Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain

Patricia Churchland, Author
Patricia S. Churchland. Norton, $26.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-393-058321
Reviewed on: 05/13/2013
Release date: 07/01/2013
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That the human mind is an entirely material entity has implications both unsettling and rich, according to this fascinating excursion into neuroscience and philosophy. Churchland (Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality), a U.C. San Diego “neurophilosopher” and MacArthur Fellow, presents a tour of cutting-edge brain research that grounds consciousness, personality, thoughts and feelings in neural structures, electrochemical signaling, hormones, and unconscious information processing. She applies these findings to some of philosophy’s great moral, ontological, and metaphysical questions, asking how genetic and environmental influences affect violence and criminality, how altruism evolved in our mammalian forebears, how hormones and brain structure might determine sexuality, and how our sense of self and not-self emerges from the brain’s internal communications; most subversively, she rejects the existence of the soul and insists that the brain’s material mechanisms are the only valid explanations for mental phenomena. Writing in a lively, down-to-earth style, the author interweaves an accessible, engrossing exposition of neuroscience with a primer on philosophical debates from Aristotle to Freud and Daniel Dennett, illustrating it with episodes from her girlhood in a Canadian farming village, which seems to have nurtured in her a pitiless yet folksy atheism. Gently but firmly brushing aside pious mumbo jumbo, Churchland embraces a scientific worldview that consoles less but illuminates more. 16 illus. Agent: Katinka Matson, Brockman Inc. (July)
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