Rule Breaker

When it comes to morality, the philosopher Patricia Churchland refuses to stand on principle

The Biology of Ethics 1 Sandy Huffaker for The Chronicle Review

Patricia S. Churchland studies the biological roots of morality.

By Christopher Shea

New York

Patricia S. Churchland, the philosopher and neuroscientist, is sitting at a cafe on the Upper West Side, explaining the vacuousness, as she sees it, of a vast swath of contemporary moral philosophy. "I have long been interested in the origins of values," she says, the day after lecturing on that topic at the nearby American Museum of Natural History. "But I would read contemporary ethicists and just feel very unsatisfied. It was like I couldn’t see how to tether any of it to the hard and fast. I couldn’t see how it had anything to do with evolutionary biology, which it has to do, and I couldn’t see how to attach it to the brain."

For people familiar with Churchland’s work over the past four decades, her desire to bring the brain into the discussion will come as no surprise: She has long made the case that philosophers must take account of neuroscience in their investigations.

While Churchland’s intellectual opponents over the years have suggested that you can understand the "software" of thinking, independently of the "hardware"—the brain structure and neuronal firings—that produced it, she has responded that this metaphor doesn’t work with the brain: Hardware and software are intertwined to such an extent that all philosophy must be "neurophilosophy." There’s no other way.

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