Review :

Disclaimer: This is the same review I posted on Amazon under the username The Professor.

Being a young aspiring experimental psychology graduate with a minor in philosophy, I find the work of Patricia Churchland refreshing. A philosopher who actively works in the psychological sciences! Astounding! About time philosophers with questions about the mind actually look to the experimental results instead of philosophizing in an office chair (no disrespect, most philosophers are brilliant and ask interesting questions, but I feel their method of answering them is unsatisfactory).

Turning to this book specifically, it is marvelously written. It's amazing that she can churn out a very academic text like Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain (which despite its age is still worth reading in my opinion, at least the second two thirds of the book) but then write a book like this a layman with no detailed experience in philosophy of mind or psychology can thoroughly enjoy. She interweaves her experiences growing up in a small farm town in rural Canada with the scientific information or philosophical questions she presents, which creates a very comfortable and personal atmosphere in the book. It's very conversational in tone.

It treats a lot of the classical philosophical questions such as, "Is there such a thing as a soul", "Is there an afterlife", "What is morality, really", "Is free will real", and "What is consciousness". She also touches on some scientific problems such as the relationship between genetics and aggression and genocide. She definitely comes down on the skeptical of evolutionary psychology side. For instance, she disparages the idea that certain conditions in the past may have (very much unfortunately) favored genes which may build brains predisposed to participate in genocidal actions in certain conditions. Her argument is that there aren't any genes for genocide, and that just because we possess the capacity for such horrid behavior doesn't mean it was selected for in evolution. In the book The Triumph of Sociobiology, John Alcock actually discusses these sorts of criticisms of sociobiology and in fact talks about genocide as well. He points out there that no sociobiologist worth his or her degree would consistently say there are genes literally for genocide, etc. He clearly states that the proximate causes for such behaviors like that are very complex and involve a lot of gene-environment and gene-gene interactions. HOWEVER, complexity aside, some of the genetic variance that leads to predisposition to such behaviors can in certain situations end up becoming more frequent in the gene pool. Thus, these genes that *just happen* to build brains that may be slightly more predisposed to such behavior are more prominent. But in no way does that imply its a "genetically determined" behavior and John Alcock rebukes such notions, despite that being a common charge against sociobiology. Given that she happily accepts that genes which promote altruistic and empathetic behavior have been selected for and shaped by evolution, as evidenced in Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality , she's definitely not anti-sociobiology and anti-evolutionary psychology across the board.

Despite this quibble, I don't think it's enough to subtract a star. After all, it did provoke that constructive criticism, which I hope that you -- the reader of this review -- will consider.

I also really like her treatment of free will. Being someone interested in investigating the causes of our behaviors, it's often been an unsettling implication to me that because our behaviors are caused and predictable, that we are completely determined. You could call me someone of a reluctant determinist. But, she points out in this book that we DO have a large capacity for self control, and that it needn't be "contracausal" and initiated by some immaterial spirit. These points are similarly made by Michael Gazzaniga in more detail in Who's in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain and similar points are made by Dan Dennett in his various writings on free will. So, perhaps I can regard our behaviors as caused while also believing in free will of some sort. Perhaps this is trying to have my cake and eat it too (freely), but it's at least something to consider.

In any case, the book is well worth your time and is a pretty short read. It might also make a good gift for anyone you know who holds more dualist convictions or is uneasy about neuroscience.

EDIT: Given Churchland's asociation with eliminative materialism, the thesis that such mental entities like intentions, beliefs, etc, are part of a misguided folk psychology and don't really exist, I was surprised to see how much she talked about intentionality and so forth. Perhaps she's backed off eliminative materialism, or perhaps she treats eliminativism as merely one possibility. Particuarly, in the epilouge, she states that reductionism is often associated with go-away-ism which is exactly what eliminativism is, but that reductionism is NOT that. She is of course correct, saying that one higher level phenomenon can be explained with a lower level phenomenon (reduction) is very different from elimination. What I'd like to know is if she's adopted reductionism over eliminativism, or if she just avoided advocating it because it's a shocking thesis that would likely turn readers away.

For those interested in reductionism, I'd also recommend Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

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