16 ene. 2012

Patricia Churchland: “Pensions and social security are really tough problems and neuroscience isn’t going to tell you the answer”

Patricia Smith Churchland is a canadian-american philosopher. She is the most well-known proponent of “Neurophilosophy”, “the interdisciplinary study of philosophy and neuroscience”, along with her husband Paul Churchland. Her latest book is Brain-trust. What neuroscience tell us about morality. So far, none of her books have been translated into spanish. She was recently at Madrid, giving a talk about creativity in the context of neuroscience. She also had the time to gave this interview to Cultura 3.0

Teresa Giménez Barbat and Patricia Churchland

Question. Why must we study the brain in order to understand philosophical problems? How does philosophy help guide the empirical sciences? and Why are some philosophers still resistant to this neurophilosophical approach? 

Answer. Oh, good question. The [answer to the] first question, Why we need to understand the brain in order to understand the mind, is this: That the mind; learning, remembering, being conscious, having perception, making decisions: These are all things the brains do. So we want to understand why those things are done. Part of we’ve learnt in neurosciences over the last 40 years is that once you get a clear picture both from the psychological and the neurobiological level of what’s going on in perception or in brain decision making, it doesn’t look like what philsophers usually think. If you think as epistemology as a central part of philosophy, epistemology has to do with the nature of knowledge. Well, it’s brain that knows things, and it’s brain that remembers...

One ot the surprising thing is how much intelligence is sensitive to information -both internal and external- on no conscious processes. So one of the questions is how no conscious processes work and how it is that they yield something like a complex product, like my recognizing your face, or my remembering a certain event like my flying this morning, and so forth. If epistemology is really about the nature of knowledge, and doesn’t appear that there are a priori truths that nobody can explain how it could be, that evolution would manage to cleverly put a priori truths in our brains, then understanding how we learn and remember, how the different systems (cause we know now there are many different memory systems and they are separable and disociable), how those all work, it is something you can’t figure out just by sitting in your armchair.

Q. You helped to create an "experimental philosophy" lab in the University of California San Diego. What that has in common with the current "experimental philosophy" movement practiced by philosophers as Joshua Knobe and Shaun Nichols? 

A. We’ve started our experimental philosophy lab about 25 years ago. We really were interested in the results of psychological and neurobiological experiments and what they may these tell us about consciousness and the how we represent the self, the nature of knowledge and memory and so forth. These guys, Knobe and Nichols, are really doing a kind of sociolinguistic thing. What they want to know is how people use certain words, what kind of assumptions they make and what kind of inferences they draw. And that can be a very interesting thing. But we were really more focused, I guess you would say, on things like perception and the nature of decision making and how the various memory systems may interact to produce a coherent whole. So we were really asking not what people think but how brains work.

Q. What does neuroscience say about free will? Can we really be morally responsible beings without believing in free will? 

“Of course we have to
preserve the system
of responsibility.”
A. Well, it depends on what you mean by free will. If free will means that you act in a controlled manner and that you recognise the consequences of your intentions, well, of course we have free will. If by free will you mean a somehow uncaused out of nothing creation by the non physical soul, then we don’t have that kind of stuff. But I don’t think most people think that way anyway. What neuroscience has, I think, done, as really important, is to investigate in great detail the differences between what goes on in a brain as it were well controlled, and a brain that has diminihsed control. So in this point we’ve learnt quite a bit the differences between someone who is addicted (to cocaine, for example) and someone who is not.

Now, the issue of responsibility arises in a social context and the social context has to do with basically keeping the peace, that is to say, deterring people from doing things that woud be be injurious to others and punishing those who have done injurious things. By and large this is a workable system and if you don’t have a criminal justice system [oriented] to determining intent, then what would happen is that society would run amok. If you decide to just open the jails and everybody is free, then people will take the law in their own hands. People would say: The system isn’t going to kill him? I will. And then you’re really in trouble. So of course we have to preserve the system of responsibility, we have to try to do it as judiciously as we can. And I think to a first aproximation most jurisdictions have a criminal justice system that works pretty well.

Q. Some philosophers of science are not agree with physical reductionism and denounce the fatal flaws of "brain fundamentalism". From a neurophilosophical standpoint, How can we deal with the reduction problem? 

A. It depends on what you mean by reduction. Some people think that if we reduce A to B that means A isn’t real. That’s silly. What we mean by reduction is that A is a phenomenon of a certain level or organization and to reduce it just means to get an explanation at a lower level, and we think we can explain, or chemistry can explain, the properties of water in terms of oxygene and hydrogene and the way the whole system work together. And when we talk about reduction, for example, when we talk about reducing consciouness to brain processes what we mean is just that consciousness is a phenomenom, a real phenomenom that correlates with activities of the brain.

“We've never said that
consciousness doesn't exist.
Consciousness is a real
In the long term is a reasonable prediction that we will be able to explain those problems in terms of networks of neurons and how they interact. Now, because you mentioned earlier that many philosophers are resistant to neurophilosophy. Many philosophers are taking that resistance and done what I think is really unfortunated, and that is the distorsion of our position to make it look ridiculous. I think, by and large this is an unproductive way to deal with a competing approach to explaining the nature of the mind The Churchland don’t think that consciousness exists. We’ve never said that consciousness does not exist. We actually think that consciousness is real and probably a mixture of a number of different phenomenon. And then, in a long whole, we will make progress in explaining the neurobiological basis of conscious sensory perception.

Some philosophers are very threatened by the idea that they may have to know something. Unfortunately these are biological systems and they can’t made it up. You can’t expalin schizophrenia by making it up. You can’t explain the differences between being sleep and being awake by making it up. There is a real phenomenom there. And if you don’t pay attention to it, don’t pay attention to it, but don’t say you have a different approach that is a priori and that is better.

Q. ¿Is the so called "naturalist" fallacy a fallacy at all?

A. It can be foolish to say things like men by and large are bigger than women so women should be subservient to men. That wouldn’t be a good idea. So you don’t neccesarily want to go from what it is to what ought to be. On the other hand is very clear that the brains of mammals are organised in such a way that a fundamental value is caring for offspring and for others in the group, and that’s a fundamental value. You might say, but ought we to care? Fine, no. Your brain is organised to to that and [you're going to be in a trouble] if you don’t. You ought to do this. So, is the case that we value this things and therefore we ought.

But the problem is...Well, I think is interesting that philosophers have been so resistant. But I think the younger generation is recognizing that analytic philosophy in the last 40 years [is changing]. They don’t want to spend all the time working on problems that are not going anywhere.

Q. What does the expression "brain based values" mean? From a neuroscientific and a neurobiological perspective, What makes some moral theories more plausible? 

A. The wiring in the mammalian brain, that makes caring for childrens a powerful incentive for females especially, but in many other animals males too, means that for example having communes where you take the children away from the parents and bring'em up in common, is probably a good idea. That’s probably good enough for the kids and for the parents. So that would be one sort of example. But there are many other problems, our serious moral problems, like for example inheritance taxes. We were talking earlier about dead and these various serious safety problems like social pensions and social security. Those are really tough problems and neuroscience isn’t going to tell you the answer, and never will be. Ultimately people will have to come together and say: we aim to do this, because we think it’s more valuable than that. We will have to negotiate. Some people like Sam Harris suggest (seem to suggest) that neuroscience will tell us how to resolve these moral problems. I wish we were there now. But no.

Q. Can neuroethics help to provide a universal ethics? Do you agree that the most important moral challenge today is to discover efficient ways to extent the obligations between close relatives and ethnic comrades to all the individuals and groups and make the genetic relatedness less and less recognizable?

A. I don’t know. It’s something I think about it a lot. I don’t think that neuroscience is particularly in a good position to do anything in that regard. I think Steve Pinker in his most recent work generally makes the argument that certain kinds of institutions are more likely to foster that kind of behavior, but it will remain a difficulty because people care more for people are bound to and they know than for people they don’t. And how do we overcome and wether you pay a price if you do overcome that, I don’t know. I actually think that probably is better, that our biology serve us to put it this way: that parents love their children so much, that they’re devoted to all kind of things for them, more than they would do for unknown children on the other side of the planet. And if I’d [neglect] my own children for twenty children in the other side of the planet, most people would think that this is morally unacceptable. And I thing that’s right. But this speaks to this idea that it’s a fundamental value in mammals, in homo mammals, that there is a strong attachment to infants and kin. And we have to overcome it sometimes, and we do in things like appointing people to positions without regard to wether they’re brothers and so forth. We try to organise our institutions so that doesn’t happen. One of the good things about getting rid of kings is that we don’t have this whole familiy line of kings, and uncles and brothers, and various people...

La entrevista en español en Cultura 3.0