On Monday, October 26th Canadian neuroscientist and philosopher Patricia Churchland tried to convince EUR students that moral values are no ivory towers, but have a solid biological foundation.
The controversial figure attracted a diverse audience, ranging from seasoned philosophy professors to social sciences undergraduates. While the former were apparently sceptic, the latter appeared fairly enthusiastic, reacting to particularly striking examples with impatient whispers.
Attacks on 'folk' psychology
Originally a philosopher, Professor Churchland switched to neuroscience halfway through her career. Together with her husband Paul, she systematically attacks ‘folk’ psychology and advocates for dismissing all the common sense notions that cannot be pinned down in the hardware of our brains. Paul and Patricia share not only beliefs, but also initials, so it is said that you can read a text authored by Churchland P. without ever being able to guess who of them wrote it.
Luckily for us, Professor Churchland has not eliminated morality, but she persuasively argued that it is fundamentally rooted in our evolutionary history and the reward system operating in the brain. To drive her point home, she used many examples from studies of baboons, birds, rats and other animals.
Yet, once the slides showing multi-level diagrams of brain connectivity showed up, the audience fell silent. Even at the University, students are intimidated by what they see as ‘hard science’. Besides, the subsequent discussion showed that while we all readily giggle at the cute pictures of orangutan hugging a dog, once this animal social behavior is extended to human morality, most of us feel uneasy.