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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.
About the Author
Patricia Churchland is the author of Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves. She is professor emerita of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.
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
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
Churchland creates a compelling narrative to further the idea of the self as brain… Through her examples, we can all come to understand our actions and intentions more clearly.
— Moheb Costandi - Scientific American