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Book Review of Touching a Nerve, The Self As Brain
by Patricia S. Churchland

April 25, 2021
by William P. Meyers

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Touching a Nerve, The Self as Brain
by Patricia S. Churchland
2013. W. W. Norton & Company
$26.95 hardcover; $16.95 paperback; $9.99 Kindle.

What makes us tick? Many people get along quite well without worrying about that. Despite that, everyone has a theory, or some suspicions, about what is going on in other people's minds. We infer mental states from their actions and words. Many of us wonder how our own minds work. We wonder why we do things, sometimes things we have made decisions not to do (like eating a big snack before going to bed). At a deeper level, people, in particular philosophers and scientists, wonder how we can be conscious in a material world.

Touching a Nerve by Patricia Churchland is the best introductory level book I have read on the subject on how our brains enable us to be conscious. Professor Churchland does not present her own theory of the specifics of how neurons and the brain generate consciousness. Nor does she wander into philosophical wilderness. She applies a common sense approach to what neurologists and other scientists have learned about the brain.

Along the way, by way of illustration, the book touches on many personality and mind related subjects before zeroing in on the fundamental tapestry of neurons and consciousness. Moral philosophy is informed by evolutionary science and psychiatry. Churchland examines the relationship of how our brains evolved, or what they evolved into, examining morality, aggression, sex, and war.

A common sense approach to Free Will is also examined in detail. The problem, as in so much philosophy, is a simple minded wanting to nail down a Yes/No answer to the question of whether we have free will. Long tomes have been written on the subject. I have read some of them. The single chapter in this book provides insight into the complex answer.

Philosophy and science were once one and the same, but we live in an age of specialization. A psychiatrist or psychologist may know little about neurology, and vice versa. Philosophers, who now are usually college professors, often still ignore science in favor of speculation or argumentation. Churchland shows that there can be a synergy between the careful thoughtfulness of philosophy and the teams doing lab work to find or figure out bits of the brain puzzle.

Perhaps it is a bit mean, but I delighted in the occasional illustrative tale of people with a gullible or traditional mindset who ignored science facts. In a discussion of people believing in life-after-death, that most basic of contradictions, she says "For me, I worry that such a decision might make me more vulnerable to flimflam. Self-deception can be like a drug, numbing you from much-needed feeling, weakening you exactly when you need to muster your resources for getting through a difficult reality." This was written before the Covid pandemic, when many people died or helped infect other people because they trusted preachers rather than health experts.

Science facts are sprinkled about when appropriate. One that surprised me is that "Puzzling as it may seem, moreover, low levels of estrogen feminize the brain, whereas high levels masculinize it." The wonders of evolution, and complexity, are often ignored by philosophers. That a specific hormone may do different things in different parts of the body perhaps should not be a surprise. That a neural system that evolved for one thing can be used for something novel is a recurring theme in the work. There is considerable detail on specific subregions of the brain, but it is brought up in digestible bits related to interesting subjects. What might be boring in an anatomy class comes alive when we consider our minds.

Sometimes Churchland reaches back to classic philosophers to help make her points. There is much good advice in the book, life advice as well as philosophical advice. In a discussion of general rules that often work but sometimes don't, it refers back to Aristotle: "Aristotle was a man of the world, and he addressed these issues, intelligently, without referring to the gods or to an afterlife. He wisely advised that we should cultivate habits of moderation in all things, the better to dodge the avoidable tragedies of life. He advised us to be courageous, but neither reckless nor cowardly; thrifty, but neither miserly nor extravagant; generous, but neither too much nor too little; persistent, but knowing when to change course."

Practical issues of life aside, the core issue for those who want to understand Homo sapiens is the physical basis of consciousness. So far, science and philosophy have only provides us with hints and broad generalizations. Touching a Nerve is most valuable in that it could spark an interest in these questions among the next generation of philosophers and scientists. Yet given the state of the art described, I am not so old as to not still hope for a more definitive description of the mechanism of consciousness in my lifetime.

I think Touching a Nerve is a great book for an introductory course in Philosophy or for someone who might want to go into psychiatry or psychology. I also recommend it for anyone curious about human nature.

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