March 1, 2011

Raymond Tallis on the metaphysical limitations of neuroscience

Author Raymond Tallis reviews two new books about consciousness: Soul Dust: the Magic of Consciousness by Nicholas Humphrey and Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio. Tallis opens,
The republic of letters is in thrall to an unprecedented scientism. The word is out that human consciousness - from the most elementary tingle of sensation to the most sophisticated sense of self - is identical with neural activity in the human brain and that this extraordinary metaphysical discovery is underpinned by the latest findings in neuroscience. Given that the brain is an evolved organ, and, as the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, the neural explanation of human consciousness demands a Darwinian interpretation of our behaviour. The differences between human life in the library or the operating theatre and animal life in the jungle or the savannah are more apparent than real: at the most, matters of degree rather than kind.

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. Nevertheless, the coupling of neuromania and Darwinitis has given birth to emerging disciplines based on neuro-evolutionary approaches to human psychology, economics, social science, literary criticism, aesthetics, theology and the law.

These pseudo-disciplines are flourishing in academe and are covered extensively in the popular press, in articles usually accompanied by a brain scan (described by the writer Matt Crawford as a "fast-acting solvent of critical faculties"). Only last month, David Brooks asserted in the New Yorker that "brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy".

There are more cautious writers, but even for them the attraction of biologism seems irre­sistible. 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". Even so, he is prepared to claim that we enjoy Picasso's paintings for the same reason that gull chicks prefer fake maternal beaks with an excess of markings to the real thing: they are "superstimuli". Both books under review acknowledge the uniqueness of human beings but relapse repeatedly into accounts of the mind, self and consciousness that appeal to a mixture of neuroscience and evolutionary theory. Despite the ingenuity and erudition of the authors, they serve only to illustrate the shortcomings of neuroscientific attempts to capture human consciousness and human nature.
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