I would not have finished this book, except that ugly, just as much as beauty, has an entrancing quality. The book is poorly written. The writing is passive, almost sotto-voiced, like the writing in scientific papers where the fear of tribal disapproval (with no doubt an undiscoverable neurobiological basis) seems to almost palpably drip from the writer’s pen. Conclusions are couched in the negative. Hypotheses aren’t disproved, they are “disconfirmed”. The book meanders from topic to topic apparently at random; Churchland seems lost in a bewildering thicket of ideas that she hopes to escape by penning incompetent descriptions of the jungle in which she is immersed. She uses bromides and homilies to make highly disputable points. I thought I might scream if I read “kin and kith” one more time in her descriptions of man as a social animal.
The reasoning is also poor. Churchland begins the book by stating a premise upon which the whole exercise depends, without providing anything but a generalized sort of philosophical feeling that it’s true. She states on page two of the introduction that “It did seem that likely Aristotle, Hume and Darwin were right: we are social by nature.” Which of these men offered any scientific evidence for her assertion of how they believed? When did any of them even make such a proclamation? Surely Aristotle well understood the anti-social nature of mankind, as the ancient Greeks were only a few centuries, and maybe some stone ramparts, removed from barbarism. Aristotle’s political philosophy was as much concerned with man’s barbaric nature as with his sociability. Hume may have considered himself to be social, but by nature, did he believe that of all mankind? And of course in his metaphysics, Hume would say that just because man and sociability often appear together, it can’t be surmised therefore that one causes the other; that one is in the nature of the other. And what of Darwin? How does evolution by natural selection say anything positive about mankind’s sociability? Doesn’t Darwinism assert that all living creatures, mankind included, must necessarily place survival above all other imperatives, including sociability? Churchland does not reveal which of the ideas of these philosophers led her to conclude that mankind is social by nature, but man’s social nature is the foundational premise of her entire project, and it’s arguably wrong.
If being social by nature is defined as requiring the society of other creatures of like species to survive, then there are a great many animals that are not social by nature, mankind included. Man, just like a polar bear, is perfectly capable of surviving alone in nature. If the meaning is expanded to include being able to survive and propagate outside the society of other creatures of the species, then any sexually-reproducing creature must necessarily, occasionally, be social. But if the creatures, once having copulated, are never to be seen together again, except perhaps in a dangerous encounter that might result in death to the products of the copulation (e.g., polar bears), would it then mean they are best described as social only upon compelling necessity?
Indeed, there is no such thing as social by nature except as nature demands. Observing a troop of monkeys socializing, and then concluding that they are “social by nature” because they seem to enjoy socializing misses the point. The question regarding sociability is to resolve how it is that the survival and propagation imperatives of the monkeys led them to live in society instead of alone. Figuring, as Churchland does, that something in the neural hardware of the monkeys compelled them to society also misses the point. The neural hardware and software evolved to aid the monkey’s survival. If the monkeys are found to be social animals, surely it is no surprise that some aspects of their sociability could be traced to their neural biochemistry. If their environment one day changed to favor solitude, or limited sociability, then the neural biochemistry would appropriately change to compel the monkeys to solitude. Survival compulsions drive the biochemistry that determines behavior, not the other way around. Isn’t this the basic Darwinian idea?
Churchland describes the problem of explaining moral behavior with naturalist philosophy as one of deriving ought from is. Naturalist philosophers (and scientists) such as Aristotle, Hume and Darwin, limit their inquiries to determinations of what is, not what ought to be. Morality seems concerned with what ought to be, so how can naturalism (or scientific materialism), provide us any clues as to the origins of morality? Churchland describes decision-making in the moral (and everyday) context as a constraint satisfaction process where the best choice given the vast panoply of variable conditions is the aim of decision-making infrastructure. Well, duh. The constraint satisfaction process is nothing less than one of the founding premises of neo-classical economics; in the face of scarce resources and limited options, animals, including man, choose, from their subjective point of view, the best available option for meeting their needs and desires. That they employ the same strategy in deciding upon moral virtues and vices sort of goes without saying. Every decision any creature makes arises more or less completely from the realm of the constraint satisfaction process, else the creature wouldn’t long exist, as some other creature in competition for the same environmental niche would come along and make better, more efficient, decisions in the premises, or the non-maximizing creature would decide upon actions that impair its absolute ability to survive in the environment in which it exists, regardless of its competitive pressures.
After having assumed (or at least not proved) an invalid premise (that mankind is social by nature) upon which she will ground her hypothesis, and after having failed to connect morality (the ought) to neural biochemistry (the is) Churchland finally gets around to explaining what it is she will try to prove:
The hypothesis on offer is that what we humans call ethics or morality is a four dimensional scheme for social behavior that is shaped by interlocking brain processes: (1) caring (rooted in attachment to kin and kith and care for their well-being), (2) recognition of other’s psychological states (rooted in the benefits of predicting the behavior of others) (3) problem-solving in a social context (e.g., how we should distribute scarce goods, settle land disputes; how we should punish the miscreants) and (4) learning social practices (by positive and negative reinforcement, by imitation, by trial and error, by various kinds of conditioning, and by analogy).
Does Churchland really believe this to be a falsifiable hypothesis? How is it disproved, or “disconfirmed” as she might say? How is it proved? Where are considerations of natural selection pressures, and how they relate to psychology and epistemology, particularly in the manner with which sensory perceptions yield subjective experiences? Is her hypothesis anything more than an attempt to explain how humans define morality and ethics? Why not just look in a few dictionaries and be done with it? Incidentally, according to my American Heritage Dictionary, it’s kith and kin, not kin and kith, and kith is obsolete except when used in the alliterative phrase kith and kin, which means “native land and people”. What exactly does “native land and people” tell us about innate human compulsions to morality?
It seems one of the questions Churchland wants to answer is whether morality has a material basis. Yet this has been asked and answered in the affirmative by every philosopher she cited, and by countless neuroscientists attempting and failing to find any evidence for the immaterial and eternal human “soul”. If people have some immaterial soul from which morality might arise, the simple question to ask is why then, aren’t souls and their morals observed or encountered without which they are attached to bodies? In other words, if the question is whether morality has a physical, biological, material basis, then if it exists at all, the answer is unequivocally yes. Ought always arises from is, else the scientific project is utterly futile.
Churchland has not done her biology homework, or at least, mainly ignores its lessons. It is well-established science (and common sense, for that matter) that like favors like; that a human, or squirrel, or even a weed growing in a field, will favor its own kind over those of another kind, and will discriminate among the favor to its own kind according to closeness in kinship. So, in humans, a parent will generally (the same genetic diversity that drives natural selection means there will always be some variability) display the greatest affection and sociability towards its own offspring over those of another. In our Neolithic forebears, a clan whose members were closely related to each other was naturally more concerned with the fortunes of its own clan than those of an unrelated clan three mountain ranges distant. That there might be a biochemically discoverable basis for the behavior explains nothing. Even were the biochemical basis (genetic similarity is enough in the examples here cited) not apparent, it would necessarily exist. All that matters is that the instinct to favor close kin exists.
She seems to transform what every day humans sees as ordinary morality, a particular aspect of human behavior, into a spandrel, a more or less ornamental and useless by-product of the evolutionary processes that created the compulsion to care for one’s self and others close in relation or geography. But all of her four dimensions, including the compulsion to care for one’s self and other close in relation or geography, could easily be explained as part and parcel of the compulsion to survive and propagate that is known of all animals, humans included. It is survival and propagation imperatives that drive caring, empathy and socialization; in fact, survival and propagation are the compulsions driving everything, and thereby morality, if it exists, must also be somehow related. That selfish compulsions might yield some very complicated and seemingly unselfish behaviors that humans have come to view as having a moral basis is more a matter of perspective than of any innate sense of biochemical compulsion to human goodness.
Delving into the biochemistry and structure of the human (and animal) psyche, Churchland tries to discover a biochemical explanation for human compulsions to morality. She explains that our neural infrastructure exists to keep us alive such that we might propagate. Fair enough. Then she makes a quantum leap to the conclusion that this neural infrastructure “…constitutes the neurobiological scaffolding for higher levels of self-representation , such as the sense of self as a person belonging to a social group and having special bonds for special individuals…”. No. The neural infrastructure exists to ensure the genetic code of the individual possessing it gets to the next generation, nothing more and nothing less. She provides as a graphical example of caring relationships a set of interlocking circles as one might see in an introductory mathematics textbook, with “self” at the center, and “close kin” overlapping on its edge, and “affiliates” overlapping next. This is one way to look at things, but one that seems to wish upon man a caring nature that exists somehow independent of his survival and propagation compulsions. Applying Occam’s razor, the simplest analysis is that mankind seeks above all else, like other creatures, to survive and propagate; any neurobiological evidence that he cares for others is more readily attributable to his overriding compulsions. If it seems men care for other men it is better to explain it as a behavior arising out of their own selfish imperatives, rather than the product of any complex neurobiological infrastructure designed for a different purpose.
To her credit, Churchland dispenses with some of the whacky ideas providing that there is some special readily-identifiable biochemistry driving humans to morality, particularly of the religious variety. For example, she claims that the center of the intricate web of neural connections making us social (again, an unproved premise) is oxytocin, a peptide found to be important in neurological functioning, and expends quite a bit of energy explaining how important it seems oxytocin is to sociability in animals, before finally dispensing with it as not capable of fully explaining the biological basis for morality.
She also dispels the idea that there is a morality or religion gene, or at least that one has been discovered, explaining how intricately variable and sensitive to environmental influences are the genetic effects determining something as simple as height. The multitude of genes controlling for something as impossible to quantify as moral behavior is unknown at present, and is so complex that it will likely remain that way for some time to come, if not forever.
Likewise, she explains that the famous idea of our possessing “mirror neurons” making us necessarily inclined to empathy is not proved. The “monkey see, monkey do” experiments lighting up a particular pathway in the brains of macaque proved little. Mirroring is not imitation, and neither imitation nor mirroring necessarily equate to empathy.
Churchland questions whether the existence of rules for behavior means that humans have some innate morality. Aside from her flawed premises, this seems to be the crux of the problem in her analysis. She seems to think, or at least wish, that mankind had some special (i.e., unique to humans) neurobiological compulsion to treat others kindly. Any analysis of human beings that attempts to use scientific reductionism to find innate differences between man and beasts that explain particular human behaviors is apt to fail. Behavior is an emergent quality of all the neurobiological processes grinding away in the subconscious that we are only occasionally privy to in our conscious minds, as David Eagleman so ably pointed out in Incognito. We rarely are even aware of what is compelling us to action, except that we know from a priori reasoning that our compulsions to action are basically no different than the compulsions of any other living creature, else we wouldn’t long exist.
There is though one aspect of human beings that make us morally and ethically different from all other animals, yet Churchland fails to explore it. Mankind, alone among all the animals of which we are aware, has the capacity for self-destruction. Man’s reasoning mind can overcome his emotional impulses, his instinct, to the extent that he can rationalize his way to suicide. It is an emergent behavior that separates man from bees, dogs, chimpanzees, etc., and seems to be a product of quantity rather than quality. All mammals, and most reptiles, birds and fishes, seem to have the same basic neurobiological hardware. Somewhere in the evolutionary past, mankind’s reasoning capacity grew so powerful that he was able, unlike all the rest of the animals, to step outside of a localized and immediate view of space and time to see that his existence was inherently temporal. Mankind grew smart enough to know he existed, and to understand that he one day wouldn’t. In an allegorical sense, this is the knowledge that God warned Adam and Eve against in the Garden of Eden. It is no accident that as soon as they were yoked to the burden of this knowledge; as soon as they understood they would not, and could not, live to eternity; they covered themselves in fig leaves to protect against the blinding compulsion to eternity their reproductive organs represented.
The extended capacity of man’s reasoning mind represented by the fall meant that he could overcome instinct; that he could intentionally do things impairing his survival and propagation possibilities. “Sin is always crouching at the door, timshel (thou mayest), overcome it”, as Genesis proclaims (4: 7). Man’s reasoning capacity gave him the choice between doing good (which mainly meant following instincts guided by reason), i.e., between doing things that enhance his survival and propagation prospects, and doing bad, i.e. doing things that impair them. So when Cain killed his brother Abel, following his instinctive impulse in the face of anger and jealousy, he was not acting in a manner liable to enhance his own survival and propagation imperatives. Abel was his brother, so was closely related, and killing Abel brought God’s (and presumably Cain’s family) severe consternation and retribution. Thus arose morality, as man struggled to get a hold of this tiger’s tail of knowledge whipsawing him into confusion.
Not all cultures tell exactly the same coming of age tale of mankind’s reasoning capacity, but the stories of an idyllic, happier, less confused past abound. Like the Adam and Eve story did also, most are employed to explain man’s happiness before not only knowledge of good and evil and eternity crept in, but also to describe the Neolithic hunter/gatherer lifestyle of the past that was displaced by the advent of agriculture. Presumably, mankind lived a freer, more instinctive, life as a hunter/gatherer than as an agriculturalist, with little need for formalized rules, and no need for the bureaucratic procedures that attended the advent of agriculture and economic specialization. Morality then was simple. Survival, of the individual, the clan and the tribe, was good; anything else was bad. The only confusion came when deciding which organism’s survival was paramount; was it the tribe or clan, or was it the individual? Surely, the answer was not always clear, and was more or less entirely circumstantial, just as are so many of our moral dilemmas today. There is never any clearly moral, or good choice, as might be implied by some genetic or hormonal impulse. Morality and goodness always depend on the context, which ultimately always depends on survivability.
Churchland cited Aristotle, Hume and Darwin as naturalist philosophers that seemed to understand a thing or two about human compulsions to morality. She might have gone back a bit further, and sought the counsel of Socrates. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates is trying to tease out the nature of love, but accidentally (perhaps) also provides the foundation for morality, in a conversation with Diotima:
“Now then,” she (Diotima) said. “Can we simply say that people love the good?”
“Yes,” I (Socrates) said.
“But shouldn’t we add that, in loving it, they want the good to be theirs?”
“And not only that,” She said. “They want the good to be theirs forever, don’t they?”
“We should add that too.”
“In a word then, love is wanting to possess the good forever.”
“…You see Socrates,” she said, “what love wants is not beauty, as you think it is.”
“Well, what is it then?”
“Reproduction and birth in beauty.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“Certainly,” she said. “Now, why reproduction? It is because reproduction goes on forever; it is what mortals have in the place of immortality. A lover must desire immortality along with the good, if what we agreed earlier was right, that love wants to possess the good forever. It follows from our argument that love must desire immortality.”
There is, therefore, a neurobiological basis for morality. The only problem is that it is an emergent quality, not amenable to scientific reductionism. The compulsion for the good is the compulsion for eternity, which is the compulsion for reproduction, which is why Adam and Eve had to cover themselves in fig leaves. It’s all very simple, you see.
Read this book, but with a skeptic’s eye to the premises. Man is not a social animal, except when he has to be to achieve that which he desires, and that’s why Churchland’s analysis fails.