Science and philosophy have to go hand in hand, says neuro-philosopher Patricia Churchland, arguing in this talk that the nature of the mind cannot be understood simply by introspection.

What is a human being? Natalie Angiers, the science journalist defined a human being as a collection of empty spaces. This talk by Patricia Churchland, a neuro-philosopher, gives us the impression that the human being is just a mass of circuitry…there is almost nothing called free will. In any case, even if there was something called free will, we have no inkling of it as yet.

Churchland builds her discussion around the idea of self-control. What is self-control? It is more than saying no to chocolates or holding yourself from boxing the bully on the nose. It may actually be the explanation to all your actions and so contain the answer to knowing who you are, says Churchland, “Usually there are four things by which we can understand self-control…if someone can display deferred gratification, that is deferring smaller value now for something greater later, if they can maintain a goal despite distraction, if they can suppress impulses that are inappropriate and if they can cancel an action once started on seeing that following through with it would be a disaster.”

Addiction could lead to impulsivity and so be assumed to be the opposite of self-control, but it has been observed that those who are addicted are very organised and careful when it comes to accessing their source of addiction…so there are some grey areas.

The excitement in Churchland’s talk begins when she declares that none of the four markers she has mentioned are linked. They are not different expressions of the same disposition but require different circuitry. One would think that if a person can wait for gratification, he or she would also be the kind to be focused on the goal whatever the distraction, or can suppress impulses. But it turns out that the circuitry for each of the four markers is different. An experiment with rodents revealed the picture. Two cylinders with provisions to press on a button to get food pellets were made. In one there was a delay before the food pellet appeared. After this delay the rat was able to get four pellets as against only one in the first cylinder. Some rats were able to wait, some rats were not. Similarly when the experiment was made more complicated and the rat had to stop pressing the button on hearing a sound, some rats were able to stop and some were not. “It teaches us something that could not have been learnt from introspection…,” says Churchland thus justifying the use of neuro-sciences in philosophy.

Churchland refers to the marshmallow experiment which has been written about earlier in this column. This experiment showed that those children, of ages 3 and 4, who could resist being tempted to take one marshmallow instantly as against three after a time delay, were the ones who did better for themselves in life. This motivated work on circuitry to see if children could be taught self-control to improve their quality of life. “We reward the child when the child is able to finish a job or restrain from bashing the other kid…this way we modify the circuitry in a physical and structural way…,” says Churchland. However, she says, it is difficult to claim to be able to “teach” self-control. “There is a really significant genetic component but depending on the environmental support, behaviour can be modified…may not be hugely, but enough to get by…but the question cannot be answered right now.”

As of now the significance of her research rests on one idea which has far reaching consequences: if circuitry determines our actions, what is free will? If it is our neuro-biological capacity that determines our actions…what then do we take responsibility for? “What is the difference between the brain which has the circuitry for self-control as against one which does not have? This will map the areas over which we have control and that over which we do not. That self-control is real and dysfunction of self-control is also real…Alcohol, stress sleeplessness, hunger and a host of other factors reduces self-control…purity of the will is difficult to understand….the nature of the mind cannot be understood simply by introspection…,” asserts Churchland saying therefore that science and philosophy have to go hand in hand.

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