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.