The Really Nice Guy Materialist


Julian Baggini interviews Patricia Churchland, in The Philosophers' Magazine (for Abbas):

[Y]ou can understand the trepidation felt by many at the thought of Patricia [Chruchland] tackling the issue of morality head-on. But her recent book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality defies such expectations, due largely to the fact that the answer to the question implied by the subtitle is very far from everything. This contrasts starkly with what many see as the scientific hubris of Sam Harris in his recent The Moral Landscape.

“Sam Harris has this vision that once neuroscience is much more developed then neuroscientists will be able to tell us what things are right or wrong, or at least what things are conducive to well-being and not. But even if you cast it in that way, that’s pretty optimistic – or pessimistic, depending on your point of view. Different people even within a culture, even within a family, have different views about what constitutes their own well-being. Some people like to live out in the bush like hermits and dig in the ground and shoot deer for resources, and other people can’t countenance a life that isn’t in the city, in the mix of cultural wonderfulness. So people have fundamentally different ideas about what constitutes well-being.

“I think Sam is just a child when it comes addressing morality. I think he hasn’t got a clue. And I think part of the reason that he kind of ran amuck on all this is that, as you and I well know, trashing religion is like shooting fish in a barrel. If Chris Hitchens can just sort of slap it off in an afternoon then any moderately sensible person can do the same. He wrote that book in a very clear way although there were lots of very disturbing things in it. I think he thought that, heck, it’s not that hard to i gure these things out. Morality: how hard can that be? Religion was dead easy. And it’s just many orders of magnitude more difficult.”

What Churchland believes science can do is describe the “neural platform” for ethics. What does she mean by this?