowering of social relationships.

Churchland investigates other neurological features that might plausibly be offered as part of the scaffolding of moral behavior. She considers, for example, the possibility that there is an innate and heritable impulse to behave morally (Darwin’s view) and the hypothesis that moral behavior is grounded in mirror neurons, so that we might effortlessly imitate empathetic behaviors. Churchland chips away at these as possible neural structures for moral behavior. For instance, she attempts to undermine the concept of innate behavior generally by requiring a specification of the relevant genes and their relation to brain circuitry—a criterion beyond reach even for highly heritable traits, such as height. Indeed, by that criterion Darwin’s general theory of heritable adaptations, for which he had no reliable genetic foundation, would be but a passing fancy for the delectation of Intelligent Designers. Continue review HERE

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