Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition
by Patricia S. Churchland
W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.
Hardback, $27.95

Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl

A caveat to a common reader who might think to read Patricia Churchland’s Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition. First, it’s unclear what the author means by intuition unless it’s a dopamine release at a nerve synapse. Second, it’s doubtful that intuition as Churchland uses the word is a synonym for apprehension and, as Scholastic philosophy would understand the term, the property of purely intellectual beings and so understood to signify the immediate understanding of self-evident intellectual propositions and informed by faith which enriches, enhances, and completes the intellect.

Living as we are, however, in the twilight of modernism, such is a retreat from a traditional belief in the efficacy of knowledge in its full conceptual sense. Thus one will not find in Churchland’s Conscience that man’s form, his being, is perfected by supernatural grace, faith, hope, and charity.

One might recall at the beginning here Theodore Dreiser’s tome, An American Tragedy, the fictional story of Clyde Griffiths convicted of murdering Roberta, sentenced to death, and then executed. Headnotes to the novel often refer to the story as one of the exemplars of pathos in modern literature.

To describe his longing and seeking, Dreiser references Clyde’s “stirring” as “nerve plasm palpitations” that speak loudly for his awakened responsive moods, those “rearranging chemisms upon which all the morality or immorality of the world is based.”

The book is detailed and has been called a great achievement and a stunning jeremiad against American society. What’s present in the book, however, and in Sister Carrie, is the tenuousness of reason and conscience as moral arbiters.

One might also backtrack for a moment to William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham, and the moment in that novel during which Lapham spends the length of one night morally struggling with his conscience pitted against desire. The point is that the moral agency in Howells is present in the mind of a character who struggles as does any autonomous moral subject.

Not so in Dreiser, where the question of moral vision or moral concerns is dissolved into palpitations of nerve plasma and rearranging chemisms, and is likely anathema to a conservative sensibility

What’s remarkable, then, about Patricia Churchland’s Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition, is not its survey of morality and metaphysics but how our brains are “wired” to motivate morality. Her point is that if we consider something like social attachment or political attitudes, we look to how certain “chemisms” like dopamine or serotonin are released when we experience approval; neuroscience thus replaces those stone tablets brought down from Mount Sinai, and form a better basis for moral guidance than the latter.

If guidance is the right word.

Churchland remarks at the book’s introduction, “Wired to Care,” that she’s a mammal. Like other mammals she has a “social brain” and thus is “wired to care, especially about those [she’s] attached to.” If, she notes by analogy, she were a solitary creature she would have no moral conflicts. Like a salamander, she would eat, mate, and lay eggs but would “care not a whit for others.”

It’s true: our deepest thinking about morality invokes what we mean by conscience. Citing Socrates, then, Churchland notes his ambiguity about his “inner voice,” which warned against dogmatic conviction and phony wisdom, self-delusion. What she fails to consider, even for a moment, is Socrates’s equal concern with sophistry.

And it’s equally true that social life is rife with subtlety; which leads Churchland to consider that Martin Luther’s belief that moral truths are written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit—that belief in the infallibility of conscience—is, unfortunately, a delusion if not an absurdity.

Heeding one’s conscience, therefore, which seemed reassuringly simple to Thoreau, is, well, anything but.

Given such, then, Churchland asks how do we account for similarity in human behavior? And can science provide relevant facts that decrease uncertainty regarding the consequences of an action? The questions lead Churchland to her primary thesis: Can neuroscience help explain why we arrive at moral positions?

Well, it depends upon whether we glean all of our moral insights from what she calls “neurophilosophy.” And there are puzzling “outliers” for whom there seems to be no “hormonal” explanation for their lack of a moral compass. Thus her theory that the little nagging voice we call our conscience is a moral intuition that has developed over the course of evolution, which is about the same time that we began adding more and more cortical circuitry, which means in turn that the brain needs to make more proteins “that become part of the very structure of sprouting neurons.” To which Churchland adds, “This is how enduring memories are made.”

The brain, in other words, invents conscience and in turn morality reinforced by the release of pleasurable chemicals to generate approval and unpleasurable ones to generate disapproval.

Morality thus finds a basis in biology and is not something planted in us by a divine being. In fact, she presumes that a fervent conscience and moral scrupulosity are best understood as obsessions accentuated by religious training which eggs on fears of “contamination” and “uncertainty.”

As for much of Western moral philosophy, Churchland concludes, those purveyors stipulate rules, “at least in academia,” by showing that universal rules originate in religions and pure reason. The problem? Rule-purveyors wrestle persons into submission by requiring adherence to a rule dogma that is “typically a constraint satisfaction process.”

When Churchland then turns her attention to “religion, pure reason, and rules,” which she suggests is trying to live by the Ten Commandments, moral strategy falls on hard times. Even if God drops out of the picture, she notes, there’s still the issue that morality (independent of neurobiology) concerns an autonomous domain of truths discoverable by reason. The chapters centered in “Conscience and Its Anomalies” and “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” take aim at statements she finds “incredulous” largely because independent and stable moral truths disengage us from our biology and bid us to behave and to apprehended universal moral truths. “Or so it is claimed.”

For those Western philosophers who thus may have argued for metaphysics as a guide to morals, Churchland argues they stumble coming out of the gate because they start with the phrase “rationally endorse.” With Kant and his followers, well, to Churchland they are intuitively unfair. And so it goes with Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition.

What’s missing in the study, however, is that Churchland fails to understand that all those previous moral philosophers were attempting to persuade us of something in the same manner as she is trying to persuade us of something.

The problem that interests conservatives, on the other hand, is how pluralization and the demythologization of history, art, religion, and even science are characteristic of our age, this twilight of modernism. So much has been sponged away and something is absent.

But metaphysics has traditionally asserted the presence of a transcendent subject that has an added value condensed and clarified in works of art.

It’s not to be found in Dreiser, but it may be found in Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals:

“A hymn of praise in gratitude for the joys and consolations and general usefulness of art might run as follows. Art is informative and entertaining, it condenses and clarifies the world, directing attention upon particular things.… Art illuminates accident and contingency and the general muddle of life, the limitations of time and the discursive intellect, so as to enable us to survey complex or horrible things which would otherwise appal us.… [I]t is a defense against materialism and against pseudo-scientific attitudes to life.”

Churchland’s neurophilosophy and Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition are without art, without metaphysics, and without a guide to morals. 

Daniel James Sundahl is Emeritus Professor in English and American Studies at Hillsdale College where he taught for thirty-three years.

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