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on 12 July 2011
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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on 7 December 2014
Tallis deals with difficult (at least to me!) concepts about the mysterious subject of Consciousness. The main thrust seems to be to rubbish current neurobabble that equates thoughts, emotions and ideas with certain parts of the brain as demonstrated on functional mri scans which he labels as modern day phrenology. I was left with the sense that the big C cannot be explained in terms of sodium ion transfer over nerve cell membranes which is really what neurology reduces to. One neurone is much the same as another so how is it that we register the multitudinous shades of thought, feeling, appreciation and sensing etc in these samey lumps of matter? Sodium ion fluctuation is all that happens everywhere in the brain. The brain may be a necessary condition of consciousness in the material world but it is not fully sufficient. How do we as persons appreciate the fully-orbed 'aboutness' of an object rather than having a simple input/output reaction? We 'reach out' in a wide web of conceptual appreciation simultaneously as the object reaches in to our awareness. We also observe ourselves observing; both subject and object at the same moment. Difficult to explain materially even with Quantum physics (which he too disregards).

I think that Tallis as a humanist is desperate to distance humanity from biological determinism (which also undermines the whole concept of the existence of rationality and science therefore) and the bleak philosophies that flow from that. He wants Art for Art's sake and not as an adaptive survival mechanism! He wants to retain a sense of humanity's (and his own - there is a sense that he protests very loudly) wonderful difference from the animal realm, yet as an atheist who cannot bring himself to deny his neo-Darwinian faith, he rejects the classic dualism of religious thought. Yet his own (admittedly very truncated presentation thereof in this book) theory still has matter pulling itself up by its own boot straps to create consciousness. It has to do with hand/eye coordination mixed with social interaction leading to a sense of self in relation to others and the ensuing nexus of shared memory/ideas/values so that finally true consciousness escapes the bonds of the brain to exist in the social space. That probably faulty and simplistic explanation will not have done his magisterial theory any justice l'm sure! It seems to be disguised by the classic sleight of hand of 'with many small steps we climbed Mount Improbable' which is an illusory path because the many steps lack any direction towards anything as they rely upon purely random events, such as mutation, for anything to change. Major things about consciousness are that it is analytic, purposeful and directive. The very antithesis of chance acting under natural law. It rules over matter and its laws; it isn't subject to them but utterly disassociated from them. How did that magic materialise - the immaterial from the material? It is so very different from cause and effect matter. It also either is or isn't present as a whole. It is irreducibly complex to coin a phrase!

But where or how exactly does the metamorphosis into real consciousness happen from the instinctual and rudimentary self-recognition of apes? We are very, very different from all animals. Even in such basic similar functions as defaecation as Tallis enjoys telling (Dr's humour no doubt!) not just in the Arts and Philosophy. How did Consciousness escape the dull sleep of lumpitiousness? Existential agonising from sodium ion fluctuation? Unlikely. The multiplication of computational power thro a bigger or more intricately wired brain for him is just more of the same. A bigger lump. The biological binary of fluctuating neuronal action potentials just don't cut it. AI is dead in the water for similar reasons. The Turing test inadequate.

At last I think he admits that it is still a Mystery. His beliefs lead him to scornfully reject the religious explanation that we are different because we are made that way. He certainly doesn't align with any belief in Divine agency and is embarrassed his book may be used by Creationists. Silly people when he has disproved the existence of God as illogical. Gosh, that's it then, no more debate needed!
There seems to be evidence tho' that consciousness is something extra-material; Tallis says so though he locates it predominantly in the social space, even though intimately connected to the brain - well, he has to doesn't he? Why should it not be derived from a greater original Consciousness? Why shouldn't that Consciousness be more fundamental than matter? What is unreasonable about that? Why shouldn't that ultimate Consciousness have shaped a place for other consciousnesses to exist? Why not souls therefore? Surely the reasonable evidence is between our own ears (or wherever!) present in the existence of our thoughts? There is much evidence presented here that a purely material explanation is inadequate. Seems more reasonable that matter derived from Mind than the other way round.

Tallis has done us the favour of displaying the vacuousness of the neuromaniac and hyper-Darwinitic view of mankind with great learning and attention to detailed rebuttal. Important when all we hear is the litany of 'we're not special; we're just animals'. Well, we are (special) it seems though that is blindingly obvious.
I found the book a real education though no doubt some may say I need more education yet.
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on 11 September 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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on 15 January 2016
Raymond Tallis is on top form in this amazing book, expertly describing the complexity and the uniqueness of being human, whilst exposing scientism’s leanings towards understanding human consciousness as mere brain-activity and thinking of human behaviour in the same way as animal behaviour (and vice versa). Through his expert knowledge of biology, and his very well sharpened philosophic skills, Tallis demonstrates that to be human is something that transcends being an “animal”; we are very different, and these differences need to be realised.

Now before any “creationists” reading this begin to believe that they have stumbled upon the science book they’ve been waiting for; Tallis is not arguing against Biological Evolution or engaging in an anti-scientific rant. Tallis, as an Atheist, Humanist, Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester, and a pro-evolutionist, is arguing that human evolution has moved us beyond the state of being “just an animal”. In his own words; “As an Atheist and also a Humanist I believe that we should develop an image of humanity that is richer and truer to our distinctive nature than that of a exceptionally gifted chimp” (p.10).

I loved this book! Seriously, it was extremely enriching – especially against a back-drop of consistent pop-science news articles that wish to describe everything about us, and our behaviour, using a frame of reference which is constructed out of animal-analogies and brain-scans. Tallis, through what many would consider his magnum opus, provides a beautiful description of our transcendent state.

This is a big book, in many ways – so, if you want to get to grips with Raymond Tallis prior to tackling this, then I would also recommend The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Around Your Head.
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on 28 June 2011
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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Tallis writes that science seeps into the culture and people who've never looked down a telescope become experts on genes and people with no flare for mental gymnastics are forced to consume what the journalists tell them. But the journalists have never looked down a telescope also and they don't have the mental gymnastics to judge anything, as consumerism commands, and so it goes on and on.

Talis also hints that middle rung scientists are also consuming myths and promoting fancies but he doesn't come out and just say it. I suppose the age of the elitist philosopher is over and even though all scientists are certainly not equal, no philosopher will dare challenge the seal of objectivity granted to the man of science. Not even cardinals were granted that much power, they still had the man upstairs. Today, with the death of god, we've handed the keys over to the average scientific joe.

There is a funny case of a scientists working in a corner somewhere publishing a paper on the depressed slug, which gets published and now people start talking about depressed slugs and how it is ok for you and I to be depressed because all animals feel down sometimes! But Talis isn't angry at all this. I wanted to shake the scientist by the shoulders!

Tallis will do well to mention CGI graphics in the ever decreasing circle. Every time I think of a dinosaur, a CGI animation, more real than real, pops into my head. This destroys my imagination and I will never be able to get it back. A Victorian scientist, looking at scraps of fossil, has a brighter imagination than a modern scientist. This is Iain Mcgilchrist's insight. As the CGI gets better, the human imagination dampens more and more.

Now we have 'neurons firing' and the CGI brain shooting bullets like a spaceship. But Raymond Tallis points out that it isn't like this, but the masses, who don't know any better, watch those dumb documentaries and, like the dinosaur example, their imagination switches off. People truly believe that neurons firing is the key to the world knot because they watch documentaries.

Talis wastes much time on the Libet experiment. The Libet experiment is also a nonsense finding that is mentioned everywhere, from pop buddhism to Roger Penrose. All those experiments show is that you have no free will in picking a colour or choosing between left and right or from A to B. But I am not driving my car, my body drives and I can have a conversation while my body dodges an oncoming vehicle in a tight gap. The me having the conversation is probably the real me, all though my body is the robot that can pass within in an inch of a parked vehicle with the precision on a machine. The technology doesn't exist to view my brain while I'm driving my car and we are miles away from looking at the brain while driving a car and watching what the neurons are doing while I'm having a conversation while my body is driving.
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on 20 August 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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on 4 November 2013
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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on 23 July 2012
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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on 6 October 2012
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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