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Feb 18 2013

Churchland on morality and science

The first few pages of Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust make an excellent antidote to Shermer’s amateurish and arrogant attempt to set everyone straight about morality. (It’s rude to call it amateurish, but perhaps not as rude as it would be if I were not an amateur myself. I am an amateur, and that’s why I want to get moral philosophy from philosophers rather than non-philosophers, and why I wouldn’t myself try to set everyone straight about morality.)

Churchland starts with her own amateur thinking about morality when she was in school and confronted with the unfairness of medieval trial by ordeal. Her history teacher tried to put the practice in context, to discourage the too-easy sense of moral superiority, but the unfairness still stood out.

So what is it to be fair? How do we know what to count as fair? Why do we regard trial by ordeal as wrong? Thus opens the door into the vast tangled forest of questions about right and wrong, good and evil, virtues and vices. For most of my adult life as a philosopher, I shied away from plunging unreservedly into these sorts of questions about morality. This was largely because I could not see a systematic way through that tangled forest, and because a lot of contemporary moral philosophy, though venerated in academic halls, was completely untethered to the “hard and fast”: that is, it had no strong connection to evolution or to the brain, and hence was in peril of floating on a sea of mere, albeit confident, opinion. And no doubt the medieval clerics were every bit as confident. [p 2]

See? I find that one paragraph more clear, more explanatory, more orienting,  more useful, than Shermer’s whole post, long as it is. There are a lot of questions; they are difficult and complicated, not easy and simple; it is hard to find a systematic way to answer them; confidence does not equal success. The questions need to be tethered to evolution and the brain, but that too is not easy or quick.

It did seem likely that Aristotle, Hume, and Darwin were right: we are social by nature. But what does that actually mean in terms of our brains and our genes? To make progress beyond the broad hunches about our nature, we need something solid to attach the claim to. [pp 2-3]

So she got a second PhD, this time in neuroscience.

She discusses the way this combination is apt to draw accusations of “scientism,” and explains why they are often mistaken but also what the accusation can get right.

In the present case, the claim is not that science will wade in and tell us for every dilemma what is right or wrong. Rather, the point is that a deeper understanding of what it is that makes humans and other animals social, and what it is that disposes us to care about others, may lead to greater understanding of how to cope with social problems. [p 4]

Shermer, and Harris before him, simply skipped over that part. They rush to the middle and start there, while Churchland starts at the beginning: we are social animals, we are disposed to care about others. Better, you see?

Then the is-ought problem. What’s the point of it?

…precisely because he was a naturalist, Hume had to make it clear that the sophisticated naturalist has no truck with simple, sloppy inferences going from what is to what ought to be. He challenged those who took moral understanding to be the preserve of the elite, especially the clergy, who tended to make dimwitted inferences between descriptions and prescriptions. For example, it might be said (my examples, not Hume’s), “Husbands are stronger than their wives, so wives ought to obey their husbands,” or “We have a tradition that little boys work as chimney sweeps, therefore we ought to have little boys work as chimney sweeps.” [p 8]

Clear instead of muddled.

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  1. 1
    Eamon Knight

    So she got a second PhD, this time in neuroscience.

    ….and presumably without assuming that entitles her to state that brain states can be mapped in any obvious way onto “human welfare”. Take that, Sam Harris!

  2. 2
    athyco

    “Churchland’s superbly written, dense-with-thinking book is fiercely alert to what can and cannot justifiably be inferred from modern science. She is a brilliantly precise (and often slyly funny) demolisher of exaggerated claims (both in popular literature and research papers) about the hormone oxytocin, mirror neurons, ‘genes for’ behaviours, ‘innate’ capacities, or the functions of particular brain structures. The nuggets that survive her skepticism form the suggestive scaffolding of her own hypothesis: mammals came to regard their young as part of themselves (so recognizing the babies’ distress or hunger), and then widened this ‘me-and-mine’ concern to extended family and others.”–Steven Poole, The Guardian

    And what a nice review at your link. Braintrust goes on my reading list.

  3. 3
    Scote

    “Clear instead of muddled.”

    Definitely the work of an amateur. No professional philosopher would make that mistake :-)

    Shermer is an amateur in philosophy, so why are his efforts on morality so convoluted? I’m guessing that is because, as with theologians and creationists, he’s starting with his conclusions–Libertarianism is the most moral way to behave–and working his way backwards.

  4. 4
    Ophelia Benson

    Eamon – yep. She’s the anti-Harris, the unHarris, the what Harris thought he was doing but wasn’t.

  5. 5
    Ophelia Benson

    Scote – I think it’s more because he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know where he has to start, and he doesn’t know he doesn’t know it.

    It really is rather puzzling. Given that he does have a PhD in something – history of science – you’d think he would be able to figure out what he doesn’t know.

    I wonder if he’ll learn anything from Massimo’s new post.

  6. 6
    kevinalexander

    Trial by ordeal is the medieval name for conservative economic theory. To find out who god favours, look to see to whom he has given the strength to prevail.

  7. 7
    Scote

    “I wonder if he’ll learn anything from Massimo’s new post.”

    I hope so, but when I think of Shermer I think of someone who is blithely dismissive of criticism.

    I’m not generally a fan of Dr3 but in the response you note I think Massimo wrote a clear and decisive takedown of Shermer’s ill conceived claims.

    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2013/02/toward-science-of-morality-annotated.html

  8. 8
    kevinalexander

    Thank you Ophelia for finding Churchland for me. I have just ordered the book.

  9. 9
    jose

    Churchland was on the Rationally Speaking podcast some time ago and she made a practical case for values in real life informed and understood, rather than defined, by science. She really likes Hume.

    About something else… ok I didn’t say anything in the other thread about Shermer not being a philosopher, but imo you shouldn’t go out of your way saying that someone who isn’t an expert on something can’t do a good job on the subject, because then you really shouldn’t support Rebecca Watson’s evolutionary psychology talk. I don’t think any of the sympathizers called her amateurish or any of the attacks Shermer is getting here.

  10. 10
    Ophelia Benson

    I’m not going out of my way, I’m talking about something that’s gotten my attention. Sam Harris’s book got my attention too, for the same reasons. And I didn’t say that someone who isn’t an expert on something can’t do a good job on the subject; I didn’t make it that general. It depends. It depends on how careful the non-expert is, what kind of job is being done, what the subject is; lots of things. I think a non-expert probably could do a decent job of writing a book on moral philosophy for a broad public, but it would require a different approach, with more modesty and declaration of non-expertise, more citation of actual experts, more of a survey approach, etc. Or one could write an essayistic book on the subject, and then expertise or non-expertise wouldn’t matter so much. Montaigne and Seneca weren’t academic philosophers, but they’re very worth reading. But the kind of thing Harris tried to do, and Shermer is now trying to do – yes, I think you need either expertise or a lot of advice from an expert.

    And where have I supported Rebecca’s talk? I haven’t said anything about it either way, that I recall. That’s because I haven’t seen it, and that’s mostly because I don’t consider myself qualified to judge it.

  11. 11
    Landon

    @jose: The crucial consideration in determining whether you “need” an expert (officially designated or not) is what the aims of the book/article/talk/etc. are. If it’s just to relate some information about the field, a competent undergraduate or someone with an equivalent level of knowledge is fine for that. I might even trust an advanced or skilled undergrad in philosophy to critique some important argument. To advance a novel argument into a known gap, I’d perhaps want a grad student or someone of equivalent competency – not THAT hard a degree of proficiency to acquire, even for a non-philosopher. But to supposedly solve a problem that has vexed the great minds of the field for centuries? Yeah, I’m thinking Shermer ain’t enough. Or Harris. Or, frankly, anyone who doesn’t have some serious chops in moral philosophy.

    I don’t see anything wrong with that.

  12. 12
    Ophelia Benson

    Ok that’s fair enough. The scope of what he’s trying to do is indeed way more ambitious: to settle a millenia old discussion philosophers have been having, no less. It was dumb to try to draw a parallel.

    Anyway, here’s the podcast if you have some free time, it’s worth it.

  13. 13
    Ophelia Benson

    I put in jose’s comment because he was having difficulties doing it. It has my avatar on it, but it’s his. Ho hum.

  14. 14
    sheila

    Non-expert here!

    I just wrote a guide book to the astronomical observatory where I used to work as a software engineer.

    I’m not a professional astronomer, although I do consider myself a knowledgeable amateur.

    I was confident I could explain how a telescope works – one telescope is much like another and you can’t write the control software if you don’t know an equatorial mount from an alt-az. I was a lot less confident about explaining the instruments, because they’re a lot more varied, and I’d only worked on a handful of them – so I got help. And I got help on solar telescopes, and the history of the place and boy did I ever need help on the quantum physics experiment… People were amazingly kind, and I think it worked.- At least, people say nice things about the book. But I wouldn’t try writing a book on general relativity or cosmology, much less brain surgery.

    Ophelia’s right. Knowing what you don’t know is crucial. When you know you don’t know, you can ask. What you think you know when you don’t will leave egg on your face.

  15. 15
    Landon

    I noticed Ophelia made the same point I did, only better and more succinctly, while I was still typing mine. I just wanted to clarify that I wasn’t bigfooting her comment, I’m just dumb and slow. ;)

  16. 16
    Ophelia Benson

    That was jose, but with my avatar!

  17. 17
    Landon

    I meant at #10, but I appreciate it anyway!

  18. 18
    sawells

    On knowing what you don’t know: Roger Bacon said that the causes of error are authority, custom, the opinion of the unskilled many, and the concealment of real ignorance with pretence of knowledge; this last error is the most dangerous and is in a sense the cause of all the others.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/roger-bacon/

    13th century.

    We should read these guys sometimes :)

  19. 19
    Duke Eligor

    Definitely a good response from Churchland. And yes, amateurs can write good, insightful books. In my own field of history, I’ve read several good studies written by non-historians. The difference is that they have done a ton of relevent research, know the basic methodological underpinnings of the discipline, and put weight to the expertise of credentialed historians rather than their own assumed expertise. Good amateur work is familiar with and tackles issues already in the scholarly discourse (e.g. they did the historiography). Bad stuff ignores it and assumes they’re treading new ground when in reality they’re not, or they flub on a bunch of significant facts or make presumptions that have been widely descredited and smashed by the scholarly literature. Usually a cursory examination of the broad trends in a particular field is enough to identify who is approaching the subject competently and who isn’t. But sadly, often enough it does take a fair degree of familiarity with the subject to identify those with knowledge and those who simply pose as knowledgeable.

  20. 20
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    I want to get moral philosophy from philosophers rather than non-philosophers

    How do we tell a moral philosopher from an immoral philosopher? even if we get better moral philosophy from philosophers than non-philosophers, do we get better morality from them? And how do we decide- getting to Shermer’s claims- what is better morality and how it is better? I am inclined to think that morality is like free will or consciousness- a philosophical mystery rather than a philosophical problem.

  21. 21
    Landon

    “I am inclined to think that morality is like free will or consciousness- a philosophical mystery rather than a philosophical problem.”

    The discipline of philosophy considers those philosophical problems, ones we have made considerable headway on in recent years, in fact.

  22. 22
    jose

    Thank you Ophelia!

  23. 23
    alqpr

    It doesn’t take an expert to see that an appropriate “claim is not that science will wade in and tell us for every dilemma what *is* right or wrong. Rather, the point is that a deeper understanding of what it is that makes humans and other animals social, and …may lead to greater understanding of how to cope with social problems.” So what of any value *does* require an “expert?

    I appreciate your work on puncturing the balloons of Harris and Shermer and drawing attention to Churchland’s much more useful work. But I don’t see anything that she says (apart from references to philosophical context) which required special philosophical expertise to come up with, and I share the concerns of those who object to the weight you seem to attach to the authority of so-called “experts” in moral philosophy rather than just looking at the quality of the arguments.

    I would be most grateful if either Ophelia or Landon (or anyone else!) could point me to even one example of an interesting (philosophical) problem that has been solved by an “expert” and explained in terms that Richard Feynman would find simple enough to justify a claim of real “expert” understanding.

  24. 24
    Ophelia Benson

    Those? Who? Only jose, that I’m aware of, and jose ended up partly agreeing.

    Maybe it doesn’t require special philosophical expertise. Derek Parfit doesn’t have a PhD, so there you go. But Churchland’s account is clear and useful, and Shermer’s isn’t. Couldn’t that have something to do with training? Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but…

    But in any case I wasn’t talking about solving a problem. I was talking about understanding what the problem is, and saying cogent things about it, and contributing something to the discussion of it. That’s where the expertise comes in, maybe. Harris and Shermer both talk about it as if it’s incredibly simple and easy to solve (easy! just realize that it’s about the well-being of sentient creatures, and all confusion melts away!) while Churchland knows it isnt. It’s dumb to think it’s simple and easy to solve. Dumb the way an outsider can be dumb.

  25. 25
    alqpr

    Thank *you* for partly agreeing with us too. (I learned early in life to make the most of a “maybe”!)

    Yes, the main point is that Churchland’s account is clear and useful, and Shermer’s isn’t.
    (Though it may be a bit self-serving for me to say that, as when Harris’ book first came out I made a very similar distinction between claiming to determine what *is* moral and just studying how humans assign moral value)

    But wrt the training issue, I have to add that in my opinion Harris appears even more naive than Shermer, and Harris does at least have a BA in philosophy and according to Wikipedia he IS a “philosopher” (I’ll leave it to you to go in and flag that with a “citation needed”!)

  26. 26
    Eamon Knight

    ISTM that a lot of the value of “expertise” in moral philosophy lies in knowing the history. Like: Dude, Aristotle/Kant/Jeremy Bentham/Peter Singer/whomever already thought of that, and it was a great idea, but it runs into the following problems….. How do you propose getting around that?

  27. 27
    alqpr

    @Eamon, I don’t dispute the value of philosophical education and expertise – just the *need* for it.
    And I see it as less useful for providing solutions than for clarification of intent and identifying problems – along the lines that you describe. If I am proposing a “new” solution for an old problem I would be well advised to ask a philosopher to assess its novelty and point out any weaknesses. But If I see an error in someone else’s argument I don’t need an expert to tell me whether it’s really an error. (So I don’t think Ophelia needs the support of any higher authority to call BS on Harris and Shermer)

  28. 28
    Landon

    @alqpr: “I share the concerns of those who object to the weight you seem to attach to the authority of so-called “experts” in moral philosophy rather than just looking at the quality of the arguments.”

    To quote Ophelia, “Those? Who?”

    In any case, I cannot find a single instance of Ophelia (or myself, for that matter) leaning on the expertise of an individual as a surety that the conclusions are good, rather than as a heuristic device for finding better arguments. In short, do not mistake “Experts are more likely to have good arguments” for “this is a good argument (solely) because it was forwarded by an expert.” Ophelia and I have both said something like the former, but neither of us have said anything like the latter.

    “But wrt the training issue, I have to add that in my opinion Harris appears even more naive than Shermer, and Harris does at least have a BA in philosophy and according to Wikipedia he IS a “philosopher””

    A BA doesn’t make you a philosopher. It indicates that you might be qualified to train as one. See my post at #11 – this has been dealt with already.

    “If I am proposing a “new” solution for an old problem I would be well advised to ask a philosopher to assess its novelty and point out any weaknesses. But If I see an error in someone else’s argument I don’t need an expert to tell me whether it’s really an error.”

    I am glad, at least, that you see the value in philosophical training. Likewise, I don’t dispute that you NEED not be a philosopher to see an obvious error in an argument. However, many arguments offered by philosophers have been cleansed of OBVIOUS errors, so if the argument is at all competently formed, it’s going to take someone who has a good degree of philosophical competence to spot what errors persist. And, in my experience in teaching, undergrads frequently misunderstand the force of certain objections and misconstrue the consequences of various errors they detect. They also, usually due to lack of understanding of the nuances of certain terms of art, believe they see objections where none actually exist, which they would know if they had a greater familiarity with the supporting literature and thus a better understanding of the significance of the author’s use of THIS term or THAT term, rather than some other, in the context of the argument. So it’s not always true that you don’t need an expert to tell you if the error you (think you) see is really an error.

    Finally,

    “I would be most grateful if either Ophelia or Landon (or anyone else!) could point me to even one example of an interesting (philosophical) problem that has been solved by an “expert” and explained in terms that Richard Feynman would find simple enough to justify a claim of real “expert” understanding.”

    I won’t address Feynman’s criteria except to note that Feynman, while a brilliant scientist, had a only very shaky grasp of what philosophy was about and repeatedly displayed ignorance regarding the methods, aims, and value of philosophy. In any case, the question is poorly formed. Philosophy does not “solve” problems in the scientific sense because philosophical problems are, by definition, beyond the realm of empirical investigation – that is, we can never “point to” some set of evidence that “proves” some particular answer is the correct one. Indeed, to the extent that a problem is amenable to such solutions, it migrates OUT of philosophy’s domain.

    Philosophy problems are only ever more or less “settled,” because, lacking the ability to investigate the issues empirically, we (philosophers) try to define terms very clearly and then make the best arguments we can for various possible answers to the problems. We critique these arguments, and take the most plausible, least ontologically-promiscuous valid argument to be the best one. As “most plausible” is somewhat subjective, there will never be perfect agreement on any proposed solution, but that’s to be expected when we cannot appeal to the stern, austere realm of physical evidence for a final ruling. That said, there is a large degree of consensus on a number of issues, all of which are philosophical problems that have been at various points throughout history hotly contested by professional philosophers, and all of which were largely settled through the work of people who were essentially, for their respective eras, professional philosophers. A small sampling of these issues includes:

    1) Materialism is the proper paradigm for understanding the operation of the mind (a refutation of dualism).

    2) Religious belief is not rationally required (and there is only a rear-guard action maintaining that it is rationally permissible).

    3) The correct paradigm for analyzing ethical problems is some variant of consequentialism that includes a concept of rights.

    4) Democracy with universal adult suffrage is not only rational and ethically justifiable, it is probably the only rational and ethically justifiable form of government.

    This doesn’t even mention the important work in logic that has made modern computer science possible.

    The problem you may be running into, which trips up a lot of people, is that by the time a non-philosopher runs into a philosophical issue that has reached consensus, it has already seeped into the culture and looks a lot like “common sense.” It can be hard to remember that there was a time that universal suffrage was not taken for granted as the “right” way to do things, when democracy itself was a mad, experimental proposal. Non-philosophers tend to point to the people who campaigned to bring those ideas to realization in the social and political systems, but those people were almost always persuaded of the rightness of their cause by reading the philosophers who championed those ideas in the first place. The founders of the United States brought forth constitutional democracy into this world, but they did so after becoming convinced by Locke and Rousseau of the correctness of such an enterprise. If you’re having trouble figuring out what effect philosophy has had on the world, look at a map depicting the number of governments founded on the principle of constitutional democracy throughout history.

  29. 29
    alqpr

    Thanks Landon for that considered response.

    I did not mean to accuse either you or Ophelia of using argument from authority but I still feel some discomfort with the emphasis on philosophical expertise. This may be unfounded but I think it is worth exploring in order to help understand what some philosophers perceive as unfair negative reactions from their non-peers (including perhaps some of the recent “Physics vs Philosophy” arguments)

    I don’t want to wast any more of Ophelia’s space on this digression, but in case you are willing to engage further I will post some additional comments on my own blog.

    P.S. My reference to Harris as a philosopher was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, and I think that by bringing in Feynman I was perhaps closer to “trolling” than I should have been.

  30. 30
    Ophelia Benson

    It’s fine to have the discussion here. I’ve just quoted one thing Landon said, at Facebook, because it’s that good.

    The problem you may be running into, which trips up a lot of people, is that by the time a non-philosopher runs into a philosophical issue that has reached consensus, it has already seeped into the culture and looks a lot like “common sense.”

    Keep discussing here, so we can get more like that.

    No wait, I have a better idea; I’ll make that comment a guest post and we can discuss it there.

  31. 31
    Ophelia Benson

    Meanwhile I came here to say that Kevin Alexander said @ 8 that he’d just ordered the book. At Eric’s he says he’s reading it and is in love with Churchland.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/choiceindying/2013/02/22/whats-it-got-to-do-with-assisted-dying/#comment-190

  32. 32
    kevinalexander

    I am getting in deeper…..into the book and the other thing. I have to disclaim that a lot of it is confirmation bias. She says so well things that I’ve not thought through but in a half assed sort of way.
    It’s nice to have someone do the heavy lifting for me.
    I’m not half way through so I’m still waiting to see if she covers more than the positive side of morality. I have a strong suspicion that the ugly side is also biologically based. For example, misogyny seems to be an almost universal phenomenon and the practitioners usually claim morality, whether god given or otherwise.

  33. 33
    Chris Hallquist

    @Landon: I’m skeptical that Locke deserves that much credit for democracy. Britain had already moved a long way towards democracy before Locke’s Second Treatise; the Second Treatise seems more like an exercise in defending changes that were already taking place.

    Also: It’s been settled that “The correct paradigm for analyzing ethical problems is some variant of consequentialism that includes a concept of rights”? What? I have an MA in philosophy, and the best sense I can make of this sentence is that you’re using “consequentialism” in a sense different than every professional philosopher I’ve ever encountered. According to the PhilPapers survey, less than a quarter of professional philosophers are consequentialists.

  34. 34
    Ophelia Benson

    Interesting. I wondered about that but lack expertise. I look forward to learning more.

  35. 35
    alqpr

    I share Chris Hallquist’s skepticism @#33 (and maybe raise it a point or two past his comfort level).
    In fact, it seems to me that with regard to who leads whom (the philosophical elite vs the common culture) it’s very much a chicken&egg issue. Ideas circulate without getting much traction until society is ready for them. Those who give the first expression that gets noticed and widely circulated do make a useful contribution, but if they hadn’t done so someone else would probably get there not much later.

    With regard to “consequentialism”, does moral judgement count as a consequence? My own moral compass is based on the question “Do I expect to feel good about myself in the long run after doing this?” In fact I find it hard to imagine an alternative, so in one sense consequentialism seems tautological. Of course whether I will feel good about my action will depend partly on its actual physical consequences, partly on whether at least its expected consequences were (without unreasonable wishful thinking) expected to be “good”, and partly on how it fits with “rules” that are either innate or culturally imposed and which I do not expect to be able to free myself from feeling bound by, (and also on the consequent release of oxytocin of course!).

    And, getting back to Churchland. On p2 we have this. “a lot of contemporary moral philosophy, though venerated in academic halls, was completely untethered to the ‘hard and fast’; that is, it had no strong connection to evolution or to the brain, and hence was in peril of floating on a sea of mere, albeit confident, opinion. And no doubt the medieval clerics were every bit as confident.” Hear! Hear!

  1. 36
    alQpr » Blog Archive » Does Morality Need Philosophers?

    [...] Benson’s post on Patricia Churchland’s 2011 book ‘braintrust’ points out that, in contrast to the efforts of Sam Harris and Michael Shermer, Churchland makes a [...]

  2. 37
    Guest post: on the value in philosophical training » Butterflies and Wheels

    [...] post by Landon from the Churchland on morality and science [...]

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