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.