Aiding and abetting: denying the Darwinian brain

Raymond Tallis, British humanist and writer, is one of a small number of non-believers who give aid and comfort to a group with whom they are in essential disagreement.

Tallis’s target is “neurotheologists,” who threaten to reduce consciousness to merely the operations of universal and mostly unconscious physical processes, and to explain these processes in evolutionary terms.

Tallis is a prominent atheist, but his argument — his rant, to be accurate — against evolutionary neuropsychology puts him squarely in the “there’s more to the mind than the brain” camp, which is where the theists operate comfortably.

That theists are pleased with the anti-science arguments of people like Tallis is easily seen by noting that websites like “Uncommon Descent,” which bills itself as “serving the intelligent design community,” regularly discuss his critiques of “Darwinitis.” (I can’t provide an easy connection to “Uncommon Descent” — that link is, by design, missing.)

A Mind of One’s Own” is a review of two recent books (Nicholas Humphrey’s Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness and Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain) and a preview hype for Tallis’s own upcoming book, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. With that title, there’s not much room for doubt as to the book’s thesis — or its tone.

There’s little real evidence in Tallis’s article, but there is a lot of tossing around of churlish, derogatory, and scornful terms like “scientism,” “neuromania,” “Darwinitis,” and “pseudo-disciplines.” Apparently, in the style of argument Tallis practices, if you just bleat with enough mocking outrage, you’ve made your point.

Tallis is fond of misrepresenting the claims of evolutionary psychologists, as he does early in his review when he criticizes the “logical error” of neuroscience’s claim that the mind is a physical manifestation of the brain:

These beliefs are based on elementary errors. Just because neural activity is a necessary condition of consciousness, it does not follow that it is a sufficient condition of consciousness, still less that it is identical with it. And Darwinising human life confuses the organism Homo sapiens with the human person, biological roots with cultural leaves.

Can Tallis really believe that there’s anyone out there who’s arguing that culture has no effect on consciousness? Of course we are social beings, and of course we are shaped by culture. But what is shaped is determined by brain chemistry. Would Tallis really want us to believe that Michelangelo’s David is not made of marble because it has been carved into the image of a young man?

And, a little further on:

V S Ramachandran asserts correctly, in his new book, The Tell-Tale Brain: Unlocking the Mystery of Human Nature, that humanity “transcends apehood to the same degree by which life transcends mundane chemistry and physics”.

This is merely an assertion of the truth of another assertion, and as such it hardly belongs in a critique of any kind of science. Worse, the claim which Tallis reasserts isn’t true. Life is, in its entire physical manifestation, precisely and nothing else but “mundane chemistry and physics.” Any notion of “transcendence” is a subjective addition to this reality. Tallis has substituted belief for evidence, and we’re not supposed to notice the substitution. If he hasn’t noticed, his humanism is slipping; if he has, he’s inconsistent to the point of irrationality.

In his critique of Humphrey’s book, Tallis makes another unsupported claim:

The idea of consciousness as a “show” is ultimately derived from the bankrupt representational theory of the mind – a notion that things are present to us by virtue of being “represented” or “modelled” in the brain. You cannot get to representation, however, without prior (conscious, first-order) presentation, so the latter cannot explain the former.

What’s “bankrupt” in the representational model? Tallis doesn’t say, except to make another weak attempt at logic, here undermined by his presumption that “presentation” is by definition a conscious act. We are in receipt of millions of bits of sensory input and internal signals every second. How many of them are apprehended consciously? To define “presentation” as “conscious” is not to prove that it is. If his understanding of neuroscience is this shallow, despite his self-congratulatory biographical assertion of his “thirty years in clinical neuroscience,” how can he expect to have any real credibility when he attacks its findings?

Moving on to Damasio, Tallis once again attacks the idea that seems most to offend his sense of self:

We are asked to accept another questionable assumption: that it is selves, with their first-person perspective, that are the magic ingredients. Isn’t this topsy-turvy? Surely consciousness is the precondition of the self, rather than the other way round.

Why “surely”? What, other than an unwillingness to allow what Tallis clearly perceives as an unacceptable loss of human dignity, makes his assertion “sure”? It all depends on how one defines “self,” doesn’t it? Yet Tallis makes no case for his statement other than to reassure us that he is correct.

Given the sheer volume of journal and popular press accounts interpreting the results of dozens, if not hundreds, of neuropsychology experiments and studies, one thing that is sure is that there are a number of simplifications, exaggerations, and enthusiastic over-interpretations out there. If Tallis would confine his criticism to these mistakes, he would be on firmer ground.

But by seeking to deny entirely the physical reality that whatever consciousness we have has come about as the result of evolutionary processes, there being no other non-magical candidates, Tallis links himself — knowingly or not — with the religionists, whose entire belief system relies on the magical qualities which Tallis’s humanism rightly rejects in other areas.

In his original writing, Tallis argues that the distinctness of human consciousness is the result of our uniquely upright posture:

The special relationship we enjoy with respect to the material universe – which has for much of history been understood as a special relationship to God or the gods, or the numinous powers that brought us into being – is to a very great extent the result of the special virtues of our hands. Whether or not we sit at the right hand of God in the order of things, our belief that we do so, and the evidence apparently justifying that belief, owes much to such seemingly unimportant facts as that the thumb has uniquely free movement.

We owe a lot to our opposable thumbs, therefore the mind cannot be a product of the physical processes of the brain? If you can work out why this should be so, you’re doing a whole lot better with Tallis’s torturous reasoning than I am.

In an interview, Tallis emphasized how much his presumptions about human specialness colour his attitude to brain science:

[Science] looked like the way to understand the world and our place in it, but at the same time it was profoundly depressing. If you really believed in [a biochemical understanding of the brain] rather than pretending to, it was clear that you were just part of a causal nexus, so that all the things that you might take pride in, like being bright, were just an illusion.

Tallis believes that metaphysics is essential to any understanding of consciousness, and he rejects out of hand any description of human nature which limits itself  — and him — to the physical. Tallis accepts evolutionary theory in general but believes that most evolutionary science understates the gap between humans and other animals — or as he would more typically put it, between humans and animals.

One specific area of Tallis’s criticism of neuropsychology is his complaint that the research does not explain how the mind works, only what the brain does, and even that description is subject to interpretation and speculation:

Even in the simplest of tasks, never mind negotiating through the world, deciding to go for a mortgage or wanting to behave well, the brain functions as an integrated unit, with many parts seemingly working together.

How this statement serves to criticize neuropsychology is quite unclear. So what if there are different parts of the brain working together, or even creating an overall entity quite different from any of its parts? Does Tallis have the same objection to describing the components of an automobile? Or a toaster? It’s only when human beings are “brought low” by descriptive science that he objects. It’s clear that his objection is more a defense of the claim to special human dignity than it is a criticism of the actual science.

[Neuroscience claims that] most of the things they do are unconscious or have unconscious motives. This is, of course, nonsense. While it is true that certain decision-making processes previously thought to be self-consciously produced are automatic, this does not mean that all or most of the things we do are unconscious. Try to imagine any ordinary activity – collecting the children from school, writing a report, preparing for a party – being carried out unconsciously.

Once again, who is claiming that complex ideations and behaviours don’t result from the conjoined activity of different cognitive functions? No one. But this straw man is attacked again and again, in the neuropsychology version of the theists’ discredited “God of the Gaps” ploy.

I could go on, and on, but surely we get the point by now.

Next time, we’ll turn to a deeper thinker, and another non-believer theists love —
Michael Ruse, author of Darwin and Design and Darwinism and Its Discontents.

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2 thoughts on “Aiding and abetting: denying the Darwinian brain

  1. It is interesting how powerful the reactions are to neuroscience of the “reductionism can’t explain human consciousness” type or “the brain is a mechanism like any other” at the other extreme. It is early days to be coming to conclusions about the findings of a fledgling science of the brain when there is still a spate of argument about the evolutionary science underpinning brain development. People seem to take these things so personally.

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