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A readable and penetrating polemic
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.