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Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves [Format Kindle]

Patricia S. Churchland

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Présentation de l'éditeur

A trailblazing philosopher’s exploration of the latest brain science—and its ethical and practical implications.


What happens when we accept that everything we feel and think stems not from an immaterial spirit but from electrical and chemical activity in our brains? In this thought-provoking narrative—drawn from professional expertise as well as personal life experiences—trailblazing neurophilosopher Patricia S. Churchland grounds the philosophy of mind in the essential ingredients of biology. She reflects with humor on how she came to harmonize science and philosophy, the mind and the brain, abstract ideals and daily life.

Offering lucid explanations of the neural workings that underlie identity, she reveals how the latest research into consciousness, memory, and free will can help us reexamine enduring philosophical, ethical, and spiritual questions: What shapes our personalities? How do we account for near-death experiences? How do we make decisions? And why do we feel empathy for others? Recent scientific discoveries also provide insights into a fascinating range of real-world dilemmas—for example, whether an adolescent can be held responsible for his actions and whether a patient in a coma can be considered a self.


Churchland appreciates that the brain-based understanding of the mind can unnerve even our greatest thinkers. At a conference she attended, a prominent philosopher cried out, “I hate the brain; I hate the brain!” But as Churchland shows, he need not feel this way. Accepting that our brains are the basis of who we are liberates us from the shackles of superstition. It allows us to take ourselves seriously as a product of evolved mechanisms, past experiences, and social influences. And it gives us hope that we can fix some grievous conditions, and when we cannot, we can at least understand them with compassion.


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  • Format : Format Kindle
  • Taille du fichier : 1953 KB
  • Nombre de pages de l'édition imprimée : 305 pages
  • Editeur : W. W. Norton & Company; Édition : 1 (22 juillet 2013)
  • Vendu par : Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Langue : Anglais
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Amazon.com: 4.0 étoiles sur 5  92 commentaires
130 internautes sur 150 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 A Sympathetic academic philosopher's review 1 août 2013
Par Michael D. Aparicio - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
My appreciation of Patricia Churchland's latest book can be explained through an analogy.

Imagine two kinds of philosophers. One believes that reality consists of the supernatural and the natural. The second type of philosopher believes that reality consists of natural events.

The first offers arguments for taking the supernatural seriously, writing books calling it a "hard problem" that should be addressed. When the second type of philosopher denies this, the first type of philosopher calls that "reductionism." The first type of philosopher typically goes further, arguing that the sciences likely never will give adequate accounts of the supernatural. Sometimes the first type of philosopher even goes so far as to claim that the sciences cannot give an adequate account of natural events. Either way, the first type of philosopher is likely to consider philosophy an alternative to science, to consider it the business of philosophy to explain that which the sciences supposedly cannot explain.

In contrast, the second type of philosopher doesn't take the "hard problem" of the supernatural seriously, and typically believes that dualistic accounts of the supernatural and natural just interfere with our understanding of important topics such as the nature of the self, mortality, morality, and free will. This second type of philosopher considers it wiser to acknowledge the limits of our natural explanations than to turn to such supernatural speculations, and considers it the business of philosophy to identify where this line between the explained and the unexplained currently rests. Given the available evidence, what can we say about the nature of the self, mortality, morality, war, free will? And what are the limits of that knowledge?

Now, substitute the word "supernatural" with the word "mental." Similarly, substitute the word "natural" with the word "material." This seems a reasonable sketch of a stand-off that exists among many contemporary philosophers. Folks like Kripke, Nagel, and Chalmers are the first type of philosopher. Folks like Patricia and Paul Churchland are the second type of philosopher.

This analogy can help explain Patricia Churchland's newest book. Its chapters focus on issues such as the nature of the self, human mortality, morality, aggression, war, free will, and of course consciousness. In each, like the above analogy's naturalist, Churchland avoids dualistic speculation and hypothesizes (rather than theorizes) on these topics. But it's a book for non-specialists, with each chapter typically filled with illustrative anecdotes, keeping to limited discussions of the scientific research, and then hypothesizing (again, not theorizing) about the nature of the self, human mortality, morality, etc.

While Touching a Nerve does allude to a contemporary philosophical discord between materialists and dualists, especially at its beginning, I don't consider it a book about that. That is, it's not a debate with folks like Kripke, Nagel, and Chalmers. It's an alternative to them. As a result, I suspect many academic philosophers will be disappointed by this book, claiming that it fails to address the "hard" and serious philosophical issues of our day; and while I am sympathetic to Churchland's worldview, I do think Touching a Nerve would be more edifying if it more clearly situated its narrative within this contemporary debate. As is, it leaves the impression that contemporary materialists are an alternative to Cartesian Substance Dualism.

Despite this, it's rewarding to read Churchland's attempts to summarize the relevant research and hypothesize about the nature of the self, human mortality, morality, etc. I hope to live to witness a day when we've learned enough to have a reliable theory of consciousness, theory of self-control, theory of moral judgments, etc. Until then, I'm glad folks like Patricia Churchland are providing alternatives to hopelessly unproductive dualistic speculations (e.g., about souls, immaterial cognition, or immaterial properties called qualia), charting the limits of our hypotheses. It's a promising model for contemporary philosophers; and, given the complexities of its issues, Touching a Nerve is a remarkably accessible example of this that many non-philosophers are likely to appreciate.
40 internautes sur 44 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Philosophers of mind, beware! The neurophilosophers are coming! (And they can write!) 23 janvier 2014
Par Edo Karura - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Format Kindle|Achat vérifié
[...]

An academic philosopher who can write! Who knew?!

Years ago as I staggered away from the final exam of my one and only college philosophy course, I made a promise to myself: If it ever came to it I would chew off my own arm at the shoulder rather than read even one more paragraph produced by a professional philosopher. What is it with these people? I can excuse bad writing from a scientist. But how can people for whom words are a primary tool of their profession produce such abominable writing?

The Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman once observed that if you could not explain something in a way that a college freshman would understand then you can’t really claim to understand that thing. This deserves to be enshrined as law and be chiseled into the marble lintels framing every entrance to every ivory tower on the planet. Under it in parentheses you might also add, “Yes, philosophers, this means you, too.”

Patricia Churchland can show them the way. You ought to read “Touching a Nerve” if for no other reason than to experience the novelty of having a doctorate of philosophy in philosophy (as it were) write in a clear and accessible style about difficult philosophical concepts and walk away actually feeling like you have a grip on those concepts. Delicious.

And the concepts themselves? Probably going to revamp, revitalize, reshape and generally revolutionize a couple millennia’s worth of thinking about the mind. Her central idea: Philosophers of the mind had better start studying neuroscience or their entire discipline will be kicked to the curb by the folks with MRIs and EEGs.

Gone are the halcyon days in which philosophers working on the problem of mind could take a bit of introspection, mix it with some conceptual analysis, slather the resulting rank speculation with a thick, impenetrable layer of carcinogenically boring prose and call it a theory of mind. Nowadays speculation about how the mind works has to rise to the level of hypothesis and hypothesis must run the gauntlet of experimentation and emerge intact before it can be honored with the label “theory”. This is truly progress and would surely improve that hard-nosed empiricist Feynman’s famously low opinion of Churchland’s colleagues, were he still around to enjoy this revolution.

This is a good thing. Not just for our understanding of the brain and the mind but also for the discipline of philosophy itself. Back in the day, Greeks made the happy discovery that reason could be used to deduce truth. The magnificent power of reason, however, seemed to have blinded them to the magnificent power of the ruler. That is, you can speculate all day long about the laws governing the universe and the things in it – like minds – but unless you take out your ruler and make measurements of the things in that universe – like brains – your speculations will be merely, well, speculative.

All good philosophers revere the ancient Greeks and in that reverence they seem to have adopted the same bad habit of preferring pure rational analysis over experiment, reason over the ruler. Mind could be said to be the central problem of philosophy. If philosophers follow Churchland’s lead in happily embracing neuroscience with its powerful measuring tools they could correct this failing and make philosophy truly valuable. And readable.
62 internautes sur 71 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Wow, what a book. 4 juillet 2013
Par The Professor - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
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 (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
52 internautes sur 61 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Cool Book 6 juillet 2013
Par Brain Buff - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
This book was a great read. Patricia Churchland is an extremely clear writer. I've read her works Neurophilosophy, which is a modern day philosophical classic, as well as her popular science book Braintrust. This book is different from either of the previous works.

The theme of this book is that reductionism isn't some sort of cynical worldview, but rather, an approach to science where something is understood in terms of its parts and hopefully can be one day explained by a lower level explanation. For example, optics theory was reduced to electromagnetic theory. In the epilogue she discusses what reductionism is, and tells of an encounter with someone who objected to her thinking that everything is just atoms. She says that often people see reductionism as just "go away-ism". Really, that's the entire theme of the book: YES, we ARE our brains, but it's okay, and there's nothing demeaning about it.

But here are some further recommendations. If you've read these, you will like this, and if you read this and liked it, you will like these: Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, and The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human
14 internautes sur 16 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 I am my brain 7 septembre 2013
Par Tim K - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
Let me begin by saying I don't quite understand all the negative reviews. First, it seems like they just don't like the framework that Churchland is working under, i.e., that our mental lives can be understood as the physical workings of a purely material brain. Second, leaving aside Churchland's overall thesis, there have been claims she's overstepping her bounds. For example, some have commented that consciousness is a "mystery" and we'll never come to a fully physical understanding of consciousness.

Churchland dispels all these accusations. She does a very good job of explaining why any understanding of consciousness must be brought to bear under the evidence brought forth by our understanding of the brain. Neuroscience is still in its infancy, but from all the evidence amassed so far, it's clear that a purely natural explanation of conscious experience does a much better job at explaining what we know than other frameworks (dualism, etc.) Churchland does a wonderful job of explaining why dualism ultimately fails as an explanation and why thinking of the brain as comprising what and who we are fits the facts.

Churchland goes out of her way to say when further research needs to be done and why certain conclusions are tentative. She's far from arrogant or does not claim absolute certainty on many matters. As she sums up on page 264, ". . . I do emphasize that there is much that remains to be discovered about the neural reality of our mental lives. So many deep puzzles remain. But to rail against reality seems to me unproductive."

Now, the book is very well written and covers a lot of ground. Due to the wide-range of issues dealt with in the book (and given the intended audience), Churchland doesn't go as in-depth as some people would like. This is no fault of Churchland. She's writing so anyone could read the book, not just academic philosophers or neuroscientists. The book is full to citations and recommendations for further study.

The book is especially captivating, too. I found myself reading for hours. Throughout the book, Churchland integrates stories from her life that ultimately led to her views today. I'm always amazed when I read books about neuroscience. The things I learn about myself and our species makes me appreciate that I'm alive.

Many people are overly pessimistic when it comes to Churchland's view. They believe that by coming to understand our brain as an evolved organ that this somehow diminishes what it means to be human. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As a "neurophilosopher," Churchland is especially attuned to the philosophical issues surrounding the mind and what makes us human. But, philosophical musings must be reined in by the latest research. Trying to understand consciousness in an armchair won't lead very far. By understanding the brain, we can cure diseases and ailments that have done much harm. By increasing our knowledge of the brain, we shed more light on the human experience, not less.

I highly recommend Churchland's book to anyone interested in what makes people tick.
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