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Sep 15, 2019

Patricia Churchland is the queen of neurophilosophy. She’s on fine form in this interview - charming, funny and occasionally savage as we range over her views on the nature of philosophy, the neuroscience and evolution of morality, and consider what’s wrong with the two major ethical traditions in western thought: utilitarianism and Kantianism. 

1.43 - Is philosophy just a kind of science in its infancy - a ‘proto-science’ - or it is a special kind of conceptual analysis? Professor Churchland doesn’t pull her punches as she takes on the ‘language police’ approach to philosophy.

8.03 Why so much philosophy is useless. “They make finer and finer distinctions, which nobody in the sciences gives a tinker’s damn about!”

9.03 How epistemology is just ‘isms up the ying yang’!

10.40 What good work is being done in philosophy, and what makes it good? Walter Sinnott Armstrong, Owen Flanagan and Julian Savulescu get nods of approval.

12.00 We set to work discussing Professor Churchland’s book Conscience. Where does moral motivation come from in humans and other mammals?

16.20 Why was the evolution of warm-bloodedness important in this story?

18:00 The emergence of the cortex in mammals. Why the most sophisticated animals are the most helpless when they are born, and why it enables the most powerful learning. 

20:40 Why the mammalian dependence on a caregiver is the origin of moral concern.

23.20 What precursors to moral behaviour do we see in chimpanzees, wolves and rodents?

28.40 What’s the difference between chimps and humans? It’s just more neurons! But, argues Prof Churchland, quantitative changes can beget qualitative differences in cognition and behaviour, as illustrated by advances in AI.

33.00 The Purveyors Of Pure Reason - what’s wrong with utilitarianism - and why is the contemporary Effective Altruist movement ‘a bit of an abomination’? Prof Churchland takes exception to the idea that 10 homeless folk should matter to her more than her own daughter, and defends the importance of community as a valid source of moral motivation. She explains why Russian philosophers called utilitarianism ‘Lenin’s Math.’

44.00 How can neuroscience and evolution theory tell us anything important about ethics? Prof Churchland tackles the naturalistic fallacy, and argues that the sciences can usefully constrain our theorising. She celebrates the contributions of Hume and Aristotle.

47.32 Why morality is a lot harder than most moral philosophers think: it’s not just about figuring out some simple over-arching principles. Moral issues are really practical problems, not primarily exercises in rational reflection.   

54.25 There are no moral authorities - but that shouldn’t cause us existential angst. We should be like the Buddhists and Confucians.

TL:DR - Aristotle and Hume had it right: there are no moral authorities and no grand rules to live by. You gotta figure it out as you go along. 

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