The self as brain: Disturbing implications of neuroexistentialism.

Patricia Churchland, a neurophilosopher at the University of California at San Diego, says our hopes, loves and very existence are just elaborate functions of a complicated mass of grey tissue. Accepting that can be hard, but what we know should inspire us, not scare us. Her most recent book is Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain.

via The self as brain: Disturbing implications of neuroexistentialism..

An interesting interview with a neurophilosopher (didn’t know that there was such a thing) on how the mind is the brain, and why this isn’t as bleak as some might fear.

27 thoughts on “The self as brain: Disturbing implications of neuroexistentialism.

      1. Salvation aside the — Whatever her facts are, she holds a belief is all when it comes down to it that there isn’t consciousness in the energy that surrounds us. She chooses – and being she’s well schooled – predictably she isn’t going to accept the science that detects and searches for consciousness. Its bizarre to me because it makes little sense. I don’t need to believe in God if I choose and still I can connect with consciousness energy and therefore know what isn’t n my brain or body. I wouldn’t care to debate it – it just seems like a way that she makes a living and someone pays her for it is more logical than that we are bio-machines. To each their own belief hold fast.
        ~ Eric


  1. HI there.
    I am awarding the Shauny for Blogging Exellence today.
    Please pick up yours at:

    I hope this is pleasing news. Congratulations!

    ~ Eric

    — actually, I’d like to discuss the brain topic more but there isn’t science that can demonstrate this as far as I know its still speculation based on evolutionary theory – for example:
    Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and ethologist. He contributed greatly to how evolution — natural selection — may behave — with descriptions of a model that includes a mimeme (meme) biological component. It may in fact turn out to be accurate — this is how science works — from a predictive model that is promising by the mathematics. However, research in labs must test it. The meme mechanism is predicted as a means for how that in humans an idea, behavior, or style spreads from person to person within a culture. Presently we do not have technology to isolate or demonstrate physically these mechanisms.


  2. ‘SAP’, you’ll definitely want to give this a read – as referenced in Chapter 1 of Churchland’s book:

    ‘Neuroexistentialism’, Flanagan/Barack 2010

    Click to access 128506327614.pdf

    I’m still trying to pull my thoughts together into something that resembles a concise, coherent statement of some sort. Great post!


    1. Thanks, and very interesting link. I just scanned it and will have to read it more carefully tonight. I’m particularly interested in what they have to say about eudaimonia. I agree that philosophy can provide some existential comfort, (my post on soothing the fear of death was largely drawn from Epicureanism), although I’m not sure it would match the comfort of a true believer in an afterlife.


      1. An after-life in paradise is pretty tough to compete with. Have you had a chance to read the Flanagan/Barack paper? If you have, what do you think of their “delicious question”?


        1. I fear I haven’t read it in total yet (it’s been a hectic week; the substantive posts you’ve seen from me were mostly written last weekend), but I did just drill down to that question.

          And it is the question. It makes me think about Barber’s statistics, which seem to imply that people’s ability to live without those beliefs are intricately tangled up with their economic security. Although some people would probably need them regardless.

          As we’ve discussed, I do find comfort in Epicurean philosophy, but it’s comfort for someone who has already ruled out supernatural beliefs. Can people get the needed comfort and meaning from secular humanist beliefs? (Think of Stross’s observation that law is a type of religion.) Do they actually want the freedom to set their own meaning? And would a society without a common set of meanings be enduring in the long run?

          Part of me says that we can move past it, but another part says we’ll always have something religious-like.


          1. I think I have to agree with the last half of your last sentence – at least until the over-attribution of agency and false pattern detection become vestigial behaviors, and that will take quite some time if it’s even possible.

            On revisiting the Brain Science Podcast site I see there are a couple of episodes with Churchland, #’s 55 and 81. I was there last night reading the transcript of her interview with Bruce Hood on ‘SuperSense’ which is relevant here too.


            In the closing pages Hood proposes that it’s our inherent supernatural beliefs, both religious and secular, that make us human and bind us together as the social species we are. He makes a compelling argument.


  3. What amazes me is that our experience can be so counter to the way science tells us things are yet we survive and proliferate due our perceived experience as created by the brain.

    “What does it mean that we build our theories about ourselves after the fact? How much of the time are we confabulating, giving a fictitious account of a past event, believing it to be true? When thinking about these big questions, one must always remember that all these modules are mental systems selected for over the course of evolution. The individuals who possessed them made choices that resulted in survival and reproduction. They became our ancestors.”

    Michael Gazzaniga, ‘Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain’


      1. Thanks, I’m thinking it may be Haidt’s turn next as my other choice is Damasios’s ‘Self Comes To Mind’ and I don’t think I’m quite ready for that yet. This chapter for ‘The Nature of God – Evolution and Religion’ that Matt Rossano wrote is pretty good:

        ‘Harnessing the Placebo Effect – Religion as a Cultural Adaptation’, Rossano 2010

        An article I read a couple of months ago on the Sunday Assembly program out of England(often referred to as “Atheist Church”) asked why the positive benefits of church attendance should be limited to believers – a valid point.


        1. Interesting chapter. Thanks.

          The Sunday Assembly might end up being a good test of whether or not you can get the benefits of religion without the supernatural beliefs. How important are those supernatural beliefs to durability? The only thing that makes me cautious is the relatively low number of adherents to Humanism and Unitarian Universalism.


          1. Excellent question – thanks! It’ll be interesting to see if regular SA’s start popping up in the wake of their 40/40 tour – difficult for me to imagine here in the US outside of a few major metropolitan areas, but maybe in the UK?

            Then there’s this that I thought pretty interesting:

            ‘Dutch rethink Christianity for a doubtful world’


          2. An interesting article. Thanks! It’s occurred to me before that Christianity has morphed so much in the last few centuries (despite folks insisting that it is timeless) that it might still be around in 2200, but in a form similar to what the Dutch are experimenting with. I’m reminded of Michael Dowd’s views. It seems to me that Hendrikse, Dowd, deButton are all more or less on the same page.


  4. “Christianity has morphed” brought to mind:

    ‘The Darwinian Evolution of Religion’

    Graziano had several other older posts that might interest you as well.

    I always enjoyed and was encouraged by Michael Dowd’s posts at HP. They were some of the better stuff you used to see there along with a few others.


    1. Wow, thanks. Going through them, came across this entry, which matches my thoughts on consciousness to a tee:
      He even used the same phrase that I did: “consciousness is in the eye of the beholder”.

      He also talked about self awareness as basically our theory of mind being turned onto ourselves, as we’ve discussed.

      Now I’m probably going to have to read his book.


      1. And thank you(again :)) I knew I’d read that ‘theory of mind turned on ourselves’ idea somewhere before when I read it in your HP comment a few weeks ago now, but just couldn’t place it.

        Just in case you haven’t gotten this far, I found these after reading his more recent HP piece on consciousness …

        ‘Graziano Lab – Publications’

        ‘Human consciousness and its relationship to social neuroscience: A novel hypothesis’, Graziano/Kastner 2011

        Click to access Cog_Neurosci2011_98.pdf


        1. Good stuff. I just posted a link to Graziano’s consciousness article since anyone that has read mine really needs to read his. I also just purchased his book. Now I have to decide whether to finish ‘Blank Slate’ first or put it on hold again for ‘Consciousness and the Social Brain’ :-p


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