Rossdavidh's Reviews > Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition

Conscience by Patricia S. Churchland
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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 regarding the question of what is moral, and how humanity is to know this. I appreciate that, while clearly not religious, she is less disdainful of traditional religion than some others. She can discuss the features and consequences of an Abrahamic religious approach to the question of what is moral and how are we to know, including the shortcomings, without sounding offensive to a reader from one of those religions, if they approach the text with good will. Her discussion of the relative differences between Buddhist thoughts on morality, and how the contrast with Abrahamic religions can inform our understanding of the topic, also showed that she had spent some time thinking about all of it.

She also spends some time looking at Kant, Hume, and the rest of classical philosophical thinking on morality. Broadly divisible into "use pure reason to find the truth about what is moral" vs. "do that which brings the greatest utility to the greatest number", she also does a pretty effective job of highlighting the shortcomings of either approach. To summarize greatly: both of them will either result in arriving at horrible conclusions (she gives several examples for each system), or else you will have to bolt on an extra "reject any conclusion that seems odious" exception, in which case what really was the point of the whole exercise?

And then, we are about 2/3 of the way through the book, and we are ready for her to say something like, "So, instead, we should..."

All momentum fails. She had warned, in advance, that we should not expect the neuroscience-informed philosophy which she advocates, to deliver judgements on what is moral. Fair enough; a brain scan is no substitute for a judge. If all she was intending to do with this book, was to warn us away from expecting philosophy to be of any help with this question, that would be worth something as well. There was a time when the best medical theory was based on balance between the four humours, and a scholar of the time who had nothing better to offer, would still have been correct to say, "this theory is balderdash, do not trust it to make judgements with".

However, Churchland does seem to be attempting, the last few chapters, to make some attempt at putting something in place of the systems of thought she had effectively demolished, but it isn't much more than "take everything into consideration". True enough, but that isn't really telling us much we didn't know before, and it surely didn't require several chapters to say. In what circumstances is a person best able to do that? How do we know that, is there any evidence? She suggests that talking to people wiser than yourself is a good idea; probably so, but do we have any evidence of this? Has it ever been tested? If not, why is she telling us something most people would do instinctively, and in any case how is a person to determine which among the people they know are wise? It all amounts to not much more than, 'moral questions are hard, find somebody else that knows the answer'.

She ends with more or less a statement that she doesn't much like Trump, and it's an oddly underpowered ending to a book by a thinker that has, generally speaking, so much intellectual firepower on offer. Nassim Taleb does a better job, when he attempts a similar task at demolishing established models of handling risk, at stressing that the very point is we cannot know some things (in his case, the degree of our own uncertainty and the likelihood of never-seen events). He also doesn't spend 1/3 of his book at the end muddling about after having made his main point. It causes me to wonder if the first 2/3 of the book wasn't originally the entire thing, and someone or something convinced her to add on some advice at the end about what to replace it all with.

Still and all, she is at least discussing important questions, and her analysis of the efforts of others is well worth reading. I will still look forward to getting her next book. But this one, while I didn't hate it, was not among my favorites, and I hope she finishes better next time.
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Reading Progress

October 19, 2019 – Shelved
October 19, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
January 7, 2020 – Started Reading
January 19, 2020 – Finished Reading

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