Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain

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Overview

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 ...

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Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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)
Jascha Hoffman - New York Times
“Marvelous…A trustworthy guide, [Churchland] gives comfort not by simplifying the research but by asking the right questions.”
Abigail Zuger - New York Times
“It is hard to conceive of a better guide to this difficult terrain than the MacArthur-award-winning Ms. Churchland…[She] writes with surpassing clarity, elegance, humor and modesty.”
Moheb Costandi - Scientific American
“Churchland creates a compelling narrative to further the idea of the self as brain… Through her examples, we can all come to understand our actions and intentions more clearly.”
Owen Flanagan
“Patricia Churchland may be the world’s leading neuro-philosopher today, but she also hails from humble beginnings in rural Canada. And that plainspoken farm girl, that second self, is on full display in this beautiful, unpretentious, enchanting exploration of mind, morals, and the meaning of life.”
Alison Gopnik
“Touching a Nerve is like a refreshing, bracing prairie breeze blowing away the cobwebs and obfuscation of so much philosophy and neuroscience. It is dazzlingly clear, down to earth, and often funny.”
Joaquin Fuster
“Bold, deeply insightful and biological to the core, with a warm and soothing touch of humanity.”
David Livingstone Smith
“Engagingly written, Touching a Nerve takes the reader on a spellbinding journey into the workings of the human brain and the relevance of neuroscience to our daily lives. It will interest anyone who thinks that good philosophy needs be grounded in good science or who is simply curious about how understanding the brain can help us make sense of the human condition. A terrific read!”
Joaquín Fuster
“Bold, deeply insightful and biological to the core, with a warm and soothing touch of humanity.”
Michael Shermer
“I have spent a quarter century writing about the brain and yet I am rarely aware that I even have one. In this remarkably moving and deeply personal book, Patricia Churchland, one of the founders of the field of neurophilosophy, reminds us all that we not only have a brain and how it works, but she plumbs the depths of philosophy's biggest questions from a neuroscience perspective and thereby opens new vistas about ourselves and our humanity.”
Library Journal
Neurophilosophy is the interdisciplinary study of philosophy and neuroscience. Churchland (philosophy, emerita, Univ. of California, San Diego), a neurophilosopher, blends personal reflections, stories, science, and humor to create a somewhat meandering but very personable discourse on her subject. She shows how Einstein, Galileo, Darwin, Plato, and Spinoza's theories redefined how humans viewed both the universe and the self (i.e., their explorations had both scientific and philosophical effects). Churchland goes on to examine how new discoveries in neuroscience are likewise causing philosophy's traditional questions about faith, social attachment, choice, learning, morality, and the self to be reconsidered. Like a good professor intent on generating robust discussion, she constantly asks questions of her reader: "Can a person live a spiritual life…if you no longer believe you have a soul?"; "Where do values come from?"; "Are humans monogamous?" Churchland answers these questions and more in her assured style, often using stories about her childhood on a farm in rural British Columbia to explain her perspective. VERDICT A good choice for book clubs searching for an introspective, thought-provoking work of nonfiction that will promote intense discussion. Recommended.—Beth Dalton, Littleton, CO
Kirkus Reviews
Churchland (Emeritus, Philosophy/Univ. of California, San Diego; Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality, 2011, etc.) probes the interface between our perception of our own mental processes and our growing knowledge of how our brains function. The author is sharply critical of those who make claims that "free choice is an illusion" and "the self is an illusion," the kind of hype she dismisses as self-promoting "[n]eurojunk…over-egged ideas about the brain [that] turn out to rest on modest, ambiguous, and hard-to interpret data." She also dismisses mind-body dualism. A recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship as co-founder of the field of neurophilosophy, the author weaves together the teachings of philosophers (Aristotle, Plato, Descartes) and scientists (Galvani, Darwin and Helmholtz) to grapple with the problem. She incorporates illustrative anecdotes from her childhood in a small farming community to support her contention that accepting the nonexistence of a spiritual realm separate from the natural world need not diminish spirituality. Recognizing that mental life, spiritual values, joys and sorrows emerge from the functioning of our brains in no way diminishes their reality. Churchland also speculates on the evolutionary leap in the mental life of mammals, which nurture their newborns, and the mental acuity demanded of predators and their prey in the struggle to survive. Reprising the latest advances in neuropsychology, she explains how brain circuitry is organized to model the world (internally and externally) in a series of maps. Going back to Freud's earliest research in neurology, which led him to recognize the existence of unconscious mental functions, Churchland probes the difference between habits and reflexes and between consciousness and semiconscious states such as sleep and coma. Wide-ranging, insightful and provocative--a book to savor.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393058321
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/22/2013
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 167,047
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Patricia S. Churchland is a professor emerita of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship for her work in neurophilosophy, she lives in San Diego.

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