Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Churchland's Neuro-Morality

Patricia Churchland is a neurophilosopher at UC-San Diego, who has written much over the years on the interface of philosophy and neuroscience. Her newest book is Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. Christopher Shea reviews it in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Churchland's thesis is that morality is more like a feeling that emerges from an underlying biological basis than like a rational process having to do with moral system-building.

Churchland "offers the following description of a typical "moral" scenario. A farmer sees a deer breaching his neighbor's fence and eating his apples while the neighbor is away. The farmer will not consult a Kantian rule book before deciding whether to help, she writes, but instead will weigh an array of factors: Would I want my neighbor to help me? Does my culture find such assistance praiseworthy or condescending? Am I faced with any pressing emergencies on my own farm? Churchland describes this process of moral decision-making as being driven by "constraint satisfaction.""

What is "constraint satisfaction?" Churchland says we don't yet understand this neurobiologically. "But roughly speaking it involves various factors with various weights and probabilities interacting so as to produce a suitable solution to a question." Churchland attempts to give an explanation for moral behavior but gives little or nothing, according to Shea, about the content of moral decisions - why one path might be better than another.

This is, admits Churchland's philosopher friend Owen Flanagan, a "highly pragmatic view of morality." "It's like deciding whether or not to build a bridge across a river. Moral decisions are like this. Then Flanagan adds, The reason we both think it makes sense is that the other stories"—that morality comes from God, or from philosophical intuition—"are just so implausible.""

But the Churchland-Flanagan explanation lacks plausibility in that it supports a moral relativism that disallows us from adjudicating between right and wrong. According to Churchland moral "rules and institutions, crucially, will vary from place to place, and over time. "Some cultures accept infanticide for the disabled or unwanted," she writes, without judgment. "Others consider it morally abhorrent; some consider a mouthful of the killed enemy's flesh a requirement for a courageous warrior, others consider it barbaric.""

While we all might agree that building a bridge across a river is a good idea, moral issues often do not achieve such consensus.  ""If we knew that abortion was wrong, we could find ways of reducing abortion—we could try to determine what the best policy might be to discourage people from trying to engage in it," says Guy Kahane, deputy director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, at the University of Oxford."

Shea notes that "the element of cultural relativism also remains somewhat mysterious in Churchland's writings on morality." Shea: "I reminded Churchland, who has served on panels with [Sam] Harris, that he likes to put academics on the spot by asking if they think such practices as the early 19th-century Hindu tradition of burning widows on their husbands' funeral pyres was objectively wrong. So did she think so? First, she got irritated: "I don't know why you're asking that." But, yes, she finally said, she does think that practice objectively wrong. "But frankly I don't know enough about their values, and why they have that tradition, and I'm betting that Sam doesn't either.""

Rest assured that system-building philosopher-ethicists (Rawls, e.g.) will find Churchland's views fundamentally non-illuminating as regards moral decision-making.

A final thought, to illustrate my confusion. Churchland is interviewed in American Scientist, and asked what books she is currently reading? She responds, "I am reading Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, by Frank Dik├Âtter (Walker, 2010). I am fascinated by history, and I was stunned to learn how callous and brutal Mao was. Tens of millions of people starved to death during Mao's attempt to restructure Chinese life according to his ill-informed fantasies."

How, I must inquire, can any act be "ill-formed" if a neurobiological explanation is sufficient? Like someone who saw it "good" and "right" to build a bridge across a river, Mao saw it good to do what he neurophysically had to do. Isn't it precisely here that we need the "villainous" system-builders Churchland so despises? (See Shea) Biology can describe; it cannot prescribe.