illustration by michael rea

Out of mind: philosopher Patricia Churchland's radical approach to the study of human consciousness

The question of how our minds work is one of life's greatest mysteries, fascinating scientists and philosophers alike. When Churchland brought their ideas together she provoked fury—and admiration
October 8, 2019

Back in the 1980s, a wife-husband philosopher team known as “the Churchlands” provoked the ire of their peers with the heretical claim that the best way to understand the mind was to study the brain. That might sound uncontroversial, but in philosophy it was anything but.

The nature of mind and consciousness had been one of the biggest and trickiest issues in philosophy for a century. Neuroscience was developing fast, but most philosophers resisted claims that it was solving the philosophical problems of mind. Scientists who trod on philosophers’ toes were accused of “scientism”: the belief that the only true explanations are scientific explanations and that once you had described the science of a phenomenon there was nothing left to say. Those rare philosophers like the Churchlands, who shared many of the enthusiasms and interest of these scientists, were even more despised. A voice in the head of Patricia Churchland told her how to deal with these often vicious critics: “outlast the bastards.”

Churchland’s work tried to take the philosophical implications of the new brain research seriously without falling into the scientistic traps. It quickly generated a huge amount of interest, from admirers and detractors alike. For her supporters, mostly scientists, studying the brain was essential to understanding how we perceive the world. For her detractors, mostly philosophers, the whole project of “neurophilosophy” was fundamentally naïve and misguided: it was all neuro and no philosophy, reducing humans to mere machines. Churchland still sometimes gets mocked as “the Queen of Neuromania,” as Raymond Tallis acidly described her; Colin McGinn once dismissed her work as “neuroscience cheerleading.”

Yet over the years, Churchland has received due recognition for avoiding the traps that lie in each extreme. She was helped by the early endorsement of Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of the double helical structure of DNA, who called Churchland’s first book Neurophilosophy (1986) a “pioneering work.” In 1991 she was honoured with a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship, widely known as the “genius grant,” and she was President’s Professor of Philosophy, University of California from 1999 until her retirement in 2013. Now 76, she has little left to prove, and yet she is still publishing, this year with Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition. Indeed, she made Prospect’s own list of the world’s top 50 thinkers as recently as July.

Her strength is precisely that she is a rare thinker who can be resolutely scientific without ever being scientistic—a distinction that her critics seem unable to make. She is certainly a materialist who rejects the view that consciousness is some kind of mystery which science should not dare to touch. But she denies the claims that neuroscience leaves the mind, the self and free will as mere illusions. We may have to change how we understand these concepts, but philosophers can only do this credibly if they are properly informed by what the science says.

“I’ve never said ‘my brain made me do it,’” she tells me via Skype from Canada, where her family is on holiday. In Conscience she rounds on the “self-promoters” who jumped on the “oxytocin bandwagon,” claiming that the hormone was the solution to social awkwardness, bad behaviour at school, obesity and even “Congressional inaction on social policy.”

Churchland certainly believes in the self, morality, reason and love. “I think consciousness is as real as can be,” she says. “I lose it at night when I go to sleep and regain it every morning.” It’s just that she also believes that our best hope of understanding the nature and function of these phenomena is by looking at the brain, and drawing on neuroscience to inform philosophical arguments about what it means to be human.

To understand why Churchland is so important, you need to understand the totemic status of what leading philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers calls the “hard problem”: how is it that physical stuff—what lies between our skulls—can give rise to conscious experience? Most philosophers believe that studying the brain won’t enable you to solve this problem at all, because the study of matter can only tell you more about matter. Conscious experience is not something you can put under a microscope, weigh or measure. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. But like love, you can never find it in the brain. All you can find are its “neural correlates”—the brain states that are associated with it.

What makes Churchland an original and provocative outlier is that she avoids this argument altogether, by not even trying to answer the hard problem. Of course, she tells me, there are many mysteries to unravel: “it’s hard to understand many things about how the nervous system works” and “we don’t understand how consciousness emerges from the physical brain.” However, she also thinks that “either these things will submit to empirical discovery or they won’t.” She refuses to prejudge the possibility that future scientific evidence might help to clear up problems that most assume to be philosophical, not empirical.

Philosophers need to accept that our understanding of the mind is at an early stage—and resist the temptation to reach for speculative grand theories of consciousness before the data is in. That is the conceptual equivalent of trying to run before you can walk. It’s “unproductive, it’s not going anywhere.” No wonder then that so many oppose her. She is in effect saying that most philosophy of mind is a waste of time.

Churchland’s patient, practical and empirical approach to problem-solving was forged in a childhood spent on a pioneer farm in a mountain valley in British Colombia. “All of us farm brats grew up fairly independent and managed things without much supervision,” she says. Although that rooted her in the “very practical aspects of life,” she also had a father who, despite not being formally educated beyond sixth grade, had read the Origin of Species pretty carefully and often took Darwin’s side. There was no television and family dinners would often involve long conversations on everything from farm-work to the nature of evolution.

Her interest in the brain arose from seeing people in her community with schizophrenia and “the shaking palsy,” as Parkinson’s Disease was then called. She asked her mother, a nurse, “what is that?” and “why can’t grandma recognise me anymore?” Her curiosity was reinforced by her older sister, who also trained as a nurse and worked in an asylum. “She would come home and talk to me about catatonic schizophrenics, or people who were paranoid, and this absolutely fascinated me.”

“I think consciousness is as real as can be... I lose it at night when I go to sleep and regain it again every morning”

Her first love in high school was chemistry, which she adored for its “systematicity” and explanatory power. She wanted to study medicine or law but couldn’t afford to. Instead she took philosophy and ended up teaching logic at the University of Manitoba. She learned her neuroscience there by “just being a hanger-on at the medical school,” where she was “warmly embraced.” It was not the first time she found more support from outside the philosophical community than within it. “What really mattered at the crucial times at my career was the support of neuroscientists and in particular Francis Crick.”

Churchland had assumed (“this shows you I was pretty naïve”) that “philosophy was really interested in the nature of the mind, that philosophers really wanted to understand what it was to learn or remember, what it was to have a hallucination, what it would be to go crazy. When you read the historical figures such as Aristotle, Descartes or Hume that is true—that is what they’re interested in. But it took me a while to realise that contemporary philosophers were not interested in those things, as such. They were interested in the words about those things.” Churchland echoes Wittgenstein’s complaint that “philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” For her it is philosophers themselves who often cast the spell by being so focused on analysing concepts that they neglect to analyse the world.

“How can that be?” she asks of this linguistic fixation. Churchland uses this phrase several times during our conversation—sometimes to convey wide-eyed wonder and curiosity; sometimes to express incredulity at how odd philosophers often are. She’s a sparky conversationalist who gives as good as she gets. “If I’m the Queen of Neuromania, she retorted to Tallis publicly, “he’s the Archduke of Misrepresentation.” As for McGinn, “his sermonising is just so much spit in the wind.”

Young Patricia Smith met her husband Paul when they were both undergraduates at the University of British Columbia. She recalls how early in their career, in (even more) misogynist times, she was dismissed as Paul’s “yappy wife,” a “loud-mouthed twit.” But save for a collection of essays, all of their books have been solo authored. Best known for Matter and Consciousness (1984), Paul has had a successful academic career but in recent years Patricia has come to be the more prominent of the couple.

In philosophy, however, both remain popular as cardboard cut-out targets. When boiled right down to headlines, her main claims certainly look bold, naïve even—and for some, no doubt, scientistic. Over the last 10 years, she has produced a number of accessible books whose subtitles unapologetically promised to bring brain science to bear on the big questions of philosophy. Braintrust (2011) covered “What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality,” Touching A Nerve (2013) provocatively treated “The Self As Brain,” while Conscience (2019) tries to explain “the origins of moral intuition.”

“A lot of people who are misled want to be, because it’s easier to beat up a straw man than a real person”

However, when I ask her if she makes it too easy for people to misunderstand her, she is unapologetic. “A lot of people who are misled by me and Paul want to be misled, because it’s easier to beat up a straw man than a real person.”

One particular provocation is her “naturalistic” approach to morality, which says that while morality exists, and certain behaviours are more defensible than others, right and wrong is ultimately grounded in nothing more than evolved human nature. This offends many philosophers who believe Churchland’s picture would mean morality lacks any bite. Why let morality guide you if it is merely a product of arbitrary physical processes? And how can any amount of knowledge of how things are tell you about how they ought to be, which is the true subject of ethics?

In Conscience, however, she unashamedly develops her naturalistic account, doubling down on a point she has long regarded as fundamental: that science can’t tell us what is morally right or wrong but it can “help us to understand why we care and how conscience emerged.”

Her approach has a fine pedigree. “The line that seems most plausible to me goes from Aristotle and Confucius to Hume and then forward to Darwin.” It’s the line that says “it’s part of our nature to be like this. They didn’t know what in our body, our brains and our genes makes us this way but they thought it was fundamental that we had these basic inclinations.” Anyone interested in constructing a practical moral philosophy needs to take account of how human beings actually are.

Churchland thinks the study of the brain means that we now know a lot about the basic mechanisms and purposes of moral decision-making. The core insight of brain science is that the way we resolve such decisions is not by consulting some kind of “ur-rule underlying it all.” Morality is much messier than the utilitarian principle of maximising the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or the golden rule of doing unto others as you would be done by. Hence Churchland roundly rejects the idea that we could ever find algorithms for solving moral problems.

“We can never be sure that we’re doing the absolutely right thing, partly because we can’t see into the future and partly because there are competing ways of doing things—competing values, competing perspectives. Part of what always bothered me about moral philosophy was the assumption that for any moral dilemma there is a ‘right answer’ and a philosopher will find it for you. Ha! Very often we have to live with the best we can do. People simply are going to have fundamental differences about certain things, partly owing to their temperament, their character, and partly owing to how they were brought up. Let’s have a practical recognition of this.”

She believes that those who think this trivialises ethics by turning it into mere practical decision-making simply have an unrealistic idea of morality as something eternal and free-floating. We should not be afraid of seeing it as a naturalistic phenomenon. As she points out in her book, science is replete with examples of how “beautiful things emerge from rather ugly sources.”

Churchland sometimes has a disdain for philosophical niceties that critics see as sloppiness. In her new book, for instance, she says the brain acquires values and sees to it that we have a conscience. Some may read this as careless, attributing agency to the brain, and sliding towards the folly of presuming it can think, feel and desire, when it’s only the person as a whole—and not “grey matter” or any other body part—that can do that. “I try to be sensible but I’m not a language purist,” she says.

In fact, she’s not a purist at all. She follows the approach commended to her by Crick: “Find a simple entry point. Don’t worry if the critics say it’s not the whole problem or is too simple.” You then just have to see where it leads. “Science works away at a problem, and sometimes it gets solved in ways that are completely different to how we imagined they might be. I think that was true with the helical structure of DNA. The history of science is full of examples of where people thought a solution lay in a certain direction and would have a certain character, and as the science came along, it wasn’t like that. I’m willing to wait.”