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The Nietzschean brain

By Richard Marshall.


Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality, Patricia Churchland , Princeton University Press 2011

Massimo Pigliucci wrote recently at the Rationally Speaking blog about sensationalists mismeasuring neuroscience, accusing the likes of Sam Harris and Alex Rosenberg of making unwarranted inferences from the science about brains to moral issues and questions of personal identity. In particular he tells us that it is because of his own “respect and love” for science that he finds “Harris’ confusion between facts and values” dismaying. The trouble with Pigliucci’s sensationalist dismay is that it won’t measure up to the research programme he claims to so respect and love.

Patricia Churchland’s brilliant book makes clear that to properly appreciate the philosophy of neuroscience one needs to place it in its appropriate historical context, which is that of philosophical naturalism. Aristotle, Hume, Adam Smith, Descartes and Nietzsche are all part of this philosophical tradition, so it is neither eccentric nor obscure. Out of understanding this context, the hapless hash that Pigliucci makes of Hume’s ‘value/fact’ distinction is sorted out and the contemporary discussions about re-understanding ourselves in the light of new discoveries can continue without such shallow interventions.

Science fiction has long taught us of the dangers of denying science facts in the name of old theories. The brilliant TV series Fringe, a latter day X Files and Frankenstein, plays with all the stuff and more that philosophers and scientists are thinking hard about, and like all great fiction, gives a lie to Pigliucci’s rather stuffy approach that seems to want to box off scientific progress from progress in moral thinking, political thinking, existential thinking and so on.

It was once paradoxical to think of a ‘horseless carriage.’ The paradox dissolves in the face of new technologies. Similarly, our self-image is written in the wake of whatever theoretical currency is available. So it would have been paradoxical to suppose a life without vitalism in days of yore. The new discoveries of neurobiology are similarly shredding ancient theories about ourselves and require new ones. Like with Neurath’s boat, this is a process that is inevitably ad hoc, provisional and bitty. We are repairing the boat of human image whilst still at sea. Pigliucci’s position seems to be that unless we put in to port and do the whole thing all at once, with a blue print already mapped out before we begin, then attempts to refit the ship will be hopeless. But there is no port. As Richard Dawkins keeps on reminding us, nature evolves from layers already in existence. Our biological systems are jim-crack improvisations using whatever is lying to hand. No wonder its all a bit weird, inefficient and dreamy.

Pigliucci does a disservice to those in the business of staying afloat. Churchland, Harris, Rosenberg, Gazzaniga, Machery, Prinz, Schwitzgebel, Ramachandran, Knobe, Leiter, Fodor, Pinker, Dennett, Mele and many, many others are all working hard to figure out piecemeal what on earth we really are and what difference the new data makes as it keeps flowing in. They are doing what Hume would have been doing, and Nietzsche, and Aristotle, and Adam Smith and on and on. But what is also important is that these are public workers. They let us in on the research. And they raise issues that we outside the universities and corporate labs need to consider.

Think about it, if we didn’t have these type of guys continually going public about their ideas and thoughts then we’d be truly in the dark. Corporate powers and undemocratic governments would love it if we knew nothing about what they know. If TV shows like Fringe and the X Files have shown us anything, it’s that science can be terrifying if left outside of democratic decision-making. Historians continue to astonish us with stories of the terrible secrets of governments and scientists. Stephen Barber’s Annihilation Zones: Far Eastern Atrocities is a vivid example of this.

What if, as Matthew Liao, a philosopher of bioethics asks, there’s a drug that can destroy targeted memories. Unhappy memories, addict memories, traumas could be targeted and destroyed, but so could others too. The world of the film Eternal Sunshine is possible. But is it one we want? The choice is whether we want to have access to the information and the issues so that we can ask these questions and have public discussion and democratic decision making, or whether we leave it to undemocratic powers, such as secret governments, armies and corporations.

Churchland is a very smart corrective to Pigliucci’s worries. And as we read, we discover that what is being discovered is sensational. Pigliucci finds the sensationalism that writers convey when discussing this topic inappropriate but why? Maybe he’s just too cool for skool and so never likes to show affect. Well, Churchland is not cool but instead is groovy. She doesn’t disguise the fact that what she’s writing about is nothing less than a mind-melt, even though she’s cautious and responsible in reporting the limits of what is so far known.

She directly addresses the fact/value issue. It was Hume who seemed to warn us that we cannot make an ‘ought’ out of an ‘is’. But Hume is part of the naturalist tradition that Churchland positions herself in. So what he is warning us about when he says this is not what Pigliucci thinks. Hume is denying that there is a conceptual link between cause and effect, but that is a problem for conceptual analysis per se, not causality. Jerry Fodor has a great line were he says that the number of concepts successfully analysed by philosophers since they started hovers stubbornly at exactly zero. Conceptual analysis is useless. Everyone in philosophy now agrees. Timothy Williamson at Oxford, home of conceptual analysis some decades ago, says that it was a horrible mistake.

The Hume vs Kant debate is central to understanding Churchland’s approach. You can’t get an ought from an is as a pure inference, but Hume broadens out the idea so that instead of strictly inferring, you instead just informally figure it out. This is something cats and dogs can do as well as people. Figuring out is a kind of constraint satisfaction rather than anything like a deduction or algorithm. Churchland gives as an example the way a wolf pack figures out how to get its next meal.

It “watches the caribou herd, and needs to select a likely victim – an animal that is weak, isolated, or young. The pack is very hungry and needs to be successful, so a lame older animal may be a better choice than a tiny newborn, but it is more risky; the hunters want to conserve energy, but acquire a rich energy source; they need to take into account the location of the river, how they can drive the victim to a waiting pair of wolves, and so forth.” So what Churchland is arguing for here is that the naturalist explanation of deriving what a wolf ought to do from what is the case makes perfect sense so long as not placed in a bad model of understanding what is meant by ‘ought.’ The wolf does it, and so do we. It’s this understanding of social behaviour and decision making that is what Churchland thinks neuroscience has plenty of things to say.

Brains are what we have to navigate the causal world that the wolves encountered in the example just given. The social world is using the same kind of mechanisms, classifying and sorting so that decisions based on memory, prediction, perception can be made. The moral decisions don’t call on a different mechanism, they are merely inevitable functions of the social brain. As Churchland puts it, “Social navigation is an instance of causal navigation generally, and shapes itself to the existing ecological conditions.”

So Hume is warning that analyzing concepts won’t get you anywhere. What will is to be scientific about what you do. Hume was happy to acknowledge that we were animals and that explaining our actions, including moral actions and thoughts, would ultimately be explained in terms of natural science. So it is. Churchland has spent her life struggling against an agenda in philosophy that has resolutely denied this naturalistic perspective. But she is a groovy philosopher not least because she refuses to buckle under pressure and knows that there’s genuine knowledge being discovered about mammalian brains that explains a great deal about what we are. Like Nietzsche, she’s had to take up arms in a sea of misunderstanding and opposition. And there’s an interesting parallel with Nietzsche that I think helps understand what she’s up to in this book.

Nietzsche was influenced by the young German materialists of the mid-nineteenth century and was keen to show that a completely scientific account of humans was both possible and desirable. But he was not himself a materialist. His approach was what Brian Leiter has labeled ‘methodological naturalism’ to draw a distinction with a naturalism that supposed reality to be all of one kind of material stuff and nothing else. Methodological naturalism is more modest in that it supposes that all claims of knowledge must be derived from scientific methodology and recognizes that materialism isn’t justified by such methodology (although it tends to draw a line at supernatural stuff).

Nietzsche’s account of morality was an assault on any account of morality that couldn’t be explicable in terms of a kind of human husbandry, a process of animal breeding familiar to those breeding types of livestock. Nietzsche asks us to consider what would be necessary to breed a promise-making creature and his account is totally naturalistic. A promise-making animal can be bred just as milking cows can be, or short legged terriers.

This is a deflationary account of morality. It deflates any high faluting metaphysics, such as proposed by Kant, that seeks to provide an account that soars free of naturalistic constraint. Nietzsche’s account is one where the physiological and environmental factors are all there is to the truth about human character, morality, belief, agency, taste and anything else you care to mention. Metaphysics-in-a-derogatory sense is what we might, in a Leiterish mode, dub the metaphysical accounts that seek to remove us from the animal sphere and place us elsewhere. The parade cases of metaphysics in the derogatory sense are Kant and Heidegger. The Kantian moral philosopher Christine Korsgaard is rebuked politely by Churchland for trying to place the burden of morality on human ratonality. Korsgaard’s modern Kantian metaphysics is accused of being ‘narrow and under-informed’ because it refuses to engage with the scientific facts about humans that philosophers working in the tradition of Hume and Nietzsche, such as Churchland, embrace.


Metaphysics is not dead, but metaphysics in the derogatory sense is for the naturalist philosopher. The metaphysics of Nietzschean naturalism is recognizable and acceptable to anyone taking note of contemporary reports from the front line of natural science, psychology, history, sociology, anthropology, politics, economics and so forth. It’s worth noting that this is not a metaphysics that underwrites any theory that directly identifies traits with genes. Jesse Prinz in his new book, and in a recent article, makes clear that ignoring historical reasons of why, for example, men are more violent than women, and seeking a male gene that would explain the phenomenon, is unjustified. The various historical reasons are both simpler and more justifiable than anything simply pointing to genes. Churchland’s approach is similarly smart. Throughout she makes clear that the neuroscience of our social brain can’t answer questions as to why Wall Street plutocrats are bastards. For that we need to understand the politics, the economics, the sociology, the history and so forth as well as the brain. The point about listening to what science tells us, as Jerry Fodor has long ago pointed out, and keeps pointing out, is not that we should believe it because it is a superior way of knowing or thinking or whatever. It is much more basic than that. There is just one world, we are part of it, and what little we know about it is through science. Good metaphysics needs to be wholly consistent with this, and more, it needs to be endorsing and making sense of what we know about the world. There is nothing else to know about.

So the Nietzschean naturalistic metaphysics, metaphysics that isn’t the made up kind of Kant or Heidegger, is one which is about the world we are beginning to know about through science. Although Nietzsche was writing before the great revolutions in many of the sciences, his inspired guesses are remarkably in line with what a modern contemporary metaphysician might put forward today. Galen Strawson, when discussing the Nietzschean metaphysic, expresses his astonishment at how uncannily good Nietzsche was at anticipating what we now think is the truth about the world. The metaphysics of Nietzsche consists of claims that are at first strange and then, after a little pondering, are perhaps what many of us accept when we think ourselves out of the grip of our everyday language and thought. As Eric Schwitzgebel reminds us, metaphysics is likely to end up being strange at some point, although of course not everyone agrees with this.

But who now doubts, after a century of Freudian suspicions and deep work in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind and self, that we are not a single and unified actor? The claims of virtue ethics, proposing as Aristotle did that we are capable of developing a self of steadfast unity, capable of surviving all circumstances, just seems a wrong description of what we know about ourselves. We doubt the idea of an honest person in the virtue morality sense: what is more likely is that people are honest in some circumstances and not in others. No one has a unified identity. Nor do we think that there is something non-trivial that is an essence to humanity. Again, plausible scientific results suggest that people are various types, determined by physiological and environmental factors, without anything identifiable as a non-trivial, essential, and universally instantiated core.

We understand that there is no fundamental distinction between properties on the one hand and their objects on the other, even though language unhelpfully suggests there is. The language of the distinction between object and its property is natural, but doesn’t translate into what we know about reality. Nietzsche said, “a thing equals its qualities.” There is no substance underlying properties. Laws of nature don’t work on objects but are identical with their objects.

The distinction between objects or things on the one hand and processes on the other also breaks down. The work of modern physics has surely made this a pretty non-negotiable claim about the world. Nobel prize for physics-winner Frank Wilzcek has pointed out that if our eyes could actually see nature magnified to its minutest particles we’d see just a fluid motion rather like the inside of a lava lamp. Ultimate reality is more a shimmering ghost than the brute object stuffed reality given via our medically limited perception. There are no objects discernable at the basic level. What we see is limited to our medical limits and the notion of separate objects and identities, trees, planets, tables and people, are not part of fundamental nature. Post-1925 physics describes nature as a quantum vacuum. Matter is dynamic and essentially temporal. There is no separation between space and time: space/time is a unified object – and the only object there is. There are no laws of nature ontologically distinct from the processes on which they are said to work; they are the objects, there is only one object and that is this space/time. Nietzschean naturalism is committed to a nontrivial sense (such as that everything is one substance, like materialists think) of believing that the world is one thing, space/time, an object. Buddhists may know this. Modern physicists confirm it. Heraclitus thought that everything flowed and Nietzsche was a great admirer of that particular ancient Greek.

On top of these, the Nietzschean metaphysician holds that there is no freewill, at least as is normally considered, and that nothing can ever happen otherwise from the way it actually does. Only ontology has power; conceptual distinctions that give power to categories are false. Cause and effect are cases of categorical distinctions imposed by minds on ontological reality that in actuality has no such distinctions. Everything being one, there is merely the continual process of the one object, described in modern physics as time/space. He also holds that this monist object is suffused with mentality. And he holds that everything is therefore a will to power, to be understood as describing the fundamental process of time/space.

The promise-making animal that Nietzsche’s naturalistic husbandry seeks to explain in his Genealogy of Morals and elsewhere is literally made using a recipe of two components: she must be predictable and she must have a good memory. The description of the way culture evolves predictability and memory so that the promise bearing individual becomes fully deluded into thinking that she is capable of freely and autonomously making her own decisions is subtle and convincing. The bourgeois type that this process describes is mocked through this description, for it shows how what is taken by the individual to be a source of pride, her ability to make a promise and keep it, is merely a fact of drives that have shaped her to inevitably behave as she does. The inordinate pride she has in this ability to be steadfast and true to promise-bearing is a post hoc rationalisation of what she has been determined to be like, given the physiological and cultural/environmental forces that have selected her for such a role. Her good morality is as inevitable as the short legs of a dog bred for short legs or a cow bred for milk.

But what Nietzsche didn’t have so much of when he was writing was hard evidence from natural science to support his theories. Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality gives us more details of the recipe that has bred Nietzsche’s promise-making animal. It again is a subtle piece of philosophy that cuts away the nature/nurture dispute, just like Nietzsche’s philosophy does, and Hume’s, and argues that the more we know, the more we know that nature plays an enormous role in morality. So this book largely accepts the metaphysics of Nietzsche and rejects all metaphysics in a pejorative sense. What that leaves us with is an account based on facts about physiology and facts about nurture that gives an account without remainder of what morality is.

It is a reductionist but not eliminativist account. Morality is real but explicable in terms of facts about our brains and the social realities in which persons with brains thrive. What is eliminated is any sense of a moral faculty. Churchland argues that the brain has evolved in a particular way to be a social brain. Moral behaviour arises from the social organization that the brain orchestrates. The brain is required as the platform to enable this behaviour. It is because the mammalian brain has evolved as it has, and the human brain has modified the mammalian brain in the way that it has, that the multifarious morals and ethical systems that have been developed over the three-hundred thousand years or so that humans have existed. But as Churchland makes very clear, “the platform is only the platform; it is not the whole story of human moral values. Social practices, and culture more generally, are not my focus here, although they are, of course, hugely important in the values people live by.”

So contemporary brains are the same platforms as those of our ancestors living for the last three hundred thousand years. This in itself should warn off theorists who want to give accounts of contemporary human behaviours and emotions purely in terms of brains and physiology. The human brain is, according to Churchland, a mammallian brain that is very good for social living. And it changes structure throughout its lifetime depending on the social context it finds itself in. Churchland suggests that for this reason it is doubtful that she would have been able to think innovatively had she been living two hundred thousand years ago, because her brain, indiscernible as the one she has now, would be working and developing in a culture where innovation was not really possible. (She has a nice example of this last claim: in the first two hundred thousand years or so of human life, we never managed to invent a spear, even though we did have axes, and even though a spear would have been really useful!) Pure brain analysis wont exhaust the explanation for this.

But she is robust in defending scientism, and rejects arguments that claim that scientists and science have no role to play in what is traditionally the domain of the humanities or religion. Scientism is about ensuring that relevant facts about ourselves are brought to bear on these issues being discussed and analysed. There are no good arguments to prove that there can be no role for science in the analysis of subjects such as morality and ethics, except those that require superstition and religion. She cites with approval Adam Smith: “Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.”

As with the experimental philosophers gathered by Josh Knobe, Churchland has burned her armchair and joined those who know that science fiction is becoming science fact and that issues of Frankenstein, The X Files, Terminator, Alien and Fringe are no longer just intriguing fantasies. The relationship between our moral theories and our actual moral behaviours and thoughts have to be sophisticated enough to accommodate the role of the structures of the brain and the chemicals that are processed when moral behaviour and thought are happening.

Churchland claims we find the roots of our morality in our natures, and so we of course need to get a grip on that nature. Supernaturalism nor a faculty of reason can’t do this job because they are fictions of metaphysics in the pejorative sense. Ironically, great fiction makers such as Vernor Vinge, Chris Carter, JJ Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and many many others urge us to scrutinize and understand the shifting new facts about ourselves, whilst a spurious metaphysics in the pejorative sense seems content to avert its eyes and spin fantasies about a persisting essence of human nature based partly on religion and superstition and partly on old theories of science long discarded and long forgotten to have originated as theory.

Humans are very social mammals and have brains well adapted for social living. “In the social domain, the ecological conditions will include the social behaviour of individual group members as well as their cultural practices, some of which get called ‘moral’ or ‘legal.’” So Churchland defends the project of finding important facts about morality by looking at the facts about neuroscience and brain evolution. As we’ve seen, Churchland interprets Hume’s dictum that “you can’t get an ought from an is” only to stop people making stupid and offensive deductive inferences such as “they were born stupid so deserve to be poor” and vice versa. As Alex Rosenberg makes clear in his brilliantly provocative book, the idea of a meritocracy is immoral, based on a dumb inference of the kind Hume and Adam Smith disapproved of. Scientism shows that if we are not responsible for our heritable features then a politics of fair distribution of wealth follows. These left-wing political implications are probably why certain defenders of metaphysics in the derogatory sense, such as Roger Scruton, argue as they do. The naturalist requires that we figure out how we figure out our moral decisions. And to do that, we need to understand how our minds work. And a great deal of that requires that we know how our brains work and how they’ve evolved.

Churchland writes out what we know so far about the neuroscience recipe for morality. It is a four dimensional scheme for social behaviour that is written into the evolved human brain. She claims that the brain has evolved processes for caring, recognition of others, problem solving in a social context and learning social practices. Each of these is discussed and shown how it works. Some of the schemes are pretty simple, in that they have developed out of simpler, earlier animals. Caring is analysed as the bio systems needed to regulate attachment to kith and kin and care for their well being. The recognition of others is rooted in what is needed for prediction abilities. The problem solving is discussed in terms of how we manage scarcity and regulate behaviour of others, including the use of punishment. The learning of social practices is about how we use reinforcement, trial and error, conditioning and analogous thinking.

Churchland argues that our social lives are governed through these four interlocking processes. Basic social urges are formed by these as values. Churchland suggests that moral values are just those social values that involve matters of great seriousness. So slavery is a moral matter, the conventional colour of wedding dresses is not, but they’re on the same continuum. Rule following may be involved, but not necessarily so.

Mammals all tend towards sociability in contrast to many other kinds of animals and so some may be said to be moral. This is of course a very important claim. Once the recipe for morality included language and human rationality and human culture. Now science is suggesting that properly understood other species exhibit moral behaviour. This has enormous implications for our self image. No longer alone in living an ethical life, the way we ought to think about non-animals is challenged by this. And AI work may one day require us to think about the moral life of machines, not that Churchland has anything to say about that here. She argues that her approach is one in the tradition that includes Aristotle, Mencius, Hume, Smith and Darwin.

She discusses the evolutionary constraints on social life and behaviour. She examines the development of the mammalian brain and the important role of the hormone oxytocin. She discusses the role of genes in an exemplary subtle way, warning off those who would ask that we find a gene for morals. She discusses the importance of our being able to mind read others. She discusses the role of rules in moral making. And finally she discusses religion and how it is explained by this approach.

It’s a book that is a trove of interesting facts as well as its overarching argument and theme. Ants are more altruistic than humans. Humans have been around for 150,000 years before culture became more important than it is for today’s bonobo or baboon societies. Our brains haven’t changed in size for the last 250,000 years or so, but because learning changes brain structures, our brains aren’t the same as the old ones once we start to become social. We start off the same but have so much to learn that our brain structures become very different. What this shows is that although we share the same basic brain platform as our ancient ancestors, that doesn’t mean we share the same moral and social values. Any ideas of universal drives and instincts, such as that we have always yearned for moral purpose, or wanted to know our place in the ultimate scheme of the universe, or dreamt of technological/scientific progress, are just rubbish. Our big brain didn’t make anything inevitable. We’ve been around for about 300,000 years and didn’t think about writing until about 5,400 years ago.

I want to finish by just pointing to a small discovery that helps understand the enormity of what Churchland’s philosophical work is achieving. Much about human thought and behaviour has been considered so sophisticated and rational that any explanation of it was thought to require an account that gave language and culture a huge role. Take parenting skills, where the whole group of skills, behaviours and values that make good parenting (e.g. monogamy over a lifetime, one parent standing in for another, sharing chores, staying with the young even when threatened etc etc) seem to need things like a sophisticated social setting, rites and maybe religion, conventions, regimes of punishment and reward, reinforcement mechanisms in cultural and narratives etc etc. Education, politics, economics, culture and so forth are considered the basis of ‘good parenting’, as ways of cultivating and maintaining the rational choices of the whole construct ‘good parenting.’

But now take Churchland’s voles. She writes about two distinct populations. One population exhibits everything the good parenting manual would recommend. Monogamy for life, sharing, affection, altruism, they are all in evidence in this population. In the contrasting population they are absent. These voles sleep around, don’t care for long about their children, are selfish, are basically poor parents. But what is interesting that the mechanisms that enable the behaviours are mechanisms that are independent of language use and the kind of underpinning metaphysics in a derogatory sense that are often used to understand human behaviour. Now either the vole is a lot smarter than we ever thought, or what we take to be a function of complex linguistic and rational behaviours requiring education and human social and cultural institutions of a very high order (far beyond other animals) is actually due to something shared with many mammals. Churchland’s argument is just this: the brain is complex, the mammalian brain is social, the human brain is massive and hugely complex compared to many other brains but nevertheless there is continuity. The shared continuities enable us to share similar mechanisms found in other animals. There is no need for any metaphysics in the derogatory sense; we can work out how a theory of mind has evolved by looking at how it is a development of the ability to predict found in simpler animal brains. And our morals are part of this story.

There’s a great deal to praise in this book, and everyone should read it. However, to conclude, I think there are going to be two kinds of criticism aimed at it. One will be those like Pigliucci who are probably good guys who just want the business to be cool and less bling than some writers are making it out to be. Well, I’ve already said that bling is not a bad thing, and if it gets the attention of a wide audience use it. Everyone needs to know this stuff. It shouldn’t be used just for smart elites to snipe at know-nothings. Know-nothings survive that kind of elitism. And attacking rich and powerful know-nothings is one thing, but often poor and weak know-nothings get caught up in the insults without any chance of getting hod of the knowledge that would help them. So shame on the cool of cool cats!

But there’s another group that are more sinister who’ll really dislike this book. These will be those who see it as rightly dismantling many of the things that justify their right wing, conservative, traditionalist positions. Not all metaphysicians in the derogatory sense are in this camp but there are those whose Kantian or Heiddegarian fantasy self-image is brutalised by this approach. Little philosophers like Roger Scruton are right to scream against it, for superstition and nasty Toryism are just two of the things that this approach is tossing aside.

There’s a need for left-wing politics, for understanding ourselves as human animals on a planet where the incredible mammalian brain has the potential to solve how we can live together in peace and harmony with our world. Churchland and her naturalist posse keep slamming down the facts and the theories. We need to keep lapping it up, learning it, arguing with it, finding out more and more and get it put to good use to protect or hospitals, our schools, our communities, we need to abolish poverty and war. We need to get with the programme.

This is how Churchland ends her book: “What regulations should govern the hunting of wolves? What regulations should govern drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin? How much religious toleration is too much? For any of these matters knowledge is always preferable to ignorance; there is always an awesome amount to know; and for our culture, one of the biggest issues concerns whom to trust in the knowledge domain. To answer this you have to know something in order to have a reasonable belief about who is likely to be trustworthy for the technical details.” Read this book.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 6th, 2012.