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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


The Neural Basis of Consciousness

An Interview with
Professor Patricia Churchland

Conducted by Meredith Doran

David Lane

And then if it turns out that you just are "stuff," that your brain just is meat, then wanting it to be different isn't going to change it.
--Patricia Churchland
Patricia Smith Churchland is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Californa, San Diego. She is the author of the book Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of Mind-Brain (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1986), which outlines her views on the connection between philosophy and neuroscience. The following interview was conducted by Meredith Doran, Editor of Plato's Cave, in March 10, 1990. David Christopher Lane, Professor of Philosophy at Mount San Antonio College and Founder of the MSAC Philosophy Group, edited Ms. Doran's transcript and has included an addendum and a suggested reading list.

Meredith Doran: What I would like to ask you first is: what initially led you into being interested in philosophy? Or was it science that first interested you?

Patricia Churchland
Patricia Churchland

Patricia Churchland: What drew me into philosophy? Well, I just got very interested as an undergraduate in the kinds of questions that were raised in a philosophical context. But I was at the same time very interested in science, especially biology.

So what led you into working in philosophy rather than in scientific research?

I don't know that there was anything really interesting [in regards to choosing philosophy over science], but I decided to go to graduate school in philosophy, and I went first to the University of Pittsburgh. I did an M.A. there, and I probably should have stayed to do the Ph.D. there, but I had sort of itchy feet, and I was interested in going abroad for awhile. So I went to England, to Oxford, and I finished up there.

And so at this point, were you keeping up with the neuroscience research that was going on?

No, not particularly, I wasn't. I was really doing very traditional philosophy at that time.

What were your beliefs, what was your position at that time? Any different from now?

Well, I guess as a graduate student, especially at Oxford, I came to really be very dissatisfied with the sorts of methods that people were using to try to answer questions within philosophy. They were interested in questions about the nature of rationality, the nature of perception, about the nature of knowledge and how we could know things, and the view seemed to be that if we wanted to understand these things, then what we should do is to sort of reflect long and deep on these issues, and to analyze the concepts as people use them within ordinary language. That's the big thing that was done at that time, and it seemed to me to be likely to be non-productive--it seemed to me to be not very rewarding as a method.

Kind of a vaguely defined way of approaching these issues?

Yes, perhaps reflection is an important element, but that unless one takes into account the data that really are available about, say the nature of rationality or the nature of perception, that you're likely to be missing quite a lot. Now that opinion was not well-received at Oxford. At that time, I think that people thought it was just a bit naive. I, nevertheless, wrote my thesis along those lines. Donald Davidson, I think, was very important in the sense that he had taken the view that we should see desires and beliefs and so forth as causes within the whole scheme of things, rather than rational ideals or something. And once you do that, and once you think along the lines that Quine does, then it seems quite obvious that what you want to do is look for an empirical, or scientific, account of how humans work.

And as you began to try out a more science-based approach to philosophy, how did you address the issue of what differentiates us from the things around us? How are we, as humans, different from inanimate objects? Is there anything that makes us uniquely human?

Well, obviously there is something that is different between inanimate and animate things, and we know what it is: it's DNA. Or, if you're a virus, it's RNA. And that's pretty clear. I mean, people used to think that what differentiated such things was "vital spirit," or the "life force," or "elan vital," or something of that nature.

So, if anything survives us, is that it? Our DNA, our genetic patterning?

Well, if you have children it does, but unless you have a clone of you--I mean, if you had a clone of you, then of course the same DNA would be there. But obviously if you do the standard method, which is sexual reproduction, then you're getting a genetic mix. You're children aren't you, but they're related to you in a really close way, obviously. But that's all. People have had the thought that there is something special about humans, and that after we die, there is a soul, and it goes to heaven, or to paradise, and in that and wrong will be righted, and you'll meet old friends again, and so forth. And that does not look plausible at all--it looks like fantasy. It's what people might wish to be the case, but it's not evidently something that is the case. So my feeling is that when the body dies, and when the brain dies, that's it. I mean, there isn't anything else to hang around.

So what would you say differentiates us from lower species? Is it that we simply have more complicated neural networks?

Well, our brain is a little different from other brains, but the monkey brain is different from the chimpanzee brain, too. So every species has a brain that's a little bit different from the brain that anyone else has. "Higher" and "lower" doesn't always enter into it.

Do you believe that humans have a more complicated system of levels of consciousness than other species?

Well, they might have--I don't know. We don't really know. I mean, it does seem to be the case that our language system is unique, but, on the other hand, there are some things that monkeys can do that we can't do--swing through the trees, for example. Or hang upside down from their tails, if they have tails. And so forth. And there are lots of things that a beaver can do that I can't do--I can't build a dam the way a beaver can build a dam, and not just because I don't have the big front teeth to chew things down, but because they have the knowledge and the skill of how to put a dam together. So I don't think that "higher" and "lower" is necessarily a useful way to think of it. People have this inclination to think that there is this "Great Chain of Being," and, hot-dog, we're on top of it. Or that we're fashioned in the image of God. It's silly. We are evolutionarily somewhere along the line, and what would be nice to know would be what it is about our brains that enables us to have a culture and that enables us to do such things as use language. But that's not something that's necessarily more valuable than being able to do what a gorilla does or what an orangutan does.

In light of all the scientific and technological advances that have come about in the past few hundred years, do you feel that dualism is even a tenable position in the modern world?

No, not at all. It's not. It's just barely conceivable and very implausible.

So do you believe that as our scientific knowledge increases a scientific mind-set will eventually take over, superseding mythical ways of viewing and explaining the world around us?

Well, it's hard to say what will happen--I mean, that's a sort of sociological prediction that you're asking me to make. I think it's very hard to say, because people are very inclined to hold fast to lots of old superstitious beliefs--I mean, there are still some people that are being treated for mental illness by having a priest come in to exorcise the devil. So whether or not people will come to think, "Well, gee, we understand this, that, and the other thing about the brain, so that's why we understand that certain people are intolerant, and that's why certain other people are violent, and why certain other people have this or that kind of character,"--we may be able to do that, but it may well be that the bulk of uneducated people, or semi-educated people, go on thinking about things in their very traditional ways.

Well, how would you assess the evolutionary development of neuroscience as a field? Is it a fully established discipline, or does it have a long way to go? How fast do you think that neuroscience research is moving?

Well, again that's very hard to say. It has to be remembered that you can't study the brain very easily without really high-powered, advanced technology and equipment. And, of course, that's why it was much easier to do cosmology if you were Galileo than it was to do neuroscience. He didn't have a microscope, he didn't have ways of fixing tissue to prevent it from rotting, he didn't have ways of staining neurons, and since there was no electricity, he didn't have ways of recording from cells, and so on. So it's really only within this century, and probably really, given the new techniques, only within the last two or three decades, that progress has really been spectacular. And it's just very hard to say what will happen in the future.

In your book, Neurophilosophy, you attempt to integrate neuroscience and philosophy. Why? Are there questions that can't be answered by science alone?

Well, I think that science, in its broadest sense, means "the critical investigation and formulation of hypotheses." That's just a very, very broad description, but the "critical" part is important, because it means that science must always be prepared to revise in the light of new data. It means that data is relevant to hypotheses. It means that hypotheses should be testable, and should be testable again, and again, and again. And the trouble with many of the ideas that people have about knowledge beyond science is that they're just goofy; they're ideas that somehow "special knowledge" will be revealed to "special people," but that those of us who don't have it can't criticize it, can't test it, can't explore it, can't investigate it. Typically, what we've seen in the past is that sort of stuff has just been chicanery, it's been charlatanism. Or it has come from people who are not necessarily trying to deceive others, but who are actually self-deceived--I mean, perhaps they are schizophrenic, for example--and they actually imagine when they hear voices that it is God talking to them. Well, it's not.

What makes you believe that the work that's currently being done in neuroscience is not just another misled effort?

Well, because we test and we re-test. And it's open to anybody. Any hypothesis is open to criticism, and because if I'm not sure about what somebody says, I can go and say, "Show me!," and if they say, "Well, umm, this doesn't manifest itself when people like you are around, when skeptics are around," then we say, "Yes, okay, we can scotch that." Science is open, science is critical, science reviews and revises itself and that's what makes science science. That's what the scientific method is really all about, and that's what differentiates it from superstition, where people believe things regardless of the data. And that's what differentiates it from religion, where people believe regardless of what the evidence is, and regardless of what the criticisms might be.

And where is the place of philosophy in terms of science?

Well, I think that philosophy is continuous with science, and I think that it always has been. I think that it was certainly true of Aristotle, when he was reflecting on the nature of motion and substance, and I see it that way now. What happens, of course, in the history of the subject, is that as theories develop, and as hypotheses become confirmed, they sort of "hive off" the mother body, they "hive off" of philosophy, and they become a specialized discipline, like chemistry, or physics, or cosmology, or what-have-you. And, until very recently, philosophy of mind, that is issues concerning the nature of the mind, were still very much part of philosophy, because techniques in both psychology and neuropsychology got to the point where we knew enough to have specialized disciplines into the nature of the mind. But now I think that's happening. So I see philosophy as playing a sort of synoptic role here, as taking a kind of broad view of trying to synthesize ideas, sometimes across disciplines, and to generate very general hypotheses about what's going on, but I don't see it as in some sense independent of science, or special from science, or that it has a special access to a "special" kind of knowledge, or anything of that sort. But I realize that most philosophers would disagree with me.

You've indicated a belief that advances in neuroscientific research and technology will lead to changes in ethical considerations in terms of philosophy.

Well, it's hard to know. I think that there are likely to be ethical implications of advancing knowledge in neuroscience, just as there are ethical implications of advancing knowledge in anything. We always have to decide what to do as we understand things a little deeper, and, in this case, I think that it may be that we will understand certain aspects of ourselves, and to what degree we have freedom of the will, or we have free choice, or what effects on character early kinds of childhood experiences have, why some people are more tolerant than others, how to achieve tolerance, how to achieve understanding, and so forth.

What kind of ethics do you think that materialists can legitimately have, according to what they know to be true?

I think in some ways we are very Aristotelian, and in some ways use Utilitarian principles. I think that we try to reason and understand to the best that we can what it is that a good person or a right person would do in such and such a situation, and what would be fair, and we try to reflect on what fairness consists in, and try not to be dogmatic, try to be tolerant, try to be as fair-minded as possible. I think that really, in some ways, tolerance is something which is critically important to the survival of the species, that it's something that's very often neglected when people teach their children morals--they think it's important to be intolerant of people who are different, intolerant of people who are pro-choice, intolerant of people who want to live a different style of life, intolerant of certain kinds of sexual practices, and so on. I think that that's very worrisome, and I don't think that the human race can tolerate that. The human race cannot tolerate intolerance, in other words. So, perhaps if we knew more about how the brain works, then we might be able to achieve a greater degree of tolerance and understanding of one another, and I would think that that would be for the benefit of mankind.

In addressing the area of morals, tolerance, and intolerance, we come to the issue of religion. Some say that religions have, in the search for truth, actually put up barriers to finding the truth. Do you think this is true? Do you think that religious or spiritual ways of approaching the search for truth can be valid, can provide any useful or helpful information?

It depends on what you're talking about. I don't think that religion is of the slightest help in the search for empirical truth, or for truth about the nature of things, and, indeed, the history of religion has shown that by and large religions are anti-intellectual, they're anti-scientific--they actually prevent progress rather than aid it. So, I don't think they're of the least help so far as understanding the nature of ourselves and understanding the nature of the universe is concerned. But I think that there might be wise people who happen to be in religions, or who happen not to be in religions, who can be helpful to us about how to live a life, as I think Aristotle was for example.

Have there been any religions, such as Buddhism, for example, which steers away from dogmatism that have interested you or intrigued you?

Well, not me personally, because that isn't something that I feel I need, but when I did begin to learn something about Buddhism in the context of having this tutorial with the Dalai Lama, I think I did begin to appreciate that if people have to have a religion, then probably Buddhism is amongst the better ones to have, because of its emphasis on tolerance, on self-reliance, on reasoning things out yourself--keeping dogma to an absolute minimum--because there is an attempt to achieve a kind of wisdom, through experience and through living and through talking to people who are supposed to know more than you, and who are supposed to be wise in the way to live life. And I think that they are very helpful to many people, in the question not of the nature of truth, but in the questions about how to live a life: should I make this kind of a choice or that kind of a choice? Should I try to be this sort of a person or that sort of a person? And there, I think that they are helpful. But I think that within any religion, there are probably people who are somewhat helpful. But there are as many people who are not--there are lots of priests and lots of minsters who are positively not helpful about how to live a life, because they themselves are misdirected in one way or another. Which is no surprise--I mean, why would they be expected to know a lot about how to live a life just because they're a priest?

So just by the principle of random chance, you're going to find some religious people who are wise?

Yes. And some people really are--they grew up perhaps in a loving atmosphere, or whatever. But I think that some people are really good at it, and some of them go into clinical psychology, some of them end up teaching mathematics at school--it depends.

I know that you have worked with the Dalai Lama. I am wondering if, in spending time with him, you got any idea of what it is about him that makes people think he is spiritually enlightened. What are people responding to?

Well, I don't think he is enlightened, particularly, because I don't think that anybody is--except that I think that he's learned a lot in his life. I think he's acquired quite a lot of knowledge about the way the world is. I think that what is nice about him, one reason why one responds to him is that first of all he is very, very tolerant. And he listens. If he wants to know something, he'll ask a question, and then he'll listen to the answer, and he may change his mind depending on what you said. I think that for someone in his position--well, one doesn't always see that. If I may draw a contrast with the Pope, I think that there we see somebody who probably is less open than the Dalai Lama. And the Dalai Lama is also very gentle, very unpretentious, and one senses that this is what he thinks is important in life. When he says, for example, "I'm just a simple monk," the first time you hear it, you think, "Oh, well, that's like the Pope saying, "I'm just a simple priest," but as it turns out, he has a kind of unpretentiousness and a kind of directness, and a kind of honesty that does make him special. But he's not the only person I've met who's like that--I mean, I have met scientists who were like that --but it makes them very lovable people. And certainly I thought that he [the Dalai Lama] was very kind and very gentle--a very good person.

Getting back to your own work--neuroscience and the nature of existence--do you think that science, even if it is able to map out mental processes in terms of brain physiology, can even begin to address the ultimate origin of those processes? Where, in your opinion, is the cause or origin of mental processes?

I do think that neuroscience will be able to explain--well, it depends on what mental processes you're talking about--but I think that if you're talking about, for example, the nature of memory, or perception or reasoning, or use of language, I have no doubt that we will understand those processes in terms of the way the circuits in the brain function. I mean, there isn't anything else to explain them in terms of, so it better be that! There's no spooky stuff lying around, such that when I look in a certain direction I see an orange orange--it's the way the rods and cones work, and the neurons work, and the way the circuits are put together that allows me to see that orange. Now there's still a lot that we don't understand about it, but I expect that we will understand it. Now, of course, it might turn out for some weird reason that we won't, but I can't see that we won't.

So I think we just have to keep working at it, and I think we'll get those answers. And I think it'll be very exciting, because we'll be able to understand ourselves--why we have the thoughts and feelings we have, why we're conscious, why we're aware. And we'll know that it's thus-and-such circuit doing thus-and-such thing. Now some people find that rather threatening, and they think, "I want to be a mystery. I don't want to be explained. I don't want to be just "stuff," but of course what one wants--well, first of all, you have to ask why one would want that--why would it be better to be a mystery to yourself than to understand yourself? And then if it turns out that you just are "stuff," that your brain just is meat, then wanting it to be different isn't going to change it. Why not accept it for the glorious piece of meat that it is?

And what are your hopes in neuroscience--what kind of changes or improvements do you think we might be able to make by understanding more about learning processes, memory, etc.?

It's hard to say, but I would hope that we might be able to understand the basis of Alzheimer's, so that that could be prevented--perhaps not cured--but at least prevented. And there are many other diseases as well. I would hope that we would understand more about the nature of schizophrenia, of manic depression, of the classical psychiatric syndromes. And to better understand addiction; I think that tremendous progress has been made at the cellular level in understanding addiction, and so much so that one can even envisage a kind of vaccination against alcoholism, for example. Those sorts of things would make a tremendous difference to the quality of life that we have.

I sense, then, a great deal of hopefulness on your part.

Yes, I think so. I think it's a tremendously exciting and tremendously hopeful thing. But first of all, as I said, because of all the many, many diseases--MS is another one where I think tremendous progress has been made, and I think we may be quite close to understanding the basis of MS--then I think we may be able to prevent it. And so on and so on, for all the zillions of diseases that there are. I mean, it might be a lot better if people could just age gracefully, rather than start losing their neurons and becoming demented by the time they're sixty-five. You know, I would much rather be sort of bright and chipper and then all of a sudden dead than to go downhill in the way that many people who have Alzheimer's do. It's a terrible, terrible thing to see.

And where is your own work headed? What are you currently focusing on at this point?

I'm working on a book on computational neuroscience, which has to do with the nature of computational hypotheses at the level of the circuit. We know quite a bit about what's happening at the level of the single cell, but we want to know how single cells interact with one another in order to produce an effect such as remembering something, or such as recognizing something as an orange. And so the book is directed to some technical, as well as some very general, questions at that level.



David Christopher Lane

Yet, because my awareness seems distinct from my bodily apparatus, I somehow believe that I am running the show. However, the reality is that I can do very little.

If we are more than the physical substratum of our cerebral cortex, why is it that everything we do is modulated by our brain? I go to sleep because of chemical-electrical signals triggered within my skull; I wake up for the same reason. Yet, because my awareness seems distinct from my bodily apparatus, I somehow believe that I am running the show. However, the reality is that I can do very little. "I" don't digest my food. "I" don't beat my heart. "I" don't develop antibodies to ward off diseases. "I" don't even know if I originate thoughts or only direct them. The "I" does very little indeed, except believe itself to be more than what it actually is--an epiphenomenon of networking neurons. .So far so good, but there's one glitch here: consciousness talks about neurons, neurons don't talk about consciousness.

Everything we have known in the world must come through the medium of consciousness; even the idea of neuroscience, even the idea of philosophy, even the idea of materialism, must arise through the medium of self-reflective awareness. It is, in fact, that medium of consciousness --non reducible in terms of actual lived-through experience--which contextualizes everything we can ever know about the universe.

What comes first: Neurons or Awareness? If you say the former, how do you know unless you are already aware? If you say the latter, why is it that when someone clubs you over the head with a bat your awareness of this world ceases? The fact remains that whatever is the source of our "I" awareness, it does not alter our existential dilemmas. We are still stuck to living in a world which seems to transcend its neural origins. The following seems to summarize the mind-brain debate, at least from a materialist perspective:

"Indeed, we know we are more than just neurons firing; or at least we think we are while the neurons are firing."

Recommended Readings

1. Churchland, Paul. Matter and Consciousness. M.I.T. Press.

2. Churchland, Patricia. Neurophilosophy. M.I.T. Press.

3. Dennett, Danel. Consciousness Explained. Little, Brown and Co.

4. McGinn, Colin. The Problem of Consciousness. Basil Blackwell.

5. Searle, John. The Rediscovery of the Mind. M.I.T. Press

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