Patricia Churchland: A Conversation With the Philosopher and Writer

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In this 1990 episode of World of Ideas, Bill Moyers talked with UC-San Diego philosophy professor Patricia Smith Churchland about Congress’ declaration of the ’90s as the :”decade of the brain.” Churchland discussed discoveries that call into question basic philosophical concepts like free will and rational thinking.


BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Congress has declared the 1990s to be the decade of the brain, for the purpose of highlighting the importance of research into what has been called “our wonder tissue.” Patricia Smith Churchland, a professor of philosophy at the University of California in San Diego, is on the new frontier of exploration into how the brain works. In her book, Neurophilosophy, she writes about how recent discoveries call into question some of our basic philosophical concepts such as free will and rational thinking. I talked with Dr. Churchland at her home near San Diego.

[interviewing] What’s a philosopher doing studying the science of the brain? I mean, it seems to me that’s more naturally the domain of the trained scientist, not a philosopher.

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Well, in a way that’s true, except that the suppose-as it seems, that how we perceive and think and reason is all, in fact, brought about by the brain, that those are processes in the brain. Then, if we really want to understand who we are, what kind of things we are and what it is to think and see, then we need to understand those processes in the brain.

BILL MOYERS: What got you onto this path?

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: It was when I got very dissatisfied with much philosophy and, indeed, with much psychology, when I was a graduate student. Because it seemed to me that it really did ignore the brain, and didn’t just say, “Well, the brain isn’t interesting,” but it said-rather, it didn’t just say, “Well, I’m too busy to pay attention to the brain,” it said: “The brain doesn’t matter. How the brain does these things isn’t actually very interesting, because we want to understand the nature of cognition, or the nature of language or vision at a different level. And it’s at the level that’s analogous to a program in a computer. And just as you wouldn’t want a care too much about the inner workings of the chips of the computer, but you would want to care about the program.”
So they said, “Why bother caring very much about the nature of the brain?” And I guess I was just stubborn enough to think that that was wrong.

BILL MOYERS: Have you ever held a brain, or looked at it?

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Yes, I have, actually, several of them. When I initially decided that I wanted to understand more neuroscience, part of, the motivation was this. I couldn’t tell from looking at a two-dimensional picture where things were, because you could see it on one page, but on the next page it looked different. So I found someone at the University of Manitoba in the anatomy department, and I said, “Look, I’m really having trouble knowing where things are in the brain.” And he said, “The only way to do it is to take anatomy.”
So I went to the medical school, along with the medical students, and took all the regular neuroscience and neuroanatomy courses. And one of them was lab. And we did cells, of course, first. And then one day they wheeled in a big trolley, and on the trolley were Tupperware pots, each of which contained a human brain for each of us. And what we needed to do, then, of course, was to dissect the brain, so we could understand how the gross parts, at least, were put together.

BILL MOYERS: When you dissected that brain, did you think, “I’m looking at a mind?”

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Well, I did, in a funny sort of a way. I mean, when I first took out the brain out of the pot, I was tremendously moved. I mean, this was a human brain that I held in my hands, that was somebody’s, and somebody who had been alive, and been a person and been somebody’s mother. And it was a very moving thing.
And-but of course, what I always wanted was to know, “But how does it

BILL MOYERS: Sometimes I lay awake at night, and my thoughts are like monkeys in trees, or shooting starts, or fireworks someone else set off. I haven’t summoned them, I don’t want them there-


BILL MOYERS: -in fact, I banish them-I try to banish them, but they come back. And they’re not related, a thought about this, a thought about that, I’ve no control over what’s going on up there. What’s happening, as far as you know, in your study of the mind?

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Well, I think we have an illusion of how much control we have over our thoughts, and perhaps even over our decisions and choices. But I suppose a fast answer to your question is we really don’t know where these things come from. I mean, we have a bit of an idea about dreaming now, but we really don’t know about where those thoughts come from.

BILL MOYERS: You see, the traditional view that I grew up with is that if the brain doesn’t work logically, that there must be something wrong with it.


BILL MOYERS: Now, are you challenging that notion?

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Well, it doesn’t look like the brain-at least at the level of circuits, it doesn’t look like the brain is a logic machine. It doesn’t look like the brain, in fact, is a computer of the kind that we’re used to having on our desktop. It looks like it’s a very different kind of beast altogether. And that when we go through a series of reasoning, it may be underpinned by sort of a mulch of activity on the part of neurons that look nothing like logic. I suspect that it won’t look anything like logic. So it may also turn out to be the case that some of what we think of as reasoning involves only a very little bit of logic, that there is some here and there is some here and there is some here. And in between, there’s a whole lot of reasoning and processing, but we really-it’s not really describable in terms of the logic that we’re familiar with at all. It’s sort of mulch, mulch, mulch, mulch, whatever-you know, whatever that turns out to be.

BILL MOYERS: I guess what I’m getting at is that our notion of individual responsibility centers on an individual making rational decisions, and what you’re suggesting is the possibility we may not be making rational decisions. We may be responding to activities and behaviors of these neural cells that we don’t control, we obviously don’t control them.

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: One way to think about it, I think, is that what we count as rational is maybe very different from what we thought. That is, we might have thought that in order to be rational, you had to go through a series of steps of conventional logic. And it might turn out that, as a theory about what it is to make a rational decision, that’s just not very good. And that, in fact, it looks very different. But if it turns out that we can explain the difference between somebody’s being-making a rational choice, and they’re not, in terms of the behavior of neurons, that isn’t going to change anything. You’re still going to be a rational person, even though it’s your neurons that are doing it. ‘Cause they’ve always been doing it, and you’ve always been rational.

And so I think we will achieve a deeper understanding of what it is to make a choice, and to make a rational choice. But it may also help us to understand, too, those circumstances where, as we now say, people do not make a rational choice, where a woman stays with a husband who batters her, for example, and so on. If we understood more about the way the brain works, we might be able to understand a little better what happens in those sorts of circumstances.

BILL MOYERS: Will it help us to teach our children better, or differently?

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Well, I would be surprised if it didn’t have implications about-implications for learning, and implications concerning how we can learn more efficiently. For example, it’s clearly the case that most types of dyslexia that we know anything about are biological in their basis. They have to do with a miswiring of the brain. Now, if we understood that miswiring, if we knew exactly what it was and could either prevent it or could bring about rewiring or whatever, then it would make a major difference in how children learn to read, or at least, in how dyslexics learn to read. And there might be comparable things that we might understand about normal children that would allow us to do better in teaching.

BILL MOYERS: What about the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease? Is there any possibility or conceivability that this could help us down that path?

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: I think so. First, we have to have the knowledge of what exactly is going on, and then we have to address the question of how might we bring about a change, or how might we prevent it.

BILL MOYERS: Can it be that there’s a key to treating addiction in this?

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: I think that that is a real possibility, that we may both understand the nature of addiction, find out ways to prevent it and possibly to cure it.

BILL MOYERS: And possibly other compulsions as well?

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: And possibly other compulsions, yes.

BILL MOYERS: Because I know that the compulsions I feel occasionally, I don’t know the source, they don’t seem to be intellectual or-


BILL MOYERS: -or even philosophical. They just seem to be something inside driving the appetite, or whatever it is, whether it’s work~


BILL MOYERS: -or whatever.

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Yeah. Well, in fact, obsessive compulsive behavior, real compulsive behavior, you know, handwashing 99 times a day and so on, has been shown to’ have a biological basis. Now, probably the compulsions that you would have, in thinking a certain thought or not being able not to work and so, those may be different, but they may be related. And so the possibility of understanding that kind of thing is, I think, very much alive.

BILL MOYERS: So would this help to explain, if we knew this, common sense, the tool that we use every day just to get through the world without even thinking about it?

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Well, I mean, look, ideally of course, we have to be able to explain all of these things. We have to be able to explain-

BILL MOYERS: Well, we get along without explaining them. And we do them. I reach out and touch your hand, or I throw the ball, questions come without my composing sentences.

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: -sure. Well, why would one want to know, you might ask, why would one want to know?


PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: And there are a number of reasons. Let’s take the simplest reason first, and the simplest one would be the biomedical one. And that is that there are many kinds of diseases -some we call psychiatric and some we call neurological -that humans have, where we really desperately need to help people. And so we need to be able to understand the brain in order to do that.

BILL MOYERS: That I understand.

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: So that’s the biomedical issue. And then I suppose there is what one might call the scientific issue of just wanting to know, just wanting to understand. And it shouldn’t be thought, of course, that that’s just a kind of romantic ideal, without practical implications, because notoriously in the history of science when people have tried to understand something just because they wanted to understand it, they stumbled upon something that had incredible practical results, that they would never have got if they had gone for the practical results first.

I mean, if you had said to Marie Curie, “Now, my dear, what you must do is find me the means of being able to look inside the body so I can tell whether somebody’s bones are broken,” it would have been hopeless. As it was, she stumbled upon something that had incredible implications. And I think the same is true with regard to understanding the brain.

One possible implication, of course, is technological. If we understand what kind of a computer it is that fits in here, then of course, we will be able to make computing machines that make the current best computers look like sledgehammers.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I understand-I think I understand the biomedical appeal, the scientific appeal, the technological appeal. But the philosophical appeal, why you are pursuing this, still intrigues me.

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Look, one way to think of it would be that the traditional questions that philosophers have wanted to answer, from Plato on, have had to do with the nature of knowledge and the nature of consciousness. And I’m assuming that if we do understand the brain, we will understand the nature of knowledge, learning, memory and so on, and that we will understand the nature of consciousness, how it’s possible that you can take just the brain -just the brain! -and yet it has awareness, and yet it can introspect, and yet it can talk.

BILL MOYERS: But what comes to mind is, is-are we just the activity of molecules? Are we just molecules in motion? Is this inquiry leading us to think of ourselves as just primarily or essentially or just material?

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Yes. When I say that the mind is the brain, when I say that vision just is a function of the brain, that’s what I mean, that there are-there is nothing other than the cells and the way they’re put together. Now, it’s hard to see, in a way, how it is -you look at a cell under a microscope -you say, how could that thing have anything to do with my feeling pain, and my seeing a color?

BILL MOYERS: And my falling in love?

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Yes. Two things, I think, need to be said about that. And first of all, the first thing that needs to be said is, of course, it isn’t an individual neuron that does it. It isn’t an individual neuron that feels pain. It’s a whole interactive set of neurons that do. And similarly, with falling in love. I mean, it isn’t that there’s one little neuron out there in the parietal cortex that says, “Oh, you know, yeah, this is the real thing!” Obviously, it can’t be like that. So that’s part of the answer. The other part of the answer is this, that I think, you know, with regard to understanding the neurobiological basis for psychological functions, like falling in love and seeing, we’re sort of a bit like where Aristotle was with respect to understanding the nature of motion. We’ve got a long, long way to go. And just as for Aristotle, for example, it would be impossible to imagine a space that wasn’t Euclidean, a space that had a shape and that was deformed by large gravitational masses, so we might say, “God, it’s impossible to imagine how, you know, the redness of an apple, the seeing of the redness of an apple, could be caused by, or could be identical with, the behavior of a set of neurons.”

But the important thing is this. We mustn’t let our own failures of imagination tell us what must be the case in the universe. One of the things, I must say, that has impressed me rather a lot was this. A number of months ago I, amongst a few other neuroscientists, was asked to give a tutorial on the brain to the Dalai Lama. And the explanation was that he was simply very interested, that he wanted to know about the kinds of things that we were working on, and he wanted to understand, in order to, you know, think about things more wisely. And so we had a meeting in Newport Beach. Now, the thing that I thought was profoundly interesting about the Dalai Lama was this: he had no dogma. He was willing to change his mind about anything, depending on the nature of the evidence. And on certain occasions, he did. And that he seemed to take as the most important aspect of his religious-of the religion of Buddhism to have to do with questions of how to live a life. And there he talked about compassion and he talked about honesty and so forth, but he didn’t advert to any dogmas about the nature of the universe, about whether the Earth is in the center of the solar system, or about whether species were created or whether there was a mind independent of the body, and so on. He said, “If those are the facts, those are the facts ”

BILL MOYERS: What did you think when you came away from this session with him?

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Well, what I thought was important was that on issues of science, of issues of the nature of the universe, he wanted information from the people who knew, or the people who had the most information available. And he was not going to insist that the universe be one way because the Buddhists had thought that for the last 2,000 years. So it seemed to me this kind of separation of matters of fact, on the one hand, and matters of morals on the other hand, was really quite important.

BILL MOYERS: And it would not relieve us from the necessity of constructing ethical ways of dealing with one another.

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Absolutely not. I mean, I think that’s all very much open, and I don’t think that discovering things about the way the brain works is going to tell us what sort of moral system is most appropriate. Now, it might tell us some things that bear upon that, in other words, it might give us facts about that that would be relevant.


PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Well, about the kinds of flexibility people do and don’t have in molding their character, or the kinds of-or in making difficult decisions in, as it were, weakness of will.

BILL MOYERS: The limits of free will.

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Yeah. I think it might be very helpful, with regard to that kind of thing. But we would still have to reason together and make a decision about what to do with that knowledge.

BILL MOYERS: What does this do to the religious philosophers who write about God breathing into the clay the spirit of mind, the soul of life? To the religious idea of the soul? Do you think that’s just a metaphor?

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: I don’t think it can be accurate, and even talking about God breathing life into something, we now know, of course, that life isn’t like that either, that life also is a function of the organization of matter. You want-people used to be vitalists, and they used to say there is a living force, there is the life force, and if you want to explain the difference between living things like us and dead things like rocks and pieces of concrete, then you had to do it in terms of the life force. Well, now we now that’s not on, I mean, ever since Watson and Crick discovered DNA and since molecular biology has proceeded, it’s very clear that that’s not the correct explanation of living things. What is the correct explanation has to do with the organization of very complex molecules, proteins and so on.
And I think a similar thing is likely to be the case with regard to the mind and the brain. There isn’t a special thing, “the mind.” The mind just is the brain.

BILL MOYERS: What is different about your saying that the mind is the brain?

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Well, although many people have thought for a long time that that’s got to be the case, what is new now, I think, is that we’re beginning to be able to see how particular aspects of mind are related to particular structures in the brain. How, for example, being able to recognize a face has got-is a function that’s carried out by a fairly small region of the brain, on both sides. Or that color vision seems to be handled mainly by a very small part of visual cortex. So we’re, I think, getting more specific now. We used to just say the mind is the brain, and argued for that in a very general way. Now it’s clear that we can say a whole lot more.

BILL MOYERS: But we don’t know everything we’ll be saying, do we?

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: This is really just the first step. But it’s a very important first step. And it’s very exciting to speculate, because having taken that first step, you want to sort of see what the larger picture might look like, and what else you might understand, and how else you might think of these things when we know a little bit more. And it’s more exciting than doing that, perhaps, in the case of chemistry, because after all, this is us. We’re not talking now about some other aspect of the universe. We’re talking about how we work, how we are, what makes us the kinds of things that we are. And understanding ourselves from an objective, that is, neurobiological point of view, rather than just from a subjective point of view. And that’s very exciting, I think.

BILL MOYERS: Do you get up every morning and go to work thinking you’re on a new frontier?

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Well, almost, I guess, because we really are at the point where I think neuroscience is going to make major discoveries that will explain, psychological phenomena. And there is a kind of convergence of psychology and computer science and neuroscience right now. And they really all need each other, and they’ve all sort of come together in order to try to solve the problems of how the brain works, above the level of the single cell, above the level, that is to say, of the individual neuron.

BILL MOYERS: How the whole system is operating.

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: How the system operates.

BILL MOYERS: How the universe of the body, in a way.

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. And I think it’s enormously exciting. And there’s just remarkable things being discovered almost on a daily basis. It’s wonderful.

BILL MOYERS: Absolutely astounding to me that this organ can attempt to understand itself.

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND: Indeed. And perhaps what we’ve done is sort of underestimate it, the capacity of the brain, when we look at it and say, “Well, you know, that’s just three pounds of meat.” It’s three extraordinarily glorious, marvelous, almost miraculous pounds of meat, such that we can do things like recognize one another.

BILL MOYERS: [Voice-over] From her home near San Diego, this has been a conversation with Patricia Churchland. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on March 25, 2015.

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