This is an important book, although not perhaps for the reasons the author would like. Having enjoyed reading Michelangelo's Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence
and hearing Raymond Tallis talk in person on several occasions, I was looking forward to this, with some reservations. Unfortunately, those reservations have been aggravated rather than assuaged now that I'm reading the book. It has much to recommend it and it's also incredibly frustrating in places. I enjoy the breadth of his knowledge and his passionate advocacy of science (as a clinical neuroscientist he was "awestruck by the images that became available" towards the end of his career). Unlike many scientists, he appreciates the usefulness of philosophy in clearing the ground of conceptual muddles, and in this vein he has an admirable disdain for poststructuralism and other such intellectual fads.
A peculiar quality of this book, however, is that some aspects can both impress and frustrate, almost at the same time. For example, the bibliography runs to over fifteen pages, and represents an impressive range of primary publications and secondary reading. Tallis not only knows what he's talking about, he seems to know what everyone else is talking about. So, why can I, with a much smaller library of references, identify at least three or four books that are unaccountably absent? Now, I usually don't like critics who complain about what's missing, but occasionally I think such complaints can be justified.
For example, one of the major themes of the book explores, to put it crudely, the gap between matter and consciousness. Tallis is keen "to resist the claim that it is the structure and complexity of the brain that creates consciousness". Those who suppose that the contents of consciousness boil down to "patterns of material objects or events" in the brain forget that these have to be picked out by something else: "a conscious observer". How Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain
is actually the title of Antonio Damasio's latest book, mysteriously uncited by Tallis despite being highly relevant. Damasio explores how "the brain manages to introduce a knower in the mind" (p11 of his book). In contrast, time and again Tallis pours scorn on "the Hippocratic notion that the brain and the mind are identical" (p39 of his book) and so, it would seem, Tallis must conclude that Damasio is making a fundamental mistake. And yet when Damasio writes that there "is indeed a self, but it is a process, not a thing", surely Tallis would agree?
"The notion that our consciousness, the self to which the successive moments of consciousness are attributed, our personality, our character, personhood itself, are identical with activity in our brains is so widely received that it seems downright eccentric to profess otherwise." That Tallis is aware of his own eccentricity is endearing up to a point, until it becomes, and in one sense literally, self-defeating. In his vehement rejection of the brain he does not see that he's also throwing overboard the very thing he wants to preserve, the self.
For all its complexity and diversity, the self has one very simple, and logically crucial, property: boundedness. Tallis seems to forget this when he insists that our "consciousness, and the engines that shape it, cannot be found solely in the stand-alone brain; or even just in a brain in a body; or even in a brain interacting with other brains in bodies". Our consciousness, he continues, "participates in, and is part of, a community of minds built up by conscious human beings over hundreds of thousands of years". Surely, he is confusing consciousness with culture?
In Soul Searching: Human Nature and Supernatural Belief
(another uncited book), Nicholas Humphrey identifies one necessary condition for natural selection as being that living organisms should be highly discrete in the way they go about things. Having boundaries is essential, not just biologically, but for precisely those aspects of human nature that Tallis fears are under threat from a biological description: personality, character, personhood, self.
Humphrey also notes that scientific materialism "is regarded by many, even by some of its own prophets, as deeply unsatisfying" (p7 of his book). Along with the "resistless melancholy" Elizabeth Barrett feared would fall upon her if she had such thoughts, this captures the overwhelming feeling of this book. I certainly got the impression that Tallis would agree wholeheartedly with Elizabeth Barrett that scientific materialism is "a miserable creed" but I just don't share his pain. That could well be because I am too stupid to understand the issues, and I freely admit I may be closer to the pig satisfied than Socrates unsatisfied.
However, Tallis is not quite the socratic sage himself. In a revealing sentence he says: "if the arguments sketched above were sound... then we would require no data to support them". Now, he is enough of a philosopher to realize that arguments are either sound or unsound, not true or false, but he seems to forget that validity is only one criterion for soundness: the premises must also be true, and this requires data.
This is not the only infelicity in reasoning. In attacking the bogeyman of determinism he mistakenly conflates ultimate and personal responsibility, as if losing one jeopardizes the other. In her magnificent Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction (Philosophy and the Human Situation)
(another uncited book), the professional philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards addresses many of the issues that concern Tallis. Indeed, her title is one of the major themes of his book, which makes this omission all the more curious. In contrast with Tallis, she writes that "many philosophers argue that determinism is essential for free will and responsibility" (p139 of her book). You wouldn't get that impression reading Aping Mankind.
Tallis snorts in derision at uberneuromaniac Daniel Dennett's idea that free will is an illusion. What's so funny about that? Gravity, too, is an illusion (a "fictitious" force, according to Victor Stenger in Fallacy of Fine-Tuning
), but I don't go jumping out of fifth-floor windows expecting to fly. This polemical tone can be entertaining so long as you share his judgement about who is a deserving target, although it also inevitably corrodes his intellectual project. For example, he quite rightly recoils from prefix promiscuity, where neuro- is tagged on to everything. And yet Tallis is guilty of this himself. I've always read Dennett as a philosopher who has a broad and deep interest in science. I've heard him lecture several times, and I've never heard him described or introduced as a "neurophilosopher" and yet this is how Tallis chooses to characterize him. It is one of the many ironies in this book that Tallis narrows Dennett with this demeaning term, while elsewhere lambasting those who limit our view of the mind to brain.
Is it also a cheap rhetorical trick to invent ridiculous sounding terms like Neuromania and Darwinitis and then go on at length as though they were real? I wouldn't go that far. These ugly diseases of the mind are more than "shaping fantasies" apprehended by the seething brain of Raymond Tallis. That they are not entirely within his own head gives this book some legitimacy, although, ironically, their unreality would vindicate some of his arguments about the mind's wonderful ability to transcend material reality. He has given local habitation and names to more than "airy nothing" but I fear he "sees more devils than vast hell can hold".