How do we determine right from wrong? Conscience illuminates the answer through science and philosophy.
In her brilliant work Touching a Nerve, Patricia S. Churchland, the distinguished founder of neurophilosophy, drew from scientific research on the brain to understand its philosophical and ethical implications for identity, consciousness, free will, and memory. In Conscience, she explores how moral systems arise from our physical selves in combination with environmental demands.
All social groups have ideals for behavior, even though ethics vary among different cultures and among individuals within each culture. In trying to understand why, Churchland brings together an understanding of the influences of nature and nurture. She looks to evolution to elucidate how, from birth, our brains are configured to form bonds, to cooperate, and to care. She shows how children grow up in society to learn, through repetition and rewards, the norms, values, and behavior that their parents embrace.
Conscience delves into scientific studies, particularly the fascinating work on twins, to deepen our understanding of whether people have a predisposition to embrace specific ethical stands. Research on psychopaths illuminates the knowledge about those who abide by no moral system and the explanations science gives for these disturbing individuals.
Churchland then turns to philosophy—that of Socrates, Aquinas, and contemporary thinkers like Owen Flanagan—to explore why morality is central to all societies, how it is transmitted through the generations, and why different cultures live by different morals. Her unparalleled ability to join ideas rarely put into dialogue brings light to a subject that speaks to the meaning of being human.
Reviews and Endorsements:
There are fascinating nuggets in the research Churchland cites…Her examples are varied and provocative.—Olivia Goldhill, New York Times
Illuminating, entertaining and wise.—Nicholas A. Christakis, Nature
Lucid, stimulating accounts of recent discoveries in neuroscience and psychology.—Sissela Bok, American Scholar
Informative, accessible, and engaging.—Glenn C. Altschuler, Psychology Today
A thoughtful, accessible, and enlightening book.—Kirkus Reviews
Patricia S. Churchland takes us on a fascinating journey intertwining philosophy from Socrates and Aristotle to Kant and Solzhenitsyn to the latest ideas in neuroscience, covering a vast span of knowledge in a graceful and appealing style that is spellbinding. A jewel among books about human nature.—Ann Graybiel, investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT
Conscience is an entertaining, erudite, and timely reminder of the neurobiological origins of those voices in our head telling us to behave. Moral philosophers, zealots and ideologues have been arguing for their versions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for millennia; now it’s time for Patricia S. Churchland to remind us that morality doesn’t come from a stone tablet or a logical axiom, but is rather one of Nature’s inventions enabling our greatest superpower: sociality. It’s messy, useful, and very human—like thumbs. —Blaise Agüera y Arcas, distinguished scientist, Google AI
In Conscience, Patricia S. Churchland pulls back the curtains and takes us behind the scenes to show where our morals come from. Packed with the latest neuroscience research, the surprising answer turns out to be our very own brains. A must-read for anyone with a conscience. —Gregory Berns, author of How Dogs Love Us
Patricia S. Churchland has done it again! She wisely guides readers on a lively romp through recent research in neuroscience, genetics, evolution, psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, economics, politics, and philosophy in order to reach a more complete understanding of how and why we can get along despite our deep disagreements about what is wrong or right. This fun and fascinating journey shows why morality cannot be fully understood without the wide variety of perspectives and of scientific information that this tour de force provides.—Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, author of Think Again
No one blends philosophy and neuroscience as well as Patricia S. Churchland. Here she provides a much-needed correction to the usual emphasis on reasoning and logic in moral philosophy. Our judgements are guided by ancient intuitions and brain processes shared with other mammals.—Frans de Waal, author of Mama’s Last Hug
The British intellectual C.P. Snow gave a lecture in which he argued that the sciences and humanities were different enterprises that could never be bridged. Churchland’s pioneering book Neurophilosophy showed that the bridge is in fact the human brain. Now she tackles the last stronghold of orthodox philosophers—human morality itself. And she has done it again, providing a powerful argument for a neuroscientific approach to morality —V. S. Ramachandran, author of The Tell-Tale Brain
About the Author:
Patricia Churchland is the author of Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves. She is professor emerita of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.