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Patricia Churchland, BPhil
Free Will Matters
Emerita Professor of Philosophy, University of California, San Diego
2 Riverside Circle, Roanoke, VA 24016
A shuttle will depart from Burruss Hall in Blacksburg at 12:00 p.m. and return at 2:15 p.m.
Free will is a topic of immense practical importance, not only in the context of the law but also in the social development of children. A recent fashion among some neuroscientists is to say that free will is an illusion, implying that the law should be radically revised. Other neuroscience laboratories are devoted to studying the mechanisms for self-controlled behavior, both in animal models and in humans. They measure the capacity to defer gratification, maintain a goal despite distractions, suppress costly impulses, and so forth. Data show important differences in behavior among individual rats, among individual children, and in adults suffering various kinds of brain insults, such as lesions, dementias, and substance abuse. Researchers are tracking the brain pathways supporting self-controlled behavior, and they have found that self-control in children can be enhanced when they learn to imagine various options and their outcomes and when they engage in role-playing. At odds, therefore, with the dramatic pronouncements about free will are the data on self-control. Patricia Churchland, BPhil, will explore her hypothesis that the free-will-is-an-illusion idea is rooted in a confusion about the significance of causality in self-controlled behavior.
About the Speaker:
Patricia Churchland, BPhil, is a leading authority in the field of computational neuroscience. She explores the impact of scientific developments on our understanding of consciousness, the self, free will, decision-making, ethics, learning, and religion and issues concerning the neurobiological basis of consciousness, the self, and free will. She also tackles more technical questions about to what degree the nervous system is hierarchically organized, how the nervous system manages the difficult issues of coordination and timing, and what the mechanisms are for the perceptual phenomenon of filling-in. The central focus of her research has been the exploration and development of the hypothesis that the mind is the brain. Her first book, Neurophilosophy (MIT Press, 1986), argued in detail for a coevolution of psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience to answer questions about how the mind represents, reasons, decides, and perceives; her second book, The Computational Brain (MIT, 1992, with Terrence Sejnowski) addressed the theoretical apparatus needed to bridge the gap between lower and higher levels of brain organization. Churchland has served as president of the American Philosophical Association (Pacific Division) and the Society for Philosophy and Psychology. She won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1991.