De omnibus dubitandum
5 Sep 2012
Raymond Tallis is, at first glance, a bit of a contradiction.
A bit of background first. Tallis is a philosopher and a prominent mover in British Humanist circles. A staunch atheist, he is a regular contributor to New Humanist magazine, in which pages I first learned of him.
In addition to being a fierce critic of religion, Raymond Tallis is also, as it turns out, a fierce critic of science. Or, specifically, of certain aspects of neuroscience. Which is ironic, as he used to be a neuroscientist.
Tallis rejects the reductionist perspective – increasingly embraced by neuroscientists – that the brain and human consciousness are the same thing, that consciousness is inextricably linked to neural activity in the brain. He even devoted an entire book to this argument, titled Aping Mankind, in which he attacks ‘neuromania’ and ‘Darwinitis’.
What Tallis actually attacks, however, is the simplified portrayal of neuroscientific discoveries in the media, and the sweeping statements journalists like to make in eye-catching headlines. But Tallis fails to make that distinction, instead preferring to use this convenient straw man to criticise all of neuroscience and what he perceives as its reductionism with regards to consciousness and free will (or lack thereof).
Prolific in his criticisms, Tallis however fails to offer any opposing theory as to what consciousness and free will then really are, if not material properties of the brain.
Now I’m not one to denounce a critic for failing to provide an alternative view (that would be rather hypocritical of me) nor for the viciousness of his criticisms (again, pot, kettle & black), but what strikes me most is that Tallis’s criticisms fly in the face of an ever growing mountain of scientific evidence.
Tallis is essentially rejecting empirical scientific evidence without providing any counter-evidence. That, to me, seems a rather untenable position, especially for someone who once declared science to be “the greatest achievement of that community of minds called the human race”. He is intent on maintaining the specialness of human consciousness, without any supporting evidence.
Considering the fact that Tallis is a ridiculously intelligent man and a defender of scientific rationalism in general, this all combines in to a rather contradictory picture of the man.
Or does it?
Apparently Tallis at the age of 15 suffered from great depths of personal despair, which is not particularly uncommon in adolescence. He overcame this depression when he discovered philosophy, which provided him with “a sense of overwhelming joy at the complexity of the world.”
Aha. Suddenly it all makes sense.
Philosophy, Tallis’s intellectual soulmate, is at its core an embrace of the concept that fundamental truths of the universe can be discovered by thought alone. Philosophy has put all its eggs in to the basket of conscious thought, as that is the source from which its knowledge springs.
And that was perfectly fine, right up until science – and neuroscience in particular – started shooting galaxy-sized holes in to the presumed superiority of consciousness and free will.
Neuroscience has not (yet) disproved the existence of free will, nor has it managed to explain what consciousness is.
But the science has made massive strides towards finding answers to those pivotal questions. And the direction of this progress points towards an absence of free will and a rather peripheral role of consciousness in the bigger picture of our mental faculties.
That, I believe, is the true axe Raymond Tallis has to grind. Like so many philosophers he has placed conscious thought on an artificial pedestal, and like many he is seeing that pedestal undermined by the continued progress of biological science.
So in an effort to preserve his adolescent and enduring love affair with philosophy, he rejects any attack on the sanctity of conscious thought. He opposes the materialist notion that we are our brains, regardless of the scientific evidence.
You’d almost feel sorry for the man. So keen to cling to his deeply entrenched cognitive biases, he cannot face the possibility that his beloved philosophy is perhaps nothing but a deeply flawed emanation from our imperfect, materialist brains. And he will go to any length of shrieking irrationality to preserve this personal delusion.
I suppose it just proves once more that even the brightest among us are not the perfect superhumans we’d like them to be.
30 Apr 2012
I’ve hinted at my views on philosophy before. Summarised I think modern philosophers are undeservingly arrogant and accord themselves a level of prestige in intellectual spheres that they don’t actually deserve.
But it’s only recently that I think I figured out why this is. When you view philosophy in its proper historical context, their increasingly loud screeching – especially on matters where science is making progress in leaps and bounds – is revealed as the desperate pleas of an intellectual pursuit rapidly being made obsolete.
As was pointed out to me on Twitter by Sander Tamaëla, the early philosophers were the scientists of their days. They tried to understand how things worked, and why they worked the way they did. They were restricted to the tools of their age, which meant they had little to rely on except their own minds.
As a result of this limited toolset, philosophers put conscious thought in the center of their discipline. It was all they could rely on at the time, and ever since it’s been the axle around which the entire philosophical discourse of the past few millennia has moved.
So philosophers have been building pedestals to their champion, the conscious mind, for thousands of years. And now, thanks to the advances being made in neuroscience and other disciplines, they’re finding that this proclaimed champion is actually a bit of a dud.
Our conscious mind is not in charge. Free will is pretty much proven to be mostly – if not entirely – illusory. We are not enlightened creatures.
And philosophy, as the herald of consciousness’ greatness, is struggling to accept it. Which is why philosophers are spending an awful lot of energy trying to discredit the scientific advances that are hinting at philosophy’s obsolescence.
From the rather untenable – and frankly ridiculous – posturing of philosophy as the purest of all scientific endeavours (evidenced in this Infinite Monkey Cage podcast) to their shrieking rebuttals (peppered with logical fallacies) in the neuroscience debate, philosophy is obviously in distress.
It’s reminiscent of the desperation with which religion has grasped at as-of-yet-unexplained phenomena as evidence for the existence of God. This is called the ‘God of the gaps‘ argument, in which religion finds increasingly small areas where science has not yet been able to provide enlightenment. Philosphy is doing the same, wrangling itself in to the ever-narrowing gaps of knowledge that science is rapidly breaking open and exploring.
While I believe there is a role to play for philosophy in scientific discourse, it’s not nearly as big a role as philosophers wrongly think they ought to play. It’s time they realise that their best days are behind them, and that they should stop trying to artificially inject themselves in to every discovery that further gnaws at their crumbling foundations.
This is the age of science, and philosophy would do well to keep pace.
18 Jul 2011
Thanks to my friend Derek I’ve now discovered the BBC podcast The Infinite Monkey Cage. It’s a great show that, in its own words, provides a “witty, irreverent look at the world through scientists eyes.”
In going through its archive of recent episodes, I came across one about philosophy. In this podcast the regular hosts professor Brian Cox and Robin Ince debate the virtues of philosophy with professor Raymond Tallis and philosopher Julian Baggini.
When listening to this podcast, what struck me from the start was the supreme arrogance of the pro-philosophy side of the debate. Immediately the philosophers attempted to take a position of superiority, insinuating theirs was a superior intellectual discipline and that science dealt with the inferior dirty, material stuff.
But in fact the questions that philosophy asks seem to me to be little more than linguistic tricks, devoid of any real meaning or purpose. Philosophy, to me, is just the limitations of our human intellect made manifest.
Philosophy doesn’t ask questions science can’t or won’t answer – no, philosophy asks questions that are meaningless and, instead of conveying a deep understanding of the world, betray a deep ignorance of the nature of our reality. In that regard I completely agree with Stephen Hawking when he says that philosophy is dead. It has become a meaningless, deeply confused pseudo-intellectual pursuit.
At the end the podcast makes a good point, inadvertently so. In an attempt to deride science in favour of philosophy, a parallel is drawn between mathematics and philosophy. Mathematics being the ‘purest’ of all science, dealing with absolute truths that will never change.
But that parallel falls flat on many points, most obviously on the fact that philosophy doesn’t use mathematics. Physics does – abundantly so.