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Life of Patricia Churchland

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Back in the 1980s, a wife-husband philosopher team known as “the Churchlands” provoked the ire of their peers with the heretical claim that the best way to understand the mind was to study the brain. That might sound uncontroversial, but in philosophy it was anything but.

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Patricia Churchland is a neurophilosopher. That’s a fancy way of saying she studies new brain science, old philosophical questions, and how they shed light on each other. For years, she’s been bothered by one question in particular: How did humans come to feel empathy and other moral intuitions? What’s the origin of that nagging little voice that we call our conscience? In her new book, Conscience, Churchland argues that mammals — humans, yes, but also monkeys and rodents and so on — feel moral intuitions because of how our brains developed over the course of evolution. Mothers came to feel deeply attached to their children because that helped the children (and through them, the mother’s genes) survive

This ability to feel attachment was gradually generalized to mates, kin, and friends. “Attachment begets caring,” Churchland writes, “and caring begets conscience.” Conscience, to her, is not a set of absolute moral truths, but a set of community norms that evolved because they were useful. “Tell the truth” and “keep your promises,” for example, help a social group stick together. Even today, our brains reinforce these norms by releasing pleasurable chemicals when our actions generate social approval (hello, dopamine!) and unpleasurable ones when they generate disapproval.

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As can be seen, she has been awarded the MacArthur Prize, The Rossi Prize for Neuroscience and the Prose Prize for Science

She has authored multiple pioneering books, her most recent being Touching a Nerve. She has served as President of the American Philosophical Association and the Society for Philosophy and Psychology. Pat lives in Solana Beach, California, with her husband Paul, a neurophilosopher, and their labradoodle Millie. They have two children, Anne and Mark, both neuroscientists.

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