Sunday, February 18, 2007

beautiful minds

I've been waiting to post a link to a fascinating New Yorker profile of a pair of married philosophers in last week's (2/12) issue, but it doesn't look like it's going to appear online. Sucks. Nevertheless, I urge you to go find a copy somewhere (where does one find hard copies of magazines without personal subscriptions these days? The library? At Yale, we students can get our delicate, unlabored little hands on The New Yorker, The New Republic, the Chronicle of Higher Ed, etc in the Hall of Graduate Studies).

Larisa MacFarquhar's article, "Two Heads," tells the story of Paul and Pat Churchland, a Canadian husband-wife team in UCSD's philosophy department who take a unique approach to the philosophy of the mind. The Churchlands, she writes, are eliminative materialists, which basically means that they want to study consciousness in concrete terms. This approach would better be conceptualized as a "philosophy of the brain" than of the mind; its intent is to ultimately discard concepts like "memory," "belief," and "emotion," in favor of the most specific, scientifically accurate terminology possible. Consider (I'm hand transcribing this, so you better read it) the Churchlands' suppression of their desire to raise their kids according to their principles:
"Then, one evening when Mark (his son) was three or four, he and Paul were sitting by the fire...and Paul was teaching him to look at the flames like a physicist. He told him how the different colors in the fire indicated different temperatures, and how the wood turned into flame and what that meant about the conversion of energy. The boy was fascinated; but then it occurred to Paul that if he were to sit in front of a fire with a friend his age, they would barely be able to talk to each other."
In the same way that this anecdote is more of a commentary on sociology than philosophy, so too are the couple's views on consciousness ostensibly outside of the discipline. Pat admits that "she hasn't gotten around to giving a paper to a philosophy department in five years," and couple is well-aware that they're not welcomed with by the field with open arms (minds?).

MacFarquhar does point out, however, that the Churchlands are concerned with "one area of traditional philosophy"--ethics. This is a natural upshot of any study of the relationship between ideological conceptions of morality and their basis in corporeality, and she touches on one of the few things that fascinated me in Cog Sci 210: Brain and Thought, which is the judgmental activity of the prefrontal cortex. In brief, people with damage to their pfc's have difficulty making value judgments (and, subsequently, fail to become morally socialized); this has obvious implications for the judiciary process, amongst other things.

Ultimately, the profile (which does a nice job of avoiding the icky sentimentality of most old-people-couple portraits) portrays the duo as quite alienated from the world of metaphysics, coloring them as thinkers who ought to be called scientists rather than philosophers. The Churchlands might argue, however, that philosophy itself--at its basest level, the study of knowledge--ought to be perceived differently, a shifting signifier that will come into focus as our thoughts are broken down into their physical components, our identities leveled by the great equalizer of science.


sebastian said...

A really fabulous article. I, too, wish they would post it online. It's a lot easier to nag your friends and others if you can email a link. Tell them to buy a copy or go to the library, on the other hand... yeah, sure, they'll get right on that.

elmrockcity said...

Is there any logic to the New Yorker's decisions to put some content online? Some profiles are published, so it's not a section-based issue.

Oh well.

sebastian said...

I'm sure there's some sort of logic behind the decisions -- not that I know what that logic is. The logic to not putting everything on line is, I'm sure, rooted in not wanting to give too much content away for free.

Anonymous said...

I've been trying to get my friends to read the New Yorker for years with no success.

I saw that article but skipped it thinking they were psychologists.

Now I'm going to look for it... it's probably in one of my stacks of reading material.

Great blog, btw. I just discovered it today. I'm bookmarking it.