‘Man is more than an overdeveloped monkey’

Raymond Tallis tells spiked why he has declared a war of words on the trendy ideas that underpin ‘neuromania’ and ‘Darwinitis’.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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‘Before I retired, I did all my writing between five and seven o’clock in the morning and then went to work at the hospital.’

As the author of many books on a polymathic range of subjects, be it philosophical anthropology, literary criticism or the computational theory of the mind, Professor Raymond Tallis is entitled to boast. For not only was he a prolific writer during the early hours, by day he was a doctor with a specialist research interest in clinical neuroscience. His, it is fair to say, has been a life of little recline so far. ‘I don’t need much sleep’, he tells me, ‘because anger wakes me up. As my prostate now does, too.’ Cue yet more laughter and another swig of lager.

But despite the jokes, despite his effortless conviviality, Tallis is both serious and being serious. In part, anger does underlie his writing. ‘My primary desire is to understand things’, he says, ‘but then there’s a secondary anger at people who misrepresent things’. And his latest book, ‘the book I have been trying to write all my life’, is no exception to this life-long, sometimes ire-fuelled striving for truth. Which is good news because it has made Aping Mankind – Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity into both a much-needed rebuke and a re-assertion of precisely what does make us human.

First, the rebuke. As the title indicates, the objects of Tallis’s anger are those twin poles of contemporary scientism: neuromania and Darwinitis. Although it should to go without saying, given Tallis’s medical past, it is still worth stating: he is no enemy of science itself, let alone neuroscience. As he puts it in Aping Mankind, neuroscience is ‘one of the greatest intellectual achievements of mankind’. Rather what he objects to, what might, pre-retirement, have driven him to get up at unearthly o’clock for a frantic writing session, is the abuse of science. In this case, it means the attempt to reduce humanity to little more than unthinking matter, as utterly subject to the same laws of evolution, indeed of physics, as every other material object, organic or otherwise.

Given the ubiquity of neuromania, Tallis must be piqued daily. Newspapers carry seemingly weekly stories about the discovery of some part of the brain which is responsible for love, or humour or even God. Almost unfailingly, that all-too-familiar image of an MRI scan showing primary-coloured neural activity will sit atop the text. But these images and ‘findings’ are proof less of the identity of firing neurons and, say, love, than the contemporary determination to reduce our thoughts and feelings, our ideas and dreams, to a purely physical process occurring in a part of the brain. ‘One gets the impression’, Tallis tells me, ‘that both within academe, both within science and the humanities, in the republic of letters, in the world at large and in the newspapers, there is the belief that we are our brains, and that to understand us the best way is to peer into the intracranial darkness in our skulls’.

Rest assured, however, that wherever someone is trying to penetrate the intracranial darkness, Darwinitis is never far behind. Because if the prevailing belief, no matter how half-baked, is that all mental states are physical states, then all that physical stuff – the neural impulses, the circuitry, the localised functions – and with it, our mind, has itself a causal ancestry that stretches back prior to one’s own discrete physical existence. It is here that neuromania meets Darwinitis. As Tallis explains, if the mind is no more than an evolved physical organ, then its cause, like the rest of nature, is natural selection. The purpose of our mind, then, is simply to increase the likelihood that our genetic material will survive. Our mind is nothing more than a physical instrument promoting organic survival.

After a couple of drinks, Tallis provides a colourful characterisation of such rampant Darwinitis: ‘“For years we have thought of ourselves as special, that we have been ordained as such by God. So let’s have a corrective to that and acknowledge that we’re just animals. The truth about us is that we shit, we fuck, we eat, we die, and anything else that matters must be related to shitting, fucking, and eating and dying, so art must be a reflection of the fucking, eating, shitting and dying complex and so on.”’ Tallis concludes: ‘It seems true to too many people right now that we’re nothing more than slightly overdeveloped chimps.’

There is a chill to Tallis’s lament. Whether in the form of neuromania or its close relative Darwinitis, we stand reduced, degraded. We are no longer being seen as the source of our actions; we are no longer understood as creatures of reason; we are no longer being deemed capable of making decisions rationally, let alone striving idealistically. Instead we are deemed subject to forces beyond our control, mere organic matter caught on the wind of physical laws. Of course, we may think we’re acting rationally, we may believe that we freely choose to follow a particular course of action. But that is an illusion. In the words of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s masterpiece of pseudoscience Nudge, we are not the rational Homo Economicus of Scottish Enlightenment myth, we are the non-rational Homo Sapiens of contemporary reality. Or worse still, we are what the glib misanthrope John Gray called Homo Rapiens, a ‘serv[ant] to evolutionary success, not truth’.

This sense that our minds are not what we thought they were, that it’s our brains, and the natural-physical causal network of which they are part, that is really calling the shots has been lovingly embraced by politicos on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s a development that worries Tallis: ‘That’s when [neuromania] gets dangerous rather than merely irritating – when people start invoking brain science as a guide to social policy, as a guide to understanding criminal behaviour and so on. You’re then in the same territory as Cesare Lombroso [a nineteenth-century criminologist who believed criminality was physically inherited] and other characters who have since been appropriately discredited… The person I’ve crossed swords with in the most gentle way is Matthew Taylor at the Royal Society for the Arts [formerly a New Labour adviser]. He genuinely believes that brain science will help spawn good social policy – policies that go with the grain of what neuroscience tells us about our brains, our minds and therefore ourselves and therefore society.’

It’s not just an old New Labourite like Taylor who has fallen for the specious explanatory promise of brain science. One of the first things Tory David Cameron did as UK prime minister was to establish the Behavioural Insight Unit, a strategy team dedicated to coming up with policy based on neuro-evolutionary thought. Over in the US, President Barack Obama was quick to do something similar, appointing Nudge co-author Cass Sunstein as his ‘regulation czar’. As Time magazine reported, ‘Relying on behavioural science, [Obama’s] administration is using it to try to transform the country’. Tallis’s observation in Aping Mankind resonates: ‘We are truly in a neo-phrenological era.’

While the transatlantic political enthusiasm for replacing the ‘ideologies of the Right and the Left’ with analyses of ‘the right-hemisphere and the left-hemisphere’, as Tallis puts it, is hardly infused with much scientific rigour, it does provide a snapshot of how governments view those over whom they rule. We are certainly not seen to be in full, if any control of our faculties. And little wonder. For as rough-hewn as the political applications of neuro-evolutionary thinking are, they inherit neuromania’s willingness to attribute our actions and decisions to forces outside our control, a diminution of agency that becomes the outright abolition of agency in the thought of those thinkers ready to follow their neuromaniacal logic through to its humanity-effacing conclusion.

And it’s this conclusion, this idea that there is no more to consciousness than brain activity, that really fires Tallis’s rage. First, because it does not even make sense in its own terms, and second, because it denigrates our humanity.

The neuromaniacal conviction, as Tallis sees it, wants to explain consciousness in terms of physics. In Consciousness Explained (1991), neurophilosopher Daniel Dennet puts it in the following terms: ‘There is only one sort of stuff, namely matter – the physical stuff of physics, chemistry and physiology – and the mind is somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon. In short, the mind is the brain… We can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws, and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, nutrition, and growth.’

The problem with this, as Tallis explains in Aping Mankind, is that although we can look at an MRI brain scan showing the neural activity of someone looking at, for example, a yellow image and draw a correlation between the two, there is no reason to believe that the neural activity either causes the conscious experience of seeing a yellow image or is identical with it. An explanation of consciousness, the ne plus ultra of neuromania, is always seemingly out of reach. And the reason for this, argues Tallis, is not the current underdevelopment of neuroscience; it is that the attempt to locate consciousness in the brain, to reduce it to a physical object, and ultimately to a quantifiable mathematical unit sufficiently abstract to be susceptible to a physical explanation is to render an account of consciousness impossible. For the stuff of consciousness does not belong to the quantifiable and abstract realm of the physical sciences, it belongs to the qualitative and phenomenal world. As Tallis writes: ‘The very notion of a complete account of the world in physical terms is of a world without appearance and hence a world without consciousness.’

But then again those seduced by the sister sirens of modern-day scientism, whether Darwinitis or neuromania, do not seem very interested in consciousness. This is largely because that which the concept of consciousness underpins – our ability to think for ourselves, our freedom, our moral autonomy – is precisely that which is viewed so disdainfully. In fact, by making mind into no more than a physical object subject to the laws of nature, the possibility that the mind might also be subject, too, is closed off. As Tallis explains to me: ‘You can’t separate freedom from first-person being – it’s a kind of Kantian point. That which is free is that which asserts itself as “I am”. There’s not even an element of freedom with third person or no-person being [treating mind as object] – it’s just part of a causal net. And the reason that scientism loses freedom, is the same reason that it loses first-person being. It cannot get hold of consciousness or self-consciousness.’

Of course, there are experiments that apparently prove that the brain, not the supposedly mythical ‘I am’, is the cause of actions. Tallis cites neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet, for example, who asked individuals to flex their wrists and to note the time when they felt the intention to perform the action on a large clock. He found that they registered the intention at least a third of a second after the onset of the physiological activities. But as Tallis tells me, ‘when someone like Libet tries to demonstrate that the brain is calling the shots, the kind of things he looks at are movements, activities, that aren’t really movements of a first-person being.’ That is, a specific movement, in this case the flexing of fingers, is ripped out of any intentional context, a context that is, in which an individual consciously decides to sign up for the tests, arranges time off work, and so on.

In fact, argues Tallis, our actions are so ‘irreducibly complex’ that the notion of a cause becomes inapplicable. What is the cause, for instance, of my reading Aping Mankind? Tallis’s account of freedom, his reassertion of humanity, does not rest on an alternative account of a self-willed causal chain. Instead its better grasped, as he himself put it, as an attempt to ‘wrest the truth of time from physics, because the truth of time is about anticipation, regret, nostalgia, joy, hope and so on.’ That is, when we intend to act, that intentionality, that desire to bring about something which is not, marshals one’s past, too. Bits of knowledge, a particular regret perhaps, parts of know-how – all might come into play as we strive to realise something that does not yet exist. So it was – a particular relationship – so it might be again. ‘Science loses that’, Tallis tells me, ‘There are no tenses in scientific time. I want to rescue time from the jaws of physics, and from third-rate philosophy as well.’

In Aping Mankind Tallis’s account of intentionality, and with it freedom, comes into sharper focus: ‘The fundamental change in outlook occurs when one introduces an “I” into the world: The “I” is a new centre in the world, a new point of departure and a new destination, and this is the key to our freedom. We are not talking about an anomalous or magical kind of causation but about the appropriation of the material world and its causal relations, as handles to help realise possibilities – possibilities-for-me – that we project. This begins with the appropriation of the body as one’s self – the existential intuition – and, through this, of the material world surrounding it as one’s arena, and, far beyond one’s material surroundings, through the community of minds and its boundless body of knowledge and know-how and technologies… It is intentionality that tears the seamless fabric of the causally closed material world.’

What is most appealing about Tallis’s account of freedom is that it seems far closer to the truth of our experience than any of the neuromaniacal accounts. Moreover, Tallis’s criticism of the inadequacies of that to which the scientistic faith is committed – that there is nothing that is not susceptible to a physical explanation and that we are caught in the network of physical laws – does make you wonder how those that continue to parrot its pieties can live with its contradictions. As Tallis points out, ‘The politicians always exempt themselves from the irrationality they ascribe to the people for whom they are making the policies.’ So given that, given the willingness of those who preach our irrationality, our unfreedom, to ignore the extent to which they exercise their own reason and freedom, one wonders if the battleground is rather more political than neuroscientific.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Raymond Tallis will be speaking at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on both Saturday 29 October and Sunday 30 October.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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