Storm Over the Brain

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Jon Schneeberger and Larry Kinney/National Geographic Creative
A model showing the functioning of human brain cells, Washington, D.C.

Patricia Churchland’s Touching a Nerve belongs to the same genre as a book by Jean-Pierre Changeux that I recently reviewed in these pages1: neuroscience cheerleading, to put it crudely. Churchland is avowedly a big fan of the brain—she loves the brain (as she never tires of reminding us). And her book well conveys her enthusiasm, being generally well written, informative, and readable. She ably covers such topics as near-death experiences, aggression, sex, war, self-control, consciousness, and sleep, among others. If there is anyone left in the world who does not believe that the mind can be minutely controlled by the brain, right down to particular molecules, then this book might disabuse them of such ideas. Churchland presents herself here as a no-nonsense neurophilosopher, impervious to flimflam and all forms of superstition; she believes only in what she can put her hands on and squeeze. It’s the brain, baby, the brain, and nothing but the brain.

It is when she approaches a philosophical issue that the wheels tend to come off the tracks. There is an autobiographical component to this:

I began to learn neuroscience in the mid-1970s after having begun a career in philosophy. This transition was motivated by the realization that if mental processes are actually processes of the brain, then you cannot understand the mind without understanding how the brain works. Studying the brain and thinking about how it works became a joyous obsession. Almost nothing about the brain, from tiny molecules shifting between neurons to the whole nervous system, failed to be fascinating. What is the me in all this—and, for that matter, the we in all this, my husband Paul and I wondered.

In her view, philosophers fail to recognize an elementary truth: that the brain is the basis of mental activity. Once you accept this obvious truth, your reason to stay a philosopher evaporates—you should switch to neuroscience immediately. This is particularly poignant for me, because I switched to philosophy from studying psychology with a heavy neuroscience component (starting in the late 1960s)—did I fail to grasp that the mind depends on the brain?

Two elementary observations are in order. First, not all of philosophy is concerned with the mind: there is also logic, metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, philosophy of physics, etc. Philosophy of mind is just one branch of philosophy, and not everyone in philosophy is particularly interested in it. Second, philosophy of mind is not psychology: it is concerned with more abstract general questions, not the details of perception, memory, and so on. So there is nothing in Churchland’s remark to warrant switching from philosophy to psychology, still less to neuroscience.

But there is a more subtle fallacy in her reasoning here: just because the mind depends on the brain does not prove that psychology is not an autonomous science. Churchland’s reasoning is as unsound …

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Letters

Of Brains & Minds: An Exchange June 19, 2014

  1. 1

    The Good, the True, and the Beautiful: A Neuronal Approach, translated and revised by Laurence Garey (Yale University Press/Odile Jacob, 2012); see The New York Review, July 11, 2013.