Patricia Smith Churchland

Nobel Conference 50
Oct. 7 & 8, 2014

Neurophilosopher Patricia Smith Churchland – UC President’s Professor of Philosophy Emerita, University of California, San Diego; adjunct professor, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, San Diego

My brain and I are inseparable. I am who I am because my brain is what it is… Lately, I think about my brain in more intimate terms—as me. Patricia Churchland, Touching a Nerve

Patricia Smith Churchland, President’s Professor of Philosophy Emerita at the University of California, San Diego, is a distinguished philosopher and neuroscientist—and the world’s foremost neurophilosopher. Churchland forcefully argues that traditional puzzles about the mind are best solved through the empirical study of the brain, and that, as contemporary neuroscience reveals ever more detail about its structure and functioning, the entire Cartesian picture of mind must go the way of Descartes’ speculations on the pineal gland. For example: neuroscientists are beginning to build a detailed picture of what goes on in the brain during episodes of decision-making and self-control, activities that folk psychology attributes to the will. Self-control is tied up with patterns of connected neural activity in the prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia, and nucleus accumbens, and involves the neurotransmitters serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine. Subjects’ willingness to take risks, and their abilities to learn from their actions and to delay gratification, can be modified by changing the levels of these chemicals. Throughout her work, Churchland shows how our emerging understanding of the brain has profound implications for our understandings of consciousness, free will, morality, the self, and other targets of philosophical inquiry.

Churchland earned her BA (with honors) at the University of British Columbia, her MA at the University of Pittsburgh, and her BPhil at Oxford University. Before taking up her current position at University of California, San Diego, she taught at the University of Manitoba, and she also serves as adjunct professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Churchland has won a plethora of honors and awards: she has received research funding from the National Science Foundation, has been a visiting member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” In 1994, she participated in Nobel Conference 30, “Unlocking the Brain: Progress in Neuroscience.”