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69 of 76 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A readable and penetrating polemic
The doctrine that the brain is the sole source of mental phenomena is so firmly established in Western intellectual circles that it takes a brave thinker to challenge it. Raymond Tallis doesn't merely make the case against it, he tears into it with polemical gusto.

Tallis has no patience with scientism, the 'mistaken belief that the natural sciences can or...
Published on 12 July 2011 by Robert McLuhan

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84 of 105 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mind how you go
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...
Published on 28 Jun 2011 by Sphex


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69 of 76 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A readable and penetrating polemic, 12 July 2011
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The doctrine that the brain is the sole source of mental phenomena is so firmly established in Western intellectual circles that it takes a brave thinker to challenge it. Raymond Tallis doesn't merely make the case against it, he tears into it with polemical gusto.

Tallis has no patience with scientism, the 'mistaken belief that the natural sciences can or will give a complete description and even explanation of everything, including human life'. He takes aim at the orthodox view of the brain, promoted aggressively by Daniel Dennett among others, that every mental phenomenon can be accounted for in terms of matter - the physical stuff of physics, chemistry, and physiology. Human behaviour and decision-making can't be reduced to what is going on in our brains, any more than it can be explained in terms of evolutionary adaptation, he thinks. Far from being chained to our evolutionary past, human consciousness has developed to the point that we have the ability to recognize and subvert the unconscious impulses that are supposed to drive us.

There are no punches pulled here. The idea underlying modern neuroscience, that nerve impulses can journey towards a place where they become consciousness, is plain 'barmy', Tallis thinks. He is scathing about Daniel Dennett's attempt to explain away intentionality by arguing that the inner life we ascribe to others is merely an 'interpretative device' and that nothing in reality corresponds to it. On the contrary, he argues, 'it is not out of mere interpretative convenience that we ascribe all sorts of intentional phenomena - perceptions, feelings, thoughts - to people; it is because the intentional phenomena are real, as we know from our own case.' These questions are easy to lose sight of, Tallis suggests, especially if one 'is a neuromaniac and has a vested interest in concealing it'.

Tallis is especially scornful about the way academics in the humanities - until recently sceptical of the claims of science - have rushed to embrace what he calls 'Neuromania', developing a whole new line in gobbledygook with which to impress and baffle their readers. He points out that fMRI scanning technology is actually quite a blunt instrument, that misses at least as much neuronal activity as it reveals - and doesn't justify the claims being based on it. The design of the studies used to reveal what's going on in the brain when, for instance, we feel romantic love or go on a shopping binge are 'laughably crude' and actually don't explain very much at all.

What gives the polemic force is the fact that Tallis knows his stuff, as a medical doctor who has also engaged in neuroscientific research. He gives a very detailed picture of what is known about the workings of the brain, and the assumptions that are currently being made about it, before going on to demonstrate what he considers to be gross flaws in the orthodox approaches.

Once I'd grasped how completely Tallis rejects current thinking I was all agog to know what he - a knowledgeable neuroscientist and 'proud atheist' - would propose in its place. He briefly sketches three alternatives: that consciousness is to be understood in terms of human relations as much as in biology (a view apparently now being promoted by the MIT, once the capital of mind-brain identity theory); that the solution will be found in quantum mechanics (which he forcefully dismisses); or that we should seriously moot the possibility of panpsychism, that consciousness is present throughout the entire universe (which, like David Chalmers and Galen Strawson, he considers has a certain logic). However since none of these really appeal, he is content to remain an 'ontological agnostic'.

Aping Mankind is erudite, passionate, witty and humane, although the humour will probably be lost on readers who find their assumptions being mocked. There will be at least some support for the attack on the media's uncritical fascination with neuroscience - this is a bubble just waiting to be pricked. But I can't see the arguments against consciousness being a product solely of brain functions gaining much traction with an establishment so wedded to materialist dogmas. That someone taking the minority view should express himself so forcefully will be considered poor taste.

However for those of us who consider the orthodox view of mind to be scientifically and philosophically incoherent - and richly in need of debunking - his book is a wonderfully stimulating read.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Powerful Path Through the Neuro-Darwinian Jungle, 11 Sep 2011
When a colleague told me that evolutionary psychologists had recently discovered that human beings had evolved to be social animals I was aghast. Having been a social psychologist myself for half a century and aware of at least two hundred years of the greatest minds studying people and their society, taking for granted we are all social beings, I was horrified that any discipline could claim to have 'discovered' this self-evident fact. I realised this was part of a turf war, fought with simple experiments using highly complicated brain mapping machines and unverifiable claims for evolutionary origins, to claim intellectual ownership of every conceivable aspect of human activity and experience from rape to religion. But it was not until I read Raymond Tallis' book that I realised just how deeply these neuro-Darwinian revolutionaries had penetrated into every aspect of our intellectual and professional life. He reveals how nothing is sacred to them whether it be the poems of John Donne or jurisprudence, appreciation of paintings or politics.

Fighting his way through this plethora of attempts to diminish human beings to little more than their biology and evolutionary history he shows with remarkable clarity and wit just how illogical and empirically unsound are their claims. He does this by starting with consideration of the basic biological building blocks of nerve cells and synapses then on to larger structures and the brain. At each stage he deftly shows that it is just not possible to explain the richness of human consciousness, interpersonal-contact and culture by reduction to biochemical processes.

What is remarkable and of the greatest importance in his criticism of claims that we are only our brains is that he steers clear of the pitfalls that lay in wait for those who do not have the grasp of neuroscience he has. Tallis makes clear that some sort of spiritual existence independently of the body has no logical support. He also accepts totally the role of our bodies and brains in what makes us who we are, especially when severe brain damage influences how we act. Something he is all too painfully aware of in his clinical practice. But our biology is only a starting point, human experience, society and culture create our being beyond our bodies.

This book is part of a small library of books Raymond Tallis has written on related matters. It shows him to be in the vangaurd of a growing number of philosphers and scientists who have seen that the neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists have been having a free ride. The media fascination with the simplistic idea that we are just naked apes gives publicity to claims that are potentially destructive because they dehumanise human beings. It is for that reason that Tallis' explorations of the ethical implications of the biological interpretations of what makes us people are the most important aspects of this significant book.
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84 of 105 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mind how you go, 28 Jun 2011
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Sphex (London) - See all my reviews
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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".
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Book for a Lifetime, 20 Aug 2011
This is one of those books which,though not an easy read, is well worth the concentrated effort required to understand it.It is by no means impossible and the text is enlivened by the author's choice of examples and up to date references. His use of repetition is essential for the untutored reader such as myself.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A valuable antidote to the materialist view of mind, 25 Mar 2014
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This is an excellent book that gives the reader a good introduction to neuroscience and its limitations. It is fairly easy to read even for someone with no background in the topic. It also gives a good understandable account of evolutionary theory and goes on to examine how this has combined with neuroscience to reduce human beings to mere animals or matter. Almost all writers on this topic have been carried away by the pictures produced by brain scans into joining the band wagon of identifying the mind with the brain. This book is a well written stand against the flow of that tide. I think Tallis gets a bit bogged down with some of his analysis around consciousness and the philosophy of mind, which is why I have given 4 stars not 5. An excellent readable book I would recommend to anyone interested in this subject.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Realigned my perception, 4 Nov 2013
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This review is from: Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Paperback)
Really opened my eyes to the extent that so much of what passes for science these days, and is taken for granted as being science and acted upon as such, is actually a travesty of science.

The central idea, I suppose, is that human behaviour is far too complex and multicausal to be reduced to any one single influence.

So, when it comes to neuro-reductionism the idea is that, with complex behaviour (and pretty much all behaviour is complex), the brain does not "make" one do anything – there are just too many mediating factors to draw a direct stimulus/response sort of relationship between brain chemistry and/or brain function and the particular behaviour seen to be made manifest by the person or persons involved.

So, reducing complex behaviour to the brain, as a great many neuroscientific studies do (or worse, to "stuff that helped our ancestors survive 100,000 years ago"), is inherently doomed to mischaracterise, and simplify to the point of absurdity, the nature and causes of that complex behaviour.

The only reason I give it 4 and not 5 stars is because the tone is a immature, and it is perhaps not quite charitable enough to some of the better studies in the above domains.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book to read and re-read, 6 Oct 2012
This review is from: Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Paperback)
It's hard to think of a work of science or philosophy that would make you laugh out loud or punch the air with joy. 'Aping Manking' made me do both.
From a standpoint of authority, as a neuroscientist and medic, Raymond Tallis challenges the new - and expanding - faith of scientism, putting to the sword some big names with razor-sharp logic. Reintroducing a spirit of humility to the natural sciences, he explores with great honesty and insight what he calls the "mystery" of consciousness and reminds us that you can achieve a much richer understanding of humanity by admitting what you don't know as well as what you do.
Hold this book before you as a light out of the reductionist darkness some intelligent minds have led us down.
Incidentally, I rushed out to buy this book after stumbling across his more recent - and superb - collection of essays, 'In Defence of Wonder'. Why isn't Raymond Tallis better known?
Joe Humphreys, journalist and author, Dublin, Ireland.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought Provoking but not always Convincing, 23 July 2012
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Aping Mankind does a lot to illustrate that both current neuroscience and evolutionary psychology are very blunt instruments when it comes to explaining the complexities of human behavior and human society. Tallis points out that we are much more than just our brains, we are a society and a community of minds. He seems to be motivated by the risk that simplistic analysis of human behavior degrades the richness and potential of humanity. We are more than animals. The book is worth reading for this alone. He also makes some interesting points in relation to free will. However other aspects are much less convincing. Tallis seems to think that some FUNDAMENTAL science remains to be discovered to explain subjective experience but he admits that he has no idea what that fundamental new science may be. In this he takes on many established philosophers and neuroscientists. He seems to assert that physical processes (at least as they are currently understood) cannot give rise to subjective experiences and yet he is, very reasonably, not suggesting a dualist mind/body model . In this area many of his arguments seemed much less convincing. But it was still worth reading to understand his view that current neuroscience will not eventually explain conscious experience without resorting to some new fundamental science and, perhaps more reasonably, factors beyond the brain itself. Many others will argue that, as in much of biology, we have the basic science we need barring the details of how it fits together. I enjoyed this thought provoking book.
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20 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars And here comes Humanitis, 16 Aug 2011
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Book Titles in the Philosophy of Mind are famously presumptuous. As instances: Daniel Dennett's 'Consciousness Explained' (1991) and Steven Pinker's 'How the Mind Works' (1997). Now, in 2011, we have Raymond Talliss's 'On Aping Mankind - Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity' published by Acumen.

The title and subtitle of this book marks Tallis as a satirist and not the kindest. This is what he has to say about Dennett's book:
"a book title that should have landed him in court, charged with breach of the Trade Descriptions Act, for what this, his most famous, book offers is not Consciousness Explained, but Consciousness Evaded."

I liken Tallis to Don Quixote attacking windmills or medieval Scholastics railing against the Renaissance and Enlightenment philosophers who introduced the nonsensical (to them) notion that objects might move through the heavens without needing to be pushed or pulled by some person or animal, albeit sometimes endowed with magical attributes. The medievals found it easier to conceive of human or semi-human agency than of abstractions like gravitation whose secrets could only be revealed to the practioners of the rituals of 'Symbol Manipulation'.

Tallis has a chapter, "Bewiched by language" in which he states "Computers are no more information handlers in their own right than a clock is something that tells the time." Neither John Harrison nor John von Neumann would dispute the proposition, whether or not the phrase "in their own right" is removed. However, that phrase is a nugget of tendentiousness of the sort that Tallis skillfully finds and lays bare in the writings of his antagonists.

Tallis freely admits his failure to understand. In one instance, after quoting a passage of about four or five lines from 'Consciousness Explained', he comments: "You don't need to be able to understand this (I don't) but you can see where he [Dennett] is coming from." The implication being that there was probably nothing of sufficient import in the passage to justify the time and effort it might take the reader - or Tallis himself - to get to understand it. I requote it here so that you may make that judgement for yourself:

"[Dennet believes that minds can] best be understood as the operation of a "von Neumannesque" virtual machine implemented in the parallel architecture of a brain that was not designed for any such activities. The powers of this virtual machine vastly enhance the underlying powers of the organic hardware on which it runs."

Regarding Tallis's comment, some readers may think they can see where Dennett comes from while others might think they can see where Tallis comes from, and yet others might say that they come from very nearly the same place; that it merely depends on the interpretation of Dennett's word, 'Vastly'.

Tallis makes no bones about where he comes from. To him its not a matter of quantification. Its just obvious to him that the human mind is qualitatively and categorically different from a machine.

About the excessive claims of much contemporary Evolutionary Biology and E. Psychology, Tallis has harsh words to say, and I agree with him. However, he has his own 'Just So' story about the evolution of human consciousness. This, I think, stops short of explaining how human consciousness got to be as different as he maintains it to be, from that of other creatures, higher apes in particular.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brillant Classic Tallis, 27 April 2013
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I will not go on much as the other reviews particularly Robert McCluhan's review hits the nail on the head. It suffices to say this is not an easy read for those with no background in Philosophy. The timing of this book is perfect given the recent review of the credibility of Neuroscience inflated claims in the Journal Nature. [...], which completely supports Dr. Tallis's arguments.How wildy untamed this phenomenon is can be captured in this: Brockman, J. (2010, July 10).
The New Science of Morality
. Retrieved from [...]
INTODUCTION by John Brockman
""Something radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems,new ways of thinking about thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in evolutionary biology, physics, information technology, genetics, neurobiology, psychology, engineering, the chemistry of materials: all are questions of critical importance with respect to what it means to be human. For the first time, we have the tools and the will to undertake the scientific study of human nature. This began in the early seventies; when, as a graduate student at Harvard, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers wrote five papers that set forth an agenda for a new field: the scientific study of human nature. In the past thirty-five years this work has spawned thousands of scientific experiments, new and important evidence, and exciting new ideas about who and what we are presented in books by scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Steven Pinker, and Edward O. Wilson among many others. In 1975, Wilson, a colleague of Trivers at Harvard, predicted that ethics would someday be taken out of the hands of philosophers and incorporated into the "new synthesis" of evolutionary and biological thinking. He was right. Scientists engaged in the scientific study of human nature are gaining sway over the scientists and others in disciplines that rely on studying social actions and human cultures independent from their biological foundation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of moral psychology. Using babies, psychopaths, chimpanzees, MRI scanners, web surveys, agent-based modeling, and ultimatum games, moral psychology has become a major convergence zone for research in the behavioral sciences. "
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