By: Patrick Clipsham
On November 19th 2012, Professor Patricia Churchland (UC San Diego) gave the first lecture in the Neurophilosophy Speaker Series, which is jointly sponsored by Western’s Rotman Institute of Philosophy and Brain and Mind Institute. Churchland is, without doubt, the ideal academic to give such an important lecture, as she has long been one of the most prominent proponents of neurophilosophy. As Dr. Melvyn Goodale, director of the Brain and Mind Institute and Canada Research Chair in Visual Neuroscience, pointed out in his introductory address, she quite literally wrote the book on neurophilosophy.
The topic of that night’s talk was her most recent book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. Churchland discussed a number of ways that the neuroanatomy of other animals can shed light on human pro-social and cooperative behaviour. One of the central themes of the talk is how mammalian brains react to the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which substantially contributes to our tendency to be caring towards others. This caring tendency was adaptive for early hominids, as having the ability to care about others gave them a tendency to protect their young, and facilitated cooperation in social groups.
As Churchland acknowledged, these considerations do not get us at “real morality.” She claims that the intermediate step between “caring for me and mine” and “genuine morality” is found in the differences between the brains of prairie voles and montane voles. Prairie voles have a higher density of oxytocin receptors, and this allows them to develop strong bonds of trust and attachment. It is these kinds of dispositions that Churchland claims serve as the platform for moral values (they enable the possibility of moral behaviour).
On the basis of Churchland’s talk, the characterization of this platform seems to give a plausible, exciting, neuroscientific story about how it is possible that humans are disposed to work together and care about one another. However, some very interesting philosophical and metaphilosophical questions came up during the discussion period. Churchland is, of course, used to having her work criticized in detail by philosophers. She has been one of the most prominent proponents of scientifically-informed philosophy, and more traditional philosophers often bristle when empirically-informed theories conflict with their preferred methodologies or central assumptions. But I believe that the dialogue during the question period indicates something very important about philosophical projects (like Churchland’s) that attempt to explain the nature and origin of moral behaviour by appealing to scientific findings. In many cases, these projects try to be wholly descriptive, and the proponents of these projects often deny that they carry any normative commitments. But it is at this point in the discussion that moral philosophers often try to drag these neurophilosophers, kicking and screaming as it were, into the traditional debates about normative ethics. As was exemplified in the question period, this debate between traditional moral philosophy and neurophilosophy seems to be at a standstill.
The purpose of the remainder of this post is to look more closely at exactly what these philosophers take to be at issue between themselves and Churchland. It is my belief that Churchland’s account leaves some important concepts largely unexplained, and it is these unexplained concepts that lead philosophers to raise certain objections. Again, my goal is not to raise decisive, traditional, objections to Churchland’s project. Rather, the hope is that by stating these questions in the most precise form possible, traditional moral philosophy and neurophilosophy can start to make some genuine progress towards reconciling their projects or, at least, realizing what each side is trying to say to the other.
As I mentioned, a number of traditional philosophical challenges came out during the question period of Churchland’s talk. Many of these revolved a common theme: to what extent does this project relate to any of the normative questions that philosophers take to be central to moral philosophy? Some members of the audience asked about the nature of normativity, while others asked about the possibility of moral progress and mind-independent moral truths. Some questions also brought up the importance of the question ‘what should I do?’ and one commentator asked Churchland’s opinion of Moorean arguments in favour of the claim that the moral is not reducible to the natural.
One obvious answer to these questions is just that Churchland’s project is not directed at normative questions, but rather descriptive questions. Braintrust is not about what actions are right or what states of affairs are good, but rather about what neurobiological features make moral behaviour possible in humans. This seems like a reasonable methodological commitment to attribute to her, as is evidenced by her comment that philosophers seeking a stronger form of normative moral truths are committed to the existence of some type of Platonic heaven. Churchland claimed that, despite repeatedly asking for directions, she has never managed to find such a heaven.
Churchland committed herself to two distinct, yet related claims during this discussion. The first has to do with how she characterized normativity. The second has to do with her claim that her own project is not meant to be normative. It seemed like many philosophers wanted to challenge these aspects of her view, but I was continually left with the impression that these philosophers were emphasizing the wrong questions. I think that the most precise way for philosophers to challenge these two claims is to question what exactly Churchland means by the word “normative.” I believe that many philosophers who reject projects like Churchland’s do so because of a commitment to an understanding of normativity that is not acknowledged, or maybe even not fully understood, in naturalistic circles. I think that this disagreement could be made more explicit if philosophers were to ask Churchland more precise questions.
The first question comes up as a response to Churchland’s dismissal of the normative. Churchland regularly insisted that anyone who did not endorse the reductive n
aturalist view that, as she puts it, values come from humans and their brains, must be committed to a supernatural story about the origin of values. At one point, she set up a dichotomy between the following two views: either values come from humans and their brains, or from a supernatural source, such as religion or a Platonic heaven. But this dichotomy between reductive naturalism and supernaturalism in ethics is, arguably, false. A number of philosophers have attempted to establish forms of moral non-naturalism that do not contradict the naturalistic worldview, and do not claim that moral properties are mysterious or spooky. This approach is most prominently visible in the work of quasi-realists like Simon Blackburn and Allan Gibbard, and some non-naturalists like T.M. Scanlon. When these and other philosophers talk about normativity, they do not take themselves to be endorsing a Platonic heaven, or any supernatural properties. But nonetheless, it seems to make sense for them to say that the truth of normative propositions does not depend counterfactually on the constitution of human brains. Normative facts are facts about what reasons we have, and it seems very natural (no pun intended) to talk about reasons without presupposing that they must be spooky, supernatural entities. So why does Churchland endorse the false dichotomy between reductive naturalism and supernaturalism? How does she understand normativity, and how does this understanding of it shape her project? A further answer to this question could help us resolve one of the tensions between traditional moral philosophy and neurophilosophy.
This point leads to the second interesting question: if we look at the notion of normativity endorsed by those philosophers mentioned above, it seems like many of Churchland’s commitments are normative and ethical in just the way these moral philosophers mean. At one point during the discussion period, she endorses a pragmatic, relativistic way of sorting out social problems. During this part of the discussion, it became clear that Churchland believes some institutions and practices to be better for societies because they provide stability, ensure posterity, promote well-being and generally allow a society to flourish. However, it is extremely difficult to explain why we should care about these features of a society without appealing to some traditional moral concepts like fairness, justice, progress, and equality. Why, for example, should we care about the rights of women? Churchland’s answer would have to be that it is because this concern for equality makes society more stable and prosperous. But why should we care about that? Does Churchland have nothing to say to the repugnant individual who believes that the oppression of women is good in itself? This person does not only value social stability and progress, and thus disagrees with Churchland about what it means for a society flourish. Indeed, this person may disagree that an egalitarian society is one that is flourishing.
Examples like this seem to force Churchland into a dilemma. Either the sexist person’s values are wrong (and thus there exist mind-independent values), or this person’s actions are not wrong (at least, not in his own cultural context). If Churchland endorses either horn of this dilemma, she would be committed to a view which is normative in exactly the sense most philosophers are interested in, as such a view would tell us something about what types of facts give us moral reasons. She is either committed to a moral view that identifies stability and progress as independently valuable, or she endorses the claim that the truth value of moral claims are fixed by the beliefs of communities. How would Churchland respond to this objection? And to what extent would that response be shaped by her own conception of the normative?
There is also another sense according to which some of Churchland’s commitments may be understood as normative. No moral philosophers should have a problem with Churchland’s claims about the mammalian brain, neurotransmitters, or trust bonding. The tensions discussed above arise when she applies these findings to morality and claims that these biological mechanisms explain human morality in some robust sense. So why, then, does she extend her project to morality rather than speaking simply about the neurological foundations of mammalian social behaviour? When prompted on this point, Churchland responded by claiming that she believes the practices and behaviours she is talking about are what most people mean by morality. After all, she predicated much of her talk on the idea that many concepts have a radial structure with prototypes at the center and fuzzy boundaries. But what, exactly, are the moral prototypes that govern our use of moral terms? Is the wrongness of oppression in that class of prototypes? Not everyone agrees to this, but I would say that this is as obvious a moral truth as any other. What about the factory farming of nonhuman animals? What about killing one human to save two others? For some people, the wrongness of these actions are paradigmatic examples of moral truths. And yet others deny them. How can we identify one class of moral judgments as being prototypical rather than others without making substantive moral assumptions? And how is it that these assumptions are not normative?
In short, the goal of this post was not to re-hash old criticisms of naturalized ethics. Rather, the hope was to identify precisely where traditional moral philosophy clashes with neurophilosophical projects like Churchland’s. I believe that the most important question philosophers can ask Churchland is: how does she understand normativity?
From the perspective of moral philosophy, the burden of proof is on her to show that her theory does not rely on normative assumptions or contradict other traditionally-understood normative moral theories. In order to resolve this debate, these are the problems that need to be pursued and addressed. Unfortunately, these questions are also extremely difficult to answer. As many philosophers have pointed out, ethics is messy, difficult, and rife with open questions. If identifying a core of moral prototypes was as easy as Churchland assumes, it is unlikely that moral philosophy would have captivated as many great minds over as many centuries as it has.