Rationally speaking, is a presentation of New York City skeptics dedicated to promoting critical thinking, skeptical inquiry and science education. For more information, please visit us at NYC Skeptic's Doug. Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense, I am your host, Masimo, and with me, as always, is my co-host, Julia Gillard. Factuality. Julie is not with me. She's not in the Greenwich Village studios where we usually taped podcast.
She's on the other side of the country. Where are you, Julie, exactly?
I'm in Berkeley, California. And the heck are you doing there?
I've been working to launch a new organization devoted to teaching and promoting rationality.
Sounds like a good idea. Yeah, I just finished running a four day workshop on rationality where I taught classes on thought experiments and uncovering cached beliefs and and asking yourself what the evidence is for the things that you think you believe, which is quite a blast.
So hopefully I've recovered from the before without sleep and will be coherent today.
Sounds like a good topic for a future episode, actually. Yeah, but today instead, we're going to talk about something else, right? Yes, I'm very excited.
I've been looking forward to this episode for a while and that would be so today.
We have a guest also joining us remotely. Patricia Churchland is a well-known philosopher who's made major contributions to the areas of philosophy of mind and neural philosophy. She was the professor of philosophy at UC San Diego from 1984 until 2010, during which time she won the MacArthur Genius Grant. It's very exciting to have a genius, a certified genius on our show. And she makes it look better.
Definitely, yeah. Yeah.
Give us some much needed credibility. Yeah. So she recently last year published Brain Trust What Neuroscience Tells US About Morality, which just won the prize for biology and the life sciences. So we're going to talk to her today about her book, about neuro philosophy and just generally speaking, what philosophy and neuroscience have to say about each other and what both of them have to say about morality. Patricia, welcome. It's so great to have you on the show.
Thank you so much, Julia. It's a great pleasure to be here. It's a website that I have hugely admired, and it's so it's really an honor to be part of it and it's wonderful to hear.
So how do you want to start, Julia? Well, I guess I'd be interested. I think our listeners would probably most want to hear what the thesis of your recent book is, and we can go from there.
Yeah, the question that motivated me in the book, Brain Trust, the question was where do values come from? And in particular, where do social values come from? And of course, we have long understood that the basic values of self maintenance and survival are really programmed into very ancient structures of the brain, the brain stem and subcortical structures. But the question is, where do social values come from now? A long and familiar answer is that they come out of out of reason.
We sort of figure them out. And that always seemed to me terribly implausible, probably because I was long ago convinced by Hume. And so in exploring brain evolution and the shift between reptiles and mammals, it's quite evident that there is this huge change where the values of self maintenance and survival are then extended to the maintenance and survival of offspring. That's the huge change in the brain that involves a lot of genetic changes as well. And so what we see in mammals is this development of attachment to others and care for others.
That's expressed in in many different ways. And of course, depending on the particular kind of mammal, its social life will have one form or another. And so primates, even amongst primates, there's a lot of differences in social organization and so forth. But the really big change has to do with those genetic changes in the circuitry of the brain and in the new use of the chemicals, oxytocin and vasopressin, to regulate social behavior.
Well, let me jump in there for a second, because you mentioned the word so I can't get oxytocin.
Right. So now you have you know, we saw each other recently at a conference in San Luis about conciliations or the unity of knowledge, which is actually going to be a future topic for for a podcast. But now you do talk there about oxytocin and you have a technical people. In humans and behavior, which they can control about the sort of stuff this is coming out, actually, right.
2012, the paper and hormones and behavior is now out.
OK, now in that paper, you argued that it's not quite as easy as most people or some some neurobiologist at least think to sort of go into the study of human hormones and jump from there to these broad conclusions like, oh, oxytocin is the hormone that causes mentality, mentalising, generosity, trust and all that sort of stuff.
What's the. Yeah, no, I think that that there has been a sort of fascination with the idea that oxytocin invades the press. And those are two very, very similar peptides, that they regulate social behavior. And it has provoked people to think, well, maybe, though, maybe we should think of oxytocin as the moral molecule. And in fact, Paul Zak's new book is called The Moral Molecule. Right.
But but and I conveyed this to a degree in my own book, Brain Trust. The situation is actually much, much more complicated than that. And one easy way to show that is is as follows, that oxytocin is essential for attachment of the mother to the babies. But it's also essential for the mother to engage in defense of the babies against a predator. So depending on conditions it where the presence of oxytocin can bring about nurturing behavior and cuddling and lactation, or it can bring out the ferociousness that we know many female mammals are capable of in defense of the young.
So when when you see that kind of ferocious behavior and you know that, amongst other things, oxytocin plays a critical role in that, you think, oh, gosh, calling it the cuddle molecule or the moral molecule really kind of does a disservice to what we know is the true biological complexity of the situation. And the other part of the story here, I mean, I hate to sort of just beat the drum of complexity, but I mean, we go ahead.
We're up to but with with with biology.
But not only, of course, is there oxytocin involved, but there are also other hormones like progesterone that play a role with stress hormones play a role. So the serotonin, nitric oxide, many other kinds of things. And of course, the circuitry has to be just so, so so it's a little like those days when people used to say that that aggression was all about testosterone.
And of course, it's not testosterone is very important part of aggression, especially in males, but it's certainly not the whole story.
It turns out that a much more important part of the story is the balance between testosterone and stress hormones so that if you have a male with high testosterone and low stress hormones, it's quite that male is apt to be much more aggressive and in a sort of self-destructive way than another male who has very high testosterone levels but also has quite high stress hormone levels.
So these things are very complicated. And the idea that we can just bring about moral behavior by spraying oxytocin around the room, alas, it's not it's nothing like that. Simple, right?
But so to some extent, these kind of oversimplification surprises me. I'll tell you one in a minute. On the other hand, it's also sort of understandable if you want to sell books and you call something, you know, the trust molecule trust or whatever, it is, the molecule.
It's one thing if you say, you know, it's really complicated and let me tell you how it's going to go, because it depends on the balance between a bunch of things that makes for a long title for a book. And it's it's understandable how people, especially when they talk to the general public, I guess they try to simplify things. But one of the recurring themes that we discuss with Julia on these podcasts is, in fact, that there is a problem with oversimplification, too much oversimplification, particularly when you talk to the general public, because it seems to me that scientists, philosophers, you know, academics in general have I would I would say, an ethical duty to talk.
Yes. In a way that it's understandable, but also that it's not misleading. I mean, it's you know.
Yeah. And I think it can be done. I mean, I do I do agree that that it's not easy. And I absolutely agree that it's tremendously important to get scientific results available to the public, but there are lots of really wonderful scientists who do this in a responsible way where they don't fudge the complexities. And if I may just mention a book, I think Donald Faf Afaf, who's and a neuro endocrinologist at Rockefeller, is really, really good at this.
So he wrote a book called Man and and Woman. And it really is the story of the differences in the hormonal organizations and what can change in the brain as a result of the influence of fetal hormones.
And he tells you very specifically where we don't know things or that there are interactions here that are complex. But to a first approximation, this is the way it works. So I really think it can be done. What is I mean, now we're sort of entering, I think, on a discussion about sort of scientific responsibility here. But there certainly are authors who are very eager to make a splash, who want to sex sify their results and make them dramatic.
And I like that term.
Yeah, I'm using it. Yeah, right.
OK. And they kind of want to knock your socks off. Right. And you know, it's not in the long run going to do science any favors. And of course, I know you must have been following the the recent tremendous convulsion over social psychology and the difficulty of replicating many of the priming results and so forth. And I mention that in this context, because there are a number of philosophers who without kind of really knowing the science, have picked up some of these rather striking priming results from social psychologists and have drawn the conclusion that so we are really controlled by our unconscious and that our conscious states don't play a significant role in decision making and problem solving and so forth.
And I think it's just really, really unfortunate.
Yeah, but it's also strategy because it's true that, you know, certainly secondary parties look at these things and they draw the wrong conclusions. But sometimes I cannot help getting these nagging suspicion that even some of the scientists themselves actually believe what they're saying, that is that it's only in part hype in order to sell books.
But, well, I don't want to question people's motives. No, no, no, no. That's right. You know that that's not the issue. And, of course, we all want to to have our messages out there, so to speak. Right. But the fact of the matter is that there is some really wonderful science writing. And I mentioned Dawn Faf, but I think that Matt Ridley is another one who writes really well.
And then there are some people who are, you know, maybe kind of forget themselves.
But this idea that, you know, hormones do this or that, and it's a fairly simple, straightforward matter. This is the kind of stuff that I would have thought a undergraduate student in biology understood pretty well. I mean, when I when I study plant biology and plant hormones are much simpler than an animal or, you know, even there, it was pretty clear. You know, I remember opening the book and say, OK, so let me see.
I want to see what, you know, jubilating is doing as opposed to what Edilene is doing. And it turns out that it doesn't work that way. Even in plants. It's actually a balance between the proportion of ethylene, the proportion Lacassine and so on and so forth. So if that's the case in plants, let alone in things that are much more complicated like human beings, so that shouldn't be really surprising. And yet and yet somehow you still need to go back and tell people that now it's actually more complicated than it looks.
Julie, I interrupted you a few minutes ago, so go ahead.
That's one thing. So I just this is really interesting, but I feel like we've drifted a bit from the the thesis of the book, which I think is interesting and important. And so I wanted to ask first just a clarifying question. I know that I don't actually know who first laid out the theory of why it is that we have these built in this built in altruism for our kin. But I know that I read it in, for example, the selfish gene in the moral animal, that it's it's adaptive for four genes to make individuals care for their children and other other relatives who are biologically related to us to the degree that they are related to.
It's a general idea of cancer. Right, exactly. So it actually was introduced by Hamilton and in England. Welcome.
The idea of kin selection was.
But I think that the particular point about mammals and the changes in the mammalian brain ah ah ah, well, I guess I learned about it from your Panksepp, the the neuroscientist. But those changes in the mammalian brain are a really kind of different from the the ways in which other vertebrates who are not mammals may or may not take care of their young.
And so I think that we are seeing something really quite different in in the case of mammals and of course, what we think of as morality. Yeah. And but but this second part of the of the story, which I haven't yet mentioned, goes like this, that if the major change in mammals comes from self maintenance and self well-being to also caring for others, what we then find is there can be small changes genetically and in terms of the brain that will produce things like attachment to mates or attachment to friends.
And because mammalian brains are so much more flexible and so much more complicated than the brains of, for example, insects or or simple reptiles or things like frogs, I think that we can see how you can get then from attachment to mates to attachment to friends. And then, of course, it's an interesting question that I can't really explore. But but of course, Hume and Aristotle both did how they were philosophers.
Yeah, right. How the development of institutions then comes to regulate trust and to regulate social behavior once the group is larger than about 30 to 50 people, which was sort of about the size of of a hunter gathering group.
So so the basic story really is that once you got in the mammalian brain, this basic change, then because the mammalian brain is so capable of learning. And that's really what the cortex is all about. And as I'm sure you know, the cortex is new with mammals, this wonderful six layer structure with its very precise organizations, all new with mammals than in mammals, we see a kind of flexibility, a shift away from automatic responses to responses that can be tuned up as a function of the environment.
So learning has a huge amount to do with the kind of behaviour that we see as social.
Now, let me ask you something here, because this is actually somewhat related to him and his ideas about human nature. So I found that actually, although I am a fan of Hume, I found that only recently that you had some interesting things to say about a debate that was going on at the time, you know, the middle part of the 18th century on human nature. And essentially, just to make it very brief, Hume's idea was that human nature, you wouldn't use the word evolve because there was no such thing as evolution at the time.
You know, we're talking pre Darwin, but changes over time, in part as a result, actually, of social institutions, as you were saying earlier.
So so the idea is that, OK, we come equipped with some sort of basic way of thinking and way of behaving in a way of feeling even.
And that goes back to our biology, to the fact that we're social primates of a particular type and so on and so forth. But then we have we do have these things. We have societies, we have social institutions. And these things themselves interact with our biological background essentially. Yeah. And change the way in which we behave over time. Now, the reason I'm bringing this up is because it seems to me that there is an important distinction to be made between what you were saying a few minutes ago, which is, you know, we need to understand where the whole idea of morality comes from, our basic moral behaviours, et cetera.
And that certainly has to do with the biology as a primate. But that is distinct to some extent from, let's say, you know, modern, complex ethical reasoning, which there are. You do need the reasoning at some point, right?
Oh, I think I think that humans have always needed that. And I think social problem solving has always been important. But I think we can also see that in and other social mammals. But it certainly is has been highly developed. In the case of humans and so I absolutely agree that for many moral issues that we may confront, that simply drawing on our intuitions is not going to help very much. I mean, if, for example, you're interested in how best to have a taxation system that both brings in revenue and doesn't and doesn't put too strong a damper on business, but also covers the essentials, that's something that's going to involve problem solving.
Or if you want to know whether or not I should be obliged to give up one of my two kidneys to a stranger or perhaps even to a friend, that's going, you know, my my gut reaction is not going to be very helpful there. I need to really think this issue through. Right. And and that's why I think that conscious reasoning, of course, plays a really important role. Having said that, though, one of the things that I do broach in the book is the idea that reasoning is not a kind of step by step deductive process, which, of course, I'm sure you agree with, but rather it's a constrained satisfaction where there are many, many constraints that are involved and we often are.
Emotions can can play a role, but so also can evaluation of evidence so well, so can the capacity to to determine what might be the consequences and to make a decision under uncertainty. So certainly I think that morality in in a complex culture such as our own does, of course, involve people getting together and saying, well, look, you know what? What should we do about having a rule here or even having a sort of informal norm about such things as giving up one of your two kidneys.
Can I just make a distinction quickly between deciding what your values actually are, what it is you care about, and then deciding doing the Problem-Solving part of what's the best way to achieve ends that are as consistent as possible with what it is that I value? Because it sounds like you've been just now. You were just talking about the latter before. The former is really more what I understand philosophers to be discussing when they discuss what's more out, like what system of morality is correct.
And this is this gets into a debate that Masimo and I have had multiple times on our blog and on our podcast about whether you can derive an art from an is. I'm sure you're familiar with that benefit.
That one also goes back to you. Yeah, yeah. But whether you can take facts about how the world is and derived from those facts, statements about how people should behave. Well, I know not about how they should behave relative to their values, but what their values should be.
Well, of course, I do talk about that in the book. And I think the first thing to realize is that it's not that you have values because you make a rational decision about those values.
You begin to acquire values as soon as you're born and you pick up, you imitate right from the very beginning. Now, there may well be a time later when you begin to ask whether you should change some of the values, whether some of the local conventions and customs and norms are things that you want to adhere to. But it's not ever the case that anybody starts off with no values and then says, OK, so what should I have here?
That's right. That's just not physiologically on well.
So what you're saying is just summarize, actually. Sounds to me very Aristotelian, right?
Of course. So you start out and you get your values initially from your upbringing, from your education, early education, from your family, your society and everything. But then later on, you might actually start saying, well, OK.
And then you might ask, you know, you might raise a question about whether or not you should do something in a different way, such as donate a kidney or not be a racist or what have you.
Right. Or in my case, a few weeks ago, should I really eat red meat and things like that.
But but notice that even when you've done that, you're going to be asking those questions. I mean, your brain is already got lots of stuff Saathoff in it. So that way your brain is asking those questions, if I may put it that way. It's not like you're starting in a value free way that those values that you have are going to seep into your reflection and your consideration and so, so innocent.
And Hume deeply understood this. So when Hume says you can't drive and not for is, of course he doesn't precisely say that. But when he essentially says that what he. What he means is that there is no deduction that takes you from the facts to what you ought to do, and of course, there is no deduction that does that. But just as we do all kinds of things in science without deduction, because we're making inferences to a best explanation.
So in our social life, we make inferences to the best decision. And some of what goes into making those inferences are statements of fact.
Oh, although those statements of fact may also be tinged with evaluation in the following sense that the brain or you, if you prefer to put it that way, will have evaluative judgments of relevance about whether this should be relevant or not, whether this should be weighed more than that, whether this person should be included in the calculation or not. So it's not that there is a kind of value neutral or completely separate kind of calculation that's pure rationality that you can do here.
Nevertheless, what I think is very striking is that people can come together and negotiate and discuss and reflect and come out with very reasonable decisions. That is in the sense that they work quite well as they solve problems. And for me, as a Canadian coming to America, one of the most striking examples of that, I think is, of course, the American constitution. A remarkable document.
Yes. And a remarkably philosophical document and a remarkably philosophical document. But it's not that they deduced what ought to be the case from what is. But it sure as heck isn't the case that they did not make evaluative judgments in the course of making suggestions and and and proposals about how the Constitution ought to be framed. It's full of value.
So so, I mean, the thing about Hume and going back and read Hume because he's just so goddamn good.
Yeah. Yeah. That that what he thinks is that you don't want to do this in a simple way.
But bear in mind, Hume is a naturalist. Where does he think that you get the norms from.
He thinks you get them from essentially I'm putting words in his mouth now, inference to the best decision, and he thinks that those inferences are richly imbued with emotion, feeling, evaluation, judgment and so forth.
Well, so it is it is clear that in the real world, people can reach compromises on the on the policy is that they want to have in their society. And it's also clear to me that to the extent that people do agree about their values and there is a lot of agreement, of course, we can come up with some sort of a generally agreed upon set of policies to follow. But still, none of that seems to address the question that I take philosophers to be discussing about morality, which is say you have two people who just have different values, like say, you know, I argue that people should be free to make their own decisions as much as possible, even if it makes them worse off.
And you argue, well, no, I value people's well-being, their utility more than their liberty. And so I will reach in and prevent them from making decisions that I think are bad for them. We have different values. We value these two goods, autonomy and utility differently. And and so, like, can science or philosophy tell us anything about who is right? Like, it can tell us something about means to enact, given a set of values science.
Very often. Very often there is no right answer. I mean, where would you go for the right answer?
I mean, if you're Plato, you can go anywhere, but I think. No, no, but I mean, that's a very deep question. And if you're Plato, you go to Plato's Heaven. If you're can't, you go to the categorical imperative, which is of no earthly use, whatever.
And, oh, you just alienated all our Kantian listeners. I truly hope so.
And if you're Hume or if you're Aristotle, you say, look, this is really complex. Now, sometimes people will say to me, well, what are you going to do about Hitler? I mean, if Hitler if you're talking to Hitler and Hitler says that Jews should die, how are you going to deal with that? My answer is, do you honestly think that if I reason with Hitler that I'm going to get anywhere? I'll tell you what I will do with Hitler.
I will kill him.
Right. Or at the very least, put him away. And you might say, but that's not what philosophers want to do. In which case my answer is Blasim. Let him just do what they feel they need to do. But this is how I, being a good human, an Aristotelian, see it, because I think you have at the end of the day to deal with the real world and the real social world and the real political world is not a world in which you can maximize aggregate utility.
It's not a world in which the categorical imperative is going to get you very far. It's a world in which people are tuned up. That is, their brains are tuned up from a very early age to see certain things as acceptable and other things is not acceptable. And given human brains, many in many cases there is flexibility and they can change their mind. But if someone does not change their mind and holds terribly dangerous and very horrible views, then you don't just say, well, there must be a philosophical response to that.
There may be philosophical. There may be. But so just to clarify one thing, and then I actually want to move to a different topic because there's something that I really want to talk to you about. So and I'm sure our listeners will be interested in that. But to clarify, so what you just said actually is pretty close to the sort of positions that I've been trying to articulate on the blog. I mean, as I said, you know, I started Enuma my models in a lot of areas of philosophy, especially in this one.
And, you know, when not when people ask, I think, you know, the question is, what is the right answer? I think that one way to look in genetics, one way to look at it, is that ethical reasoning. Forget the big ethical systems. Like, you know, the contrast between content is meant to turn into whatever it is. Forget those for a minute. But in terms of ethical reasoning, the issue is, as you just pointed out, we always start with certain assumptions, embedded assumptions, emotional reactions and so on to our emotional reactions, I think are can be considered sort of a part of our assumptions.
And so just like in, you know, like just like it doesn't make any sense to say to ask, you know, well, is it true or is it not true that the sum of the angles of a triangle is on an 80 degrees?
The answer is yes.
Well, yes, it depends if you're if you're in flat trigonometry. Yes, it's true. If you're in in this physical space, it's not it's not. So it depends on your assumptions and the same, I think. Can be said to some extent, of course, the analogy is not perfect, but can be said for ethics, you know, is it true that, you know, giving a kidney away to because you are healthy in somebody else's suffering is right or not?
That depends on what your assumptions are about and what your values are. And you can negotiate them. You can reflect on them. But ultimately, they're also a part of who you are.
I mean, part of the reason that philosophers don't like this is they think that the they raise the specter of relativism. And they're what they fear is that if for every question and there is not a right answer, then for any question, nothing makes any difference.
But that's that's that's a fallacy.
There can be, so to speak, reasonable relativism where I recognize, for example, that the Inuit who lived in the 19th century and lived on the knife edge of survival practiced infanticide. And that was a very reasonable thing for them to do. That doesn't mean I think we should do it now, but there shouldn't. We don't want to say that there can be only one rule and it has to apply to everybody under all circumstances. But oddly enough, in the 20th century, many moral philosophers bought into that.
And why they did remains to me very puzzling.
And I think we're going to leave that one there because I want to ask another thing. So so, you know, one of the things that I think you have, you and your husband, who is also a prominent philosopher, have an interesting distinction. That is a few years ago, an entire book came out called The Churchlands and Their Critics. Now, I don't think that many people can actually boast of that. So clearly, the idea is that you guys are controversial.
Do you want to tell us briefly about why you're so controversial in certain circles?
Well, I think there were sort of two contributing factors. On the one hand, let me just first of all, talk about myself and then all because it's easier this way.
And on the one hand, when Neuro Philosophy was published by MIT Press in nineteen eighty six, you can't imagine how this was received amongst philosophers.
They hated it. They thought the very name was paradoxical and showed that it was nuts. They said this is an oxymoron with emphasis on moron, and they felt that the brain had nothing whatever to do with the nature of knowledge and perception and self and consciousness that there was nothing we could learn from the brain that would tell us about that. Now, that sounds most bizarre these days because the times have changed. But at that time, I had people stand up in meetings and yell at me to get off the podium because I wasn't a real philosopher.
So that was one thing that can be very feisty, you know. Yes.
And linguistics. But we won't talk about linguistics now. And the other the other thing was that we both looked at folk psychology as something that. Might be changeable, at least within the framework of science, as more and more was discovered using both psychology and neuroscience.
And the idea really was that just as all folk theories or folk frameworks, if you prefer, change as more and more is understood at the micro level. So this might happen to folk psychology. Now, in particular, there were problems about the so-called propositional attitudes and their problems about those, because they seem to require that you have a language in order that you have these propositional attitudes such as beliefs. On the other hand, it was very clear that linguistic children have all kinds of complicated beliefs and can do quite fancy problem solving.
And of course, selkie has taught us so much in the intervening years about that. In addition, we now know that very complex problem solving and spatial representation and so forth is done by non-verbal animals. So there has to be a kind of representation that is not language. Form is not propositional, but that guides that embodies information and that guides behavior. And in that sense, it's probably evolutionarily much deeper than a lingua form representation, such as a propositional attitude.
And that was really the idea behind Paul's paper eliminate of materialism and the propositional attitudes. Now, I think most people actually didn't read the paper. They just thought that, oh, the Churchlands think there aren't such things as beliefs and so forth. Ha ha ha is not silly. Let's go on and talk about something really important, like, oh, twin Earth.
And and consequently I think we were basically written off. But the interesting thing was, of course, within neuroscience, they understood. They understood exactly. They understood both about propositional attitudes. And that whole issue has now become extremely important to a number of neuroscientists because they know that they have to account for this complex, let's say, spatial behaviour in in rodents, where we know that there are particular cells corresponding to the animal being in particular locations and so forth.
So we know that the animals have these complex representations, but they are not lengua for.
And moreover, neural philosophy was very well received by neuroscientists, too, despite the fact that I got the most horrendous reviews call in McGinnes Review and Times Literary Supplement was unbelievably nasty.
Now, let me ask you something about eliminating materialism, which you just described. And there are some interesting, let's say I don't know about criticism necessarily, but objections that can be raised to depending on how radical one wants to go with the materialism, which is one of the things you were you were pointing out that you can you could be radical and nonsensical, essentially, OK, you can be very reasonable about it. So it depends on which form of the of the idea you take.
But for instance, one of the classic objections from what I understand against eliminating materialism is the idea that look for folk psychology is simply not a theory. And so that in some sense one is sort of comparing apples and oranges. Folk psychology is the way folks think about mental states, but it's not really a scientific theory. And so it couldn't be you know, one could argue that what we're doing here is to replace astrology with astronomy, for instance, or something like that, or the theory of phlogiston with with chemistry and physics.
You're not replacing a theory because folk psychology is not a theory. What's your take on that one?
Well, I mean, it's a it's an interesting objection in some ways, but it kind of misses the point in other ways. Look, I mean, what we're really what we were really interested in is whether or not the concepts of folk psychology and I don't really care whether you think about it as a theory or not, but whether those concepts are going to be honored by the brain or not and by the concepts you're talking not only about propositional attitudes, but.
Oh, no other the other theories. Yeah. And now some of our prediction was that some of them probably will have sufficient robustness to be honored by the nervous system and others probably not. And that the propositional attitudes were particularly problematic in that regard. And the thought was that there are there were certain expressions. For example, the will or to take a different example, nervous breakdown, which actually don't map on to anything that's real in the brain.
So if I may talk about Will for a moment. Over the last 15 years, there's been quite a lot that's been discovered about control systems in the prefrontal structures of the brain and how they connect to subcortical structures. And it looks like there are, as it were, sociable parts of the control system and that some are particularly important for certain kinds of tasks and others for other kinds of tasks, and that you can have very strong control in some domains and a different aspect of dysfunctional control can be seen in other domains.
So the notion of of control doesn't really map on to the well and the the the neurobiology of control doesn't map on to will and anything like the way that one might have thought that it should do. So it's just it. And of course, memory is the other example where we now think of there being many, many different systems of learning all the way from declarative memory to skill, learning, priming, conditioning, reward and reinforcement learning and so on and so forth.
And these are honored by somewhat different, although somewhat overlapping systems in the brain. And so if you thought that memory, for example, would just fold over onto a particular function or a particular part of the anatomy of the brain.
That's right. And I think within neuroscience, this is widely now understood. We see the same thing happening with attention and attention is currently, I think, really, really interesting because for a while people thought, well, there's two systems of attention and now it looks like, you know, maybe that whole thing is kind of got to be redrawn altogether. And it's those kinds of considerations that were really motivating us, but albeit in a very speculative way many years ago.
Now, there are some other concepts which seem to be very robust, at least at this stage, such as the concept of a goal or decision so that you can and you can see at the level of the single cell in an area of parietal cortex, when a monkey is making a decision in a task, you can see the response of that cell. And you know what the monkey's behavior will be, because you can see that he's made that decision.
And so it looks like decision making. But this is a slightly different notion of decision making from what might have been discussed as decision making in Oxford circa nineteen sixty nine.
Well, that's probably fortunate because we're making progress even on our second point is that if people want people still talk about the sun setting, for example.
Oh yeah, that's fine. I don't get my knickers into a knot about that and sort of force them up and say, no, no, you've got to say that it's the earth moving.
And similarily, you know, we don't know how people's vocabulary will change as a result of these discoveries in neuroscience. I suspect that the scientific vocabulary is already significantly changed, whether the ordinary you know, when I go shopping in the supermarket, I lapse back into saying things like the sun sets or so-and-so had a nervous breakdown is from our point of view, that's a sociological issue. It's not a scientific issue, which is really the issue that was gripping us.
So I'm I'm all on board with the idea of eliminating concepts that that don't have analogues in an actual processes occurring in the brain. But it still seems like science has hasn't finished its job yet. If it can't help us figure out why we have these illusions, like if if the idea that we have that in itself is an illusion, then then I don't feel like the job is done until it's explained to me. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
I mean, there could be. And but of course, bear in mind too that there are significant cultural differences in so-called folk psychology. It's not like it's the same in every culture. So that's an important and important thing to keep in mind. Yeah, but yeah, I mean, we're nowhere near being able to do what you ask. I mean, in the case of certain aspects of vision, for example, certain colour illusions. If. If.
Take one example, those are kinds of illusions that we're beginning to be able to explain in physiological terms why you see things that way, but why North Americans circa 2000 have this particular kind of vocabulary for talking about one another's mental states. I would guess that's going to be a long time coming. And and everyone thinks they're a self like that. But but universe, you know. Well, I mean, I think if you want to go back to the notion or the conception of self, I think I mean, I've written on this in in science journals also.
But the notion of self is very, very ancient and very deep. It's an organizing principle for nervous systems. In fact, somebody recently showed that even in C. elegans, which is a tiny worm with only three hundred and two neurons, it has the capacity in a subpart of a neuron to be able to distinguish its own motion from its being moved by something.
You would think that that's pretty adaptive. You know, you want you want to know where your body and every animal needs to know.
And as is this self initiated motion or is it motion from the outside?
I want to make so just when I realized that if I. No, no, no, go ahead. Go ahead, pull. Helmholtz knew how important it is to be able to distinguish self motion that other Herrman fun Helmholtz, this sort of father of modern cycle neuroscience or neuropsychology I guess nineteenth century genius.
I thought even he gave some credence to the idea of these these intuitive concepts that people have about their their minds.
Well, no, I don't quite understand what you're saying. I mean, what he thought was that self is a construct of the brain. Right. And that it's constructed by the brain in order to solve certain really important problems. And one of the really important problems is the problem of distinguishing self originated, if I may use that expression, self originated movement from movement that's originated outside. And so it's not like Helmholtz. I mean, Helmholtz was not saying, guess what, folk psychology is really cool.
He was saying we can begin to understand something about the nature of where certain concepts come from, not by thinking there is a little guy in there which is myself, but seeing that there are selective advantages in having a brain that's organized to be able to distinguish external movement from self initiated.
And I think actually that's where Junior was going a few minutes ago. We were almost run out of town at a time, but I wanted to make one comment about this. So the idea that you just explained seems very reasonable to me.
What I find less reasonable and even somewhat irritating of late is that the word delusion gets thrown out a lot by people who, you know, not mentioned mostly, let's say samaris, for instance.
And, you know, it's a matter of like, what do you mean it's an illusion? By that you mean there is a materialistic explanation in terms of, you know, smaller components or systems that come together and create a certain a certain feeling that, of course, that is not the table of an illusion.
That's right. Everything is an illusion because it's all made of works.
Yeah, yeah. No, no. And I actually really do get my knickers in a knot over the claims that free will is an illusion. If by free will you may you mean that we have no sorry. If by saying that free will is an illusion you mean that we do not have a capacity for control and evaluation of consequences and so forth? Because that's manifestly not true. Of course we do.
That's that seems to me to deny the data, right?
I think so. I think it's I think it's also irresponsible.
Yeah, it is. Really. You are going to conclude things. Yeah, well, I have been waiting. I figured, oh no, no, I'm sorry, but no, no, no, no.
I was going to say I figured the episode could not possibly be over until Massimo had gotten in a dig at Samhan.
Oh, come on. All right. Fair enough. Now you have I think it's safe to to wrap up this portion of the podcast and move on to the, roughly speaking, PEX. Welcome back. Every episode we pick a suggestion from for our listeners that has tickled our rational fancy. This time we ask our guest, Patricia Churchland, for her suggestion Pat. Well, there's so many wonderful and important things going on in psychology, neuroscience and the sciences of the mind, one book that I have been particularly intrigued by is by Dan Everett language as a cultural tool.
And as I'm sure you probably know, Dan is a field linguist. He lived in Brazil amongst Hunter gathering fishing tribes. And he, I think, has a very interesting take on language rather than seeing it as the outcome of a particular genetic change, rather than seeing language as a Chomsky organ, he sees it as a cultural invention, one that given the nature of the human brain, we are probably well equipped to to handle, but not one where we are programmed at birth with particular rules and particular kinds of strategies.
And it it opens up at least it did for me. It allowed me to think about many aspects of language and the differences between languages and the fact that almost certainly our ancestors three hundred thousand years ago did not have really, really rich languages like Chinese or Russian, that they were probably much simpler. Anyway, I loved Dan Everett's book. Of course, it's very controversial and various linguists who are still enamored with the idea that somehow the basics of syntax must be innately programmed into the brain.
Find it a bit of a hard swallow, and that's my pick.
Excellent. Well, thank you so much, Pat, for the pick and for for being our guest today. It's been such a fascinating episode. We are now all out of time for real this time. We've been out of time for a while, but that's OK.
Real, real. Julia and Massimo, it's been an enormous pleasure to be here. What a wonderful conversation. Thanks so much.
Thank you. This concludes another episode of rationally speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.
The rationally speaking podcast is presented by New York City skeptics for program notes, links, and to get involved in an online conversation about this and other episodes, please visit rationally speaking podcast Dog. This podcast is produced by Benny Tarlac and recorded in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York. Our theme, Truth by Todd Rundgren, is used by permission. Thank you for listening.