Churchland, Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith Churchland, philosopher (b Oliver, BC 16 July 1943). Patricia Churchland earned a BA at the University of British Columbia and completed graduate degrees at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Oxford. In 1969 she was hired by the University of Manitoba, where she taught for 15 years. Churchland became the President's Professor of Philosophy at the University of California at San Diego in 1984, and subsequently adjunct professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and associate of the Computational Neuroscience Laboratory at the Salk Institute. Churchland's groundbreaking work in neurophilosophy has secured her a position among Canada's most influential philosophers.

Patricia Churchland's most important book to date, Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain (1986), presents a positive alternative to traditional folk psychological conceptions of the mind. The orthodox view contends that mental states are propositional attitudes. This amounts to saying that mental states involve beliefs or desires about propositions, such as the belief that "Ottawa is the capital of Canada." However, from Churchland's neurophilosophical standpoint, such a conception is hopelessly problematic. The concept of mind in folk psychological theories is simply unsubstantiated by neuroscientific analysis. After all, the linguistic structures of propositions are hardly comparable to the neurological structures of the brain. The former consist of abstract symbols (eg, letters of the alphabet) and sets of grammatical rules that operate on symbols, whereas the latter consist of electrical and chemical impulses operating in accordance with physical laws. The point is that these structures are fundamentally different in kind. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that future research on the brain will reveal anything that resembles the sentencelike structures of propositional attitudes.

Patricia Churchland's neurophilosophical approach to the mind-brain system is called "eliminative materialism" (EM). Very simply, EM is the theory that our folk psychological understanding of mental states is mistaken and that it will eventually be replaced by a more robust conception of the neurosciences. This theory has its philosophical roots in the analytic tradition of Wilfred Sellars, W.V.O. Quine and Richard Rorty. They argue for a strict materialism with respect to the mind: that mental states just are brain states. Thus, a descriptive science of the brain will be more useful in giving an accurate account of mental states than notions such as belief, desire, sensation and other attitudes with quasi-linguistic contents. As Quine points out in Word and Object (1960), "the bodily states exist anyway; why add the others?" This contention is certainly echoed in Patricia Churchland's major writings.

Philosophically, however, Patricia Churchland goes much further than early EM theorists. Churchland argues that the entire framework of folk psychological terminology will come to be eliminated in favour of a completed science of the brain. Hence, Churchland's EM is more radical than its prototype. It carries the bolder implication that the basic assumptions of folk psychology do not exist at all. Most importantly, EM drives the materialist program into the 21st century by emphasizing recent developments in cognitive neuroscience. New imaging techniques have revealed a mass of interconnections between individual brain states and complex behaviours of the organism. Hence, folk psychological theories are becoming rapidly outdated as more interconnections between brain states and behaviours are identified through controlled experimentation. Patricia Churchland concludes that folk psychological conceptions of mind, much like other false conceptual frameworks in the history of philosophy and science, will be supplanted by a more exhaustive, future neuroscience.