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Scientists' Nightstand: Patricia Churchland

Greg Ross

Patricia Churchland is professor of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. Her most recent book is Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells us about Morality (Princeton University Press, 2011).

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?Click to Enlarge Image

I work at the interface of philosophy and neuroscience. I call this endeavor "neurophilosophy," and in 1986 I published a book with MIT Press by that name. My aim is to explore how developments in neuroscience bear upon traditional philosophical questions, such as: What is the self? Where do values come from? How does the brain cause consciousness? Owing to the tremendous growth in neuroscience, neurophilosophy has now become a flourishing subfield. The crux of my hypothesis is that neuroscience tells us some essential things about the basic platform for morality, but that there is much that arises from problem-solving in a social context, where solutions become social practices that become part of culture.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

I am reading Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, by Frank Dikötter (Walker, 2010). I am fascinated by history, and I was stunned to learn how callous and brutal Mao was. Tens of millions of people starved to death during Mao's attempt to restructure Chinese life according to his ill-informed fantasies. I have just finished reading Talking to the Enemy (Ecco Press, 2010), by Scott Atran, an anthropologist who has spent his research life in the Middle East and who has the most up-to-date and educated understanding of Islamic extremists.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

We have a comfy La-Z-Boy couch with a footrest that flips up. I have been known to read there just about any time of day. Because I travel a lot, I have lots of good things on my iPad, such as The Recursive Mind, by Michael Corballis (Princeton University Press, 2011).

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

I find myself drawn to history and biography more than to fiction, though as an adolescent I was devoted to fiction -- first Nancy Drew, but then George Eliot, W.M. Thackeray and Anthony Trollope. When we first moved to the United States from Canada, I realized that to understand my new country, I needed to understand the Civil War. And for two years, my extra-neuroscience reading was all about the Civil War. I was riveted, not by the battles, but by the run-up to the war, and by the period following the war. I also love the history of science, e.g. T. H. Huxley's account of William Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood; Sherwin Nuland's book The Doctor's Plague: Germans, Childbed Fever and the Strange Story of Ignác Semmelweis (W.W. Norton, 2003) and The Hidden Structure: A Scientific Biography of Camillo Golgi, by Paolo Mazzarello (Oxford University Press, 1999).

In fiction, I love George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series. When I need to be distracted, they always do the job. They are witty, rollicking and full of fascinating historical and cultural details, with just enough skullduggery and derring-do to hold one's attention.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

1.  David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) is profound and beautiful and still makes the best sense of morality.  Hume understood social behavior, its underpinnings and its relation to social institutions and practices. I still go back to it again and again.
2.  Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. Yes, I know it is a play, but I read it in high school, memorized most of it and pondered its meaning for politics, life and morality. I still do.
3.  All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren (1946). The movie version, starring Sean Penn, is also wonderful.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

There is no single book, but here are the top three:

1. W. V. O. Quine, Word and Object (MIT Press, 1961). It explained to me how and why science and philosophy are part of the same enterprise, why philosophy as an a priori discipline is unproductive and why philosophy isolated from science is dry and infertile. As a result, I began to study neuroscience, which shifted my philosophical perspective and opened up a whole new and exciting world. There are now easier books on the topics, such as Paul Churchland's The Engine of Reason, the Seat of the Soul (MIT Press, 1995) (full disclosure: Paul is my husband).

2. Light on Life, by B. K. S. Iyengar (Rodale, 2005). I like this because I find yoga to be a wonderful way to keep flexible in mind and body. By studying with Iyengar teachers, I have managed to advance far enough to really find the joy in yoga.

3. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London (1903). I read this as a youngster, and because it resonated with my own inclinations, it made seemingly out-of-reach possibilities worth pursuing.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

David Hume's History of England (1754). Since it is six volumes, maybe that is all I need to list!

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Advice to a Young Scientist, by Peter B. Medawar (Harper & Row, 1979), is funny, deep and easy to read.
Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?, by Michael Shermer (University of California Press, 2000). Shermer is a brilliantly captivating author, and this book, thoroughly researched as it is, shows how people can get stuck in a certain narrative that they find appealing. Shermer is full of good sense and good humor, but never preachy.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, by Kathryn Schulz (Ecco, 2010), is surprising and cool, and it gives us pause about our own certainties.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

Owen Flanagan, The Really Hard Problem (MIT Press, 2007). Flanagan is wise, exceptionally clear, has a brilliant command of philosophy, and never tries to pull a fast one. He is so honest and forthright; never arrogant or obscure. He is also funny.

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