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Patricia Churchland - Morality and the Mammalian Brain

Self-caring neural circuitry embodies self-preservation values, and these are values in the most elemental sense. Whence caring for others?

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Comment by Tim Gier on April 11, 2012 at 23:31

From the website of the University of Edinburgh

Professor Patricia Churchland: Morality and the Mammalian Brain

Event details
Lecture title: Morality and the Mammalian Brain
Presented: 11 May 2010, 5.30pm


Professor Patricia Smith Churchland is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and an adjunct Professor at the Salk Institute.

Her research focuses on the interface between neuroscience and philosophy. She explores the impact of scientific developments on our understanding of consciousness, the self, free will, decision making, ethics, learning, and religion.

She is author of the groundbreaking book, 'Neurophilosophy' (MIT Press 1986), co-author with T. J. Sejnowski of 'The Computational Brain' (MIT 1992), co-author with Paul Churchland of 'On The Contrary' (MIT 1998). 'Brain-Wise' was published by MIT Press in 2002.

Her current work focuses on morality and the social brain. She has been President of the American Philosophical Association and the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and won a MacArthur Prize in 1991 and the Rossi Prize in 2008. She was Chair of the Philosophy Department from 2000-2007.

Lecture abstract

Self-caring neural circuitry embodies self-preservation values, and these are values in the most elemental sense. Whence caring for others?

The compelling line of evidence from neuroendocrinology suggests that in mammals and possibly birds, caring for others is an adaptation of brainstem-limbic circuitry whereby what counts as “me” extends to include offspring -- “me and mine”. Oxytocin is at the hub of the intricate network adaptations. In some species, strong caring for the well-being of others may extend also to include kin or mates or friends or even strangers, as the circle widens.

Two additional interdependent evolutionary changes are crucial for mammalian sociality/morality: (1) modifications to the reptilian pain system that, when elaborated, yield the capacity to evaluate and predict what others will feel, know, and do, and (2) learning, strongly involving imitation, linked to social pain and social pleasure that regulates the acquisition of the clan’s social practices and the emergence of a conscience tuned to these practices.

Social problem-solving, including policy-making, is probably an instance of problem-solving more generally, and draws upon the capacity, prodigious in humans, to envision consequences of a planned action. In humans, it also draws upon the capacity for improving upon current practices and technologies.

Unlike other mammals, humans have developed highly complex language, and highly complex cultures. This means that our sociality, and consequently ours systems of ethical values, have become correspondingly complex.



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