Five Card Story: Patricia Churchland and Her Story in Neurophilosophy

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a Five Card Flickr story by Dani created Oct 18 2020, 04:35:58 am. Create a new one!

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When Pat went to college, she decided that she wanted to learn about the mind: what is intelligence, what it is to reason, what it is to have emotions. She found that these questions were not being addressed in the first place she looked, psychology—many psychologists then were behaviorists—but they were discussed somewhat in philosophy, so she started taking philosophy courses. She met Paul in a Plato class, her sophomore year.

She soon discovered that the sort of philosophy she was being taught was not what she was looking for. At the time, in the nineteen-sixties, Anglo-American philosophy was preoccupied with language—many philosophers felt that their task was to untangle the confusions and incoherence in the way people spoke, in the belief that disagreements were often misunderstandings, and that if our concepts were better sorted out then our thinking would also be clearer. This held no great appeal for Pat, but one thing led to another, and she found herself in philosophy graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. The department was strong in philosophy of science, and to her relief Pat found people there who agreed that ordinary language philosophy was a bit sterile. At Pittsburgh, she read W. V. O. Quine’s book “Word and Object,” which had been published a few years earlier, and she learned, to her delight, that it was possible to question the distinction between empirical and conceptual truth: not only could philosophy concern itself with science; it could even be a kind of science.

After a year, she moved to Oxford to do a B.Phil. Philosophy at Oxford at the time was very far from Pittsburgh—quite conservative, not at all empirically oriented. Nobody seemed to be interested in what she was interested in, and when she tried to do what she was supposed to she was bad at it. It was all very discouraging. She was beginning to feel that philosophy was just a lot of blather. “The idea seemed to be that, if you analyzed your concepts, somehow that led you to the truth of the nature of things,” she says. “It was just garbage.” She was about to move back to Canada and do something else entirely, maybe go into business, but meanwhile Paul Churchland had broken up with the girlfriend he’d had when they were undergraduates and had determined to pursue her. He came over to Oxford for the summer, and they rented a little house together on Iffley Road. Paul had started thinking about how you might use philosophy of science to think about the mind, and he wooed Pat with his theories.

Nowadays, it seems obvious to many philosophers that if they are interested in the mind they should pay attention to neuroscience, but this was not at all obvious when Pat and Paul were starting out, and that it is so now is in some measure due to them. Her works were initially frowned upon by a number of her fellow philosophers, complaining that she wasn't doing proper philosophy. But as more discoveries are made in how neuroscience can explain the activities of the mind, neurophilosophy and reductionism has become a more welcomed thought.

Patricia Churchland is now a noted figure in neurophilosophy and philosophy of the mind. She is associated with a school of thought called eliminative materialism. In 2019, she just released her new book, "Conscience", in which Churchland argues that mammals — humans, yes, but also monkeys and rodents and so on — feel moral intuitions because of how our brains developed over the course of evolution. For her, your conscience is a brain construct. Having the conscience explained through neuroscience doesn't devalues it. Rather, it shows how much extraordinary our brains are.

My thoughts:

The life Patricia Churchland experienced as she fought for her thoughts and beliefs that the mind can be explained through our body and brain structure influenced my philosophy. While I am still on the fence and quite leaning on dualism, I also think that it's a wonder and a marvel to find how our brains and experiences can affect our mind and view of self. Some of her ideas, I even have as a child - like how our "morality" is actually just there as a part of our biological survival system in which those that are considered "good" are things that gives advantage to the community (e.g. honesty generates trust, which in turn helps the community to have better cooperation). And the "bad" are things that gives disadvantage either to you or the society (e.g. Selfishness is considered bad as it can lead to hoarding of resources that will in turn deprive some other people in the community). Some people may think it's not marvelous to think that our thoughts and emotions are just a result of chemical reactions happening in our brains, but I think there's merit in reductive materialism as it gives empirical information that we can discern and study in order to understand how our minds and self work.

One idea that fascinated me is the irony that in order for us to have free will, we must first have self control. For if it's only when you are fully aware of yourself can you have the ability to be truly free. 

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