On "Rule Breaker," by Christopher Shea (The Chronicle Review, June 17), from chronicle.com:
While I understand the desire to tie what have been philosophical issues to biology, aiming at the unification of knowledge, and while I appreciate the search, I find the current fad, exemplified by Patricia Churchland, to be purely overreaching speculation, which, let's face it, is worse than actual philosophy. Oxytocin, yes. So now, as with the cerebral hemispheres, dopamine, mirror neurons, and every other discovery, let's see how far we can speculatively stretch things that are kinda like what oxytocin does. We have learned enormous amounts about the nervous system in recent decades, but we still know precious little. Let's let science do its work and create real causal chains and then talk. Meanwhile, let's talk about right and wrong, good and evil, in ways that are richly sensible. Please?
"'I have long been interested in the origins of values,' Churchland says, the day after lecturing on that topic at the nearby American Museum of Natural History. 'But I would read contemporary ethicists and just feel very unsatisfied. It was like I couldn't see how to tether any of it to the hard and fast. I couldn't see how it had anything to do with evolutionary biology, which it has to do, and I couldn't see how to attach it to the brain.'"
Gee, and somehow she managed to attach it to the brain, because it absolutely has to. Right? Because everything is evolutionary biology. There is nothing else. And, surprisingly enough, she manages to do that. I'm flabbergasted.
There is a problem, other than the obvious one that Churchland embarked on her research already having decided where she would find the answer. I can illustrate it easily enough: A man is depressed—of course his biology reflects this. Duh! Could it be otherwise? A friend comes to see him. The friend cracks a really funny joke. The depressed man barely laughs, but the friend is hilarious and keeps it up. Pretty soon, despite the first man being depressed, he starts laughing uproariously. If you could look at all his neurochemicals, they would be different after he laughed for 15 minutes from what they were before. But everything is biology. It is the brain. We are merely reflections of our brain, not the other way around, at least according to Churchland. Taking her stance to its illogical conclusion, the scenario I just laid out couldn't be possible. Because first and foremost, our brains determine who we are and what we do.
It seems far more likely that I choose to connect to someone through intention and thinking. Then my body reflects that decision. Perhaps oxytocin is involved in some way. If I continually choose to connect, it seems also likely that I might end up producing more oxytocin than someone who continually withdraws. My brain is a reflection of my choices, not the other way around. Perhaps my brain limits my choices somewhat, but within the context of what we call humanity, I do have a choice. And presumably my neurochemicals will reflect those choices, after the fact. The reason is: I am not a vole. I am a human, and I can choose. Therefore, since I can choose, ethics, apart from biology, is worth looking at.
The beauty of evolutionary psychology is that there seems to be little shame in including one's premise in one's conclusions. If you assume that there is a materialist explanation for all phenomena ("I couldn't see how [ethical theory] had anything to do with evolutionary biology, which it has to do ... "), then, oddly enough, your explanations for all phenomena will be confined to the material.
Churchland's plea of ignorance as to the morality of the 19th-century Hindu practice of forcing widows to be burned with their deceased husbands contrasts oddly with her moralistic condemnation of the ownership of automatic rifles in the contemporary United States. By what principle can she claim greater moral insight, nay authority, as to one of the two practices? What factor does spatial or temporal proximity play in morality? Does she, in fact, have a greater or more valid empathic connection with one community and not the other?
Maybe it's mediation through The Chronicle, rather than a problem with Churchland's ideas themselves—but she seems to be incredibly confused, to a tragicomical degree. She claims that there are no exceptionless rules in moral philosophy ... which is a claim of an exceptionless rule in moral philosophy. She (while extrapolating straightforwardly from prairie voles to humans without even a hint of qualification!) contrasts "determined by oxytocin receptors" with "determined for oneself," as if "oneself" is a free-floating entity not generated by biological structures—like oxytocin receptors. No wonder she hangs out with Sam Harris.