I purposefully waited to read this book until after I had finished Sam Harris’ book. The similarities between the two are their shared ethical naturalism, while their differences lie in the focus of the work. Harris is primarily concerned with defending ethical naturalism in general, and sciences place in ethics specifically. He does spend some time talking about what science can tell us about morality, but this seems to be a secondary consideration for him.
These two elements are reversed in Churchland’s work, with the bulk of her book being devoted to what science can tell us about the foundations and development of morality. She does spend some of the first and last two chapters defending the idea that the information science is discovering actually does have a role to play in morality, but she seems content to allow science itself to make much of the argument in its behalf for the role she thinks it can and should play in ethics. And frankly speaking, I think she has the correct approach in this regard. It isn’t as though what philosophical arguments she offered were radically different or better (although I think her response to critics use of Hume and his is/ought problem is rhetorically superior for its clarity and simplicity), but the amount of evidence she offers for the role which neurochemistry and physiology plays in foundational elements of morality is a powerful tool for anyone wishing to argue for the efficacy of science in the field of ethics.
It is one thing to argue that values are indeed facts and that the fact/value divide is an artifice of rampant rationalism, but it is quite another to demonstrate the truth of this matter with neuroscience and psychological studies. The truth of the matter is that there is no tiny homunculus deciding things for me in my head, no distinct or independent “me” apart from my brain. Time and again we see proof of this, in studies of people who experience brain trauma to consistent results in various measures of brain activity to various stimuli and neurological responses. We are our brains, and our brains are a collection of neurons and their associated electro-chemical networks.
The confusion lies in our naive introspection which is incapable of penetrating the introspective illusion our minds set up and so peer into the background processes that form the basis for our thoughts and behavior. Evolution has not gifted us with this ability, in all likelihood because self-perception is tied to other perception, and so the foundations of our self-awareness is grounded in behavioral analysis and predictive models for states of intentionality that lead to potential behaviors. There is no benefit for a deeper analysis of cognition since what we interact with are not neural processes, but behavioral outcomes.
Morality then is found grounded in the instinct of me-care that has been extended by evolutionary pressures in social animals to mine-care. And while this is primarily directed towards offspring and (possibly) mates, it is highly extensible through both rational processes made possible due to increasing levels of intelligence in humans (and many other social animals) as well inculturation. In fact, it is particularly humans that are susceptible to this due to the highly undeveloped nature of the human brain upon birth which allows for such a large impact in the nurturing phase of their life. Churchland argues that morality is ultimately a constraint satisfaction process, the constraints being a combination of the external environment as well as the internal conditioning as shaped by evolution and upbringing. It seems to me that morality will eventually be encompasses by health science as neuroscience makes progress in diagnosing and treating the mind. Ultimately there is no divide between physical well-being and mental and social well-being since the mental is the physical.
Which is nothing more than what Sam Harris was arguing for. The shortcoming in his book, and the strength in Churchland’s, is precisely in how one ought to go about making this argument and where the focus of our efforts ought to lie. Science has been an extremely effective narrative for the expansion of human knowledge, and I see no better argument on its behalf, even in the area of morality, than the continuation of this success. Science does indeed have answers, and even where it doesn’t have answers, it can often offer help in what possible answers might look like (and might not look like). The science of the brain is indeed in its infancy, and so there is no justification for any wholesale rejection of traditional moral values, but there is also no reason why we shouldn’t begin the process of allowing science to inform our ethical beliefs and to subject said traditions to increasing levels of scientific scrutiny as our knowledge of the mind improves.