Bruised but encouraged

In the previous entry I mentioned Raymond Tallis’ book ‘Aping Mankind’; I’ve finished it and it’s hugely relevant but when I tried to summarise some of the ideas in it to a colleague, the expression on their face suggested that I hadn’t done a good job. So this is my second attempt…

In his book Tallis is taking a stand against the misuse of neuroscientific studies and evolutionary approaches to explain human behaviour. Tallis is an atheistic humanist and grounds his critique in both empirical research and quite profound philosophy. He acknowledges the value of neuroimaging (when done well) and recognises the central importance of the brain in understanding human behaviour but wants to counter some dominant threads in current science-policy discourses.

On a methodological level, he points out that many recent studies are deeply flawed. He points out how fMRI doesn’t have the spatial or temporal resolution to provide the information that is claimed of it. Measuring bloodflow in regions of the brain is too coarse a measure to indicate the firing of small groups of neurons because (a) they fire faster than bloodflow rates can change and (b) the amount of energy needed for them to fire won’t necessitate increased blood flow. Moreover the simple experimental paradigms reduce human behaviour to simple stimulus-response mechanisms and overlook the complex context of human decision making.

On a much deeper level, his criticism is that a materialist account of human functioning is incapable of accounting for human intentionality and self-awareness, keys aspects of our experience of self-hood. As he points out, if you look closely at neural functioning in a strictly materialist manner then there is no place for consciousness. It is just material processes. He goes on to deconstruct materialist accounts of consciousness showing how they either smuggle the concept in so as to avoid dealing with this problem or move towards panpsychism (i.e. that there is consciousness in everything), neither of which (he argues) are valid or helpful.

I’d heard the discussion between Tallis and Matthew Taylor at the RSA, so I knew this was where he was heading and was quite scared of reading the book because I find the neuroscience stuff so darn fascinating. What do I do now? Partly the answer lies in more careful reading and thinking. I need to be more mindful that neural activity is (as many studies point out) only a correlate for cognition not a sufficient explanation (another point from Tallis). I also need to look for when researchers or philosophers move too far from the experimental paradigm to make unwarranted extrapolations, which is probably the direction I’m headed in. And this is where the problem for me lies – what I really want is a easy, tick-chart that enables me to discern good studies from bad ones and I don’t think there is one.

On the brighter side, Tallis moves on from his critique to begin to sketch out elements of human consciousness.

For Tallis, the brain still needs a central role. He was a Professor of Geriatric Medicine and acknowledges the role that the brain plays but he also insists that it is not enough. He point to the significance of the fact that we live within a community of knowledge. He points to the importance of embodiment (which is encouraging for me). (One of his earlier books is an argument for the role of the human hand, with it’s opposable thumb in the origins of human consciousness.) But even though embodiment takes us further it still has a materialist account at it’s centre and this (for Tallis) remains problematic. In the end, he comes to the point that we cannot fully account for human consciousness. Tallis rejects all religious accounts or ideas of the soul. Tallis makes an analogy with Max Planck’s observations on black body radiation which prompted a revolution in Physics – he feels that consciousness is a problem that could revolutionise our account of what makes us human if only we treat it honestly.

So… The book proved pretty much as bruising as I thought it might. But its also encouraging: I’ve been moving towards the idea that treating people as physically embodied and culturally embedded needs to be central to any account of object reminiscence and Tallis provides an intellectual foundation to that intuition.

However, intuitions are insufficient – I need mechanisms.


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, identity. Bookmark the permalink.

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