A perennial
question is: what is morality? In Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about
Morality (Princeton University Press, 2011), neurophilosophy pioneer Patricia
Churchland attempts to answer the question. 

There’s much to
like about her book. She wisely brushes aside Sunday think-pieces about, for
example, genes r’ us, citing the steady erosion of the idea
that there is a “big-effect gene for this or that specific behavior.” So,
goodbye, fat gene, gay gene, and liberal gene. And do let the
door hit you on your way out. She also doesn’t have much time for the Bedrock of evolutionary psychology

inferring what behavioral traits were selected for in human evolution cannot be
solved by a vivid imagination about the ancestral condition plus selected
evidence about cross-cultural similarity, evidence that can be explained in
many different ways.

So what’s not to
like about the book? Well, Churchland, University of California professor
emeritus, is famously an eliminative materialist who believes that commonsense
notions of the mind must be abandoned in favor of a purely brain-based approach
because we are our neurons. In her view, all your moral values and conundrums

are rooted in a behavior common to all mammals — the caring for offspring. The
evolved structure, processes, and chemistry of the brain incline humans to
strive not only for self-preservation but for the well-being of allied selves —
first offspring, then mates, kin, and so on, in wider and wider “caring”

She makes
absolutely clear, throughout the book, that people are equivalent to animals
and that animals think the same way as we do, barring a few IQ points
difference. Indeed, we are told, “Because many species of birds and mammal
display good examples of problem-solving and planning, this claim about
rationality looks narrow and under-informed.” So, the fact that she and I both
use the Sunday supplement for cat litter only means that she is a reasoning
being, not that I can make sense of where her reasoning begins or leads. 

That said, hers is
a truly wonderful book for illustrating what is wrong with eliminative
materialism. She really believes it, and she has no idea what she sounds like.
For example, addressing the fact that moms addicted to heroin neglect their
infants, she refers to rhesus monkeys or ewes tricked by drugs into witlessly
abandoning their offspring, acknowledging that, with humans, “there are
complicating social factors.”

Yes, there are
complicating social factors. Can we start with the fact that the addict is not
a research animal, and that she procures and administers the drugs herself? The
whole book is in this materialist key, which is why it ought to be read as a
sort of epitaph for eliminative materialism. 

Discussing how
trust supposedly evolved and devolved among humans and voles, Churchland
writes, “in recent times, a stunning and tragic example of this breakdown in
institutional trust occurred in the former Soviet Union under Stalin and

So that’s all it
was? A breakdown in institutional trust? Some people have called the forced
starvation of millions ruder names. (I confess to an interest in the matter
because the children of distant relatives froze to death on the unheated trains
bound for Siberia.) And the obvious problem is that these institutions, intent
on producing the New Soviet Man whatever it took, were completely worthy of
“institutional trust”: Put simply, when they said mass murder, they meant mass

Churchland is
partial to a theory that morality originates in the oxytocin-vasopressin
network in mammals. One outcome is stunners like this: “The social life of
humans, whether in hunter-gatherer villages, farming towns, or cities, seems to
be even more complex than that of baboons or chimpanzees.”

Now, why in the
world would that be? 

We never get a
clear idea how Churchland think morality works, though we do get more than a
glimpse of her politics. For example, she writes,

women to vote has, despite dire predictions of disaster, turned out reasonably
well, whereas the laws allowing private citizens to own assault weapons in the
United States has had quite a lot of deleterious consequences.

Well, it strikes
me that the first question belongs to the moral category of justice: If women
work and pay taxes, should they not also vote? But the second question is not,
strictly speaking, a moral issue at all. Who should be allowed assault weapons
is a matter of public policy, not morality, and different liberal democracies
have come to different judgements in the matter. Eliminative materialism can
render a person prone to that sort of confusion, because it offers no sturdy
framework for morality to replace the one it would cast down. 

I enjoyed reading
the book because Churchland is an able writer, but I learned nothing because
there is actually nothing to learn. If one does not believe in any cosmic
order, morality is simply whatever works. But works for what? Absent any
transcendent values, it is impossible to conclude, as Churchland would have us
do, that anything is wrong because it brings about a “bad result.” There is no bad
result. There are just results, until, one by one, we drop off the ultimate
cliff into nothingness. That’s where eliminative materialism drops off too, as
any kind of guide to life. 

Denyse O’Leary is
co-author of The Spiritual Brain

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...