ALPHABETICAL BRAIN™ VOCABULARY
HUMANIST GALAXY OF
SECULAR BRAIN SCIENCE STARS
January 5, 2020
TOUCHING A NERVE:
The Self As Brain
Patricia S. Churchland,
W. W. Norton, 2013 (304 pages)
1) ME, MYSELF, AND MY BRAIN (11-32)
2) SOUL SEARCHING (33-63)
3) MY HEAVENS (64-82)
4) THE BRAINS BEHIND MORALITY (83-120)
5) AGGRESSION AND SEX (121-152)
6) SUCH A LOVELY WAR (153-167)
7) FREE WILL, HABITS, AND SELF-CONTROL (168-194)
8) HIDDEN COGNITION (195-224)
THE CONSCIOUS LIFE EXAMINED (225-255)
EPILOGUE --- Balancing Act (256-266)
Brain = Use long list of references to highlight 15 brain ideas (294-295)
AUTHOR NOTE, SUMMARY,
AND BOOK DESCRIPTION
AUTHOR NOTE = 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.
SUMMARY = 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 (brain scientist) 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.
BOOK DESCRIPTION = 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? The book offers lucid explanations of the neural workings that underlie identity. Churchland reveals how the latest research into consciousness, memory, and free will can help us reexamine enduring philosophical, ethical, and spiritual questions.
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 have felt that way. Because accepting that our brains are the basis of who we are liberates us from the shackles of ignorance and 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.
LIBRARY JOURNAL REVIEW = Neurophilosophy is the interdisciplinary study of philosophy and neuroscience. Churchland (philosophy, emerita, Univ. of California, San Diego), a neuro-philosopher, 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?"
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.
 "Where do values come from?"
 "Are humans monogamous?"
VERDICT: A good choice for book clubs searching for an introspective, thought-provoking work of nonfiction that will promote intense discussion. Recommended. -- Beth Dalton.
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY REVIEW = 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.
CHOICE REVIEW = Many would agree that neurophilosophy began with Churchland's Neurophilosophy (1986), and continued with such other highly regarded works as Brain-wise and Braintrust. For 15-plus years, Churchland (emer., Univ. of California, San Diego) has focused on both the philosophy of neuroscience and the neuroscience of philosophy. The former domain, like that of philosophy of science, focuses on questions of historical and contemporary importance to the discipline itself. What is the nature of successful description and explanation? What underlying presuppositions about causation, prediction, and method drive a given science? In contrast, the latter domain focuses on a neuroscientific explanation of central philosophical concepts: free will, moral agency, a sense of self, and consciousness. Touching a Nerve continues the themes of Churchland's previous work, but with a twist.
Churchland embeds weighty neuroscientific issues in personal stories. Her aim "to interweave the science with the stories" has the effect of providing high-level discussions of traditional neuroscientific topics that are accessible to a much broader audience. None of her usual rigor is diminished, but the field itself opens up to all readers with an interest in the nature of neurophilosophy (brain science) and its implications for living.
Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-level undergraduates and above; general readers. H. Storl Augustana College (IL)
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.
BOOK REVIEW HIGHLIGHTS
 "Marvelous…A trustworthy guide, [Churchland] gives comfort not by simplifying the research but by asking the right questions." (Jascha Hoffman - New York Times)
 "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." (Owen Flanagan, author of The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World)
 "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." (Abigail Zuger - New York Times)
 "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." (Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby: What Children)
 "Bold, deeply insightful and biological to the core, with a warm and soothing touch of humanity." (Joaquín Fuster, author of The Prefrontal Cortex)
 "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." (Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and author of The Believing Brain)
 "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!" (David Livingstone Smith, author of Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others)
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