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Patricia Churchland and the state of the science on morality
June 24, 2011 5:17 PM   Subscribe

"If you look at a lot of the work that's been done on scientific approaches to morality—books written for a lay audience—it's been about evolutionary psychology. And what we get again and again is a story about the importance of evolved tendencies to be altruistic. That's a report on a particular pattern of behavior, and an evolutionary story to explain the behavior. But it's not an account of the underlying mechanism. The idea that science has moved to a point where we can see two animals working together toward a collective end and know the brain mechanism that allows that is an extraordinary achievement." Nevertheless, Prinz says, how to move from the possibility of collective action to "the specific human institution of moral rules is a bit of connective tissue that she isn't giving us."
posted by macross city flaneur (56 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Eeeek! I'm such a nerd for this stuff. Thanks for posting this!
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:29 PM on June 24, 2011


(In case that wasn't clear, I am very positive and excited about this article!)
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:30 PM on June 24, 2011


In some ways, her project dovetails with that of Sam Harris, the "New Atheist" (and neuroscience Ph.D.) who believes reason and neuroscience can replace woolly armchair philosophy and religion as guides to morality...

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values is Harris' relevant work.
posted by troll at 5:41 PM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


In some ways, her project dovetails with that of Sam Harris, the "New Atheist" (and neuroscience Ph.D.) who believes reason and neuroscience can replace woolly armchair philosophy and religion as guides to morality...

What's the difference between reason and woolly armchair philosophy again? I can never remember.
posted by The World Famous at 5:46 PM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


What's the difference between reason and woolly armchair philosophy again?

I think when the modern Atheist says 'reason' it can be equated to him or her having said "SCIENCE!" (capitalization and punctuation intended- no, imperative).
posted by Mooski at 6:02 PM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


I agree, Mooski, with the caveat that the modern Atheist does not necessarily have any idea what science actually is.
posted by The World Famous at 6:04 PM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


The World Famous, can you elaborate? I'm not sure I understand..
posted by kuatto at 6:05 PM on June 24, 2011


What is usually held up as "reason" even by very high-profile pop atheists like Sam Harris is often virtually indistinguishable from armchair philosophy, and is often not particularly scientific.
posted by The World Famous at 6:08 PM on June 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


Replacing philosophy and religion with reason and science ... imagine if someone proposed this in the late 19th century?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:13 PM on June 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


What is usually held up as "reason" even by very high-profile pop atheists like Sam Harris is often virtually indistinguishable from armchair philosophy, and is often not particularly scientific.

Agreed. It seems in the past few years that the word science is used more as a team jersey than a description of a process.
posted by Mooski at 6:15 PM on June 24, 2011 [8 favorites]


ZenMasterThis, why the "late 19th century", is there a special significance to that time period vis a vis the evolution of science? Most people peg the beginning of the enlightenment around the mid to late 17th cenury right? Are you talking about the industrial revolution?
posted by kuatto at 6:29 PM on June 24, 2011


The comments feature this observation, bylined "Caroline Hastie":

>I love the way oxytocin is called the moral hormone by Paul Zak. I suspect we may be in trouble as a species if that is true, because increasing medicalisation of birth means most women and babies don't get the brain based endogenous oxytocin 'rush' that comes with physiological birth; instead they get the synthetic version that doesn't cross the blood brain barrier.

Interesting, I think.
posted by darth_tedious at 6:38 PM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Three of the four horsemen of new atheism - Dawkins, Dennett and Harris - are degreed scientists or philosophers - so why all this shit about how atheists don't know what science and reason are? How about honorary fifth horseman AC Grayling? A real dolt, huh?
posted by fleetmouse at 7:17 PM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


They're so close to being right, but they're also full of shit as far as I can tell. I would welcome any evidence otherwise.

One glaring error: Pitocin (synthetic oxytocin) doesn't cross the blood-brain barrier, but neither does oxytocin. The effect on the fetus before and during birth would be the same either way.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:23 PM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Fleetmouse, I don't want to have that discussoon here because I think it wpuld be a derail. I'd be happy to discuss over mefimail, though.
posted by The World Famous at 7:25 PM on June 24, 2011


Oh, and the pro-social effects of oxytocin can be gained in all sorts of ways, including by nasal spray, orgasm, and petting dogs.

I'd also love to see the study that shows that mothers who received pitocin to induce labor, augment labor, or prevent/treat post-partum hemmorage are less bonded to their babies.

Such a society-dooming effect on mothers and babies should be easy to measure, yes?
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:27 PM on June 24, 2011


The World Famous, you and Mooski already started "that discussion here". I'm not inclined to take it private. I'll start a MeTa if you prefer. Or if you have something brief and to the point to say on the subject, simply post it here, because it isn't the most jumpingest thread anyways.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:00 PM on June 24, 2011


I'd also love to see the study that shows that mothers who received pitocin to induce labor, augment labor, or prevent/treat post-partum hemmorage are less bonded to their babies.

Hm, ms. mouse had pitocin when she was in labor and if she were much more bonded with our kid it would look like a Cronenberg special effect.

I'd rather see a study on the effects of infants getting dumped into care at weeks or months old because of shitty maternal leave policies.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:04 PM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here's where I get stuck: A scientific account of how human brains process mathematics is not a very good guide to math (say, algebra, probability or geometry, let alone the real abstract or esoteric stuff). Rather, that scientific account would be some help in identifying how our "good enough to survive" facility for math trips us up when we are doing "real" math. Heck, what can we do innately in math—count to 3 or 4 of something, and usually tell which of X and 1.05*X is larger? I don't know, but it's nothing too relevant to determining whether an algorithm on a matrix is well-conditioned…

Likewise, it's likely to be interesting and useful to understand the neurology of behavior including moral behavior, but a satisfactory account of our innate "moral" behavior doesn't do much to tell us what morality is. For instance, if it turns out (and I doubt this specific example is accurate, that's not my point) that favoritism of relatives peters out at the 3rd degree of relation, that doesn't mean that we have no moral duty to people less directly related to us than that.
posted by jepler at 8:08 PM on June 24, 2011 [7 favorites]


Yeah, in case it's not clear, I would be utterly shocked and amazed if anyone proved that pitocin hindered bonding or emotional development in any way. I think the "medicalized birth --> bad people/mothers/babies --> world destruction" thing is complete and utter bullshit.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:31 PM on June 24, 2011


Isn't understanding how our "good enough" morality trips us up fairly important jepler?

Peter Singer's A Darwinian Left gives an exceedingly brief account of the "hope" that a deeper understanding of human nature may permit us to greatly improve the human condition.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:22 PM on June 24, 2011


What's the difference between "armchair" philosophy and actual philosophy?
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 9:40 PM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Pacing. Pacing around the room.
posted by Trochanter at 9:43 PM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is no Darwinian Left. Evolutionism is the pseudo-scientific justification for global capitalism. Screw it and its moralism.
posted by No Robots at 9:53 PM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Come on. The only morality worth a damn is a bunch of stuff some ignorant old geezers wrote down thousands of years ago - so long as they also claim it represents the preferences and whims of an invisible boss.

Probably.
posted by Decani at 10:34 PM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Blogging neuroscientist Neuroskeptic had a review of Patricia Churchland's "Braintrust" recently:
Braintrust, by contrast, is just not a good read. The bulk of the book consists of discussions of various neurotransmitters and brain areas and how they may be related to human social behaviour. Oxytocin, for example, may make us behave all trusting and kindly, as it's involved in maternal bonding. There's a long discussion of the neurochemistry of male sexual behaviour in voles.

It's not clear how this is relevant to ethics. Whether it's oxytocin that does it, or something else, and whether voles are a useful model of human behaviour or not, clearly sometimes we trust people and sometimes we don't. That's psychology. And biology can't yet explain it.

Churchland doesn't claim that the various biological concepts that she covers can fully explain anything, and she doesn't vouch that all of these findings are rock solid. Which is good, because they can't, and they're not. So why spend well over half of the book talking about them?
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:41 PM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


I cannot understand the arguments given in this thread. The article is completely impenetrable because there are no definite claims being made (I'll give you that there are some small mechanisms, oxytocin? but this seems indefinite as well)

Question for 'The World Famous':

is it possible to 'out-atheist' an atheist? If so, can you describe the mechanism?
posted by kuatto at 1:07 AM on June 25, 2011


Damnit, TheophileEscargot, you ruined a perfectly good ongoing irrelevant narky derail with that interesting, relevant link (although I think you meant to point it here).

Actually, when I started reading the article in the FPP I thought it was going to be one of those fawning "look at this exciting, revolutionary thinker" popsci fluff pieces, but by the end I was pretty sure it was intended as a thinly disguised hatchet job. I mean, what can you make of this:
The Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, for example, gets a quick drubbing in Braintrust. Singer has argued that Westerners should reduce their standard of living substantially to support the developing world. His philosophy is "much more demanding, and much more meddlesome, than the morally moderate, such as I, find reasonable," Churchland writes. "The urgings of the ardent utilitarian sometimes alarm me the way intrusive do-gooders can be alarming, not least because of infringements on liberty and the conflict with paradigmatically good sense."
"morally moderate"? "paradigmatically good sense"? Then there's the banana thing. These don't seem to be the words of a particularly subtle or self-aware mind.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:13 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sorry, messed up the link, yours is correct.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:46 AM on June 25, 2011


Churchland is lazy philosophically. Jesse Prinz is the real deal and I recommend his book The Emotional Construction of Morals.

Meanwhile, here's Simon Blackburn responding to the Sam Harris style claim that science can determine morality for us.

The only point I'd make about morality is this, whether or not there are moral principles, there will definitely be psychological principles behind the ways we moralize. But even if we found that our psychology suggested that a certain kind of moral behaviour was 'natural'- we would still have the option of constraining or changing our psychology if we thought that would deliver a superior morality.
posted by leibniz at 4:04 AM on June 25, 2011


Nevertheless, Prinz says, how to move from the possibility of collective action to "the specific human institution of moral rules is a bit of connective tissue that she isn't giving us."

"Moral rules" are just post hoc rationalizations of our moral intuition mixed with some game theory and social manipulation by those making the rules. If dogs had language, they would have "more rules" too.
posted by callmejay at 6:09 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


("moral rules", obv.)
posted by callmejay at 6:09 AM on June 25, 2011


Actually, when I started reading the article in the FPP I thought it was going to be one of those fawning "look at this exciting, revolutionary thinker" popsci fluff pieces, but by the end I was pretty sure it was intended as a thinly disguised hatchet job.

Actually, I found it to be that rarest of things, an article for laypeople about science and philosophy which attempted to engage with a variety of thinkers about a complicated question that has more than two candidate answers.
posted by escabeche at 7:06 AM on June 25, 2011


What's the difference between "armchair" philosophy and actual philosophy?
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 9:40 PM on June 24 [+] [!]


Is this a question or a statement?

Because one takes years of hard work, thinking, and self appraisement, while the other one is looking to make a buck.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 8:47 AM on June 25, 2011


I'm afraid I don't understand your question, kuatto. Since you put 'out-atheist' in quotes and didn't say what it means, I suppose that it is technically possible for someone to do something to which they then apply that term. I guess that's the mechanism.
posted by The World Famous at 8:50 AM on June 25, 2011


"Evolutionism is the pseudo-scientific justification for global capitalism. Screw it and its moralism."

Well, that's an impressive piece of work right there. Just in case you're not being sarcastic, is there any evidence that this statement has any thought behind it? Or any relevance to the FPP?
posted by sneebler at 9:46 AM on June 25, 2011


"There is no Darwinian Left. Evolutionism is the pseudo-scientific justification for global capitalism"

It's exactly that sort of ignorance that's limited our progress. I'd imagine No Robots said that facetiously, given his occupation is listed as "Meme Lord", but many otherwise educated & intelligent leftists seriously take this position. It's like they reject every theoretical advance in the area since Marx & Engels.

posted by jeffburdges at 10:47 AM on June 25, 2011


World Famous,

I'll try to clarify what I meant by that question. You had said earlier:
I agree, Mooski, with the caveat that the modern Atheist does not necessarily have any idea what science actually is.
Here you strike a pose of one who has seen beyond `mere Atheism`, to the heart of a real material Science. Do you see modern Atheism lagging behind some other real standard? If so, it seems you could be more-atheist-than-atheist, or you have out-atheisted the atheists.

The last part about mechanism was a snark, I was imagining some neuro-chemical pathway that explains the hubris of evolutionary neuroscientists who come up with these theories. A kind of recursive, resonant mechanism linking the science of the brain (as a human enterprise) to the chemistry of the brain.
posted by kuatto at 11:25 AM on June 25, 2011


Come on. The only morality worth a damn is a bunch of stuff some ignorant old geezers wrote down thousands of years ago - so long as they also claim it represents the preferences and whims of an invisible boss.

Imperfect as they are, those moralities have inspired and challenged a lot of people to do a lot of good things. I'm having trouble seeing how these kinds of scientific explanations of where moral feelings might originate have any potential to do the same thing.
posted by straight at 12:13 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


There is no Darwinian Left. Evolutionism is the pseudo-scientific justification for global capitalism. Screw it and its moralism.

No Robots, you've been flogging this line of argument in several threads lately, and it is utterly incoherent in (at least) two ways.

First, whether evolution does or does not justify capitalism has no possible bearing on whether it's true or not. It's a description of the natural world, drawn from empirical evidence. The consequences of people believing it to be true on human behavior can never actually invalidate that evidence or make the natural world behave any differently - if you want to argue against it, you need to present some alternate model of biology and natural history that fits the evidence more clearly, or new evidence that runs contrary to the predictions of evolution, not from its consequences.

Secondly, you haven't actually made any kind of a case for why evolution would justify global capitalism, nor is it possible to, because to do so would be to engage in the naturalistic fallacy. There are all kinds of behaviors that occur in nature that are morally wrong when conscious human beings choose to do them - when people carry them out, we call some of those behaviors infanticide, rape and murder. That animals do them has not a single iota of bearing on their moral justification.

You might as well talk about the ideological consequences of plate tectonics or the strong nuclear force.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 12:48 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Here you strike a pose of one who has seen beyond `mere Atheism`, to the heart of a real material Science.

Ah. Well, to start, it's important to remember that atheism and science are not the same thing, and to be an atheist, one need not know, understand, or have any particular affinity for science or the scientific method. Atheism is not a creed, but merely a description of the absence of a particular set of beliefs. By definition, in order to be an atheist, there is no requirement that one understand or employ science in any way.

Do you see modern Atheism lagging behind some other real standard?

Not at all. And I don't see Atheism as a movement or distinct, cohesive social system at all. There is certainly a modern skeptics' movement led by such high-profile individuals as Dawkins and Harris, and some of those individuals happen, in addition to being atheists, to also have a background in and/or a secondary career in science. And, notwithstanding their undisputable backgrounds and impressive resumes in science, my own observation of Harris and Dawkins in particular is that their forays into atheist evangelism often include appeals to what they seem to think is "reason" but which is not, in fact, particularly scientific. But there's nothing about that that has any effect on whether or not they are atheists, obviously. Nor does it have any effect on the fact that, in addition to their various non-science endeavors, they also have backgrounds and/or careers in science. Dawkins' popular books about evolution and biology, for example, are quite enjoyable (I mean, they're not peer-reviewed studies, obviously, but it would be unreasonable to call them unscientific).

If so, it seems you could be more-atheist-than-atheist, or you have out-atheisted the atheists.

I'm afraid I lack the one qualification that one must possess in order to be an atheist. I'm less-atheist-than-atheist. I will agree, however, that I often out-reason or out-science people who are genuinely atheist, in spite of the fact that I espouse a separate set of beliefs that some atheists look down upon.
posted by The World Famous at 12:52 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is no Darwinian Left. Evolutionism is the pseudo-scientific justification for global capitalism. Screw it and its moralism.

Well, this is obviously just meant to provoke. No Robots: Wouldn't you consider the authors of Sex At Dawn to be Darwinian leftists?

I'm not an expert at this stuff, but I have noticed a tendency of people who are interested in evolutionary psychology to really bend the facts around to justify the actions of the selfish, capitalist status quo. It's really something to always be wary of when reading about evolutionary psych.
posted by shushufindi at 2:52 PM on June 25, 2011


Seems like we all want to reason our way to enlightenment.
posted by Soupisgoodfood at 3:24 PM on June 25, 2011


By embracing an implicitly positivist (or just sloppily "practical") scientism, many of the pop atheists ironically open themselves to charges of theism, because they simply aren't aware of the relevant rigorous questions and lines of inquiry.

Their impetus for doing science at all goes unquestioned, even as they tacitly assume that one may, of course, do science without believing in theistic principles. In many philosophic traditions, the escape from ontotheology is recognized as very difficult to achieve. Not so by the armchair atheists. Their atheism comes easy, so they think.

In at least two senses, this is simly lazy. One might call them the phylogenetic and ontogenetic sense. In the phylogenetic sense, the pop atheists fail to engage with (or understand) critiques of the history of science which would basically make science a kind of ultimate spinning out of Christian thought that either fails to escape or returns to myth/theology (Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment is paradigmatic here). In the ontogenetic sense, many of these men look like lapsed Christians of one kind or another, or Christians who rebelled against religion in their boyhood. And they haven't ever properly come to terms with what is really required to stop being a Christian. For them, it's a simple (not intellectually difficult) matter, just like for the modern white liberal, leaving racism behind is a simple matter. You simply declare your sympathies with a certain political agenda, declare yourself not racist, and commit yourself to condemning those who overtly appear more racist than you.

Particularly from the standpoint of a more thorough nihilism, a lot of these men look like closet theists, the crucial question being: in the absence of evidence as to its coherence, why assume the universe has "laws" (other than God the lawgiver having arranged it so, on the analogy with human juridical activity in the Judeo-Christian tradition). Assuming no final coherence or order in the universe (and having no faith in such), what are scientists DOING, and what possible claims could they make that their researches have any special validity whatsoever?

The armchair atheist scoffs - "It's pragmatism!" Without, of course, having examined the problematics of pragmatist thought or what that might entail.

With armchair atheists, at best it's pragmatic (turtles) all the way down.
posted by macross city flaneur at 4:08 PM on June 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


The World Famous, Let's just say for arguments sake that there is a strong intellectual and social movement afoot called 'Atheism' that is purely scientific in basis, expounded by proponents like Dawkins and Hitchens.

http://www.google.com/search?q="the+new+atheism"

Now, If we make that definitional assumption, can you see my confusion? No one I know talks about Atheism without drawing from the dogma of Scientific Materialism. So in my view Modern Atheism is clearly based upon Science. When Dawkins attacks religion, to what does he appeal?
posted by kuatto at 4:16 PM on June 25, 2011


Here, by the way, is also where the atheist/scientist opens themselves up to charges that, say, evolution, is nothing more than what is expedient for the developed world's bourgeoisie. (Indeed, Adorno levied this very accusation against ALL of science.)

If science is just "pragmatism", then it's just whatever serves the power structure. Then we come behind ourselves to scrub our power clean with "empiricism" or "experimental method". But this is just a two-step. Because we know quite well from history that a devotion to the scientific method, or peer review, or what have you, does not remotely innoculate science from radical bias, political and financial compromise, and complicity in all kinds of ugliness. Tuskegee, phrenology, all the people outed in Retraction Watch last week, the reported 80% of all peer reviewed science that, within two decades, will have been declared completely false (by new or emerging studies). All of this science is being conducted using the best "empirical institutions" we have. We also know it was, is, and will be, false science, unfactual.

Scientific institutions are certainly an important part of our truth-making toolset, but they are hardly the final word, and they never can be. People who treat science as though it functions this way, as a self-regulating, independent truth-making system, are pretty much the definition of ideologues and fundamentalists, every bit as bad as the religious believers they target.
posted by macross city flaneur at 4:26 PM on June 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


macross city flaneur, what are "the problematics of pragmatist thought [and] what that might entail"? Are you referring to your previous few paragraphs?
posted by skwt at 4:26 PM on June 25, 2011


macross city flaneur

You reach very deep with this line of reasoning, and in my view you've clearly articulated the danger of a "pragmatic" positivism: The Existential horror. However it seems you leave no elbow-room with which to operate.
By embracing an implicitly positivist (or just sloppily "practical") scientism, many of the pop atheists ironically open themselves to charges of theism, because they simply aren't aware of the relevant rigorous questions and lines of inquiry.
This seems a question of knowledge, more specifically the ability to operate with imperfect knowledge. Are the machinations of science then a sham in the sense that our imperfect knowledge is simply a mask for ideology?
posted by kuatto at 4:29 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, for starters, the sort of quotidian claim that one acts "pragmatically" is just a way of saying "I reserve the right not to question my values, thoughts, and motivations."

Of course, there have been many more rigorous attempts to define a pragmatic paradigm, particularly the American pragmatic tradition. But the great irony here is that the pragmatic tradition has been a great contributor to what is dismissively characterized by armchair set as "postmodern nonsense".

In other words, they reserve the right to declare things nonsense that they've never been sophisticated enough to properly examine.

"Postmodern nonsense" may be a quagmire, but it's important to recognize that that quagmire has precisely evolved as an attempt to stake out the "pragmatic, atheist" position that the armchair set thinks they can easily occupy without rigor.
posted by macross city flaneur at 4:33 PM on June 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Makes sense, thanks.
posted by skwt at 4:43 PM on June 25, 2011


So what I'm picking up is that there is no reason for someone holding a set of pragmatic coordinates to ever abandon them, except perhaps by means of some external crisis. In that case, the external crisis would provoke an internal revolution. As meaning dissolves within the scientific framework, the Existential Crisis sets in, i.e "what are scientists DOING? Rephrased, "What are we all DOING?"

To me this points to a kind of intellectual hedonism running through the pragmatic perspective (as described by macross city flaneur). By this I mean an intellectual mode adopted regardless of consequences. However, I feel that this goes too far. Just looking at Churchland, is she not effectively a Scientist?
posted by kuatto at 5:25 PM on June 25, 2011


Perhaps, but on the standard Kripkean modal semantics, remarkably ahistorical analytic metaphysics are not a logically sufficient condition for instances of nomological necessity.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:08 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


"No one I know talks about Atheism without drawing from the dogma of Scientific Materialism."

It's not really my concern, but my suspicion is that New Atheism is a religion like most others.
posted by sneebler at 6:12 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


So my question is this, is Churchland a scientist or is she an intellectual hedonist?
posted by kuatto at 10:59 PM on June 25, 2011


So my question is this, is Churchland a scientist or is she an intellectual hedonist?

Neither. She's a philosopher who's written a lot about neurology. I'd describe her position this way (obviously oversimplifying): 'If what we've learned from neurology contradicts some of the assumptions we make about how the mind works in philosophical arguments we need to acknowledge that our assumptions are wrong and rethink our arguments a bit.'

(Personally, I think she's interesting, though I disagree with her about some stuff. And by the way, she's not as much of an eliminative materialist as the Wikipedia article makes her out to be.)

I don't get the impression from the linked article or Neuroskeptic's review that her latest book has anything to with 'science replacing religion.' And it doesn't seem like her approach to ethics is similar to Harris's at all.

It seems like a lot of the discussion in the thread has just gone along the lines of 'Hey, the article mentioned Sam Harris! Let's talk about atheism!'
posted by nangar at 4:00 AM on June 26, 2011


Nangar,

Yes this thread seems to be centered around questions of atheism. But the way you've described Churchland's position (albeit simplified) illustrates a classic division in the the struggle between science and mythos. If facts derived from science contradict "faery tales" we must necessarily reevaluate our allegiance to those tales. This is the structure of scientific progress, which is very much about science replacing religion. What sets Churchland apart perhaps is that she deals with psychological ephemera, like mother child bonding, which in contemporary western culture is seen as non-religious. So when she addresses human perception and psychology it doesn't seems controversial, but only because we are looking at it through a secular lens to begin with.

There is an expression in the Talmud, “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, 'Grow, grow.'” In my limited understanding of ancient Jewish tradition, the essence of God suffuses everything. And so it must be with your thoughts and perceptions as well. Consider the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel, was he wrestling with his thoughts? Or was he actually duking it out with an Angel. and what if those are the same thing? My guess is that Churchland would not abide angels hovering over the oxytocin molecules as the rush into the brain, creating the bond between mother and child. So there is no way to separate her position from the position of her peers and the larger questions of how Science eliminates religion with its tower of babel. To this point, is there any materialist that is not eliminative?
posted by kuatto at 10:19 AM on June 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


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