Raymond Tallis says no to “biologism” — again

I haven’t yet read Raymond Tallis’s latest book, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.

It’s not that I’m not interested in the subject. I certainly am. It’s simply that I haven’t managed to lay my hands on a library copy.

Yet, thanks to another of his reviews of others’ books, I do have the gist of Tallis’s argument against “neuromania.” I’ve written about his objections before, and here he — and I — go again.

You’d think that I would like Raymond Tallis. After all, he’s an atheist and, most of the time, a rationalist. He’s written several book length rebuttals of postmodernism. (I’ve just ordered a recycled copy of In Defense of Realism, in the hope that it will be a good read — and maybe the source of a future article.) And what’s not to like in a statement like this: “Science expresses the greatest human values: our care for each other and our wish to make sense of the world in which we find ourselves.”

But I don’t like him. I don’t like his arrogant, attack dog style; and I can’t agree with him that there’s more to consciousness than that which we can study, now or eventually, with the tools of science.

For someone with a science background, Tallis makes no scientific claims of his own. Rather, he bashes the science of others. Say something he doesn’t like, and he responds with incensed invective.

In an article on The Alligator website in July, reporter Daniel Hitchens called Tallis a “pugilist,” pointing out that there are four “zingers” just in the title of Aping Mankind – Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of  Humanity.

Tallis’s latest swipe at the neuromaniacs is “Rethinking Thinking,” published by the Wall Street Journal on November 12th. It’s an indirect attack, couched as it is in reviews of a pair of books that Tallis mostly likes — Who’s In Charge? by Michael Gazzinaga (more or less reviewed here recently) and Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter by Terrence Deacon.

Tallis concedes that “a brain in good working order is, of course, a necessary condition of every aspect of human consciousness, from basic perception to the most complex constructed sense of self.” Yet, he writes, “it does not follow that this is the whole story of our nature—that we are just brains in some kind of working order.”

There’s admittedly a great deal of detail in Tallis’s objections, but it’s fair to say that his basic position is that consciousness is something that emerges from brains thanks to our sense of self, and to our participation as individual selves in a dynamic community of others like us.

We may have the usual mammalian brains, Tallis concedes, but he insists that we are uniquely complex creatures, with minds that amount to more than brains. He writes that “while we are not angels fallen from heaven, we are not just neural machines. Nor are we merely exceptionally clever chimps.”

As I noted in my first article on him, Tallis frequently and forcefully insists on a more than quantitative difference between human beings and animals. For a non-theist, in fact, he is unsurpassed in the vehemence of his insistence that we are not “just” or “other” animals. There are animals, and there are human beings — and vive la différence!

In fact, this kind of thinking, that animals are “beasts” and we are not, is typical of many of Tallis’s arguments. If we are just “exceptionally clever chimps,” we lose dignity, uniqueness, and — most important for Tallis — existential consequence.

He admits that his own great moment of conversion to human exceptionalism came as he wallowed in the depths of personal despair. He told Hitchens, in the interview for the article in The Alligator, that when he was 15, Tallis was so bereft of hope and self-worth that he had “roughly the worldview of Richard Dawkins.”

This moment of Kurtzian horror was relieved only when Tallis discovered philosophy, which became his haven from the harshness of empty materialism, and which gave him “a sense of overwhelming joy at the complexity of the world.”

Remember, this is a self-proclaimed realist and non-believer, a man who was a neuroscientific clinician in one of his many incarnations. At the least, one has to suspect more than a bit of personal conflict. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more disturbing kind of cognitive dissonance, and it’s perhaps just this sea of swirling emotions that explains the vitriol of much of his writing.

But back to the brain and the mind and human consciousness. Tallis concedes that there’s nothing non-physical behind (or beyond) the brain. He explicitly denies the frequent charges of unspoken dualism with which his ideas are greeted.

You’d think, then, that he’d accept that the consciousness we perceive is an emergent property of the brain — not the brain, not the brain’s mechanisms, but a perception of the results of the brain and its mechanisms.

Not so fast. Even that increasingly standard view of the mind isn’t acceptable for Tallis. Why? Principally, because of the possible consequences of the view.

That is, Tallis has no scientific basis for his rejection of the current neuroscience explanations of consciousness. Indeed, he states without discomfort that “my present state of thinking is that there are a lot of things that are genuinely unresolved. For example, I don’t know precisely what the place of mind in nature is.” But he’s happy that “nor does anyone else.”

Tallis’s ad consequentiam argument centres on his desire to protect the human characteristics he reveres: free will, human dignity, and existential consequence. His obsession with protecting the idea of free will is all-consuming. Despite Tallis’s materialism and his respect for science, if a biological description of human consciousness weakens or eliminates these traits, he can’t accept it. It’s a curious weakness for someone who so reveres philosophy, and who so often derides those who disagree with him as being “philosophically unsophisticated.”

Taking such earnest comfort in the belief that other people don’t know any more than you do about a complex scientific question seems pretty unsophisticated to me!


2 thoughts on “Raymond Tallis says no to “biologism” — again

  1. I feel like you are trying too hard to dismiss Tallis because you do not like what he is criticizing. Science is about using objective sensory data and logic (e.g. philosophy) to support a theory or position… if you can’t support something, it’s not scientific. It seems like you want Tallis to come up with his own ‘grand theory’ to explain the mind. Tallis has not done this because he has not figured out a way to do that with the tools of science (because science is about reductionism and he has a hard time seeing how the mind can be reduced). As far as I can tell, he IS taking something of a position – that the mind is an emergent process based on the inter-connectivity of other minds within the context of culture. Yes, it sucks that it is not as simple as minds reduced to mechanistic or computational brains, but we cannot distort reality or ignore the problems to find comfort in some bogus ‘catch-all-theory’ either. That’s what most of pop-science is about right now and I am glad there are people like Tallis around to keep them intellectually honest.

    • I don’t think that our positions on the mind are all that far apart. I’m not a computationalist. And, like you, I’m not a fan of unbridled evolutionary explanations. And I certainly agree that the mind is an emergent property that can’t be fully apprehended merely by a description of the processes that produce it. Yet —

      If I could get past Tallis’s utter nastiness, perhaps I’d respond more positively to the more nuanced parts of his criticism. You’re quite right that he has no responsibility to solve the problem of mind in order to criticize the work of others. What I find curious is that he does it with such obvious joy. I really do believe that at its core his aim is to defend an image of our specialness. Doesn’t his position remind you at all of the “Negative Leap” that you’ve described so well?

      And I hope that I’ve been clearer elsewhere that I don’t advocate a reducible mind, but rather one with an entirely physical nature. If Tallis argued straightforwardly that even if we were to describe in detail every part and function of the brain we wouldn’t be looking at mind, but only at what produces mind, I’d agree with him glady, to that extent at least. But from his tone and his passion for the specialness of his humanity, I don’t think that’s all he’s saying — or all he believes. Tallis agrees with the physical origin of a mind that’s more than a brain in one paragraph, then works as hard as he can to undermine the evolved part of that position in the next. No, we aren’t machines; yes, we are evolved mammals; but we’re so much more than animals! No, the mind is not the brain; yes, the mind comes from the actions of the brain; but the mind is really so mysterious and exceptional! I believe that we come very close to the centre of his underlying state of mind when he calls the depths of his teenaged despair “the worldview of Richard Dawkins.” He seems not just rationally convinced but emotionally desperate to be something “more.”

      So, to sum up, I agree with you that Tallis need not offer an alternative to the science he dislikes. But I do believe that he should have a reason beyond fear of the void — and I’m not convinced that he does.

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