What is morality? Where does it come from? And why do most of us heed its call most of the time? In Braintrust, neurophilosophy pioneer Patricia Churchland argues that morality originates in the biology of the brain. She describes the "neurobiological platform of bonding" that, modified by evolutionary pressures and cultural values, has led to human styles of moral behavior. The result is a provocative genealogy of morals that asks us to reevaluate the priority given to religion, absolute rules, and (...) pure reason in accounting for the basis of morality. Moral values, Churchland argues, are rooted in a behavior common to all mammals--the caring for offspring. The evolved structure, processes, and chemistry of the brain incline humans to strive not only for self-preservation but for the well-being of allied selves--first offspring, then mates, kin, and so on, in wider and wider "caring" circles. Separation and exclusion cause pain, and the company of loved ones causes pleasure; responding to feelings of social pain and pleasure, brains adjust their circuitry to local customs. In this way, caring is apportioned, conscience molded, and moral intuitions instilled. A key part of the story is oxytocin, an ancient body-and-brain molecule that, by decreasing the stress response, allows humans to develop the trust in one another necessary for the development of close-knit ties, social institutions, and morality. A major new account of what really makes us moral, Braintrust challenges us to reconsider the origins of some of our most cherished values. (shrink)
Anydomainofscientificresearchhasitssustainingorthodoxy. Thatis, research on a problem, whether in astronomy, physics, or biology, is con- ducted against a backdrop of broadly shared assumptions. It is these as- sumptionsthatguideinquiryandprovidethecanonofwhatisreasonable-- of what "makes sense." And it is these shared assumptions that constitute a framework for the interpretation of research results. Research on the problem of how we see is likewise sustained by broadly shared assump- tions, where the current orthodoxy embraces the very general idea that the business of the visual system is to (...) create a detailed replica of the visual world, and that it accomplishes its business via hierarchical organization and by operatingessentiallyindependently of other sensorymodalitiesas well as independently of previous learning, goals, motor planning, and motor execution. (shrink)
A remarkable hypothesis has recently been advanced by Libet and promoted by Eccles which claims that there is standardly a backwards referral of conscious experiences in time, and that this constitutes empirical evidence for the failure of identity of brain states and mental states. Libet's neurophysiological data are critically examined and are found insufficient to support the hypothesis. Additionally, it is argued that even if there is a temporal displacement phenomenon to be explained, a neurophysiological explanation is most likely.
Beginning with Thomas Nagel, various philosophers have propsed setting conscious experience apart from all other problems of the mind as ‘the most difficult problem’. When critically examined, the basis for this proposal reveals itself to be unconvincing and counter-productive. Use of our current ignorance as a premise to determine what we can never discover is one common logical flaw. Use of ‘I-cannot-imagine’ arguments is a related flaw. When not much is known about a domain of phenomena, our inability to imagine (...) a mechanism is a rather uninteresting psychological fact about us, not an interesting metaphysical fact about the world. Rather than worrying too much about the meta-problem of whether or not consciousness is uniquely hard, I propose we get on with the task of seeing how far we get when we address neurobiologically the problems of mental phenomena. (shrink)
We critically review themushrooming literature addressing the neuralmechanisms of moral cognition (NMMC), reachingthe following broad conclusions: (1) researchmainly focuses on three inter-relatedcategories: the moral emotions, moral socialcognition, and abstract moral reasoning. (2)Research varies in terms of whether it deploysecologically valid or experimentallysimplified conceptions of moral cognition. Themore ecologically valid the experimentalregime, the broader the brain areas involved.(3) Much of the research depends on simplifyingassumptions about the domain of moral reasoningthat are motivated by the need to makeexperimental progress. This is a (...) valuablebeginning, but as more is understood about theneural mechanisms of decision-making, morerealistic conceptions will need to replace thesimplified conceptions. (4) The neuralcorrelates of real-life moral cognition areunlikely to consist in anything remotely like a``moral module'' or a ``morality center.'' Moralrepresentations, deliberations and decisionsare probably highly distributed and notconfined to any particular brainsub-system. Discovering the basic neuralprinciples governing planning, judgment anddecision-making will require vastly more basicresearch in neuroscience, but correlatingactivity in certain brain regions withwell-defined psychological conditions helpsguide neural level research. Progress on socialphenomena will also require theoreticalinnovation in understanding the brain'sdistinctly biological form of computationthat is anchored by emotions, needs, drives,and the instinct for survival. (shrink)
Philosophy, in its traditional guise, addresses questions where experimental science has not yet nailed down plausible explanatory theories. Thus, the ancient Greeks pondered the nature of life, the sun, and tides, but also how we learn and make decisions. The history of science can be seen as a gradual process whereby speculative philosophy cedes intellectual space to increasingly wellgrounded experimental disciplines—first astronomy, but followed by physics, chemistry, geology, biology, archaeology, and more recently, ethology, psychology, and neuroscience. Science now encompasses plausible (...) theories in many domains, including large-scale theories about the cosmos, life, matter, and energy. The mind’s turn has now come. The classical ‘‘mind’’ questions center on free will, the self, consciousness, how thoughts can have meaning and ‘‘aboutness,’’ and how we learn and use knowledge. All these matters interlace with questions about morality: where values come from, the roles of reason and emotion in choice, and the wherefore of responsibility and punishment. The vintage mind/body problem is a legacy of Descartes: if the mind is a completely nonphysical substance, as he thought, how can it interact causally with the physical brain? Since the weight of evidence indicates that mental processes actually are processes of the brain, Descartes’ problem has disappeared. The classical mind/ body problem has been replaced with a range of questions: what brain mechanisms explain learning, decision making, self-deception, and so on. The replacement for ‘‘the mind-body problem’’ is not a single problem; it is the vast research program of cognitive neuroscience. The dominant methodology of philosophy of mind and morals in the twentieth.. (shrink)
Using the Godel incompleteness result for leverage, Roger Penrose has argued that the mechanism for consciousness involves quantum gravitational phenomena, acting through microtubules in neurons. We show that this hypothesis is implausible. First the Godel result does not imply that human thought is in fact non-algorithmic. Second, whether or not non-algorithmic quantum gravitational phenomena actually exist, and if they did how that could conceivably implicate microtubules, and if microtubules were involved, how that could conceivably implicate consciousness, is entirely speculative. Third, (...) cytoplasmic ions such as calcium and sodium are almost certainly present in the microtubule pore, barring the quantum-mechanical effects Penrose envisages. Finally, physiological evidence indicates that consciousness does not directly depend on microtubule properties in any case, rendering doubtful any theory according to which consciousness is generated in the microtubules. (shrink)
What we humans call ethics or morality depends on four interlocking brain processes: caring. Learning local social practices and the ways of others – by positive and negative reinforcement, by imitation, by trial and error, by various kinds of conditioning, and by analogy. Recognition of others' psychological states. Problem-solving in a social context. These four broad capacities are not unique to humans, but are probably uniquely developed in human brains by virtue of the expansion of the prefrontal cortex.1.
States of the brain represent states of the world. A puzzle arises when one learns that at least some of the mind/brain’s internal representations, such as a sensation of heat or a sensation of red, do not genuinely resemble the external realities they allegedly represent: the mean kinetic energy of the molecules of the substance felt (temperature) and the mean electromagnetic reflectance profile of the seen object (color). The historical response has been to declare a distinction between objectively real properties, (...) such as shape motion and mass, and merely subjective properties, such as heat, color and smell. This hypothesis leads to trouble. A challenge for cognitive neurobiology is to characterize, in suitably general terms, the nature of the relationship between brain models and the world modeled. We favor the hypothesis that brains develop high-dimensional maps whose internal relations correspond in varying degrees of fidelity to the enduring causal structure of the world. From this perspective, the basic epistemological relation is not “single-percept to single- external-feature” but rather “background-brain-maps to causal-domain-portrayed. (shrink)
Two very different insights motivate characterizing the brain as a computer. One depends on mathematical theory that defines computability in a highly abstract sense. Here the foundational idea is that of a Turing machine. Not an actual machine, the Turing machine is really a conceptual way of making the point that any well-defined function could be executed, step by step, according to simple 'if-you-are-in-state-P-and-have-input-Q-then-do-R' rules, given enough time (maybe infinite time) [see COMPUTATION]. Insofar as the brain is a device whose (...) input and output can be characterized in terms of some mathematical function -- however complicated -- then in that very abstract sense, it can be mimicked by a Turning machine. Given what is known so far brains do seem to depend on cause-effect operations, and hence brains appear to be, in some formal sense, equivalent to a Turing machine [see CHURCH-TURING THESIS]. On its own, however, this reveals nothing at all of how the mind-brain actually works. The second insight depends on looking at the brain as a biological device that processes information from the environment to build complex representations that enable the brain to make predictions and select advantageous behaviors. Where necessary to avoid ambiguity, we will refer to the first notion of computation as. (shrink)