"How Important is the Brain to the Great Philosophical Questions?" Why? Radio epiosde with Patrician Churchland
2:59PM Sep 2, 2021
Jack Russell Weinstein
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Hi, I'm jack Russell Weinstein host of why philosophical discussions but everyday life. On today's episode, we'll be exploring the connection between philosophy and neuroscience with Patricia churchland. So, I'm faced with a strategic problem here. The very first question I want to ask my guest is probably the one I should save for the end. I'll put it as follows. Is all of this de cartes fault. Now, it's clear why I should probably wait right? What is all of this? Who was Descartes? Why is he to blame? In order for that question, to pack the punch that I think it has, we have to do a lot of background work. The problem is what we're going to talk about will only be really meaningful if everyone listening understands the legacy that we're challenging. We're all born and raised in a Cartesian framework. And if I don't explain what that is, and why it's so I won't do justice to our guests research. So here we go. Rene Descartes lived in the first half of the 17th century he made incredible contributions to math and natural science, but he's most famous for his philosophical aphorism. I think, therefore I am. We can doubt anything our experience, he argued, we can imagine there's no God or that we're living in a dream or even believe that two plus two equals 27. But we can't doubt that we ourselves exist because the act of doubting requires a doubter. There can be no thought without a thinker. The first proof the second so, I think therefore, I am. Descartes ends up claiming that the universe is made up of two substances, mind and body. Since our certainty comes from reason, my think, therefore I am is a logical proposition. After all, we know that the mind exists. And since we can prove that an all good God wouldn't deceive us, we can also be certain that the physical world is as we experience it. The real problem Descartes tells us is figuring out how the two substances interact. This is Mind Body dualism, and it's the worldview we're trying to escape. Now I'm fudging some stuff. First off, Descartes actually claimed that there were three substances not to, because God was neither mine nor body, but that's not important right now. Also, his so called proof of the existence of God is nonsense. So we can put that aside as well. What we can't dismiss, is his claim that the mind and body are different, and that they must join somewhere in order to talk to one another. People have believed this bit for a really long time. Have you ever heard someone complain that they want to be loved for their mind about their body, or that athletes aren't very smart because they're focused on brawn rather than brain, or that a woman has a right to choose abortion because she owns her body or that antidepressants are bad, because psychoactive drugs change who people really are. These are all Cartesian dualism in action. Each example presumes that our physical and mental selves are somehow different. And each rejects the idea that all the elements of human existence are integrated. They also assumed by the way that the mind is superior to the body, that it's more representative of who we are. Because there's a fine line between mind and the soul. There is another option, instead of thinking about the brain is different from the mind. Instead of separating the soft clump of physical matter that is protected by our skull from the abstract process that we identify as our thoughts and feelings. Maybe we could imagine them as different ways of describing the same thing. A spoon is convex or concave, depending on how we look at it, but it's the same spoon. The spoon is far or near relative to where we're measuring it from. Maybe brain and mind are each just terms we use when we want to investigate specific aspects of ourselves. Maybe they're just a convenient shorthand we use for analytic purposes. This is where I guess research comes in. Patricia Churchville, his career has been focused on explaining how the mental phenomena we're familiar with our neurological processes, she explores our consciousness, moral intuitions, social desires, and freewill without belittling either the mental or physical reality. She uses recent insights from evolution in neuroscience to articulate not just what mind is but where it comes from and why. Which leads us back to the strategic problem. Patent I can't argue Descartes was wrong until we explained the alternative, but we can't articulate the alternative until we hypothesize that Descartes was wrong. It's all connected. We just need to find an entry point. It's a version of what philosophers call the problem of the one in the many to really know something you have to know everything, but to know everything. You have to know something first. Maybe this too, was another metaphor. Mind and Body. Maybe it's all the same thing and we just need to find somewhere to start. If that's the case, well, we might as well get to it. It's time to challenge Descartes.
And now our guest, Patricia churchland is University of California presidents Professor of Philosophy America, at the University of California, San Diego, where she has taught since 1984. She is the author of six books, including most recently conscience, the origin of moral intuition. Pat, welcome to why.
Oh, thank you, jack for having me. It's really a great honor to do this. I'm really thrilled and I'm especially thrilled that this is North
Dakota, that's Well, I'm not sure we all feel the same way. But we'll take your enthusiasm with we can get it if if you'd like to participate share your favorite moments from the show and tag us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Our handle is at why radio show and you can always email us at ask email@example.com and listen to our previous episode for free at wire Radio show.org pad I made a joke about North Dakota but of course you were in Manitoba for quite a while right?
Yes, my husband and I and our two children we were there for 14 years and and I had a great fondness actually for Winnipeg. We we had wonderful friends we of course had the obligatory cottage on on the lake. In many ways it those those years I remember with a tremendous fondness for those folks
who aren't used to the the local geography. Winnipeg is the place that we think about when it's 20 below and my wife and I turned to each other and say, you know, there's a whole country north of here, right? We had we have a colleague for years, who in the worst winters he was a smoker, and he would still go out in a sports jacket and just have a smoke and that's Winnipeg for us. So, so Alright, so the the question I guess I want to start with is, am I wrong? to frame your work as as as a response to Descartes? Is that the tradition you're working in? Or is that something separate?
Well, I suppose you can think of the questions that motivated me as going back much, much before Descartes. And they're really the questions that motivated Aristotle and Plato and Socrates, their questions like this, you know, what is it? For me to perceive something? What is it to have self control? And why do I lose self control under certain kinds of conditions? What is it that happens when, let's say I have too much wine, and I can't remember the next day? Very much of what I did. Why is that? Now Plato took one direction, and he liked Descartes, many centuries later, had the view that there is a kind of non physical soul. And the non physical soul is the thing that perceives and remembers that feels pain and fear. Whereas Aristotle, who was actually Plato's still, Aristotle was a physician, or at least his father was, and he learned a lot in a very practical way. And Aristotle took the view that these are functions of the body. And they may be functions we don't yet understand, but fundamentally, they have to do with the way the body is organized. Now, I think, as a child, I wondered about these things, because of course, like all kids, you know, I went to church and I was told about my soul and and, and, and then when I had to go to the dentist, and the dentist asked if I wanted to have freezing on my tooth so that I would feel no pain. I thought, Well, sure, that would be dandy. So I did that. And, but then I wondered, why, why wouldn't my soul feel pain just because he put some stuff in the area of my tooth. So my mother explained to me that there is a nerve that goes from the tooth up to the brain. Maybe there's a connection in there somewhere, but there's a nerve. And when the dentist puts in the novocaine, the nerve can't function, it's like, the novocaine turns off a switch. So the signal can no longer go from my tooth to my brain. So it was all a story about my tooth and the braid. It was not a story about the soul. And I think my father too, was very much of a sort of practical, let's find the mechanisms kind of a person. And, and so it seemed to me that maybe it This is really a story about the nature of the brain. And it's a story that doesn't have room for a special spooky substance.
It's a hole, ultimately, I'm struck by the example that you gave early on with drinking wine. And yeah, it feels like the the reverse of the dentist example, because of the famous phrase of the Greek set it in Greek but in Latin in vino Veritas, right in wine, there is truth, that something happens when you drink wine, that that gives you more permission to act in a certain way. And so, on the one hand, right, the dentist example, blocks the pain from going to the brain. But on the other hand, the wine example, allows the soul to reveal aspects that the body hides is are those two versions of the same problem? Or are they different sort of ways of thinking about things?
Well, I think they're very different, but they are connected. So when you drink to excess, let us say, you might think that somehow your real self is coming out. And that's because certain inhibitions are as a result of the way the wine affects your brain. Certain inhibitions are released, your self control is not as robust when you have had alcohol. And the more alcohol you have, the less self control you have. And ultimately, people who drink too great access, even lose self control for their bladders. So it isn't necessarily that you know, you're somehow getting access to the spooky part of the soul when you drink, it's that you're actually changing the brain. And we know this is also true with with other drugs so that it alcohol works a little differently on the brain than does say cocaine, which works a little differently from fentanyl, or heroin. But these all have their effects, precisely as a result of the way they change the nature of the physical brain. So you can't you fail to be able to remember, for example, if you drink to excess, you failed to be able to remember what you said that so anger, you may fail to remember that you yourself became very angry and hits. Why is that? It's not because your soul is doing something special. It's because very specific neurons in very specific parts of the brain called the hippocampus, were down regulated by the alcohol, they were not functioning properly.
Before we get to the more technical and neurological questions. I'm curious about how your research especially early on, was affected by the filosa. Or was was received by the philosophical community in particular, because philosophers have a for back of a better term, a bias against the body, right? We're educated to be mental people. We're educated to value our intellect over our brawn. The university despite all the reputations of of of, you know, Hanky Panky between teachers and students. The university is a place that is very, very desexualized. You're not supposed to think about how people look, you're not supposed to help help people address you're supposed to focus on their mind. And this is a long thread within philosophy that the mental that the intellectual is the primary concern. And Nita silvers, who recently passed away, unfortunately, was a guest on the show, she talked about the philosophy of disability. And she talked about how, by a person who had as a person who was in a scooter, she liked being around philosophers, because they didn't pay that much attention to the body. And so I wonder, does that philosophical tendency to diminish the physical, did that have an effect on how your work was received and how your advisors and your colleagues directed you to where you go?
I don't actually think it was that particularly. I mean, I should just say that that when I began to really work in neuroscience and to learn everything I possibly could about the brain. Um, I think a number of my colleagues thought I, you know, I was just kind of noodling along. And, and I would never amount to anything. And that whenever the brain was it wasn't interesting. Now that's very different from talking about a whole body. So, so their their view was that the brain is not really it wasn't really very interesting. Now this, oddly enough, this is not because they believed in spooky stuff. It's rather because they thought they could figure out the nature of knowledge, the nature of decision making the nature of consciousness, just by talking to each other. And from my perspective that looked like hot air. And I couldn't see that they were making any progress. Where, as I'll tell you the experiment that absolutely got me by the throat, it wasn't really an experiment, it was actually a treatment. But in the 1970s, people were trying to figure out a way whereby they could treat patients who had intractable epilepsy. Now, that means that they would have 4050 100 seizures a day, which essentially prevented them from having any kind of a working or social or normal life. And one thought was that if you could do surgery to separate the two hemispheres of the brain, that at least you would prevent the seizure from if it started in one hemisphere, you prevent it from transferring to the other. Now, between the two hemispheres, sort of right down the center of the top of your head, if you go straight down from there, there is a kind of sheet of nerves that connects the two hemispheres called the corpus callosum. And so experimentally, with patients full agreement, the surgeons cut the corpus callosum separating the two hemispheres. They did this for several patients, and then they monitored them super carefully. And what they discovered was that one hemisphere could decide something that the other hemisphere did not. So in one famous case, the right hand would pick up the newspaper and the left hand would throw it on the floor. They also found that they could present information to just one hemisphere at a time, and the other hemisphere would know nothing. And the impact on me of these so called split brain studies, was to think, wait, do all who like Descartes thought there was Brain Stuff and spooky stuff can't possibly be right. Otherwise, you would never have the phenomena that we see in a split brain subjects. And so that was actually what really drove me to go to the medical school and to study patients and to deseq brains and so forth. And, and then, of course, once I got to the medical school, and I saw patients I saw in Winnipeg, these remarkable people whose psychological states could only be explained in terms of the damage to their brains. And so the game was sort of over for me by then. And then I wanted to do what Aristotle did, except I wanted to do it with with up to date science. I wanted to understand what happens when we sleep. What happens when we dream, what happens such that some people become highly addicted to things like alcohol, or heroin.
So in in anticipation in a few minutes, we'll, we'll take a break, but in anticipation of that, and knowing that you have a particular answer to this question, at what point does the philosophy come in and say, You're messing with the idea of bind and freewill by focusing on the brain and these connections and all this sort of stuff? You're, you're putting at risk or you're challenging this idea that somehow we can make choices somehow we are more than the sum of our parts. Not I'm not looking for the answer yet, because I Obviously, that's a longer conversation. But at what point? Do you Where do your colleagues start to ask that question?
Right from the beginning? Absolutely. And and I think right from the beginning is especially and you could see this in the split brain studies, what is it decision, a freely made decision, such that one hemisphere makes a decision to read the paper and the other hemisphere says, No, we're not reading the paper. That looks to me like decision making is done by the brain. It's not done by spooky stuff. You can't split consciousness by splitting spooky stuff. There's no spooky stuff to split. There's just a brain. Now, when I say just the brain, let me take it back a bit. The brain of all mammals, humans, dogs, horses, monkeys, chimpanzees, the brains are unbelievably complex. And I can go into you know, I could give you sort of numbers and things that that that will give you a feel for the nature of the complexity of the nervous system. So to say that the brain does these things. It's not to say they're dinky, and they're little and they're easy, and and the mechanisms are straightforward. None of that's true. perception, motor control, even just being able to walk and hold yourself up, right. These are really really complex functions. And, and nervous systems have evolved to do them.
When we get back we'll get into the nuts and bolts of these questions will ask the larger philosophical questions about consciousness about freewill about moral development. And we'll also just come face to face with the question, how relevant is empirical research to philosophy and how do you combine them into this brand new subfield that pat calls neuro philosophy but that's after the break. You're listening to Patricia churchland and jack Russell Weinstein, on why philosophical discussions about everyday life We'll be back right after this.
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You're back with wide philosophical discussions of everyday life. I'm your host, jack Russell Weinstein. I'm talking with Patricia churchland, about neuro philosophy and the relationship between the brain and the mind and how cognitive science and new empirical information and how evolution connects to the larger philosophical questions of things like consciousness and freewill. And those folks who are regular listeners to the show will know that in the last couple of years, I've started talking a bit more about triathlons. A few years ago, I started doing triathlons, in part and I think I've mentioned this before, as a way to contribute to my mental health as well as physical health, I went through a bad time I was on antidepressants, and I discovered that physical activity had the same effect, perhaps even a better effect, then, the pills that I was being prescribed. And after about a year of doing very intense physical activity, I was able to get off the pills, which is not the right decision for everybody. But it was the right decision for me. And now I know that when I'm feeling down, if I go for a jog, or I go for a bike ride or swim, I have more energy, I have more enthusiasm, and it just makes it easier for me to get through my life. And so the question that comes up, Pat, that I want to ask you in relation to that is, first of all, what's going on there, not in the sense of of the brute chemical reactions, but when we look at the chemicals that are released from exercise and other such things, is that an explanation? Or is that for lack of a better term, a justification and what I mean by that is, okay, we can talk about the neurology and how things Change. But my experience of it is so much more profound and more intimate, the explanation of the chemical releases. That doesn't feel like it's telling the whole story. So how do we get from the material account to the story of the experience and the meaning of it all?
Well, I think it's complicated. And I think for for many things, we can't tell the whole story, I'm sure that in doing your triathalon work, one of the things that's happening is that the endogenous opioids, that your body that your brain makes, those opioids are almost certainly released into, into your brain. And that's part of the reason that you feel good. Another thing that almost certainly happens is that oxytocin is released during exercise. And oxytocin acts in opposition to stress so that when oxytocin levels in the brain go up, then your cortisol levels go down, and you feel less anxiety, you feel less stress. Now, those are just two things. But of course, they're in mind that there are many hundreds of neuro chemicals that play an important role in your body, in your brain, and also that you have upwards of 86 billion neurons in your head. And so, you know, there's there's a lot of complexity. But you know, I'll tell you a story that had a really big impact on how I thought about this.
And it, it's not the whole story of a behavior, but it's a big part. So it turns out there are many species of voles and montane. voles, as you might imagine, live in the mountains, and they build their nests amongst rocks, and so forth. And a male and a female montane vole will meet, they'll mate, and then they carry on their separate ways. A different species of vole behaves differently. They look very similar, but they're different. The male and the female meet, they mate, and then they're bonded for life. Now, what does that mean exactly? It means that most of their sexual action takes place between them, that the male guards the nest against other males, but also against other females, he helps take care of the babies. And basically, they like to spend a lot of time with each other. Moreover, if you take one of them and separate it from the bonded meat, then they both become quite depressed in the sense that they don't eat very well, if you put them in a bucket of water, they kind of splash around, they don't really try hard to get out. But when you put them back together, they're thrilled. They, they behave in a wonderful way. And they they lick each other and so far, yeah. What's the difference in the brains between these two species? It turns out that the important difference for this difference in behavior is in an old part of the brain. And it's in a part of the reward system than it's in the nucleus accumbens. So, and the difference has to do with this wonderful, but ancient neuro chemical called oxytocin. And in the prairie vole, the ones that meet for life, it turns out, when you look at the nucleus, accumbens, and you look at the number of receptors on neuro oxytocin, there's this great density. Not so in montane voles, where you say, okay, that's just a correlation idea, right? It is just a correlation. So here's what you do. You take a pair of bowls that prairie voles that have never mated. And you give them a drug that blocks the receptors for oxytocin. Now, they meet they mate, they don't bond. It's critical for them to bond that they have oxytocin and that the oxytocin binds to the receptors. Now, that's only part of the story. Of course, it doesn't tell us the whole mechanism. But what it does is it reminds something that is as deeply important to us as The affiliations and affection we feel for others, our spouse or friends, our parents, is mediated in the brain, by neuro chemicals, and in particular, by oxytocin. Now, it doesn't really matter that when you read about oxytocin and the reward system that, you know, you feel like well, gee, the love I feel for or for my baby, or the love I feel for my spouse, doesn't mean it doesn't look like it's just got to do with oxytocin. Yeah, hey, but how things look, it's not necessarily how things are. And just as it doesn't look like our planet is speeding around the sun at a tremendous velocity, it actually is. So so you wouldn't expect a neurobiological explanation to somehow generate the feeling. But it looks like we are really beginning to understand something about the role of oxytocin in not just mate bonding, but in bonding between parents and offspring.
So I, I want to point out what's going on here, because it's super interesting, and leads to a whole bunch of questions, right? Aristotle famously begins the metaphysics by arguing that humans are the political animal. And there's this whole tradition and philosophy that says, human beings are social, that we're group creatures, and then there's a follow up conversation that asks about the possibility of altruism and things like that, and what what you're doing is you're offering the same claim, but in a different in different terminology and a different language and and with different evidence, right, what you're arguing with the oxytocin is that, you know, ultimately, humans but but voles here are social creatures, and that when Aristotle says, in philosophy speak, human beings are the political animal in neuroscience speak, it's being with one another, it involves the release of oxytocin. And they're all of these other processes that affect our neurology so that when we're apart, we have these same we have these complexities. And so what really interests me, and I think what what what the our listeners are going to find compelling is the way that the neuroscience offers these neurological, these evolutionary, these scientific and empirical explanations of the great philosophical claims?
Well, yeah, I kind of think that, that that, at least, the explanation need not be complete, for it to be really quite gripping. That is, we can see that it's the beginning of a really complex story. And you're right, of course, there is a long, long tradition in the East and in the West, of appreciating that humans are intensely social. But of course, we're not the only intensely social species. And I mean, think about wolves. And the fact that wolves and, and Homo sapiens, clearly made connections at least 15 to 20,000 years ago. And now our dogs are, are a really important part of our social lives, and they are intensely social. And there's evolutionary reasons, of course, for why wolves are, in particular, why wills are so social and me and it has to do with how they make their living and the fact that they need to cooperate. And in order to cooperate, they need to be able to understand what the others are about to do and predict what they're going to do next. They need to be able to vocalize or to pull the pack together so they can cooperate on a hunt. And, and, yeah, that's probably pretty similar to many of the ecological conditions that shaped our brains.
And then you do something in the book, which is in the most recent book conscience that is this super interesting, because you go from this social aspect to this discussion of of altruism. And you say that what happens, cognitively is that there's an evolutionary shift where the mother begins to, to look at the babies as part of herself. That this expands, because, and of course, you'll be able to explain it better than me. But because the babies are often helpless and have to be cared for, and that once the the mother starts thinking of the babies as part of herself, it opens the door for what philosophers again have called altruism, which is caring about other people for their own good. Is that a fair account of of how you describe it?
Yes, except, you know, I'm, I really feel compelled to put it into a broader context. And the context is this, that about 200 million years ago, warm blooded creatures appeared on the face of the planet, being warm blooded was a huge advantage, because you could forage at night. And in fact, you could forage on insects that couldn't really move much because they had to wait for the sun to come up. Now, it turns out that while it is advantageous to be warm blooded, there is a cost. And the cost is really interesting. It's that gram for gram, a warm blooded creature has to eat 10 times as much, you can leave your lizard for a week, if you go off on vacation, and it'll be fine, it'll come back and you can give it something, it'll be fine. You can't do that with a cat or a dog, it would stop. So, so to meet this cost, what evolved was a structure that only now mammals and birds have. And that's the cortex. And the cortex is about a few millimeters thick, and it sits on the outside of the brain. And it's kind of like a general computer that makes the old ancient parts of the brain really smart. So the old parts and the new parts work together. And it means that you can be super flexible, you can learn like the dickens up Wait, if you're going to learn, that means the brain has to build structure. Ah, that's what learning is, is building bits and pieces onto your neurons. Well, if you're going to build bits and pieces, you're either going to have to start knowing a whole lot, or you're going to have to start with a very mature brain. And that is what happened with mammals and birds. I mean, it's very notable that a turtle comes out of its egg and can walk and go down to the water and find food. mammals can't do that. baby birds can't do that. They have to be cared for. So what happened really in both mammals and birds, first mammals and later birds was that the wiring changed in the brain, the wiring that makes us see to our own food and warmth and safety, expanded to care for the helpless offspring as though it were an extension of ourselves. So just as I care for my own food, and warmth and safety, I will do almost anything to protect and feed this infant. And the impulse, of course, is powerful in all females, all females, in females of all species of mammals and birds, it can be turned off, and it can be disrupted. But under normal circumstances, it's very powerful. And that is an oxytocin story. So the very first kind of affiliation and bonding in our evolutionary history, the evolutionary history of mammals, is about parents and offspring. And then it can shift to mates or it can shift to friends, or it can shift in all kinds of different ways depending on how the evolution of a species goes. Where and it may be
too soon to ask this question. But where does meaning fit in? And what I mean by that is that there are there going to be a lot of people who are attached to the moral value of human life, the moral value of parent child relations of friendship and all these sorts of things are independent of whether they come from a religious tradition or not, or humanist tradition. But and they're going to hear some of this and say, you're reducing us to determinist creatures, you're reducing us to to machines and what makes human beings special is is is the meaning behind it all? Is that a fair criticism? Or is that misunderstanding what's going on or is meaning just part of the process that we haven't gotten to yet?
Meaning insofar as we haven't got to yet, but you know, I don't think of us as mirror machines. I mean, you know, you'll have all seen the glories of artificial neural networks and deep learning. And here's what you want to remember that even an artificial neural net that has about a million nodes and a million and a half connections and 4 million synapses and 4 million weights, is in its power, about the size of a millimeter of cortex, which is about the size of a grain of rice. Now, your whole cortex is about the size of a great big pizza. And that's kind of folded up so it can tuck into your skull. And it has to do that because we do have to get born. And so So, the brain is not a mere machine, that is the mammalian brain is not a mere machine. Now what is kind of a mere machine, but even here we see flexibility is say, a tiny worm called C. elegans, it only has 302 neurons. But even with just 302 neurons, it manages to feed it manages to swim, it will try to escape from a predator, and it can reproduce. So even with 302 neurons, you're you can you can do pretty well. But you have upwards of 86 billion neurons, and a factor of 100 more connections between your neurons. So the complexity is really unfathomable. And it is what makes us have these amazing capacities to to have to play music, like the the wonderful flute and bass that we heard at the beginning of the program. I mean, that's astonishing.
His his moral life, the consequences of of just calculations can if we were able to develop artificial intelligence that had the complexity that the brain had, would we be able to put in a moral dilemma and get a result I mean, in a certain sense, Kant's categorical imperative, which, which is built on logical consistency is actually trying to do this ironically, without, without the neurology involved. some
really interesting question. And my friends who develop neural nets for various things, of course, are thinking about these kinds of questions. And my sense is that at the moment, of course, they're so tiny relative to even the brain of a mouse, that we don't know what scaling up produces. On the other hand, you know, that all animals, whether they're vertebrates or invertebrates, all animals have wiring that embodies value, the value of their own survival. And for social animals, like all mammals and birds, we also have the wiring that embodies the value of the others of those to whom we are attached. So can we make an artificial neural net that values anything, even itself? Well, at the moment, we haven't the slightest idea how to do not the slightest idea. And I mean, I have seen people sort of wave their hands and just say, Oh, yes, yes, we will do it eventually. But but we don't really have a palpable idea of how to make a an artificial neural net that cares about its own well being. You can unplug it, nobody cares. It doesn't care. It doesn't fear that you're going to unplug it. And I'm not sure that that we I mean one of the deep things that we don't yet really understand very well. are are the nature of the fundamental values of health, and warmth and safety and food, and how those values are integrated with this notion of self survival and care about others. It's sort of, you know, way off in the science fiction distance for me. But I think it's fun to think
so. So while you're offering that explanation, I was able to articulate it in my mind. The question that I'm, that I'm really trying to ask, which is, when you say, we value things, we have these values, whether they're self survival or, or warmth, or others. What does that mean? What does it mean to value something in there in neuro philosophical terms? And then the second sort of part of that question is, is there ever going to be any explanation that you are going to offer that is going to be satisfying to the Thomas Aquinas is the the Martin boobers, the folks with whom the the theological traditions necessitate a radical division? So So first, what does value mean, when we're talking about brain activity? And is that explanation only going to be satisfying to someone who already pardon the term values? The brain activity explanation?
Well, we can say a little bit about the mechanisms of value. And what we understand from relatively simple organisms, I mean, it has to do with their having, being motivated to do certain things. They are motivated to see to their own survival, and, and they usually will have the neural equipment to either flee or to hide or to fight. And they are motivated to do those things. And what exactly is motivation? Well, it's a complexity that we understand a little bit of in the simple case. But in the case of mammals and birds, there's very much that we cannot yet say, although ultimately, I think I think we will be and so that's what I mean by that's what I mean by value. So you can see in the little worm, C. elegans, that it values food, because it's motivated to search for food. And if it's in a patch, where there's very little food, it'll wander around and try to find a patch where there's plentiful food and food for the C. elegans is bacteria. And if it finds a patch for the plentiful bacteria, yum, yum, it settles right down and munches along. So So I think the easiest way to understand is, is in terms of motivation. Now, probably C. elegans doesn't have much in the way of feelings, if anything, but for mammals and birds, almost certainly, when we value something, we have these powerful feelings that accompany our motivations. We fear when, when those to whom we are bonded, are attacked, or are, are hurt in some way. So that's about the best, the best we can do. At this time. Now, I haven't had said anything about about theology. But maybe you want me to stop for a moment? Well, well, you rephrase that. I am happy to carry on I'll,
I'm going to put I am going to ask the question, but I'm gonna put it off for another minute, because something else occurred to me, which is Bertrand Russell, in his little book, the problems of philosophy, which is both a wonderful, wonderful book, but also a product of a product of his time, and a great introduction to philosophy as it was understood at the time. He argues in the very beginning, that, that when we don't know an answer, we call it philosophy. And when we do know an answer, we call it biology or chemistry or or some other things. Do you think that that that's what's going on here? that the reason why this is still philosophy is precisely because we don't have enough information to know what value means and we can sort of talk about it as motivation, but it's not the whole story. Or even if we get the whole story, there's still going to be a place for philosophy. Because Russell's no Really right. And it's not about, you know how much information we have, it's really about the kinds of questions that we're asking.
Well, I don't know. I mean, I think in the case of morality, what we've talked about so far are really the sort of moral instincts. We're talking about the wiring that we have when we're born as a result of the way our genes are. But of course, there's another two components to the story. One of which we know a little bit about and very little about the last, the one we know something about is is how children learn to navigate their social world, or how dogs, for example, learn to navigate their social worlds. And there's a lot of learning involved. And they learn, for example, by trial and error, they learned by being rewarded for certain things and being sort of, you know, unrewarded, or punished for other things. And they learn by imitation. And in the case of humans, we also learn by being sung to and being told stories or gossiping, or overhearing our parents talk, and so forth. So there's a tremendous amount of social learning that goes on in those first five years, a lot that goes on after that, too. But those first five years are just the child is learning about how to be a social animal in its group. Now, the third component of all this is that as ecological conditions change, maybe as a result of new methods of of making a living, with the advent of agriculture, for example, that norms change. And so new problems that people didn't have, let's say, 200,000 years ago, then with the dawn of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago, they had these problems, because now they were living in very large communities. And everybody knew each other very well, and hierarchies seem to develop, and there were rules about things that you could pass on to your offspring, which is not something that hunter gatherers typically did much of. And so how those kinds of decisions are made, I think is is really super complex. And it's probably not just a neurobiological story, but also depends on how individuals interact within the group. Some individuals will take power and be cruel to others, and so on and so forth. So, so it may be the the philosophical questions of a really difficult kind will always remain. Let me give you an example. So, I was reading about the end of the war, the Second World War and the Allied powers in Germany, and for them to try to decide what they should do about the upper echelons of the military. And the question was, should you just let vigilantes take care of them and hang them like they did with muscly in Italy? Should you have a trial of a lot of people? Or should you just say, you know, war happens, it's bad thing. Let's just put it behind us and try to carry on? That's a really, really deep, important, difficult question. It's a moral question. But it's also full of practical aspects. And as Aristotle would pipe up and say, at this point, Oh, interesting. Moral problems have practical aspects. And I don't think philosophers are particularly good at answering those questions, quite honestly, because most of them live such a sheltered life. They don't respect the importance of practical considerations. They think, well, you should just have a room follow the rule. And so I get kind of frustrated with moral philosophers who think that without knowing anything about the details, of a circumstance in which the moral dilemma arose, that they can pronounce upon it mostly, I think they just waste everybody's time.
You In the book that the brain is not conducive to this sort of rule following notion of morality, that there's the categorical imperative. There's the principle of utility, there's these, these these these other things, and that that, that that's not how the brain works. But rather the brain develops what you call cognitive patterns, that that it can it moved from one context to the other. I'm still putting off the field as a logical question, but I will ask that you follow up a little bit on on this, this response to your skepticism about rule following, and what you mean by cognitive patterns and how it's and how it's a more applicable way of thinking about reasoning and rationality?
Well, I think there can be, there can be rules, but they are sort of rules of thumb, so to speak, and that what children learn as they are in a social context of family and friends, and school, and so forth, what they learn are, from particular examples, how things turned out. And then they look for similarities between this example, and the, the current situation. And so they, the they look for similarities so that they can apply what they experienced to the case at hand. And we all do that all the time. That is a really fundamental, important part of how how learning in in mammals, all mammals works. Now, there can of course, be the rules as well. But children learn quite quickly that sometimes, when you're told that certain rule has to be followed, and has to be followed, always that the parents don't really adhere to it themselves. They don't really mean it. That, no, you can't always tell the truth. There are certain circumstances rare, though they may be but there are some where you have to tell a lie. So when they when they add rapist comes to the orphanage door and says, Do you have any girl orphans here? I as the mistress of the orphanage, I'm going to lie, I'm going to say no, no, no, there's just chickens here. And it would be idiotic, to not lie under under those sorts of circumstances. Kids pick that up very quickly. They know that circumstances are relevant that sometimes when you can't figure out what to do, you'll fall back on a rule because you've got to make a decision and move on. But I think kids are kids brains, their social brains are designed to be highly adaptive, and to learn the complexity of social life. And as I'm sure you know, there's so many aspects of a moral dilemma or a social problem, that often we can't even articulate very well. And yet our brains seem to kind of, you know, have a sense of the gist of where we ought to go with that. So it's not exactly that, that I think, rules are cognitively difficult for for people. But that, in particular, Kant's idea that, once you have a moral rule, there must be no exceptions. Is is kind of I actually it strikes me as immoral. I mean, there are content philosophers have tried to defend the idea that you must tell the truth no matter what. But you know, the stories are always very, shall we say, unconvincing?
It's, it's, it's very hard. It's very hard to justify to people who are not already drinking the Kool Aid, so to speak,
why those people are already convinced. It's like, well, I've always been a constant. Well, maybe you should
think about. And this actually, this actually touches on something you ask in the book, which you don't come up with a definitive answer for, but it's really interesting. You ask whether or not cognitively there are natural rule breakers, or whether there are people who are more traditional and part of what you're asking is, is there a neurological component to being a liberal or a conservative? Why do you ask that question? And how far can you get with that question?
I don't think you can get hugely far. But it turned out that there are experimental data that are very, very carefully garnered that show us that this sort of natural born Rule Breakers can be neurobiologically somewhat different. Now, it's a bit of a long story to tell you the background. And I have to tell you the background because I want you to see that the data are not just, you know, something that somebody dreamed up, and they're quite careful. So the origin of this story is with a psychologists, sociologists, political scientist, I guess, called john Hibbing, from the University of Nebraska. And Hibbing had long been interested in the question of temperament and whether temperament seems to be something that you kind of have for life. And there can be periods where, you know, you change a little bit in one direction or another. But basically, introverts are pretty much introverted, most of their lives and extrovert extroverts, by the way. So having did a few experiments, and he noticed that there were certain people who tended when you show them a picture of something ghastly, who tended to instantly focus on it, and to look at it for a long period of time. And then other people kind of Yeah, they focused on it, and then they moved on. So hipping wondered, that's just behavioral. Are their brain differences here? Now, to find out that the answer to that question, you first of all need to have some sort of questionnaire or assay to determine how people feel about very traditional values having to do with, say, the role of males, the importance of the church, the importance of strictness of punishment, of mercy versus punishment, and so forth. And over the last three or four decades, several of these assez for determining whether you're very much in the traditional side are very much in the law breaking side, or I don't really library, let's say progressive side, several of these essays have been produced and tested and tested and tested. So So hitting them thought, well, we can we can find out using these assays, were there somebody who's highly traditional or highly progress. Why? What can we do to find out something about the brain. So we went to read Montague, who's a brilliant neuroscientist at Virginia Tech, and they ran the following experiment, they had a large population of subjects, I think it was 183. And they had a series of pictures that each subject would see, and the pictures could be neutral, it could be very pleasant, they could be very disgusting. Or they it could be just threatening. And so what they would do would be to each individual one by one goes into the functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner. And while they're in the scanner, they are showing pictures and the activity of their brains are recorded. And then after they come out, they are asked about the pictures, you know, did you like this? Did you? How did you write that? Got it up? And then find you. They're given john headings assay on where they stand. Are they very traditional, very progressive, or somewhere in between? So, alright, that's the background. Okay, what's the result? The result is that people who scored very high on the traditionalist and had a configuration of brain activity that was very different from those who score low.
And it was the same across all individuals who scored high on the traditional and and it was always to a subset of the pictures, which ones, the disgusting ones, which brain structures, what was about four or five cortical structures and subcortical structures that, you know, nobody's ever identified as, you know, the political, the political brain, they were just, there they were. So so the question then was Yes, it's always too disgusting pictures and it's always the traditional elicits brain shows more activity than the progressive brain to these disgusting pictures. Do the people themselves when asked about the pictures, do they find them? Super disgusting. And here, this just blew my mind. I mean, you know, I think like introspection is good, sometimes not very good. Other times, you know, we don't have perfect self knowledge. But it turned out that people were just at chance, those who had essentially no brain activity that was distinctive for the disgusting pictures. Oh, yeah, that was really really disgusting. I thought I was gonna throw up. And those who had a lot of activity that traditionalist said, didn't bother me. And then there was everything in between. So so the the take home messages that are assuming that this has something to do with our temperament, our temperament to be worried about or I anxious about things that potentially are harmful? Nabi that's a feature of temperament that also plays into our our political attitudes. I don't think people should make too much of it. But it is an interesting result,
there is a whole bunch of stuff that if we had more time, I would really want it unpack and, and for folks who are interested, it's you can read about it in the book conscience, the origin, but I want to conclude, because we need to wrap up soon, with the question that I've been sort of putting off. And I actually want to frame it just slightly differently. Because when you were talking about child development, you were talking about first children getting rewards for proper behavior, and that, that this, this reward activity helps develop the moral identity. But then, also, there was role modeling that kids had to look at role models there was singing and, and learning from songs. And what struck me while you were talking about this, that it sounds so Catholic, right? It sounds, you know, there's there's the reward of there's, there's the promise of divine reward. There's the saints, who, who are the role models, there's the hymns, and all of that stuff that that you use in in, in worship to help direct you towards the moral answer. And so analogously, there's a lot going on, yet there are so many people who would hear the kinds of explanations that you're offering, and just feel like it's two different universes. So that's why I asked and I'll ask again, do you think that there's ever a way to use the the neuro philosophical explanations for things to a partial religious term convert the, the theologically minded or do you think that these are just incommensurate? Evil, incompatible ways of looking at the world? And what we are really looking for is just stories that that that fit the meaning that we've already chosen? Is there something is there some way to use your way of explaining things to provide similar meaning to folks who are looking towards the more religious, the more spiritual, the more theological way of thinking about things?
Yeah, no, I think it's a really interesting question. And there's sort of two things that, you know, come to me when I think about this. One is, of course, that Eastern religions may have have a certain amount of spirituality about them. Like, let's consider Confucianism for example.
You know, they don't actually have
a divine guide, they don't have a divine law giver, um, and and nor does Buddhism have have that. And their, their spiritual ism is is not tall like that of, of the saints and the Pope and so forth. So, so, and there's quite a lot of confusions and some Buddhists actually So I don't know that it's a human necessity. Let's put it that way. On the other hand, it's also true that there is something very pleasurable about singing together and dancing together. And it turns out that experiments have been done. And they show that when people sing together and dance together, oxytocin is released, they feel good and form very strong affiliations with those people with whom they sing and dance. And, of course, hunter gatherers have been doing that since since ever, and it probably is a way that they use a bonding to each other and, and maybe you do get sort of spiritual and high on oxytocin land and the lowering of cortisol, when you're singing and dancing around the campfire, and, and maybe it feels just just wonderful. The other thing that I think about in this context, is that people who've tried psilocybin, magic mushrooms, I have not not done it, because a bit of a coward, but say that they do have I mean, Michael Pollan, in his book talks about this extraordinary sense of oneness with the universe and the great sense of spirituality. It's not that he thought, suddenly that, you know, he talked to to a Great Divine Being, but he did have an extraordinary conscious experience, which he tended to call spiritual. So I don't know what that all is, and maybe someday we'll find out. And we'll say, Oh, it's such and such circuitry. And these are the neuro chemicals involved. And people will say, Go away, we don't want to hear about I don't know. But that's how I tend to think about
well, it is it is comforting to know, at least, that my job is safe, that there are still some mysteries left in the world. And it's also really fascinating to encounter, the way that modern technology and modern science has taken this old Aristotelian insight, and really made it as contemporary and as informative as possible. So, Pat, this has been a fabulous conversation and really interesting in so much on the edge of of my own background knowledge. So thank you so much for joining us on why. great pleasure for me. Thank you so much. You have been listening to Patricia churchland and jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life. I will be back with a few more thoughts right after this.
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You're back with why philosophical discussions of everyday life. I'm your host, jack Russell, Once done, we were talking with Patricia churchland about the brain and the mind and how cognitive science and neuro philosophy connects with the great philosophical questions. And actually, in summing up, I want you to think about the Beatles for a second. You know, the Beatles were four individuals, john, Paul, George, and Ringo, they were you know, they had producers and engineers and all this kind of stuff. But they were john, Paul, George, and Ringo. And each of them however much we idolize john lennon, or however much we think about Paul McCartney as being a good artist. None of them ever achieved the greatness that the Beatles ever achieved. Why? Because they were more than the sum of their parts. There was something magical and special that happened when you took these four individuals and made them The Beatles, as opposed to just john paul, George and Ringo. And that notion that something is more than the sum of its parts, flows through the entire conversation we've had. The brain has millions and millions of connections of neurons that there's all these chemicals that shoot through it. There's all sorts of stuff that I don't know anything about. But what I do know is that when Put it all together, something magical happens. Or I should say something special happens rather than magic that makes the mind more than just the brain, our experience, our consciousness, our values, our way of understanding of describing of communicating the world, our way of feeling the world is the product of all of this neurological activity. But it's more than the sum of its parts. And so there those of you, I am sure, who are very resistant to this physicalist description of the world who don't like the idea that we can reduce emotions to oxytocin, that we can reduce interconnectedness to certain electrical impulses. But looking at the cause of those things, and looking at the evolutionary reason for those things, doesn't take the meaning and value away. Because the mind is more than the sum of the parts of the brain, just like we are more than our limbs and our eyes and our noses connected, what it means to be jack what it means to be Pat what it means to be, Bill, Sally Muhammad, whomever is more than just the individual pieces. As we think about consciousness as we think about neurology as we think about neuro philosophy, as technology increases, remember that the meaning and the value may come from this stuff, but it is much more and that's where the great philosophical questions begin. You've been listened to jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life. Thank you for listening. As always, it's an honor to be with you.
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