Sociability and Morality in Patricia Churchland’s "Braintrust". An Introduction to Neurophilosophy

Essay, 2014

25 Pages, Grade: 10/10



1. Contextualizing Churchland’s Braintrust

2. Neurophilosophy and the Challenge of the “World of Values”

3. The “Biological Moral Sentiments”

4. Concluding Remarks

5. Bibliography

An Introduction to Neurophilosophy Sociability and Morality in Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust


The aim of this paper is to rebuild the main hypothesis of Churchland’s Braintrust (2011) postulating that the origins of sociability and morality lie in the neuro-biology of attachment and bonding. The author sides with Hume’s conception of morality as grounded in sentiments but Churchland conceives them principally in biological terms by tracing them back to the neurocircuitry of the brain and hormones. Particularly, she puts forward the hypothesis that oxytocin (OXT) is the responsible for the social and moral behavior of mammals, including humans. By the end of this paper, we will address Churchland’s criticism of the moral innateness thesis and we will briefly discuss the strong and weak points of her proposal.

Key words: Neuroscience, Neurophilosophy, Churchland, Morality, Sociability, Politics.


El objetivo de este artículo es reconstruir la hipótesis principal del texto Braintrust (2011) de Patricia Churchland, según el cual los orígenes de la sociabilidad y la moral se encuentran en la neuro-biología del apego y el afecto. La autora toma partido por la concepción de Hume, que afirma que la moral se fundamenta en los sentimientos, sólo que Churchland los concibe en términos biológicos, rastreándolos hasta el neurocircuito cerebral y las hormonas. En particular, sugiere que la oxitocina es la responsable por el comportamiento social y moral de los mamíferos, incluyendo los humanos. Para el final de este artículo, abordaremos la crítica de Churchland a la tesis del innatismo moral y discutiremos brevemente los puntos fuertes y débiles de su propuesta.

Palabras Claves: Neurociencia, Neurofilosofía, Moralidad, Sociabilidad, Política.

1.Contextualizing Churchland’s Braintrust

- The General Program of Neurophilosophy

In 1986 the Canadian-American neuroscientist Patricia Churchland published a groundbreaking book entitled Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain. On top of being innovative and thought-provoking in numerous ways, the book was a benchmark in the history of both neuroscience and philosophy since it outlined the theoretical basis of the so-called Neurophilosophy, a brand-new field of research where the two will go hand in hand. According to Churchland, the new discipline’s objective is to reunite the myriad endeavors of philosophers, neuroscientists and even psychologists toward the achievement of two different but intertwined goals: 1) to tackle the secrets of the mind through a strictly scientific approach and 2) to attempt to find, by that means, the key to understanding human’s moral, political and social behavior in general.

One of Churchland’s nonnegotiable claims underpinning her book Churchland is that in order to study the mind scientifically it is imperative to endorse the epistemological terms posed by Eliminative Materialism (EM). Briefly speaking, EM is a physicalist theory purporting that much of contemporary psychology’s understanding of mind is fundamentally wrong provided that it is based on a non-scientific “common-sense” and “dualistic” approach. EM proponents argue that there are some irreducible mental states of metaphysical nature, such as “belief”, “will”, “memory”, etc., to which we can only gain access by means of introspective methodologies. According to EM’s defendants, the kind of psychology that holds such conceptions relies mistakenly on theory-laden subjective perception and on non-problematized popular-inherited notions rather than on the scientific method. In fact, the latter is the reason why EM authors have contemptuously baptized this type of psychology as “folk psychology”.

In relation to the latter, Churchland admonishes that such dualistic approach has done little or even no progress in explaining the functioning of the mind. Even worse, this psychology has also proved to be quite misleading in the light of the recent discoveries made in the field of neuroscience[1]. Churchland complains furthermore that “folk psychologists” have been unjustifiably reluctant to incorporate this new data in their picture of the mind. Conversely, EM is a project of naturalization of the mind based on empirical research, which attempts to understand mental process basically as brain functions. Actually, being coherent with its monistic and materialistic conception, the core idea of EM is that there are actually no mental states but only brain states.

With its epistemology, EM intends to debunk the metaphysical tradition[2] that has explained consciousness and other mind-dependant phenomena by resorting to transcendental sources like the “soul” or “pure reason”. At the same time, it wants to dethrone “psychological introspectivism” that constructs its theories with doubtful “intuitive concepts”. Avoiding transcendentalism and subjectivism, EM prefers instead to build its theories of the mind by appealing to the vast empirical data proceeding from the technical breakthroughs that have recently occurred in the field of neuroscience, most notably the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and the Positron Emission Tomography (PET).

Above all, EM strives for ruling out substantial dualism, which according to EM authors, can seldom have a scientific value. As old as Plato’s “ideas”, dualism was later reinforced by Christian theology, with its notions of “soul” and “spirit”, and then secularized by Descartes’ famous two substances: the res cogitans and the res extensa. One of the contemporary forms of dualism is embodied in the mind-brain dichotomy , defended by the functionalist school. The philosopher Jerry Fodor is famous for having illustrated the dichotomy through the famous software-hardware analogy, according to which there are two distinct realms, each one endowed with an utterly different set of properties and governed by their own rules: the intangible software-akin realm of mind and the empirical hardware-reassembling realm of brain, that is, the physical medium on where the software is played. With this clear-cut distinction, functionalism intends to defend the autonomy of psychology against what they envision as an overriding pretension of neuroscience[3]. However, in Churchland’s view, the analogy is, albeit highly charming, quite fallacious[4]. Indeed, she argues in her Brain-Wise (2002) that the mind-brain dichotomy is, in fact, a false dilemma. What happens is that, having rejected dualism, the mind is for her nothing more than the brain (2002, 30)[5].

Bearing that materialistic hypothesis underpinning all her program, Churchland is outspokenly embracing a reductionist perspective that equates all mental phenomena –e. g. memory, dreaming, reasoning, pain, conscious self, etc.- with brain states (2002, 30). And it is in her brand-new book Touching a Nerve: the Self as Brain (2013) indeed where she takes that position to its very summit by defending, against theology and a good deal of philosophy, the total identity between the self and the brain. Hence she says in Chapter 1 that “I am who I am because my brain is what it is.”

From its very inception, Churchland’s neurophilosophy is essentially a program to put into scientific terms what has been traditionally regarded as ultimately irresolvable philosophical problems. By “scientifying” the mind, the neuroscientist wants to reject metaphysical speculation and hopes to find a definite answer to such persisting enigmas as, for example, what is to be conscious, what is to have a self and what is the origin of morality. Briefly stated, her idea is that all the mind-related issues are simply matter of fact and therefore they are completely susceptible to empirical inquiry. So it is through the study of hormones, genetic endowment and neuronal connections that the secrets of mind are to be unraveled.

2. Neurophilosophy and the Challenge of the “World of Values”

Starting from a naturalistic basis, Churchland readress the problems of social behavior, conceiving them in an absolutely reductionist fashion. However, we should point out here that Churchland is not alone in proposing such a perspective. In the last years, similar endeavors have been undertaken by a pleiad of authors, most notoriously, by Jonathan Haidt, Susan Haack, Sam Harris, Jesse Prinz and Antonio Damasio. However, Churchland program exhibits distinctive features that are worth remarking. In that sense, it seems necessary to recall, however briefly, the Naturalism versus Normativism polemic, so as to better understand where Churchland’s proposal is to be situated and which are its particularities in relation to other programs.

- Naturalism versus Normativism

The naturalism/normativism chasm first began with David Hume’s famous distinction between the realm of what is and that of what ought to be. The core of his contention is that there are two kinds of statements: 1) the descriptive one, which are intended to show how things effectively are and 2) the normative ones, which point at how things should be in accordance to some either a pre-defined metaphysical pattern, a given thelos or a moral goal. Hume warns that a huge logical abysm separates these two types of statements and thus whatever intent to inferred the latter (the ought) from the former (the is) is fallacious. For him, the attempt to build moral values upon mere facts should be regarded as logically unfounded. Needless to say that only moral skepticism can follow from this conception.

The argument was further developed by the British philosopher G. E. Moore in his Principia Ethica (1903). According to him, the “Naturalistic Fallacy” consists in the belief that moral properties, such as “good”, “bad”, “happiness”, “love”, “fair” and “unfair” could be derived from a set of properties founded in the nature of things. For him, in the sphere of morals no knowledge can be achieved given that a normative science, unlike the natural sciences, will never be able to recourse to objective reality in order to establish its premises. Therefore, the question concerning whether an act is morally good or bad is condemned to be an “open question”.

Having seen the ought-is distinction, we can now proceed to organize the discussion regarding the foundations of morality in two antithetical poles which are precisely grounded on it.

On one side, we have naturalism, a program that consists in a plain rejection of transcendence. For this conception, the world is only composed of bodily things and as such it would be rather deceptive either to explain it in terms of far-fetched non-material entities or to project into some immaterial moral values. Accordingly, the naturalistic world is one where there is no place for normativity: what matters are physical objects and their mutual relations. Hard naturalists of this sort believe that there is no objective yardstick with which the validity of different moral systems can be measured. Hence they cannot but embrace moral nihilism or alternatively an extreme moral relativism, provided that it would be in vain to investigate moral values scientifically.

On the other extreme, we have normativism. Like naturalism, it defends the radical separation of the is from the ought and thereby accepts the idea that morality is an autonomous realm, entirely independent of any scientific research[6]. However, and unlike naturalism, normativism avoids falling into nihilism by maintaining that values have a transcendental origin, either it be a “transcendental self”, a “soul” or a “God”. Such is the position, for instance, defended in its roughest terms of absolute moralists of monotheistic religions, who believe that there is only one valid set of values, directly derived from the commands of God. In a similar vein, though in a secular way, some contemporary philosophers invoke the Kant-inspired idea of autonomy or autopoiesis (namely, the distinctively human capacity to create oneself and the collective culture through spontaneity) rather than some allegedly natural process, as the only source of morality. Generally, that thesis is held, for example, by R. Audi, Derek Parfit and, in particular, by the neo-Kantian American philosopher, Christine Korsgaard, who, in her The Sources of Normativity (1996), harshly criticizes all biological-based explanations of normativity[7].

Beyond these two horns of the dilemma, we find a variety of intermediate postures that have in common is the relativization of is-ought gulf.

The American philosopher, Roger Master, offers us an example of a normativistic naturalism stance. In his Evolutionary Biology and Political Theory (1990), he outlines a normative program based on a scientific interpretation of human nature, as opposed to the traditional metaphysical-speculative character of the accounts yielded by “classical” political theorists. According to Masters, it is possible to derive from the theory of evolution certain guidelines that could help us no only to assess the adequacy of current political institutions but also the fairness of them. By so doing, he arrives at four evolutionary-based moral and political prescriptions that would bridge the normative and natural sphere: “(1) respect for the individual and cultural differences (2) virtue as a natural obligation to those benefiting from the advantages of civilized society (3) atural justice as a standard for ethical judgment” (Masters, 1990, 205).

It is beyond doubt that is not the aim of Churchland’s program to go as far as Masters do, in terms of drawing from human biological nature a set of principles upon which to ground a “just” State. In fact, in Braintrust she states that “particular moral dilemmas, such as when a war is a just war, or whether inheritance taxes are fair, are not the focus” (2011, 3). Moreover, in an interview, she contends[8] that Sam Harris’ idea, exposed in his The Moral Landscape (2010), that science can determine what is moral is “quite wrong” because she believes that scientists are by no means morally wiser than any other human being. In the light of that, it is clear that Churchland is a moderate naturalist in the sense that her project is definitely not oriented to establish a universal moral standard rooted in biology. Furthermore, she says she is well aware of the risks involved, i.e., of falling into what she consider are the narrowness of “scientifism” (2006, 3-4).

Nevertheless, Churchland struggles with Hume’s naturalistic contention insofar as, according to her, his distinction has served the proposes of hard normativists to forbid the naturalistic approaches, like hers, to enter the discussion not only regarding what should be counted as moral or immoral but also regarding the issue of the origin of morality.

The first thing that Churchland does to downplay “Hume’s guillotine” is to argue that what the Scottish philosopher had in mind when warning against the naturalistic fallacy was the silly inferences drawn by elites with the purpose of accommodating Nature to their previous set of (mostly religious) values (2011, 5). For Churchland’s mind, if we take into account the purpose that Hume was pursuing when drawing his distinction, it becomes clear that the naturalistic fallacy should be circumscribed only to the specific cases where there is an ostensibly ill-willed use of naturalism.

Following, Churchland attempts to dismantle normativists’ claim that Hume’s philosophy was anti-naturalistic in essence. For that purpose, she reminds to them that the philosopher was not satisfied with reason being the source of morality. Quite the opposite, he thought it was just a mere “instrument”, just a “slave” of the goals provided by passions. According to Churchland, “By passion, he meant something more general than emotion; he had in mind any practical orientation toward performing an action in the social or physical world.” (2011, 5). This “practical orientation” is what Hume, altogether with Smith and Hutcheson, baptized as “moral sentiments”[9].


[1].- For instance, Churchland reminds that “folk psychology” used to believe that memory was a kind of single unified phenomena but neuroscience has recently shown that there are indeed various types of memories and that they can be dissociated one from another. In that sense, some concepts of “folk psychology” are remora of a purely metaphysical conception, concepts that have no correspondence with reality. It is worth noting that the idea of “substance”, which was totally discarded in physics, is an example of a metaphysical notion that underwent a similar destiny.

[2].- To delve more in that regard we recommend Andrew Brook and Pete Mandik’s The Philosophy and Neuroscience Movement (2004).

[3] .- As Christopher Shea puts it “While Churchland’s intellectual opponents over the years have suggested that you can understand the “software” of thinking, independently of the“ hardware"—the brain structure and neuronal firings—that produced it, she has responded that this metaphor doesn’t work with the brain: Hardware and software are intertwined to such an extent that all philosophy must be “neurophilosophy.” Available in:

[4].- Churchland concretely says: “The fact is, in nervous systems there are no levels of brain organization identifiable as the software level or the hardware level. Consequently, the linchpin analogy (mind/brain ¼ software/hardware) is about as accurate as saying that the mind is like a fire or the mind is like a rich tapestry. In a poetic context, the metaphors are perhaps charming enough, but they are far too unconnected to the real phenomena do very much to advance the scientific project of understanding.” (2002, 26) To delve in Churchland’s complete argument against Fodor see pp. 25-26 of Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy (2002).

[5].- It is worth underlining, that regarding the case against dualism, Churchland’s project is in full harmony with Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (1995), who not only exposes a similar theses but also does it in pretty similar terms.

[6].- Prinz puts it very clearly in his The Emotional Construction of Morals (2004): “Morality is a normative domain. It concerns how the world ought to be, not how it is. The investigation of morality seems to require a methodology that differs from the methods used in the sciences. At least, that seems to be the case if the investigator has normative ambitions. If the investigator wants to proscribe, it is not enough to describe.” (1).

[7].- De Oliveira sums up the normativistic position very well: “[…] for authors that stem from an ethical-normativity background like Christine Korsgaard, Darwin's sentimentalist account, together with classic accounts of normativity (voluntarism and realism) and neo-empiricist, naturalist variants (Putnam, Prinz, Churchland) are unsatisfactory, as they all fail to "pay adequate attention" to the unique characteristic of "normative self-government, the capacity to be motivated to do something by the thought that you ought to do it" (Korsgaard, 2010, 3). Korsgaard recasts constructivist features of normative realism, as she critically revisits Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche, exploring the innovative accounts of Reflective Endorsement and the Appeal to Autonomy so as to make a case for a procedural normative realism.” (de Oliveira, 2013, 89)

[8].- The interview can be watched here:

[9].- In fact, she states “Hume believed that moral behavior, though informed by understanding and reflection, is rooted in a deep, widespread, and enduring social motivation, which he referred to as “the moral sentiment.” This is part of our biological nature.” (2011, 5)

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Sociability and Morality in Patricia Churchland’s "Braintrust". An Introduction to Neurophilosophy
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neurophilosophy, churchland, morality, neuroscience, politics, sociability
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Jonathan Arriola (Author), 2014, Sociability and Morality in Patricia Churchland’s "Braintrust". An Introduction to Neurophilosophy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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