Book Review: Brain Trust

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By Grant Steves

Cover of Braintrust, featuring an image of a brain scan with words superimposed. "Ethics" and "moral" are dominant.

Braintrust, by Patricia S. Churchland ©2011,  Princeton University Press, 288 pages.

Patricia Churchland is an outstanding philosopher and scientist. In her career, she has published several articles and books of importance in the area of neurophilosophy. Starting in 1986, her book Neuro-philosophy: Towards a Unified Understanding of the Mind-Brain was published; in 1992, The Computational Brain was released; in 2002, Brain-Wise was published. The most recent volume, Braintrust, was released in March 2011. In each of her successive books, she has continued to make complex concepts more accessible to the general public.

Braintrust is an examination of the most recent literature on, ‘what neuroscience tells us about morality.’ Her stated aim is to “examine the foundations of mammalian sociability in general and human sociability in particular. I began this project because I wanted to understand what it is about the brains of highly social mammals that enables their socialability and thus to understand what grounds morality. I also wanted to understand the variability in social temperament… Though the approach through the various biological sciences may tell us a lot about the social platform, it is not, by any manner or means, the sum and substance of human morality.”

In her presentation she describes how morality appears to emerge within the mammalian social structure – rather than from some author on high. All the time that she presents this argument, she credits the voluminous sources that influenced her writing – whether Hume, Darwin, or Aristotle.

Unlike Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, where he speaks in a more definitive manner. Churchland qualifies that “although social problem-solving may in time culminate in explicit rules, antecedent and more basic are the implicit standards emerging from shared values – practices that most individuals pick up without much instruction, but by imitation and observation.”

Churchland also confronts the arguments advanced by Marc Hauser, Moral Minds , that morality is innate and universal. The argument is dismissed with the logical analysis of his claims and exposure of its contradictions. She appeals to Simon Blackburn, a Cambridge University philosopher, for support in this argument against Hauser. Blackburn is quoted as saying that moral intuitions and linguistic intuitions “are apparently not abundant, not instant, not inarticulate, not inflexible, and not certain.”

The third line of speculation that Churchland examines is from Jonathan Haidt, a Harvard psychologist, who argues that human morality is based on five intuitions (virtues), a tradition that goes back to Socrates, Aristotle, and Mencius. Churchland responds to his speculations saying, “Haidt’s project is laudable, the execution is disappointingly insensitive to the height of the evidence bar. No factual support … is marshaled for his substantive claims about basic domains of intuitions.”

In contrast with these positions, Churchland takes a responsible stand that looks at the permissibility of her philosophical and scientific claims. At the intersection of philosophy and neuroscience she produces a challenge that says psychology and philosophy must adjust to the new research being published.

The moral value system seems to be derived from family values that are shared by all mammals, but it is the human brain chemistry that has processes that mold human interaction with other people. Humans’ morality is influenced by hormonal triggers, genes, and brain evolution. These elements come together to shape our ‘moral geography.’ 

Clearly, her approach is set in science, but she cautions about science, “The complaint that a scientific approach to understanding morality commits the sin of scientism does really exaggerate what science is up to, since the scientific enterprise does not aim to displace the arts or humanities. …”

She also disposes of the naturalistic fallacy in the introduction of her book by describing the origin of the “is-ought” mantra in Hume’s writing and how this has been misunderstood and misinterpreted. This chapter alone is well worth reading, because of its careful and scholarly approach.

The above are some of the points she makes in her book. Throughout the book she emphasizes that morality is learned in social interactions and changes according to circumstance, and that the health of these social beings is related to their various circumstances and patterns encountered. Health is one of those elements the scientist cannot adequately define but know it is influenced by the institutions and influential features of this same element.

Churchland’s book will challenge your assumptions, inspire you to read more widely in the area of neuroethics, and help you adjust to the idea that morality is not imposed from a religious entity on high but, rather, has evolved with our human development.

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