Patricia Churchland, a neurophilosopher at the University of California at San Diego, says our hopes, loves and very existence are just elaborate functions of a complicated mass of grey tissue. Accepting that can be hard, but what we know should inspire us, not scare us. Her most recent book is Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain.
Graham Lawton: You compare revelations in neuroscience with the discoveries that the Earth goes around the sun and that the heart is a pump. What do you think these ideas have in common?
Patricia Churchland: They challenge a whole framework of assumptions about the way things are. For Christians, it was very important that the Earth was at the center of the universe. Similarly, many people believed that the heart was somehow what made us human. And it turned out it was just a pump made of meat.
I think the same is true about realizing that when we’re conscious, when we make decisions, when we go to sleep, when we get angry, when we’re fearful, these are just functions of the physical brain. Coming to terms with the neural basis of who we are can be very unnerving. It has been called “neuroexistentialism,” which really captures the essence of it. We’re not in the habit of thinking about ourselves that way.
GL: Why is it so difficult for us to see the reality of what we actually are?
PC: Part of the answer has to do with the evolution of nervous systems. Is there any reason for a brain to know about itself? We can get along without knowing, just as we can get along without knowing that the liver is in there filtering out toxins. The wonderful thing, of course, is that science allows us to know.
GL: Are there any implications of neuroscience that you feel unsettled by?
PC: I’d have to say no. It takes some getting used to, but I’m not freaked out by it. I certainly understand the ambivalence people have. On one hand, they’re fascinated because it helps explain their mother’s Alzheimer’s, but on the other, they think, “Gosh, the love that I feel for my child is really just neural chemistry?” Well, actually, yes, it is. But that doesn’t bother me.
By and large I find neuroscience liberating because it allows us to see our connections to other biological things, and because it’s not full of metaphysical junk about preparing your life for the great beyond. Of course it’s possible we’re wrong. But it doesn’t seem very likely, and that lack of likelihood is sufficient for me to not want to organize my life around this possibility. I want to enjoy it now. I don’t want to make useless and meaningless sacrifices, and I don’t want to trash this planet because I think a better one awaits me.
GL: You seem to take it for granted that there is resistance to brain science out there. What led you to that conclusion?
PC: For many years I taught philosophy of neuroscience, and my students would often say, doesn’t it freak you out that you’re just your brain? Doesn’t that bother you? So we would talk about why it bothered them. I know some people are ambivalent or apprehensive.
GL: You say that some philosophers are resistant to brain science, too. Why is that?
PC: Many philosophers think, hey, we thought we were going to have all the answers, and now you guys are wading in and telling us what knowledge is? I think there’s fear of a territorial kind, and rightly so.
GL: You accept that we don’t have satisfying neural explanations for a lot of higher functions, including consciousness, problem-solving, decision-making, sleep, and dreaming. Are we really ready to declare that we are our brains?
PC: True, we don’t have adequate explanations yet, and it’s important not to overstate where things are. But that’s where the evidence is pointing. Everything we’re learning in neuroscience points us in that direction.
GL: You say beliefs in things like the existence of the soul and life after death are challenged by neuroscience. But are they still widely held?
PC: There are probably cultural variations; it may be that in Britain there is less need to challenge these ideas. But I find that here in America, it is important. Lots of people who don’t necessarily have strong religious views nonetheless have the feeling that maybe after they die, there’s something else.
It was quite interesting to see the comedian Jon Stewart interviewing Richard Dawkins recently. He said something like, you really don’t think that after I die anything happens? I just rot? And of course Dawkins said, yes, I really do think that. And I really think that, too.
GL: Even people who have largely come to terms with neuroscience find certain ideas troubling—particularly free will. Do we have it?
PC: A better question is whether we have self-control, and it’s very easy to see what the evolutionary rationale of that is. We need to be able to maintain a goal despite distractions. We need to suppress certain kinds of impulses. We do know a little bit about the neurobiology of self-control, and there is no doubt that brains exhibit self-control.
Now, that’s as good as it gets, in my view. When we need to make a decision about something—whether to buy a new car, say—self-control mechanisms work in ways that we understand: We decide not to spend more than we can afford, to go with the more or less practical car. That is what free will is. But if you think that free will is creating the decision, with no causal background, there isn’t that.
GL: What about the argument that you can follow chains of causality back to the beginning of the universe, so everything is predetermined?
PC: It’s metaphysical goofiness. The reason I just scratched my foot is because of that causal connection to the big bang? Get real. Part of why we care about free will is because we care about assigning responsibility. Do we need to know about the relation between my scratching my foot and the big bang in order to make wise decisions about when to punish people for their actions? Of course not.
GL: So I shouldn’t worry that I don’t have free will?
PC: Here’s one way to think of it. Suppose your doctor tells you they have found colon cancer. You have to make a decision whether to have surgery. If you thought there was no such thing as free will because it is causality all the way back, you might say, well, it’s futile, I cannot make a free decision anyhow, I will just sit here and wait. That would be foolish.
If you are crippled by the thought that it is causality all the way back, you have essentially made a decision to make no decisions. That is very unwise. If by thinking that free will is an illusion you believe that it does not matter whether you acquire good habits or bad, hold false beliefs or true, or whether your evaluation of the consequences of an option is accurate or not, then you are highly likely to make a right mess of your life.
GL: Do you see yourself as a cultural warrior?
PC: Not at all. My intent is to say, I’ve made my peace with my brain, but there is a journey to getting there. I understand that journey, and not everybody will want to make it, but I’ll let you know how I got there. And then you can take it or leave it.
GL: So yours is not an evangelical message, you aren’t seeking converts?
PC: No, I have no intention or desire to shove anything down anybody’s throat. People are, by and large, smart enough and reasonable enough that they come to a good decision eventually. But it takes time to think about it, to go back and forth. It’s something that you have to marinate in for a while.
I just want to lay out what it looks like the science is telling us, because I think people want to know. I think it’s important to accept what seems to be true rather than make stuff up. In general, I think that’s a good life policy.
GL: Can neuroscience offer a philosophy to live by?
PC: Neuroscience doesn’t provide a story about how to live a life. But I think that understanding something about the nature of the brain encourages us to be sensible.
GL: Some might say the idea that you are just your brain makes life bleak, unforgiving and ultimately futile. How do you respond to that?
PC: It’s not at all bleak. I don’t see how the existence of a god or a soul confers any meaning on my life. How does that work, exactly? Nobody has ever given an adequate answer. My life is meaningful because I have family, meaningful work, because I love to play, I have dogs, I love to dig in the garden. That’s what makes my life meaningful, and I think that’s true for most people.
Now, at the end of it, what’s going to happen? I will die and that’s it. And I like that idea, in a crazy sort of way.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.