The “founder of neurophilosophy” considers the complex, abstract idea of conscience.
MacArthur fellow Churchland (Emerita, Philosophy/Univ. of California, San Diego; Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain, 2013, etc.) draws on neuroscience, genetics, psychology, religion, and philosophy to offer a clear, informative examination of the meaning of conscience. How, she asks, do individuals develop a sense of right and wrong? To what extent is conscience shaped by the social world? What accounts for similarities of cooperation and sharing in human behavior? What accounts for psychopathology and for the disdain for honesty, kindness, and decency displayed by some celebrities and politicians? No discipline provides a complete answer to these formidable questions, but Churchland gleans insights from all. Neurobiology identifies the hormone oxytocin as having a large role in facilitating attachment between mothers and infants and between mates. In “strongly bonded marmosets,” for example, “fluctuations in oxytocin levels are synchronized.” The author notes, however, that no single hormone or genetic inheritance accounts for moral behavior. “Empathizing,” she underscores, “is not a single operation, in contrast to, say, an eye-blink response to a puff of air.” She was surprised to learn that some complicated personality traits are inheritable: Studies of identical and fraternal twins reveal a genetic link for traits such as extroversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability. But, Churchland cautions, these traits involve hundreds of genes and can be strongly influenced by one’s environment. Individuals learn caring behavior by internalizing social norms through a reward system: “the pleasure of social approval and the pain of social disapproval.” Psychopaths—narcissistic, pathological liars who show no guilt or remorse for their anti-social behavior—are puzzling outliers: Psychopaths have generated biochemical and psychological theories but no firm explanation for their lack of a moral compass. In addition to biology, Churchland looks to Judeo-Christian and Asian religions and to a range of philosophers who have grappled with ethical issues. She concludes, after all, that conscience “is a brain construct rooted in our neural circuity, not a theological entity thoughtfully parked in us by a divine being.”
A thoughtful, accessible, and enlightening book.