Wednesday 31 August 2011

Light from the red hat

Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, by Raymond Tallis (Acumen, 2011)

When physician and philosopher Professor Raymond Tallis was a guest on celebrity physicist Brian Cox’s Radio 4 programme The Infinite Monkey Cage at the end of last year, they and other guests debated the value of philosophy. Towards the end of the programme Cox quipped that, ‘We’ve spent a long time now discussing philosophy, and we’ve learnt nothing’. Tallis’ acid comeback that in fact it was only Cox who had learnt nothing highlighted the philistinism of today’s militant science enthusiasts; but at a couple of points Tallis’s latest book Aping Mankind, you might start developing some sympathy for Cox, as the book can certainly be heavy going in places. That said, it is difficult because of its dense and complex arguments, rather than any obscurity in the way it is written. This makes a positive contrast to other, more fashionable, contemporary philosophers such as Slavoj Zizek, whose deluge of possibly intentionally incomprehensible jargon seems designed to limit his often cutting insights to an audience solely composed of philosophy postgraduates.

Tallis’ book takes issue with the contemporary twin orthodoxies of reductionist neuroscientific and evolutionary accounts of human consciousness which he dubs ‘neuromania’ and ‘Darwinitis’ respectively. The book argues what today seems a totally counterintuitive position – that the mind isn’t to be found in the brain. Tallis manages to bridge the ‘two cultures’ of science and the humanities very effectively, moving seamlessly from scientific research to its philosophical implications – it was understandable to someone like me firmly on the science side of the divide. The style is concise and clear, and often very amusing, with numerous quips and a fair few entertaining examples of academic bitchiness; John Gray in particular receives a (well-deserved) kicking.

Tallis begins with a lightening tour of the state of neuroscience, an area he has contributed to academically during his career as a doctor and researcher, and which has rapidly developed in recent years with the advent of fMRI – the coloured maps of brain activity that you will see attached to most articles hailing the latest advance in brain science. This rising tide of science seemed to burst its banks, inundating the humanities and tacking a ‘neuro-’ prefix to almost every discipline imaginable from philosophy and art history to law and theology.

For Tallis, this expansion into the humanities isn’t science, but scientism – ‘the mistaken belief that the natural sciences… can give a complete description or even explanation of everything, including human life’. He critiques the methodology of the numerous studies that purport to show a particular brain centre is responsible for such broad experiences as love or wisdom, or for the ‘irrational biases’ that led to the financial crisis, pointing out that the whole field of fMRI is shakier than many claim.

This broadens out to an interrogation of the widely-held idea that subjective experience is identical with neurological activity, rather than merely correlated with it. He suggests that human thoughts possess ‘intentionality’ – the property of ‘being about’ something else. Light from Tallis’ red hat stimulates his retina, and then his brain, but he also perceives the hat in return; a property that shouldn’t emerge from a purely mechanical process like a computer motherboard. A computer may hold certain electrical charges, but these aren’t ‘about’ anything in themselves; they only make any kind of sense in the presence of a human subject to interpret it. Quite why the material processes of action potentials in the brain should magically produce the ghost of intentionality out of their sheer complexity is for Tallis a key weakness in the neuromaniacs’ argument. A similar problem is faced regarding humans’ awareness of the past and present, and appearances such as colour, taste and so on. A purely neurological account can’t explain how a material world without subjectivity produces a subject out of itself. Unable to break this materialist deadlock, the neuromaniacs essentially have to rehabilitate the homunculus, the little man inside the brain, as one part of the brain ‘decides’ between impulses from others.

Likewise, Darwinian accounts of humanity fall rapidly apart under Tallis’ philosophical bombardment. For Tallis ‘Darwinism gives an ever more impressively complete account of how the organism H sapiens came into being. But that’s not the point: things with us did not stop there’. Darwinitis, on the other hand, faces the same problem as neural theories of consciousness - being unable to account for the leap from material to mental processes – so it must diminish the latter to the level of the former. ‘Darwinitics’ elide the gap between humans and animals by animalising human behaviour (so heavily mediated activities such as eating at a restaurant is ‘feeding behaviour’) and humanising animals (for instance comparing animal and human tool use, despite the lack of abstract thought involved even in chimpanzees’ use of tools). And when the gap between human and animal behaviour is too unbridgeable, ‘memes’ are drafted in to fill it.

So if consciousness can’t be explained by neuronal firing alone, or by our evolved nature, how does it come about? Tallis points to a number of ‘biological difference[s that] drive the escape from biology’ such as our upright posture (and bigger brains), as well as our hands, whose manipulation Tallis sees as vitally aiding the development of self-awareness. The hand is a proto-tool, its opposability allowing interaction with itself, enabling the hand and its body to be both a subject and an object simultaneously, and the human being to begin to gain awareness of itself. Its ability to point enables the collectivisation of cognition by drawing our compatriots’ attention to objects in a shared world. This is built upon by the ‘million cognitive handshakes’ of linguistic interactions between individuals, opening a collective social space shared between us, qualitatively different from anything in the animal kingdom. Seeking to find our uniqueness within the claustrum or anterior cingulate cortex is like trying to unpick the internet by taking apart a single computer. Tallis’ conception of the human subject is one that is ‘embodied’ in a body in the material world as well as the social one, rather than caged only within the confines of the brain.

The book has some weaknesses in explaining the contemporary resonance of these ideas. Tallis interestingly points out that some of those keenest on the neuro-humanities are precisely those who supported supposedly science-sceptical post-modernism. That people can slide so smoothly from deterministic post-structuralism to deterministic scientism suggests a broader problem than merely a fad or an outbreak of bad philosophy. Theorising the subject at a time when subjectivity itself is so limited is bound to lead to deterministic conclusions; Tallis doesn’t examine this broader context particularly deeply. But despite this, Tallis’ reassertion of the importance of philosophy as well as natural science in looking at the human condition is a really vital contribution. The book, while tough in places, is both a philosophical tour de force and a magnificent restatement of what is special about humanity.


Professor Raymond Tallis and others will discuss these issues at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on the weekend of 29-30 October 2011, with a strand of debates on the Battle for the Brain.


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