Neurophilosophy is a branch of philosophy that focuses on explaining the nature of the mind, mental functions, consciousness, and other elusive mental properties and their relationship to the physical brain. It is a growing interdisciplinary field that seeks to offer neuroscientific explanations and philosophical insight for concepts of contention in the philosophy of the mind, such as the topic of human morality. In the recently published Braintrust, neurophilosophy pioneer Dr. Patricia S. Churchland presents a series of valuable challenges and arguments in addressing the “roots” of morality. She provides thorough neuroscientific evidence of the biological components that play highly specific roles in morality. This challenges the current priority given to “absolute truth,” pure reason, and religion as explanations of the origins of morality. This is an exceptional example of how neurophilosophy deconstructs the philosophies that we hold dear and exposes the raw science behind some of our most cherished values.
Churchland posits, “Moral values ground a life that is a social life.” This goes to say an individual’s moral values offer solutions, strategies, and general beliefs when it comes to evaluating interpersonal interactions. Caring and theory of mind are two important social skills that have strong neuropsychological origins.
Caring about the well-being of other humans is a trait that has evolved over millions of years. The simple, ancient peptides oxytocin and arginine vasopressin play significant roles in the perpetuation of attachment and concern for other people by interacting with chemicals in the brain that affect one’s mood (e.g. serotonin) and sex hormones. Oxytocin and arginine vasopressin are naturally released in the hypothalamus—a part of the brain that often acts as a control center of hormone excretion. After release, oxytocin and arginine vasopressin diffuse widely to other parts of the brain, including the nucleus accumbens (a part of brain that is involved in reward processing), the septum (a part of the brain that is involved in regulating sexual behavior), and various other areas of the brain that play a role in the regulation of parenting. Oxytocin and arginine vasopressin influence the pleasure of sexual intimacy and tending to one’s offspring and lowering stress levels. Therefore, the release of these peptides is often associated with positive emotions and recognition of familial duties.
Oxytocin is more prominent in females, and arginine vasopressin is more prominent in males. In females, the release of oxytocin bonds the mother to her offspring and signals the mother’s body to produce breast milk to nurture the offspring. Oxytocin is associated with trust, as it is known to raise the threshold for tolerating other people, therefore promoting cooperation. In males, the presence of arginine vasopressin is essential for mate bonding. It also induces defensive positions and increases aggression when the male is protecting his family. It causes the male to value the safety of his family over all else—adding a biological explanation to the socially constructed moral duty of a father figure.
It has been predicated that many mammalian neurons have evolved to accommodate oxytocin and arginine vasopressin receptors in specific areas of the brain, thus being able to extend their compassion and attachment to non-family members and even strangers. Through various mental processes, such as the ability to read other people’s psychological states, the parental characteristics incepted by oxytocin and arginine vasopressin can be applied to other individuals whom are in a helpless situation and therefore have the self-efficacy comparable to that of a dependent child. In a social context, many moral decisions involve other people; e.g. deciding to donate to charity or pulling over to the side of the road to help a nonlocal traveler with a flat tire. Our biological evolution to care for and coöperate with a wider network of individuals has allowed the human species as a whole to progress by establishing a moral norm of helpful behavior among unrelated individuals.
Theory of Mind
The developmental acquisition of theory of mind, defined as the ability to read other people’s psychological states, allows the growing human to apply morality on a whole different level. Once a child consciously recognizes the nuances of the physical characteristics of basic human emotions, along with learning to “put oneself in another person’s shoes” in perspective taking, neuropsychological processes extend these functions into social situations by activating a system that is likely comparable to the theory of “mirror neurons.” Giacomo Rizzolatti and his associates discovered the concept of mirror neurons in 1992 when they found a subset of neurons in the frontal cortex of rhesus monkeys that respond both when the monkey sees another monkey grasp an object and when it performs the action itself. This indicates subconscious imitation and intention interpretation fueled by this specialized subset of neurons, which were then dubbed “mirror neurons.” While a single subset of neurons has not yet been proven to solely serve as mirror neurons in humans, humans are constantly subconsciously imitating other people and interpreting their goals and intentions. This process is known as simulation.
As summarized by Churchland, the simulation theory says that the brain process for attributing an intention to another person is comprised of three steps: “(1) the observed movement is matched with activation in my own motor system; (2) the intention that goes with that particular movement in my own case will then automatically be represented and so made known to me; (3) I attribute that same intention to the observed person.” Research now indicates that empathy, a moral emotion, is made possible by the process of simulation. Empathy is characterized by understanding the emotions of others. This understanding often leads to caring. There is speculation that the acquisition of theory of mind enables an individual to feel empathy by releasing oxytocin to specialized areas of the brain when presented with a distressed person.
Additionally, humans subconsciously register other humans’ subconscious mimicry of their actions. Have you ever noticed that you reflexively smile when your conversation partner smiles, laugh when he laughs, and even temporarily adopt his hand gestures? A successful bout of subconscious imitation often leads a person to perceive that you are “like” him and other members of his in-group. Our tendency to affirmatively imitate other people can strengthen interpersonal bonds. This quite possibly plays a role in human compassion, as it allows other people become somewhat of an extension of the self.
Rules, norms, and laws indubitably vary cross-culturally, thus making it exceedingly difficult to pinpoint an unconditional rule of human moral behavior. Moral inconsistencies are common (e.g. people abiding by the Biblical common “thou shalt not kill” yet supporting mortal combat in warfare). Any rule that one can think of has some sort of exception.
Countless moral philosophers have grappled with the challenge of determining such a universally applicable rule; a notable attempt made by Immanuel Kant through his idea of the categorical imperative. Kant proposed that in order for a rule to be universal, every single person must agree that this rule applies to oneself, even if breaking it results in death.
Churchland politely counters Kant’s categorical imperative by emphasizing the fact that many cultures believe that there are consequences worse than death; such as shame, dishonor, and shunning, suggesting death was an easy way out. This is because values become deeply ingrained into the chemistry of our brains: we are conditioned to make our decisions based on our morals, and the peptides that precipitate the formation of our morals are some of the most powerful in the human body. The social consequences of breaking a widely held personal and public value would cause stress levels to rise, and the higher the level of stress hormones, the lower the amount of oxytocin there is present in one’s brain.
The philosopher Owen Flanagan recognizes an individual should decide for himself whether or not a certain rule is moral in a certain context by adopting multiple perspectives, understanding history and human needs, and discussing its implications with other people rather than blindly adhering to the rules of self-appointed moral authorities.
Dr. Churchland makes a clear case in Braintrust that morals originated from neurological evolution and are perpetuated by social institutions and their philosophical doctrines. Her work in neurophilosophy has provided much insight into the onset and function of morals in human life.
I recommend Braintrust to all moral skeptics, philosophical scientists, scientific philosophers, and curious intellectuals in general. For more of Churchland’s insight on the neurophilosophy of morality, listen to this podcast.
Churchland, Patricia Smith. Braintrust: what neuroscience tells us about morality. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011. Print.