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 admirationby Julian Baggini / October 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
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…