Reductionist Neurophilosopher Dr. Patricia Churchland Awkwardly Ends Skeptiko Interview After Views Are Challenged

Pic: US Govt. (PD)

Pic: US Govt. (PD)

Was host Alex Tsakiris being too aggressive and disrespectful towards the good doctor? Or was Dr. Patricia Churchland – Oxford educated, MacArthur Fellowship awarded, highly regarded academic and author of recent you-are-your-brain book Touching a Nerve – simply ill-prepared for her long-standing beliefs, rooted in scientific materialism, to be contested?


(Interview and transcript also available over at Skeptiko)

While a great deal of attention has been focused on the narrowly circumscribed debate between Bill Nye and the Not Science Guy this past week, this seems like a conversation much more worth having.  Particularly since those who question certain aspects of current scientific orthodoxy – like Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake – have actual evidence to draw upon, along with plenty of experience dealing with contentious push-back.  Meanwhile, those who forcefully reject a non-materialistic worldview don’t seem to venture too far out of their self-reinforcing circles and, when (and if) they do, aren’t used to enduring an informed discussion.

Take, for instance, this exchange with noted materialist philosopher and New Atheism “horseman” Daniel Dennett.  Appearing in the foreword of Russell Targ’s The Reality of ESP: A Physicist’s Proof of Psychic Abilities, Stephen A. Schwartz writes:

“Along with Ed May, I once debated with Daniel Dennett, a prominent critic of ESP research, at an event produced by ABC News for station news staffs and station managers. We debated along for about thirty minutes, with Dennett making dismissive and disparaging remarks to anything Ed or I said, but always in generalities. Finally I said to him: “Let’s pick an experiment we both know, and you tell me what is wrong with it, and I will respond.” Without a moment’s hesitation he shot back in the most deliberately condescending act I have ever witnessed, saying, “You don’t think I actually read this stuff, do you?” There was a moment’s silence, then laughter began, first as giggles, then as chuckles, and, finally, as guffaws. It suddenly dawned on Dennett what he had said. He blushed and sat down, and left as soon as he could” (Targ xv)

Rupert Sheldrake relates a similar encounter with Richard Dawkins:

“Soon before Enemies of Reason was filmed, the production company, IWC Media, told me that Richard Dawkins wanted to visit me to discuss my research on unexplained abilities of people and animals. I was reluctant to take part, but the company’s representative assured me that “this documentary, at Channel 4’s insistence, will be an entirely more balanced affair than The Root of All Evil was.” She added, “We are very keen for it to be a discussion between two scientists, about scientific modes of enquiry”. So I agreed and we fixed a date. I was still not sure what to expect. Was Richard Dawkins going to be dogmatic, with a mental firewall that blocked out any evidence that went against his beliefs? Or would he be open-minded, and fun to talk to?


The previous week I had sent Richard copies of some of my papers, published in peer-reviewed journals, so that he could look at the data.

Richard seemed uneasy and said, “I don’t want to discuss evidence”. “Why not?” I asked. “There isn’t time. It’s too complicated. And that’s not what this programme is about.” The camera stopped.

The Director, Russell Barnes, confirmed that he too was not interested in evidence. The film he was making was another Dawkins polemic.”

Many in the scientific community chimed in before the Nye/Ham debate, bothered by the idea that Nye’s simple participation would give Ham’s point-of-view some sort of legitimacy.  They would rather it have been avoided altogether and considered it a silly idea to even entertain.  And, while that may or may not be the case, they make similar assertions when it comes to publicly engaging the likes of Sheldrake and Radin.  If either of those two men acted the way Dawkins, Dennett, or Churchland did when challenged, it would be instantly seized upon by the “skeptic” community, citing their behavior as evidence to the weakness of their arguments.  As it stands, they field confrontational inquiries frequently and remain calm and rational while doing so (check out any number of their lectures on YouTube, particularly the Q&A portion).

Sheldrake himself happily dove headfirst into the lion’s den in a fantastic Dutch program from 1993 called A Glorious Accident – hosted by likely supervillain Wim Kayzer and featuring such guests as Daniel Dennett, Freeman Dyson, Stephen Jay Gould, George Page, Oliver Sacks, Stephen Toulmin, and Sheldrake.  Part of a much larger series where each participant was interviewed individually, they all came together in the end for a fascinating for its entire 3-hour duration round-table:

More and more people are calling for open, informed discussions regarding psi and spirituality in general.  So let’s see those public debates/round-tables with the best from both sides.

34 Comments on "Reductionist Neurophilosopher Dr. Patricia Churchland Awkwardly Ends Skeptiko Interview After Views Are Challenged"

  1. American Cannibal | Feb 10, 2014 at 7:17 pm |

    Dennett is a brilliant and stubborn man.

  2. Gjallarbru | Feb 10, 2014 at 8:35 pm |

    Again with this black and white mankind is obsessed with. Reductionist want to hear nothing but the sound of their own voice. They are convinced that the world is strictly material, period, and anybody on the “other side” aren’t worth listening to.

    Dogmatism will be the downfall of man. It brings black and white mentality where your dogma is either respected, or there is heresy in the air. Religion and “science” are so alike in this respect, it is sad. Dogma is comforting for the believers, and makes it all but impossible to consider anything that could bring us out of a chosen dogma.

    Scientific dogma is a bad as any other, since it is just as arrogant.

    • I respectfully share my observation of what I am perceiving of what you have said here.

      From my perspective, the way you have worded this criticism appears to me to be just as polarized and dogmatic.

      Is there another way you can frame your criticism that is more clearly subjective?

      • Gjallarbru | Feb 10, 2014 at 9:44 pm |

        I will try to address your request.

        In a way you are right, if I say out right “dogma is bad”, then that is itself a dogma. But then, I would say that is the only dogma that should be tolerated for it, at least, has the vertu of not jailing us in any other particular view. Further, it isn’t a dogma about any particular knowledge or belief, scientific or religious, making it very different from the rest.

        In the end, what I truly mean is that anytime we believe something and crystallize it to form dogma, the crystal is in fact our mind. The human mind, under dogma, is then unable to “move” and learn, nor is at able to see the subtleties where actual reality lies. Even worse, we will tend to defend our dogma, for the inertia of dogma is comforting, its certainty a balm in an uncertain world. And to top it off, dogma flatters the ego, which means there is an emotional response to any attack against our adopted dogma. The emotional response further precludes the application of reason and critical thinking.

        In my view, dogma prevents progression, and blinds or binds otherwise intelligent inquisitive minds. That is why scientist still hesitate to study ESP, both because there is dogma that says there is no such thing, but also because it is heresy to even think differently. And then there is consciousness. Such an obvious phenomena is not studied, and if I understand correctly, even recently denied as reak by Hawkins. Consciousness itself is a victim of hardened positions, otherwise known as dogma.

        So I guess what I say boils down to four things:

        1- Doubt what you know: Ever constant doubt will force you to continuously examin what you think you know. That constant examination will either refine your knowledge, or allow you to reject outmoded, unjustified beliefs. Think of this as self criticism, within reason. Error is still possible, dogma makes it harder to find it with the certainty it procures. Doubt will allow you to listen, and the either decide to accept, examin further, or outright reject knowledge as you see fit.

        2- Do not feel attachment: Nothing is worth your attachment. Things change, knowledge can be refined, and your undestanding deepened. If you attach your self-image to a piece a knowledge or a belief, you will stifle your evolution if ever what you believed is revealed as false. You won’t be able to easily let got of it. How reasonable is it to restrain your ability to reject falsehoods.

        3- Maintain your sense of wonder: Dogma kill wonderment by fixating your world view. When too dogmatic, the wondrous things in life, that might reveal a significant thing, will not be seen by your mind. It is unreasonable to blind yourself.

        4- Guard your mind: Dogma would invade your mind with any mesure certainty and harden it. Ludicrous beliefs would make you an idiot. Accept only what you have personnally weighed, which brings us back to point 1. Of course, this is an invitation to weigh what I just wrote now, or at any other time, and I do welcome an opposing view.

        This text is rather long, I hope it has the capacity to address your concerns. If I have failed in making myself clearer, I’m afraid this would mean we have reached the limits of my written skills. English being a second language for me, it wouldn’t be surprising if it would be the case.

        • phew* I had a couple concerns. One that you would be offended. Thank you for writing that, it’s assisted me in understanding. Thank you for taking this on.

          Something else that concerns me is your view of reductionists.

          Reductionist want to hear nothing but the sound of their own voice.

          • Gjallarbru | Feb 11, 2014 at 7:25 am |

            Well, I enjoy a good debate. Ideas can’t grow if we were all afraid to confront each other. Therefore, I don’t feel offended by confrontation of my positions, confrontation is a gift. I know, it is a strange proposition, but I’m convinced of it. Of course, that is limited to civilized confrontation, like you did. There was nothing impolite or contemptuous about the way you expressed yourself. In other words, confrontation is fine, as long as it doesn’t cross the line into the production of needless insults.

            As for reductionist, the answer is their name. How can they be open to a larger view, if they are reductionists? Considering a larger universe than what they believe in is against their very name. We couldn’t call them reductionist if they were willing to at least consider the possibility of more than the material world. What I know of them tells me they bare their name really well. They have narrowed their own minds and reduced it to echo only what they believe. Of course, they could eventually change their minds, but if they did, they wouldn’t be reductionists any more.

            You see, it is all in the name, which itself is very narrow and reducing.

          • American Cannibal | Feb 11, 2014 at 9:01 am |

            I had time to watch the first 40 minutes of “A Glorious Accident” last night. I’ll be watching the rest in time. I highly recommend it to everyone.

            Coincidentally, I read Emerson’s essay “Circles” before bed last night, and this bit struck to the heart of the Reductionists world view & the debate:

            “Every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series. Every general law only a particular fact of some more general law presently to disclose itself. There is no outside, no inclosing wall, no circumference to us.”

          • Gjallarbru | Feb 11, 2014 at 9:18 am |

            Indeed, there is a great thought, “no inclosing wall”.

          • Awesome, thanks for sharing.

        • Also I’d like to point out that I am not an authority, and I view you as an equal. I am very much a flawed person. I enjoy reading your responses, even though I may not agree at times. Not to say I disagree with the spirit of what you are saying here. It just felt like the right thing to do.

  3. It’s pretty clear by listening to this guy talk after she hangs up, that he doesn’t respect her or her work. There was no need to badmouth her after the fact. So not cool.

    • I thought the false choice offered to the reader in the opening paragraph was pretty cute. I submit a third option: maybe Dr. Churchland realized what a complete waste of her time the interview was.

  4. happypedro | Feb 10, 2014 at 9:43 pm |

    Interesting comments on Alex Tsakris here:

    • So he’s not skeptical enough, prone to woo?

      • happypedro | Feb 10, 2014 at 10:39 pm |

        I tend to lean toward viewing existence as not mere materialism, but this section…


        Tsakiris likes to sandbag interviewees with sudden changes in plans just before recording, and is unapologetic about doing so. He has a habit of post-editing interviews with voiceovers when things are not going his way, e.g. the Benson interview.

        The transcripts of the podcasts cannot be trusted. Tsakiris edits the interviewees’ words to push his views (e.g. changing every time Coyne said “Newtonian” to “quantum” — ‘cos the words sound so similar) or just makes up entire sentences attributed to the interviewees that aren’t present in the audio.

        Stuart Robbins of Exposing PseudoAstronomy has analysed in detail Tsakiris’ misunderstandings of how science works:

        Confusing papers’ conclusions and their original data.

        Confusing argument from authority with scientific consensus.

        Picking guests from Amazon best-seller lists rather than finding credible scientists with a peer-reviewed track record.

        Confusing a class of outcomes with a single cause, i.e., not understanding that one effect can have multiple causes (including mundane ones).

        Telling experts they don’t understand the area of their expertise when they don’t agree with him.

        Claiming a phenomenon should be studied before even establishing it exists.

        Appeal to quantum mechanics.

        Appeal to an individual researcher’s unduplicated results.

        Relying on eyewitness memories decades after the fact.

        Not understanding that it’s up to the claimant to provide the evidence.

        These are down to natural human cognitive biases, which is why science is hard. But when experts in all the scientific areas you deal with tell you you’re full of it, it may be an idea to consider the notion.


        …gives one pause. Raise questions, absolutely great. Propose and even promote the idea that there is much more to what we know and see, always good. But post-editing, etc, is not being skeptical, it’s being deceptive. His questions and thoughts in the interview were solid, (and, again, I tend to think Dr. Churchland and the materialist viewpoints are incomplete if not incorrect), but given these critiques of his methodologies one has to wonder how much he was actually messing with Dr. Churchland.

        • Pardon, I didn’t get that far. Also, what I meant but what I said was that wow, even he’s not skeptical enough for some.

          Certainly what you have quoted is damning info. That’s people’s careers he’s messing with.

        • Reading the word woo put me off. I can’t stand it, so I stopped reading. I should have kept reading, obviously.

  5. Just came across a few more of the rare instances when prominent scientists/critics publicly engaged Sheldrake. The first was biologist Lewis Wolpert, “one of Britain’s best-known public spokesmen for science.” Audio for the debate can be found at:

    And a write-up in Nature:

    Telepathy debate hits London

    “Scientists tend to steer clear of public debates with advocates of the paranormal. And judging from the response of a London audience to a rare example of such a head-to-head conflict last week, they are wise to do so.

    Lewis Wolpert, a developmental biologist at University College London, made the case against the existence of telepathy at a debate at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in London on 15 January. Rupert Sheldrake, a former biochemist and plant physiologist at the University of Cambridge who has taken up parapsychology, argued in its favour. And most of the 200-strong audience seemed to agree with him…”

    Another was with chemist and former Oxford professor Peter Atkins, that included this exchange:

    Interviewer: Let’s put that to Rupert. Rupert Sheldrake, he says you’re just playing with statistics. He doesn’t believe a word of it. What do you say to him?

    Rupert: Well I’d like to ask him if he’s actually read the evidence? May I ask you Professor Atkins if you’e actually studied any of this evidence or any other evidence?

    Atkins: No, but I would be very suspicious of it.

    Rupert: Of course, being suspicious of it in advance of seeing it is normally called prejudice. (transcript)

    • Rhoid Rager | Feb 11, 2014 at 1:20 am |

      I liked the psychic parrot bit in Sheldrake’s evidence. ‘Interrupts her owners dreams by commenting on what she is dreaming about’ Classic. Sheldrake is a master of empirics. That takes a lot of hard work.

      • Same here. And, while Sheldrake will admit his ignorance in a given area, he always comes prepared to back up the conclusions or suspicions he has arrived at. There was actually a great Q&A at the end of the debate, where Sheldrake came under fire almost immediately for his morphic resonance theory (from a developmental biologist in the audience), and Sheldrake keeps his cool and is able to point out gaps in current understanding and where his ideas fit in:

        Whether his theory holds any weight in the end or not, it remains to be seen. Interesting thing is, there is emerging evidence that something of a similar nature may be at work. For example, check out the research of Michael Levin (a developmental biologist himself) and the largely unexplored role electromagnetic fields might play in “guiding” biological development (this article, by the way, won last year’s prestigious Institute of Physics journalism prize):

        This video from the article made the rounds awhile back showing an electrical “impression” of a frog’s face while still in early stages of development:

        The Face of a Frog

        Didn’t want to derail this into debating/defending the merits of morphic resonance per se, just pointing out how Sheldrake has been unfairly maligned and faced absolutist rejection throughout his career, when there might well be a ‘there’ there (and not limited to MR). Like you said, takes a lot of hard work, and a load of patience and resilience (could have easily and justifiably gone the route of Ignaz Semmelweiss).

        • Rhoid Rager | Feb 11, 2014 at 6:59 pm |

          Those are fascinating links. Thank you for providing them. I had seen the video of the frog face before and consider it as reinforcing evidence for MR, but I was unaware of Levin’s article. It’s my belief that morphic fields offer a very good explanation for the basis of form among other things. Field-thinking seems to be quite a powerful explanatory tool for our reality; and, I apply it in my understanding of the social dynamics of our species. I’m still considering how best to express/describe the dynamics of social fields, since it’s not a topic amenable to qualitative analysis in words.

          I did not, however, know of the case of Ignaz Semmelweiss. I have read his wikipedia article and logged his name and case in my notes. Tragic, indeed: beaten to death by guards in the asylum he was committed. Semmelweiss’s case is fascinating: He induced that ‘cadaverous particles’ were carried on the hands of residents going from autopsies to birthing rooms, thus raising the incidence of puerperal fever among mothers and infants. It emphasizes the importance of not losing sight of the details of daily routines and tasks to pick up clues as to how the larger reality functions. I think everyone can draw a lesson from that; and, it seems applicable in so many different ways.

          Another lesson drawn is from the exclusionary and elitist attitude taken by learned men (intentionally gender specific). There seems to be parallels between how the doctors of Semmelweiss’s time took offense at
          washing their hands before procedures, and how scientists now look down upon anecdotal
          evidence as not being a basis for progressing science. As Sheldrake says, keeping an open mind is the very basis for science.

          • Semmelweiss is a cautionary tale that I’m often reminded of, I’m glad to have brought him to your attention. Great lessons you’ve drawn out.

            Agreed when it comes to field thinking. I’ve recently given deeper thought to its implications from the perspective of evolution. Meaning, beyond the gene-centric dogma (which is being stress tested on other grounds) or ‘extended phenotype,’ or even the morphic resonance of a given species, seeing that each seemingly individual act of evolution isn’t merely that species evolving, it’s the total field “evolving.” Not to say there isn’t valuable insight to be gleaned at gene-level, as Aldous Huxley notes…

            “The world is a continuum; but in order to act upon it successfully, we have to analyse it into easily comprehensible elements. The cake of experience can be cut in many different ways, and none of the systems of slicing can express the molar fact completely; each, however, may be useful for some particular purpose. There have been literally hundreds of analyses of human nature, some excellent, others less good, others again positively misleading.”

            …just that it’s the greater perspective offered by what Alan Watts called the ‘organism-environment’ (similar to the conjoining of space-time). For example, one would recognize that rather than saying you have a green caterpillar in an environment, your perspective shifts to see the entirety of the environment is “green caterpillar-ing” at present circumstance – it’s a pattern/flowing event, not a “thing.” It’s John Muir’s “try to pick out anything by itself and find it hitched to the rest of the universe,” but conceptualized in a different/biological way. Watts, as mentioned, was able to describe this on numerous occasions exceedingly well:

            “The behavior of the environment, and the behavior of that organism within that environment, is one behavior, and you mustn’t think of this deterministically. That is to say, as if the organism were something merely subservient to the environment. Nor must you think the opposite way, that the environment is something that can be pushed around by the organism. When an organism starts looking as if it were pushing its environment around, it simply means that the environment/organism, the total field, is changing itself.

            You learn to see that there is simply one behavior pattern working, which we will call the organism-environment, and if you understand that, you understand that YOU are this totality organism-environment, and so you are moving with it in the same way that all the organs of your physical body are moving together.

            So just as we are organized that way, as organisms, so also we are, although not aware of it, organized that way collectively as individuals relating to each other and relating to the other forms of life, and to the geology, and the meteorlogical and astronomical phenomena around us. Only we haven’t come to notice it. Our attention has been so fixed upon some of the details of this relationship, that we have created a system of details as if it were a separate physical system”

            That last paragraph seems to speak to your interest in social fields. If you’re interested, you can find it buried in here:


            It’s a long-ass transcript comprising three of his talks, so maybe do a word ‘find…’ if you want to see the context of that excerpt. There’s another great section that starts with this:

            “Upon reflection, there seems to be nothing unreasonable in seeing the world in this way. The agent behind every action is itself action. If a mat can be called matting, a cat can be called catting. We do not actually need to ask who or what ‘cats,’ just as we do not need to ask what is the basic stuff or substance out of which the world is formed—for there is no way of describing this substance except in terms of form, of structure, order, and operation. The world is not formed as if it were inert clay responding to the touch of a potter’s hand; the world is form, or better, formation, for upon examination every substance turns out to be closely knit pattern…”

            Comment length is running away on me, so I’ll just cut it off there.

        • Rhoid Rager | Feb 11, 2014 at 7:16 pm |

          Just listened to the Q&A. Sheldrake masterfully handled the developmental biologist, despite the hostility and rhetoric–or perhaps, _because_ of the hostility and rhetoric. Sheldrake has a confidence about him that does not suffer in the slightest from these onslaughts. Rather, he seems to be emboldened by them. His responses are so instantaneous and well-formed, that it seems like he has already encountered/thought of/covered these counterarguments many times before. This fastidious quality of his was what first appealed to me.

  6. Rhoid Rager | Feb 11, 2014 at 12:33 am |

    He squandered a good opportunity to have an intelligent and possibly-progressive discussion by being rude. His clumsy approach evoked a very-predictable snippy attitude. She’s an academic and is not used to being laughed at or dismissed. He should have researched her position more rather than come out in full attack mode on all ‘reductionist materialist scientists’. If he waited that long to interview her and finally got the chance, he should have had his shit together more. What a fucking waste.

    • Kevin Leonard | Feb 11, 2014 at 11:55 am |

      Oh. So you mean he should not have done what Dawkins does.

      • Rhoid Rager | Feb 11, 2014 at 6:28 pm |

        But he did do what Dawkins does…

        • Kevin Leonard | Feb 11, 2014 at 7:37 pm |

          I wasn’t suggesting he did otherwise.

          But I will suggest that, with their notoriety, the Four Horsemen of New Atheism should be held to higher standards of intellectual integrity than the behavior of Dawkins and Dennet indicated here.

          “She’s an academic and is not used to being laughed at or dismissed.” Are you suggesting that she suffers some academic version of affluenza and therefore should be granted some form of immunity? Perhaps she should be more like Sheldrake.

          • Rhoid Rager | Feb 11, 2014 at 7:41 pm |

            It’s a matter of social intelligence. Knowledge is propagated not so much my logic, but by rhetoric. That’s the great miscalculation by the neo-atheists. They assume that their inculcated method of looking at the world will naturally appeal to people if they could only grasp the inherent logic behind the science. This is mistaken. Social intelligence needs to be employed more adroitly to massage these perspectives into people. Concentration should be on rhetorical delivery rather than ‘force’ of logic. One can’t push a string.

          • Kevin Leonard | Feb 11, 2014 at 8:16 pm |

            Okay. I just listened to the audio to see if there was something in his tone. I’d say he was rather polite and accomodating for any potential technical problems. While she was rather unwilling to engage any challenges to her position. And that’s weak. I don’t think she should be afforded any courtesies and should be prepared to answer any challenges to her assertions, especially those that were printed in her book.

          • Kevin Leonard | Feb 11, 2014 at 8:23 pm |

            And I love the irony that her book is called “Touching a Nerve.”

          • Rhoid Rager | Feb 11, 2014 at 8:26 pm |

            You misunderstand my basic position on this. I don’t think being polite to her is for her sake. It is for the sake of promoting a perspective in an intelligent and strategic way.
            As for him being rather polite, he did laugh at one point. He also approached her disdainfully by lumping her together with other ‘materialist scientists’. Whether this was fair treatment or not is not my concern. However, it should be obvious that this should elicit a negative (yet surprisingly childish) response from her. The whole ‘technical issue’ thing was the result of his full-guns-blazing approach. It was sloppy and a better interviewer should have known better.

          • Kevin Leonard | Feb 11, 2014 at 8:32 pm |

            I’m sorry, man. I just don’t understand why you are being an apologist for her. She balked at the first challenge. She had no business accepting the interview if she knew beforehand what his position was (as he said he had informed her).

  7. kowalityjesus | Feb 11, 2014 at 4:12 am |

    There’s a thin line between science and religion…haters your inevitable destiny: reincarnate.

Comments are closed.