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Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition

3.78  ·  Rating details ·  94 ratings  ·  28 reviews
In her brilliant work Touching a Nerve, Patricia S. Churchland, the distinguished founder of neurophilosophy, drew from scientific research on the brain to understand its philosophical and ethical implications for identity, consciousness, free will, and memory. In Conscience, she explores how moral systems arise from our physical selves in combination with environmental ...more
Hardcover, 226 pages
Published June 4th 2019 by W. W. Norton Company
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Jan 19, 2020 rated it liked it
Patricia Churchland is, with Daniel Dennett and Josh Knobe, among my favorite living philosophers. She takes on a topic here, the nature of human conscience and morality, that is both important and accessible. She advocates a thesis which is both different than the orthodoxy, and with which I fundamentally agree. However, there is no kind way to put this, the book kind of limps home. It is 2/3 of a good book, and then there is the last third.

First off, she examines existing schools of thought
Ryan Boissonneault
Jun 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
When thinking about morality, people generally make two mistakes: 1) that moral certainty can be achieved by consulting some external, objective source, and 2) that if this is not the case, and moral certainty cannot be attained, then we all have license to do whatever we want and there’s nothing left to discuss.

As analytical philosopher Patricia Churchland explains in her latest book, Conscience: The Origin of Our Moral Intuitions, both ideas are false. Moral dilemmas always involve
Apr 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: psychology, science
Summary: Exploring the neuroscience of our sense of right and wrong, integrating our knowledge of neurophysical causation, social factors, and philosophy, arguing that moral norms are based in our brain functions, interacting with our social world.

Conscience. Unless one is significantly cognitively impaired, there is this inner sense we have about what is morally right or wrong, or sometimes this place where we determine right or wrong. Where does this come from? Theists will claim a
Chunyang Ding
Jun 29, 2019 rated it it was ok
Not a bad book, but also not a good one. The first half of the book seems misleading, as the premise is a neurological understanding of moral philosophy, yet the neurology present is fundamental evolutionary neurochemistry. It feels more like a neuroscience textbook, highlighting key experiments and whatnot. While this makes for good reading, it leaves me wanting more understanding into actual moral questions, rather than only dance around the issue by discussing mental illnesses and animal ...more
John Kaufmann
Like her earlier book Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves, I found this a very interesting read and learned a lot. But also like that previous book, I find her writing and arguments very subtle, such that I occasionally lost the thread. Part of it is me, I am sure -- this is difficult material, and I struggle with cognitive science. Also, part of it is that this is a developing field, and Churchland proceeds cautiously rather than making bold pronouncements.
Jan Peregrine
Jan 11, 2020 rated it really liked it
Conscience: The Truth Will Set You Free......

“If I had one piece of advice to give to girls, I would say, 'Don't listen to my advice. Listen to the voice inside.' It's not important they know who I am; it's important they know who they are.” -Gloria Steinem, The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It'll Piss You Off: Thoughts on Life, Love, Rebellion

Despite Patricia Churchland's unfortunate last name, I chose to pick up her latest book called Conscience: The Origin of Moral Intuition. I was
Dan Graser
Jul 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
UC Professor of Philosophy Patricia Churchland is at all times a masterful writer with important issues to discuss and the necessary linguistic and intellectual tools with which to discuss them. This latest work centers on the formation of what we know of as our conscience and how varying degrees of biology and environment come to play. The notion(s) that this is some sort of supernatural sense with which we are gifted, a purely biological process over which we have no control, and a mere ...more
Aug 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
A pretty enjoyable read but it was different from what I expected - I've been swayed by a lot of argumentation from both Paul and Patricia Churchland (definitely favourite power couple material), and so I was excited to see that Patricia had a new book released a few weeks ago.

I love the Churchlands' philosophical argumentation, but this book was a little more in the pop science realm. It's a pretty easy read compared to their more technical works, and helpful to folks who don't have background
Prooost Davis
Jul 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The title would perhaps more precisely be "The Biological Origins of Moral Intuition," but maybe the actual title has more mystery to attract the buyer.

Patricia Churchland is a philosopher who got interested in, and studied, neurobiology. She was dissatisfied with the reigning philosophical theories on morality: mainly that there are absolute moral rules, applicable in all times, in all places, and in all cases, which can be discovered by reason. She became convinced that our morality is
Roo Phillips
Sep 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
An interesting mixture of philosophy and neuroscience. Churchland takes a cautious dive into some of the latest research in neuroscience. She tries to connect the research to our understanding of moral values, where they come from, how they affect us in different situations, etc. While really understanding how the brain works is still a ways off, Churchland does a sound job of correlating mammalian biology and the importance/use/origin of morality. She doesn't really discuss other potential ...more
Oct 22, 2019 rated it it was ok
TLDR: The neurobiological underpinnings of our moral intuitions is not yet a topic that is ready for a popular treatment.

Right from the start there is an ambiguity in the topic. On the one hand, we might want to know why we do what we do most of the time, and why we rarely deviate from what we consider right (you don't stomp on someone's flower garden as you walk by; it doesn't even occur to you to do that, as it would be mean and destructive). On the other hand, we might want to know the
Nancy Garon
Jun 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Amazing book! I love how she integrated a variety of research areas.
Nov 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
excellent overview of the topic (how did we develop a conscious and how does it fit into the Darwinian model), and how modern brain science and twin studies (nature-nurture) provide evidence for this.

Churchland does this in only 190 pages plus references which I appreciate more and more. Other non-fiction writers have poor or rushed editing and end up with bloated works where I find multiple repeated sentences in different chapters. Sometimes valid, but I'm seeing too many cases where it's just
Jul 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Probably the best book I've read on morality so far. The book is well-written and easy to understand. If only all philosophers wrote this way. She actually helped me to see the flaws with moral skepticism as it's generally only focused on an academic or religious narrow version of morality. She is a moral skeptic in THAT sense. However, she points out a different way of viewing morality that doesn't require seeing it as some list of absolute, objective, eternal rules you MUST follow. Morality ...more
Per Kraulis
Philosopher-neuroscientist Patricia Churchland explores the basis for conscience and morality. She discusses both the evolutionary and mechanistic processes underlying our humanity. A nice read, with several important and sometimes provocative points delivered in a well-written text. Churchland begins with defining conscience as "knowledge of the community standards", and goes on to describe how such standards have been internalized in the human mind.

Science cannot tell us what is morally right,
Peter Gelfan
Nov 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
The author, both a neuroscientist and a philosopher, examines the subject of morals and conscience. Religions sometimes define morality as obeying the rules laid down by God, gods, or prophets. Philosophies may posit an algorithm for reasoning that results in an objectively moral decision for any situation. Individuals may decide what’s moral and what isn’t through their feelings about their possible choices for action or inaction—what feels right, what feels wrong, what makes them feel good, ...more
Sandra Helen
Sep 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is not a Book Challenge read, but it should be. It is a non-fiction book by a woman scientist. I haven’t read a lot of those. “Conscience” is about the brain and how the mammalian brains developed such that we are social animals vs those who live a solitary life. Churchland goes into great detail about brains, the evolution of brain, and how it is that biology influences the development of morality. I read this book after reading an article about it, because I was curious to see whether she ...more
Stephie Williams
Oct 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is Patricia Churchland's stab at how we create and use moral principles. It is a brain based approach. Not surprising from a materialist. She provides the relevant neuroscience behind our morality and in some case immorality, such as psychopaths. She also brings in relevant evolutionary psychology because if we did not evolve as we have our brains would not have the capacity to form moral feelings the driving force behind our moral behaviors. She is a basically a Humean when it comes to ...more
Anthony O'neill
Feb 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Patricia Churchland in Conscience attempts to answer big questions regarding human behaviour in the context of morality. She covers human and mammalian evolution, brain anatomy, neuroscience and psychology experiments, even some computer science, and finished off with a sprinkle of traditional philosophy. The result was a wonderful insightful experience and I had my mind blown several times. I loved Patricia's style of writing with some of her critiques of philosophers reminding me of Bertrand ...more
Hassan Ah
Nov 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
While this is a short and fairly straight-forward book, I have greatly enjoyed it. The author takes us on a journey through the neurobiology of animal and human minds, what makes them social, how humans learn and acquire social norms, personality dispositions to inherent brain differences, psychopathy and moral scrupulousity, all the while building throughout the book her philosophical beliefs in morality. The last two chapters she devotes more to moral issues and her criticism of them, favoring ...more
Aug 31, 2019 rated it liked it
The author's case for a biological genesis of morality and conscience contrasted with religious or philosophical theories.

What I loved:
I love reading about how the brain works and deep questions of human understanding. I didn't find this book compelling on the whole. She was condescending and dismissive of competing theories and I didn't feel her argument was new. I guess I just expected more. I felt like it was all stuff I already knew and agreed with. That said, I do ultimately agree with her
Cathy Hodge
Sep 11, 2019 rated it liked it
I liked how we got information about biological brain function, social norms as motivation, and morality arguments in great detail with pictures. Some parts of the book were dry with scientific research and studies.... but I felt I learned a lot. Patricia Churchland wrote "down-to-earth" examples to illustrate concepts.
Feb 04, 2020 rated it liked it
If you have ever 'let your conscience be your guide,' perhaps you should know a little about what that guide is. If you thought it was mostly a societal mores/religion/upbringing construct, molded mostly by external forces, then the science and research presented in this wide-ranging book may give you room for both thought and acceptance of yourself and others.
Jan 08, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2020
Interesting book, and a fairly easy read. I do think, however, the parts on neurology and evolution definitely outweighed that of moral philosophy. The author does make a point that both are related, but not enough questions are raised about morality which I think are very relevant.
Dec 12, 2019 rated it liked it
Good book, though it was a bit short. It could have easily been double the length without being repetitive or tedious. However, for those who prefer a quicker read, this is perfect.
Nathan Hoyt
Dec 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
Interesting, but certainly not light reading. The topic seems like it will continue to change every few years - great topic to keep up on.
Andy Adkins
Jan 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Reading familiar themes & concepts when they are repackaged using richly descriptive language is exceptionally enjoyable.
Anni Sweetser
Sep 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The writing in this book is amazing: clear, simple, beautiful and powerful. It was a joy to read.
Kaltrim Perzefaj
rated it really liked it
Jul 17, 2019
Varga Sámuel
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Jul 27, 2019
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Patricia Smith Churchland (born July 16, 1943 in Oliver, British Columbia, Canada) is a Canadian-American philosopher working at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) since 1984. She is currently a professor at the UCSD Philosophy Department, an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and an associate of the Computational Neuroscience Laboratory (Sejnowski Lab) at ...more