Nagel Lectures-Department of Philosophy - Carnegie Mellon University

Ernest Nagel Lectures in Philosophy and Science

The Ernest Nagel Lectures in Philosophy & Science are held biennially. Through presentations by eminent philosophers and scientists, they highlight the deep connection between philosophical reflection and scientific activity.

2015 Lectures

Presented by Patricia Smith Churchland (UC President's Professor of Philosophy (emerita), University of California, San Diego)
Where do moral values come from? Tuesday March 3, 4:30 pm Gates Hillman Center 6115
Free will & self-control Thursday March 5, 4:30 pm Gates Hillman Center 6115
Norms, habits, and the basal ganglia Friday March 6, 12:00 noon Dean's Conference Room
(BH 154R)


Lecture 1: Where do moral values come from?

Abstract: Self-caring neural circuitry embodies self-preservation values, and these are values in the most elemental sense. Whence caring for others? The compelling line of evidence from neuroendocrinology suggests that in mammals and possibly birds, caring for others is an adaptation of brainstem-limbic circuitry whereby what counts as "me" extends to include offspring -- "me and mine". Oxytocin is at the hub of the intricate network adaptations. In some species, strong caring for the well-being of others may extend also to include kin or mates or friends or even strangers, as the circle widens. Two additional interdependent evolutionary changes are crucial for mammalian sociality/morality: (1) modifications to the reptilian pain system that, when elaborated, yield the capacity to evaluate and predict what others will feel, know, and do, and (2) learning, strongly involving imitation, linked to social pain and social pleasure that regulates the acquisition of the clan's social practices and the emergence of a conscience tuned to these practices. Social problem-solving, including policy-making, is probably an instance of problem-solving more generally, and draws upon the capacity, prodigious in humans, to envision consequences of a planned action. In humans, it also draws upon the capacity for improving upon current practices and technologies. Unlike other mammals, humans have developed highly complex language, and highly complex cultures. This means that our sociality, and consequently ours systems of ethical values, have become correspondingly complex.

Lecture 2: Free will & self-control

Abstract: Free will is a topic of practical significance, especially in the context of the law but also in the socialization of children. The idea that free will is an illusion, recently bruited by trendy writers, is rooted on a rigid 17th century Cartesian theory according to which no decision is truly free unless it occurs in a causal vacuum. Because brains make decisions and decisions emerge from causal interactions, free will allegedly gets no purchase. Rather alarmingly, this view may inspire a call to radically revise the criminal law. To update our ideas of free will, it is useful to shift debate away from the puzzling metaphysics of causal vacuums to the neurobiology of self-control. Understanding is aided by research that maps the neural mechanisms supporting self-controlled behavior, in both animals and humans. Noteworthy also are data on decision-making that indicate a role for counterfactual learning signals, observing that this function can be impaired by, for example, nicotine. Not surprisingly, genetics play a significant role in the base-line capacities related to self-control, as is suggested by the stable patterns of self-controlled behavior over a 60 year period. Although the criminal law is unlikely to be revised to provide a new kind of excuse to reflect genetic differences in self-control and the reward system, such data may be modestly relevant to discretionary sentencing judgments. The more profound importance of emerging data on self-control will concern interventions relevant to addictions and compulsions.

Past Lectures

Click here for archives of past Nagel Lectures.

About Ernest Nagel

Old NagelYoung NagelErnest Nagel (1901-1985), one of the most prominent philosophers of science in the 20th century, argued most strongly for the connection between philosophy and science. His book, The Structure of Science: Problems in the Logic of Scientific Explanation (1961) is a classic of the field. In the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, H. S. Thayes writes it is a masterly and complete exposition of his "analysis of explanation, the logic of scientific inquiry, and the logical structure of the organization of scientific knowledge, and it illuminates the cardinal issues concerning the foundation and the assessment of explanation in physics and in the biological and social sciences."

Related Papers:
Biographical Memoir of Ernest Nagel