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Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  692 ratings  ·  51 reviews
What is morality? Where does it come from? And why do most of us heed its call most of the time? In Braintrust, neurophilosophy pioneer Patricia Churchland argues that morality originates in the biology of the brain. She describes the "neurobiological platform of bonding" that, modified by evolutionary pressures and cultural values, has led to human styles of moral behavio ...more
Hardcover, 273 pages
Published February 2011 by Princeton University Press (first published January 1st 2011)
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Jan 15, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: philosophy, science
I ended up reading this after an extended argument with a philosopher of science in England about morality and science. My major beef came from him conflating the position held by Churchland and by Sam Harris. It is true that Harris and Churchland both advocate ethical naturalism, but to me the gaps between the two are huge, not small like he seemed to think. Also, this philosopher was an advocate of ethical naturalism and seemed to view anybody who was not as being "anti-science." He and I als ...more
Bruce Sanders
Oct 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is a brilliant work that accomplishes what the subtitle declares. In the introduction Churchland quickly deals with the notion that the project of the book is misbegotten because it falls prey to the naturalistic fallacy. She shows how the naturalistic fallacy has been misunderstood and that in fact her project follows in Hume’s footsteps. She concludes:

Naturalism, while shunning stupid inferences, does nevertheless find the roots of morality in how we are, what we care about, and what ma
Jun 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: neuroscience
Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality by Patricia S. Churchland

"Braintrust..." is the latest book from self proclaimed neurophilosopher Patricia S. Churchland, a fitting term for the accomplished author and philosopher. This book is about answering questions regarding moral values from a neuroscientist's point of view. Churchland uses a scientific sound approach to not only seek such answers but to tell us what we don't know about the brain and its relation with morality. This 2
Stephie Williams
Dec 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
I believe that this book is aimed at both other philosophers and the general educated reader. In it Patricia S. Churchland explores how we develop morality and how it works in our moral lives from a neuroscience perspective. She goes through values, caring, cooperation and trust, moral behavior, and social skills. She also speaks on how a rule based morality is not a better path than a more nuanced approach. And finally, she discusses religion and morality.

The following are a few comments that a
Joshua Stein
May 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Churchland's book is everything that the modern philosophy text should be. It is accessible, it is technically proficient and it straddles the great border between abstract philosophical theory and scientific fact. I must admit that I expected, from what I knew of Churchland, for there to be much more focus on neuroscience. There is plenty of discussion of brains, but it is well balanced with a qualification of historical philosophy and current events, a mark of a great writer, I think.

The conte
Sarah Schoonmaker
Mar 21, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is a fantastic book with a well argued case that morality is biological and environmental. "Actual human moral behavior, in all its glory and complexity, should not be cheapened by the false dilemma: either God secures the moral law or morality is an illusion. It is a false dilemma because morality can be--and I argue, is--grounded in our biology, in our capacity for compassion and our ability to learn and figure things out."
The thesis of this book, that morality arises out of biology, is both interesting and probable. I would have enjoyed a 10-page article describing it. This 200-page book provides Too Much Information for an average layman, from detailed brain anatomy and physiology to in-depth commentary on what various philosophers have said about morality.
Apr 18, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I'll confess to skimming this rather than giving it a close read, but that's because it was just boring. To her credit, Churchland gives the reader exactly what the subtitle promises, which in the end turns out to be either 'not much, really' or 'it depends', both of which are pretty boring. Now it may well be that neuroscience just doesn't have that much to tell us about morality, which is fine, and kudos to Churchland for her honesty. But it may also be that Churchland is the kind of writer wh ...more
Jan 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wonderful read, interesting, and some absolute gems of dry wit hidden in the end notes. It has fewer good, solid answers than I'd like, but the data that it presents is interesting and the tone light and very readable–I inhaled it on a two hour flight. The author spends a fair portion of her time unpicking the basis of contrary opinions and models, but it doesn't wear unduly, and the chapters range over a broad set of subjects in support of the basic chemical thesis. An excellent read.
Feb 18, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: secularism
Excellent book. I got a much better appreciation for the biology of morality, and a much better sense for what the current state of neuroscience is.
Jun 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
"Sometimes there is no uniquely right answer, no uniquely good outcome, just some roughly decent ways of avoiding a worse horror."

Dec 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This book was absolutely wonderful. It was also somewhat paradigm shifting.

In particular, I'd really like to praise the chapter on behavioral genetics and the chapter on social cognition. The chapter on genetics takes a critical look at what it means to have a gene "x" for behavior "x". It discusses how genes work in networks and are not so simple. For anyone who wants a more in depth look at a modern understanding look at genetics I'd recommend The Epigenetics Revolution. As such it undermines
T. T.
Aug 03, 2015 rated it liked it
The book consists of nice scientific details about the effects of Oxytocin and Vasopressin on trust issues of mammals. It didn't go much into detail about mirror neurons. But as it has been usual lately, when it comes to combining evolutionary altruism to philosophy, the author is in line with contemporary scientific moralists; she discreetly makes the propaganda of free market. Yet in the same book, she gives empirically proved examples from other species where 'competition' always undermines t ...more
Felix Hayman
Jun 13, 2011 rated it liked it
Whether morality arises from the brain stem or from the development of interaction with others the fine line is constantly being analysed by both scientists and philosophers alike.Patricia Churcland's contribution is to try and use the caring process and the development of the child and their brains as a way of integrating the philosophy of morality and the science of neurology.Does it work?It depends on where you stand.I enjoyed this for the courage of argument presented, although there are som ...more
Roy Kenagy
Oct 23, 2011 marked it as to-read

"In Braintrust, neurophilosophy pioneer Patricia Churchland argues that morality originates in the biology of the brain. She describes the "neurobiological platform of bonding" that, modified by evolutionary pressures and cultural values, has led to human styles of moral behavior. The result is a provocative genealogy of morals that asks us to reevaluate the priority given to religion, absolute rules, and pure reason in accounting for the basis of morality."
Kent Winward
Jul 01, 2013 rated it liked it
Writing about a book I finished two and a half months ago, it is clear I can't trust my brain to remember. So since my brain can't be trusted, I'd say that this book says that the evolutionary nature of our brain made it so the neural net that is me, finds morality quite appealing and necessary. Think of it as a treatise on materialistic morality and that it is a good thing our morality isn't based on our memory.
Ricardo Di Napoli
Apr 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
Interesting book. It shows how we are able to value moral laws as good or bad without any oder profound rules because our evaluation is grounded in the emotions and passions that are common in human beings since their childhood. The reason according to Churchland don't create value but grow up around them.
Oct 31, 2011 rated it it was ok
I read this to find out about the neuroscience. The book started out well, but started to bore me midway. It was not concise and fell into repetition or went into meandering digressions on moral philosophy. Not enough science, too much philosophy.
viva las vegas
Sep 10, 2017 rated it liked it
Book is very informative, exact and interesting. It's not very easy reading, but it's full of facts.
Almost 1/3 is about philosophical thoughts, not about science, what was kind of disappointment for me.
İlker Çağatay
Jan 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This book will teach you all about origin of morality and neurobiology.
Shane Patrick
May 10, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A solid read on the science of human values. I wish, however, that Churchland expanded more on the implications that science has on metaethics and normative ethics.
Virginia MD
Look for my interview of Patricia Churchland on episode 81 of the Brain Science Podcast.
Jakub Ferencik
I really really enjoyed this book by Patricia S. Churchland. Churchland ties her philosophical background and her neuroscientific expertise to argue that morality is grounded in our biology rather than in an arbitrary law that's given from something we call 'God'.

She's not the first to argue this view. Others have done the same. I have never come across writing that covers so much of the data so eloquently. Churchland gathers data on Oxytocin, the social lives of mammals and other animals, neur
May 03, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
To be honest, this book took me a lot longer to read than it should. I feel like I may have gotten too lost in some of the terms I did not know, and felt like I did not know enough to read it. I pushed through, and I gained a lot of insight. Especially interesting how the book came to follow a few of the courses I was taking the next semester.

The reason the book did not get a full five star rating from me I think was more of personal preference. I felt that I did not gain enough insight to trul
Randy Pease
Sep 28, 2020 rated it liked it
A compelling but messy read. A little too academic for me to truly grasp, but was still thought-provoking.
Mar 07, 2013 rated it really liked it
Churchland did her homework. She cites Hume as a large influence of her work in morality, which is highly reflective of this work (and a much better choice than Kant, might I add).

Though I viewed the content as more of a tentative framework than positing absolute claims about morality. In this regard Churchland does herself into a bit of a catch-22: she's so tentative about positing any sort of argument there is not really much of an argument rendered. She does well to say that speculation is st
Oct 19, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: philosophy
This was a good overview of neurobiological bases of morality, so far as current science can tell us that there is a "why?" to certain types of social behavior in human beings. Fans of neurowhatsits will enjoy this.

I was a bit disappointed that Churchland didn't delve more into the philosophical side than she did, but this was a wise move on her part. The thrust of the book is the claim that a naturalistic morality is possible and plausible, and her goal here is to show how scientific findings
May 03, 2015 rated it really liked it
The initial impressions of this book can be summed up in one word, interesting. I gave it four out of five because of the complicated terms and sometimes hard to follow. The book is only 194 pages, with the rest of the 87 pages are notes, references and a bibliography. I liked how there all that, so it's not like she just made everything up, she backs her claim. The book goes into great detail about how the brain gets morals and how chemicals play a role in it. It shows how that people naturally ...more
What does neuroscience tell us about morality?...One might conclude very little. Chruchland lays out perennial moral brainteasers, but these moral mazes remain inherently unsolvable. The science of MRI scans, hormone sprays and the cells themselves suggest nothing in the way of "ought." What's left is just one's own prejudice, and Chruchland's own leaning is to see evidence that we are all designed to be like mother and child to one another, rather than to embrace the morality of "tough love." J ...more
Apr 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
Sometimes I read a book and realize it is just not my kind of book. This book combines the knowledge of neuroscience, biochemistry and philosophy to look at human ideas of morality. I realized that I don't have any great interest in the technicalities of neuroscience nor do I care about philosophical debates on morality that have been ongoing for centuries. I learned a few interesting things reading this book but mostly I finished it with a desire to be done with it and participate in discussion ...more
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Brain Science Pod...: BSP 81: Interview with Patricia Churchland 10 25 Feb 29, 2012 07:44AM  

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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

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