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Braintrust: A public conversation about Morality and the Brain

with Patricia Churchland

May 10, 2011
44 minutes
Patricia Churchland


Patricia Churchland spoke about her book, Braintrust, at Warwick's, the oldest American family-owned and operated bookstore. From their announcement:

UCSD philosophy professor and Salk Institute adjunct professor, Patricia Churchland will be at Warwick's on Tuesday, May 10th to discuss and sign her new book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality.

What is morality? Where does it come from? And why do most of us heed its call most of the time? In Braintrust, neurophilosophy pioneer Patricia Churchland argues that morality originates in the biology of the brain. She describes the "neurobiological platform of bonding" that, modified by evolutionary pressures and cultural values, has led to human styles of moral behavior. The result is a provocative genealogy of morals that asks us to reevaluate the priority given to religion, absolute rules, and pure reason in accounting for the basis of morality.

Moral values, Churchland argues, are rooted in a behavior common to all mammals - the caring for offspring. The evolved structure, processes, and chemistry of the brain incline humans to strive not only for self-preservation but for the well-being of allied selves - first offspring, then mates, kin, and so on, in wider and wider "caring" circles. Separation and exclusion cause pain, and the company of loved ones causes pleasure; responding to feelings of social pain and pleasure, brains adjust their circuitry to local customs. In this way, caring is apportioned, conscience molded, and moral intuitions instilled. A key part of the story is oxytocin, an ancient body-and-brain molecule that, by decreasing the stress response, allows humans to develop the trust in one another necessary for the development of close-knit ties, social institutions, and morality. A major new account of what really makes us moral, Braintrust challenges us to reconsider the origins of some of our most cherished values.

For more of Patricia Churchland discussing Braintrust and her discussions on TSN over the years, click here.

Patricia Smith Churchland is a Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. She is also an adjunct faculty member at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Her research focuses on the interface between neuroscience and philosophy. Her books include “Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy,” ”Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain” and “On the Contrary: Critical Essays 1987-1997,” with husband Paul M. Churchland. Her newest book, “Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality,” has just come out.

Books by Patricia Churchland:

Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain