The Last Superstition: A Slippery Slope to Sounding Weird

Chapter 6: How to lose your mind

Feser opens the last chapter of his Refutation of the New Atheism by quoting a New Yorker article in which neurologist Patricia Churchland describes her mood to her husband and colleague Paul in neurochemical terms:

Pat burst in the door, having come straight from a frustrating faculty meeting. “She said ‘Paul, don’t speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren’t for my endogenous opiates I’d have driven the car into a tree on the way home. My dopamine levels need lifting. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I’ll be down in a minute.’” [The New Yorker, quoted on p. 229 of Feser]

If you’re wondering who Patricia and Paul Churchland are, you’re not alone. I didn’t know, either. Nor is it obvious what they have to do with New Atheism. The God Delusion doesn’t cite them. Neither do The End of Faith, god is not Great, or even Breaking the Spell, which you’d think might mention prominent neurologists.

From the Wikipedia article on Paul Churchland, I gather that they believe that a lot of our feelings are illusions, and that the way that we talk about them will change as we gain new insights into how the mind works. This strikes me as a fairly radical but defensible position. But yes, some of their ideas sound pretty wild, as does the passage Feser quoted above.

After lambasting the Churchlands for a bit, Feser tells us why he brought them up:

eliminative materialism is simply the last stop on the train leading away from Aristotelian final causes, the inevitable consequence of following out consistently a mechanistic-cum-materialistic picture of the world. [p. 231]

Basically, he’s making a slippery slope argument: abandon Aristotle, and pretty soon, you’ll sound weird when you talk about feelings!

There’s a common argument made against atheists that goes something like, “If there’s no God, then life has no purpose, and all there is to do is to while away the hours in empty hedonistic pursuits while waiting for the inevitable embrace of death. Camus had the good sense to realize this; you should be more like him.” My usual response is, “please, Mr. Concern Troll, stop telling me how I’m supposed to feel. I can figure it out on my own”, and I feel the same thing applies here.

As much as Feser tries to portray the Churchlands’ ideas as normal and mainstream, or at least the logical end-result of rejecting aristotelianism, he doesn’t actually quote anyone who agrees with them. So either his premise is incorrect, which is unpossible, or else perhaps he thinks that we all know so many Churchlandites that to mention them would be redundant. Yeah, that must be it.

Series: The Last Superstition

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3 Responses to The Last Superstition: A Slippery Slope to Sounding Weird

  1. Steve Watson says:

    I’m taking Phil of Mind this term, so I’ve heard of the Churchlands and eliminative materialism. It is a bit of an extreme position among the purely physicalist views of mind. I think the connections between low-level neurology and neurochem and high-level subjective experience are too complex to sum up the latter by any simple reference to the former. There’s an analogy to be made (and I am making it in a course essay) to trying to describe the operation of, say, this web browser in terms of all the transistor-switching in the CPU as I type this.

    However, “Churchland” is a prominent name in the field. even if their views are in the minority. Patricia co-authored a paper taking down Penrose’s quantum consciousness nonsense, if you’ve heard of that.

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    • arensb says:

      Thanks for the background summary. I take it, though, since you call eliminative materialism “an extreme position”, that this isn’t mainstream among people who study the mind, and that the Churchlands are not representative of the field. In short, I don’t think I need to change anything I wrote, above.

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      • Steve Watson says:

        Oh, there’s nothing wrong with what you wrote. I don’t have a good sense of what’s mainstream, and I’m not sure if there’s even a current consensus view, more like a lot of people squabbling. The Churchlands are among the squabblers, along with Chalmers, Nagel, Fodor, Dennett, Gazzaniga, Searle et al (to drop just the first few names that seem to get cited often).

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