Patricia Smith Churchland
                The Neural Basis of Consciousness

            An interview conducted by Meredith Doran

     Publisher's Note: Patricia Smith Churchland is a Professor of
Philosopher at the University of California, San Diego. She is the
author of the book Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the
Mind-Brain (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1986), which outlines her
views on the connection between philosophy and neuroscience. The
following excerpts are from a telephone interview conducted by
Meredith Doran in March, 1990. For a complete transcription of the
interview, please refer to the booklet The Neural Basis of
Consciousness, the Dalai Lama, and a Glorious Piece of Meat, which
will be published under the MSAC monograph series in the summer of

DORAN: How are we as humans different from inanimate objects? Is
there anything that makes us uniquely human?

CHURCHLAND: Well, obviously there is something that is different
between inanimate and animate things, and we know what it is: it's
DNA. Or, if you're a virus, RNA. And that's pretty clear. I mean,
people used to think that what differentiated such things was
"vital spirit," or the "life force," or "elan vital," or something
of that nature.

DORAN: So if anything survives us, is that it --our DNA, our
genetic patterning?

CHURCHLAND: Well, you if you have children it does, but unless you
have a clone of you-- I mean, if you had a clone of you, then of
course the same DNA would be there. But obviously if you do the
standard method, which is sexual reproduction, then you're getting
a genetic mix. Your children aren't you, but they're related to you
in a really close way, obviously. But that's all. People have had
the thought that there is something special about humans, and that
after we die there is a soul and it goes to heaven, or paradise,
and in that land, wrong will be righted and you'll meet old friends
again, and so forth. And that does not look plausible at all --it
looks like fantasy. It's what people might wish to be the case, but
it's not evidently something that is the case. So my feeling is
that when the body dies and when the brain dies, that's it. I mean,
there isn't anything else to hang around.

DORAN: So what would you say differentiates us from lower species?
Is it that we simply have more complicated neural networks?

CHURCHLAND: Well, our brain is a little different from other
brains, but the monkey brain is different from the chimpanzee
brain, too. So every species has a brain that's a little bit
different from the brain that anyone else has. "Higher" and "lower"
doesn't always enter into it.

DORAN: Do you believe that humans have a more complicated system of
levels of consciousness than other species?

CHURCHLAND: They might have --I don't know. We really don't know.
I mean, it does seem to be the case that our language system is
unique, but on the other hand, there are some things that monkeys
can do that we can't do --swing through the trees, for example, or
hang upside down from their tails (if they have tails), and so
forth. And there are lots of things that a beaver can do that I
can't do; I can't build a dam the way a beaver can build a dam, and
not just because I don't have the big front teeth to chew things
down, but because they have the knowledge and the skill of how to
put a dam together. So I don't think that "higher" and "lower" are
necessarily useful ways of thinking about it.
     People have this inclination to think that there is this
"Great Chain of Being," and hot-dog, we're on top of it. Or that
we're fashioned in the image of God. It's silly. We are
evolutionarily somewhere along the line, and what would be nice to
know would be what it is about our brains that enables us to have
a culture, and that enables us to do such things as use language.
But that's not something that's necessarily more valuable than
being able to do what a gorilla does, or what an orangutan does.

DORAN: So do you believe that as our scientific knowledge
increases, a scientific mind-set will eventually take over,
superseding our mythical ways of viewing and explaining the world
around us?

CHURCHLAND: It's hard to say what will happen; that's a sort of
sociological prediction that you're asking me to make. I think it's
hard to say because people are very inclined to hold fast to lots
of old superstitious beliefs. There are still some people being
treated for mental illness by having a priest come in to exorcise
the devil. So whether or not people will come to think, "Well, gee,
we understand this, that, and the other thing about the brain, so
that's why we understand that certain people are intolerant, and
that's why certain people are violent, and why certain other people
have this or that kind of character," --we may be able to do that,
but it may well be that the bulk of uneducated people, or semi-
educated people, will go on thinking about things in their very
traditional ways.

DORAN: Well, how would you assess the evolutionary development of
neuroscience as a field? Is it a fully established discipline, or
does it have a long way to go? How fast do you think that
neuroscience research is moving?

CHURCHLAND: Well, again, that's very hard to say. It has to be
remembered that you can't study the brain very easily without
really high-powered, advanced technology and equipment. And, of
course, that's why it was much easier to do cosmology, if you were
Galileo, than it was to do neuroscience. He didn't have a
microscope, he didn't have ways of fixing tissue to prevent it from
rotting, he didn't have ways of staining neurons, and since there
was no electricity, he didn't have ways of recording from cells,
and so on. So it's really only within this century, and probably
really, given the new techniques, only within the last two or three
decades, that progress has really been spectacular. And it's just
very hard to say what will happen in the future.

DORAN: In your book Neurophilosophy, you attempt to integrate
neuroscience and philosophy. Why? Are there questions that can't be
answered by science alone?

CHURCHLAND: Well, I think that science in its broadest sense means
"the critical investigation and formulation of hypotheses." That's
just a very, very broad description, but the "critical" part is
important because it means that science must always be prepared to
revise in the light of new data. It means that data is relevant to
hypotheses. It means that hypotheses should be testable, and should
be testable again, and again and again. And the trouble with many
of the ideas that people have about knowledge beyond science is
that they're just goofy, they're ideas that somehow "special
knowledge" will be revealed to "special people," but that those of
us who don't have it can't criticize it, can't test it, can't
explore it, can't investigate it. Typically, what we've seen in the
past is that sort of stuff has just been chicanery, it's been
charlatanism. Or it has come from people who are not necessarily
trying to deceive others, but who are actually self-deceived --I
mean, perhaps they are schizophrenic, for example, and they
actually imagine when they hear voices that it is God talking to
them. Well, it's not.

DORAN: What makes you believe that the work that's currently done
in neuroscience is not just another misled effort?

CHURCHLAND: Because we test and re-test. And it's open to anybody.
Any hypothesis is open to criticism, and because if I'm not sure
about what somebody says, I can go and say, "Show me!" and if they
say, "Well, umm, this doesn't manifest itself when people like you
are around, when skeptics are around," then we say, "Yes, ok, we
can scotch that." Science is open, science is critical, science
reviews and revises itself and that's what make science science.
That's what the scientific method is really all about, and that's
what differentiates it from superstition, where people believe
things regardless of the data. And that's what differentiates it
from religion, where people believe regardless of what the evidence
is, and regardless of what the criticisms might be.

DORAN: What kind of ethics do you think that materialists can
legitimately have according to what they know to be true?

CHURCHLAND: I think in some ways, we are very Aristotelian, and in
some ways use Utilitarian principles. I think that we try to reason
and understand to the best that we can what it is that a good
person or a right person would do in such and such a situation, and
what would be fair, and we try to reflect on what fairness consists
in, and try not to be dogmatic, try to be tolerant, try to be as
fair-minded as possible. I think that really, in some ways,
tolerance is something which is critically important to the
survival of the species, that it's something that's very often
neglected when people teach their children morals. They think it's
important to be intolerant of people who are different, intolerant
of people who are pro-choice, intolerant of people who want to live
a different style of life, intolerant of certain kinds of sexual
practices, and so on. I think that that's very worrisome, and I
don't think that the human race can tolerate that. The human race
cannot tolerate intolerance, in other words. So perhaps if we knew
more about how the brain works, then we might be able to achieve a
greater degree of tolerance and understanding of one another, and
I would think that that would be for the benefit of mankind.

DORAN: In addressing the area of morals, tolerance, and
intolerance, we come to the issue of religion. Some say that
religions have, in the search for truth, actually put up barriers
to finding the truth. Do you think this is true? Do you think that
religious or spiritual ways of approaching the search for truth can
be valid, or can provide any useful or helpful information?

CHURCHLAND: It depends on what you're talking about. I don't think
that religion is of the slightest help in the search for empirical
truth, or for truth about the nature of things, and indeed, the
history of religion has shown that by and large religions are anti-
intellectual, they're anti-scientific --they actually prevent
progress rather than aid it. So, I don't think they're of the least
help so far as understanding the nature of ourselves and
understanding the nature of the universe is concerned. But I think
that there might be wise people who happen to be in religions, who
can be as helpful to us about how to live a life, as I think
Aristotle was, for example.

DORAN: Getting back to your own work --neuroscience and nature of
existence-- do you think that science, even if it is able to map
out mental processes in terms of brain physiology, can even begin
to address the ultimate origin of those processes? Where, in your
opinion, is the cause or origin of mental processes?

CHURCHLAND: I do think that neuroscience will be able to explain --
well, it depends on what mental processes you're talking about--
but I think that if you're talking about, for example, the nature
of memory, or perception of reasoning, or use of language, I have
no doubt that we will understand those processes in terms of the
way the circuits of the brain function. I mean, there isn't
anything else to explain them in terms of, so it better be that!
There's no spooky stuff lying around, such that when I look in a
certain direction, I see an orange orange --it's the way the rods
and cones work, and the neurons work, and the way the circuits are
put together that allows me to see that orange. Now, there's still
a lot that we don't understand about it, but I expect that we will
understand it. Now, of course, it might turn out for some weird
reason that we won't, but I can't see that we won't. So I think we
have to just keep working at it, and I think we'll get those
     I think it'll be very exciting, because we'll be able to
understand ourselves --why we have the thoughts and feelings we
have, why we're conscious, why we're aware. And we'll know that
it's such-and-such circuit doing such-and-such thing. Now, some
people find that rather threatening, and they think, "I want it to
be a mystery. I don't want to be explained. I don't want to be just
stuff." But of course what one wants --well, first of all you have
to ask why one would want that-- why would it be better to be a
mystery to yourself than to understand yourself? And then if it
turns out that you are just "stuff," that your brain just is meat,
then wanting it to be different isn't going to change it. Why not
accept it for the glorious piece of meat that it is?

                       Neural Reflections
              Ruminations on the Mind-Brain Debate

     If we are more than the physical substratum of our cerebral
cortex, why is it that everything we do is modulated by our brain?
I go to sleep because of chemical-electrical signals triggered
within my skull; I wake up for the same reason. Yet because my
awareness seems distinct from my bodily apparatus, I somehow
believe that I am running the show. However, the reality is that I
can do very little. "I" don't digest my food. "I" don't beat my
heart. "I" don't develop antibodies to ward off diseases. "I" don't
even know if I originate thoughts or only direct them. The "I" does
very little indeed, except believe itself to be more than what it
actually is --an epiphenomenon of networking neurons.
     So far so good, but there's one glitch here: consciousness
talks about neurons, neurons don't talk about consciousness.
Everything we have known in the world must come through the medium
of consciousness; even the idea of neuroscience, even the idea of
philosophy, even the idea of materialism, must arise through the
medium of self-reflective awareness. It is, in fact, that medium of
consciousness --irreducible in terms of actual lived-through
experience-- which contextualizes everything we can ever know about
the universe. What comes first: Neurons or Awareness? If you say
the former, how do you know unless you are already aware? If you
say the latter, why is it that when someone clubs you over the head
with a bat that your awareness of this world ceases? The fact
remains that whatever is the source of our "I" awareness, it does
not alter our existential dilemmas. We are still stuck to living in
a world which seems to transcend its neural origins. The following
seems to summarize the mind-brain debate, at least from the
materialist's perspective:
     "Indeed, we know that we are more than just neurons firing; or
at least we think we are while the neurons are firing."